Hero pastor describes how elderly congregation helped to stop California church shooter

The attack was motivated by the Taiwan-China conflict, police said.

May 17, 2022, 2:07 PM

The pastor being hailed a hero for helping to thwart a gunman from taking additional lives at a California church described how the congregation, consisting mostly of elderly attendees, overtook the shooter.

About 50 people had gathered at the Geneva Presbyterian Church, a Taiwanese congregation in Laguna Woods, California, about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles, on Sunday afternoon for a lunch banquet to welcome back Rev. Billy Chang from a trip to Taiwan, Chang told ABC News.

But a gunman angry over tensions between China and Taiwan, 68-year-old Las Vegas resident David Chou, was also in attendance and attempted to secure the doors inside with chains, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said Monday. Chou also attempted to disable the locks within the church with superglue, Barnes said.

PHOTO: Pastor Billy Chang
Pastor Billy Chang
ABC News

Chang was on the podium taking photos when he witnessed the gunman randomly firing at congregants, he described in a statement on Monday.

Parishioners were able to escape through the one door Chou allegedly did not lock, and when he stopped to reload, Chang and Dr. John Cheng, a prominent sports physician, sprang into action.

Cheng, 52, charged the suspect and tried to disarm him allowing others to jump in, Barnes said. Chang grabbed a chair and slammed it into the shooter, pushing him to the floor, he said.

"I was in shock during these events," Chang said in the statement.

PHOTO: A photo of Dr. John Cheng is seen outside his office in Aliso Viejo, California, May 16, 2022, after he was killed protecting others when a gunman opened fire at church services he was attending in nearby Laguna Woods, Calif. on May 15, 2022.
A photo of Dr. John Cheng is seen outside his office in Aliso Viejo, California, May 16, 2022, after he was killed protecting others when a gunman opened fire at church services he was attending in nearby Laguna Woods, Calif. on May 15, 2022.
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Several of the surrounding congregants then swarmed the shooter, Chang said.

The group of churchgoers detained Chou, hogtying his legs with an extension cord and confiscating two handguns from him before more people could be shot, said Orange County Sheriff's Office Undersheriff Jeff Hallock. Others called 911 while the restraint took place, Chang said.

"That group of churchgoers displayed...exceptional heroism, heroism and bravery in interfering or intervening to stop the suspect," Hallock said.

Most of the congregants were elderly, officials said, and the injured victims ranged in age from 66 to 92 years old.

PHOTO: Two men chat at a prayer vigil in Irvine, Calif., May 16, 2022, to honor victims in Sunday's shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, Calif.
Two men chat at a prayer vigil in Irvine, Calif., May 16, 2022, to honor victims in Sunday's shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, Calif.
Jae C. Hong/AP

Cheng was shot and killed during the chaos, and five others were wounded by gunfire, Barnes said. Investigators believe more people would have been shot had it not been for Cheng's actions, Barnes said.

"The majority of the people in attendance were elderly, and they acted spontaneously, heroically," Barnes said. "There would have been many, many more lives lost if not for the concerted effort of the members of that church."

Chang, through tears, asked for prayers for Cheng's family and for the congregation.

"Thank you for your concern and continued prayers," Chang told ABC News. "While my return to the United States, worship at the church and luncheon was [a] joyous occasion, the events that followed have deeply impacted the community and me."

Chou, who is Chinese but an American citizen, is being held on $1 million bail, jail records show. He is expected to be charged with one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder, authorities said.

Flowers and a note are seen outside the office of Dr. John Cheng in Aliso Viejo, California, May 16, 2022. Cheng, 52,was killed protecting others when a gunman opened fire at church services he was attending in nearby Laguna Woods, Calif. on May 15, 2022.
Flowers and a note are seen outside the office of Dr. John Cheng in Aliso Viejo, California, May 16, 2022. Cheng, 52, a family and sports medicine doctor, was killed protecting others when a gunman opened fire at church services he was attending in nearby Laguna Woods, Calif. on May 15, 2022.
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Authorities believe Chou's anger began when he lived in Taiwan, where he felt he was an outsider, and his anti-Taiwan views were not accepted, Barnes said.

Chou's wife and son still live in Taiwan, but Chou has lived alone in the U.S. for many years, Barnes said, adding that Chou's views have become more radical as tensions between China and Taiwan have escalated.

China has long held that Taiwan is part of its country, while Taiwan governs itself as an independent nation dating back to when Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek fled the mainland as the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949.

The FBI has opened a federal hate crimes investigation into the shooting.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events