Slain doctor's heroism helped save lives in California church mass shooting, authorities say

Authorities on Monday praised the heroism of a doctor who confronted a gunman at a California church a day earlier, saying his actions may have saved many lives while costing his own.

Assailant was subdued by church-goers before officers arrived, police say

A photo of Dr. John Cheng, who was killed after confronting the gunman in a deadly church shooting in Southern California, is displayed by Orange County Sheriff's Sgt. Scott Steinle during a news conference in Santa Ana, Calif., on Monday. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

Authorities on Monday praised the heroism of a doctor who confronted a gunman at a California church a day earlier, saying his actions may have saved many lives while costing his own.

Dr. John Cheng, 52, was killed and five senior citizens were wounded at Geneva Presbyterian Church in the city of Laguna Woods on Sunday, before congregants stopped and hog-tied the gunman.

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said Cheng charged at the shooter and attempted to disarm him, allowing others to intervene. Cheng probably saved the lives "of upwards of dozens of people," Barnes said.

A pastor then hit the gunman on the head with a chair and parishioners tied him with electrical cords until authorities arrived.

The attack took place as about 30 to 40 members of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church were gathered for lunch after a morning church service.

Barnes said Monday that the accused gunman, identified as David Chou, 68, of Las Vegas, was a Chinese immigrant motivated by hate for Taiwanese people. China claims Taiwan is a part of its national territory and has not ruled out force to bring the island under its rule.

A woman speaks with law enforcement officers after the shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, Calif., on Sunday. (David Swanson/Reuters)

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said there was evidence that the accused "had an absolute bias against the Taiwanese people, its country, as a Chinese or mainland national."

Barnes said the accused drove to the church, where he was not a regular attendee, secured the doors and started shooting, during a lunch reception held by the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church. He had placed four Molotov cocktail-like devices inside the church, the sheriff said.

The wounded victims were four Asian men, who were 66, 75, 82 and 92 years old, and an 86-year-old Asian woman. It was not immediately clear whether all of the victims were of Taiwanese descent.

Four of the five people wounded suffered critical gunshot injuries. Orange County Fire Authority official Michael Contreras said Monday that two of the wounded were in good condition, two were in stable condition and the status of the fifth patient was undetermined.

Chou was booked on investigation of one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder. Jail records show he is being held on $1 million US bail.

Deputies recovered two handguns at the scene. The accused lawfully purchased the two 9-mm pistols in Las Vegas, said Stephen Galloway, ATF Los Angeles assistant special agent in charge.

The accused made brief comments when he was taken into custody and then asked for an attorney, Barnes said.

Visiting pastor helped stop gunman

Jerry Chen, a longtime member of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, said he had just stepped into the kitchen of the church's fellowship hall around 1:30 p.m. Sunday when he heard the gunshots.

Chen, 72, peeked around the corner and saw others screaming, running and ducking under tables. He ran outside and called 911.

Chen said a group of congregants had gathered in the fellowship hall for a luncheon after a morning service to welcome their former Pastor Billy Chang, who had served the church for 20 years and was a beloved and respected community member.

An officer guards the church grounds on Sunday, in the aftermath of the shooting. (Damian Dovarganes/The Associated Press)

Chang moved back to Taiwan two years ago. This was his first time back stateside, Chen said.

Fellow congregants later told Chen that when the gunman stopped to reload, Chang hit him on the head with a chair while others moved quickly to grab his gun. They then subdued him and tied him up, Chen said.

"It was amazing how brave [Chang] and the others were," he said. "This is just so sad. I never, ever thought something like this would happen in my church, in my community."

Most of the church's members are older, highly educated Taiwanese immigrants, Chen said.

"We're mostly retirees and the average age of our church is 80," he said.

Church-goers Hector Gomez, left, and Jordi Poblete leave flowers at the scene on Sunday. (Damian Dovarganes/The Associated Press)

Orange County Undersheriff Jeff Hallock said the church-goers showed "exceptional heroism and bravery in intervening to stop the suspect."

"They undoubtedly prevented additional injuries and fatalities. I think it's safe to say that had people not intervened, it could have been much worse."

Life unraveled

A former neighbour said the accused's life unraveled after he was nearly beaten to death several years ago.

Chou had been a pleasant man who used to own the Las Vegas apartment building where he lived, Balmore Orellana told The Associated Press.

But Orellana said he received a head injury and serious body injuries in an attack by a tenant and he sold the property. He was evicted after firing a gun inside his apartment last summer. No one was injured in that incident.

Orellana says Chou's mental ability seemed to diminish in recent months; he was angry that the government didn't provide comfort in his retirement, and he may have been homeless.

On its website, Geneva Presbyterian Church describes its mission as "to remember, tell, and live the way of Jesus by being just, kind, and humble."

"All are welcome here. Really, we mean that! Geneva aspires to be an inclusive congregation worshipping, learning, connecting, giving and serving together."

The shooting occurred in an area with a cluster of houses of worship, including Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist churches and a Jewish synagogue.

It came a day after an 18-year-old man shot and killed 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y.

"This is upsetting and disturbing news, especially less than a day after a mass shooting in Buffalo," said U.S. Rep Katie Porter, whose district includes Laguna Woods. "This should not be our new normal. I will work hard to support the victims and their families."