A Chinese immigrant accused of targeting an elderly Taiwanese congregation in a shooting rampage at a southern California church on Sunday was motivated by hatred for Taiwanese people, officials said Monday.
"This was a politically motivated hate incident, a grievance that this individual had between himself and the Taiwanese community," Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said at a news conference.
"Based on preliminary information, it is believed the suspect involved was upset about political tensions between China and Taiwan."
Taiwan split with China during a civil war more than 70 years ago, but Beijing still sees the self-ruled island as its own territory as Taiwan has evolved into a thriving democracy.
David Chou, 68, has been charged with one count of murder, five counts of attempted murder, and four counts of possession of explosives for incendiary devices that were left at the scene. Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said that his office is working with federal authorities on potential hate crime charges as well.
"There is a lot of evidence the suspect had an absolute bias against the Taiwanese people, its country, as a Chinese or mainland national," Spitzer said.
A few dozen parishioners were inside the fellowship hall at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods on Sunday afternoon when Chou allegedly chained the doors closed, superglued locks, and hammered at least one door shut before opening fire on congregants.
Authorities said that Dr. John Cheng, 52, acted heroically to disable the gunman, preventing many other potential deaths.
"After others had been shot, he took it upon himself to charge across the room and do everything he could to disable the assailant," Spitzer said Monday. "He sacrificed himself so that others could live. That irony in a Church is not lost on me."
A pastor hit Chou in the head with a chair and other parishioners were able to hogtie him until police arrived.
"That group of churchgoers displayed what we believe is exceptional heroism and bravery in intervening to stop the suspect. They undoubtedly prevented additional injuries and fatalities," Orange County Undersheriff Jeff Hallock said Monday.
Dr. Cheng succumbed to his injuries. Five other people were transported to local hospitals with gunshot wounds. Two of them were in good condition, two were in stable condition, and the fifth victim's condition was unknown on Monday.
Authorities found written notes in Chou's car indicating that the attack was motivated by "his hatred of the Taiwanese people," Barnes said Monday.
Chou had been working as a security guard in Las Vegas and allegedly used two pistols in the attack, one that was purchased in 2015 and another that was purchased in 2017. Authorities also found incendiary devices behind a black curtain in the fellowship hall.
Chou could be sentenced to death if he is convicted, Spitzer said Monday, though California Gov. Gavin Newsom placed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2019.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.