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Hate crime charges added against accused Laguna Woods church shooter – Orange County Register


A 68-year-old Las Vegas man accused of killing a doctor and wounding five other people in a mass shooting at a Taiwanese Presbyterian church event in May has been charged with hate crime enhancements.

David Wenwei Chou was already charged with special circumstances murder for allegedly lying in wait before killing Dr. John Cheng, 52, along with five counts of attempted murder for five other people at the Laguna Woods church who were injured during the shooting and four counts of unlawful possession of explosives for bringing what authorities described as “Molotov-cocktail-like devices” into the church.

Prosecutors filed an amended complaint this week, adding the special circumstance that Chou intentionally killed his victim because of his race, color, religion, nationality, or country of origin. Also added were five enhancements of a hate crime for each of the five counts of attempted murder.

Special circumstances in a murder case mean that a defendant, if convicted, can be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. Prosecutors will decide whether to pursue the death penalty at a later date.

A court-appointed attorney representing Chou — who made his first in-person court appearance last week but did not enter a plea — could not immediately be reached for comment.

If proven at trial, the hate crime allegation wouldn’t necessarily add additional time to Chou’s potential sentence, since he is already facing the possibility of life behind bars. But local authorities — including DA Todd Spitzer and Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes — have spoken in the past about pursuing hate crimes to the fullest extent of the law.

Orange County law enforcement officials have described the church shooting as a “politically motivated hate incident,” alleging that Chou was driven by a longstanding grievance with the Taiwanese community, citing notes found in his car.

Chou was born in Taiwan in 1953 — at a time when tension between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China ran high —  and lived there until immigrating to the United States. Sheriff Barnes shortly after the shootings said Chou’s alleged hatred of the Taiwanese community may have began in his youth, when he felt he was “not well received while living there.”

Authorities haven’t specified why they believe Chou — who recently worked as a security guard in Nevada — targeted the Orange County congregation, though they have speculated that it could have been because it was the closest concentration of Taiwanese victims.

After the shootings, Chou’s Las Vegas roommate told the Associated Press that Chou had described the Taiwanese government as “corrupt” and “made himself seem like he was basically a political refugee.” One pro-China organization cut ties with Chou prior to the shootings, believing that he was “too radical” for the group. Chou reportedly mailed a half-dozen volumes of handwritten notes to the Los Angeles offices of a Chinese-language newspaper, which some media outlets reported were titled “Diary of an Independence-Destroying Angel.”

Chou on May 15 is accused of bringing a 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol and bags filled with suspected incendiary devices and extra magazines of ammunition into a dining hall that was being used by the congregation of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian and using padlocks, Super Glue and nails to seal most of the doors. DA Spitzer previously said he believed Chou’s goal as trying to “execute, in cold blood, as many people as possible.”

Earlier that day, Chou had attended a guest sermon by Pastor Billy Chang, a former leader of the congregation who spent several years in Taiwan, and remained for a lunch in Chang’s honor. After spending hours in the church, prosecutors say Chou opened fire on the elderly church members.

Cheng reportedly rushed at Chou, who allegedly shot the doctor twice before the gun jammed. Cheng’s actions gave the pastor enough time to hit Chou with a chair and for others to grab the gun, pin Chou to the ground and hogtie him until deputies arrived. Law enforcement officials have described Cheng — a Laguna Niguel resident with an Aliso Viejo medical practice — as a hero, whose actions likely saved up to dozens of lives.

Chou is being held without bail. He is currently schedule to return to court for an arraignment on Aug. 19.

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