A 68-year-old Las Vegas man pleaded not guilty on Friday, Aug. 19, to killing a doctor and wounding five other people during a shooting rampage at a Laguna Woods church that authorities allege was driven by a long-running hatred of Taiwanese people.
Through his attorney, David Wenwei Chou entered a not guilty plea to murder and attempted murder charges and hate-crime enhancements.
Chou appeared confused at times as he stood in a holding cell in the Santa Ana courtroom and listened to a Mandarin-language interpreter through a headset. At one point he told the judge, in English, “I am not clear, I don’t know what you want me to do,” before his attorney spoke to him and he agreed to allow his next court appearance to be set for Oct. 21.
Chou is being held without bail. As a special circumstances murder case, the Orange County District Attorneys Office will at some point decide whether to seek life without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.
Law enforcement officials have accused Chou of specifically targeting a May 15 Taiwanese Presbyterian Church event that featured a guest sermon by Pastor Billy Chang, a former leader of the congregation who spent several years in Taiwan.
Prosecutors say Chou brought a 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol and bags filled with suspected incendiary devices and extra ammunition into a dining hall that was being used by the congregation, and then using padlocks, Super Glue and nails to seal most of the doors. After spending several hours in the church, prosecutors allege that Chou began opening fire on the elderly church members.
Dr. John Cheng reportedly rushed at Chou, who allegedly shot the doctor twice before his gun jammed. According to law enforcement, that gave the pastor enough time to hit Chou with a chair at which point other congregants helped pin Chou to the ground and hogtie him until deputies arrived.
DA Todd Spitzer, who attended Friday’s hearing, previously said he believed Chou’s goal the day of the shootings was to “execute, in cold blood, as many people as possible.”
Law enforcement officials and church members have described Dr. Cheng — a Laguna Niguel resident with an Aliso Viejo medical practice — as a hero whose actions likely saved up to dozens of lives.
Chou was born in Taiwan in 1953, a time when tension between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China ran high. Chou immigrated to the United States, in recent years working as a security guard in Nevada.
Citing notes found in Chou’s car after the shooting, law enforcement officials have said that Chou appears to have been motivated by a long-standing grievance with the Taiwanese community that may date back to his youth. Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes previously said that Chou apparently felt he was “not well received while living there.”
After the shootings, Chou’s Las Vegas roommate told the Associated Press that Chou described the Taiwanese government as “corrupt” and “made himself seem like he was basically a political refugee.” At least one pro-China organization cut ties with Chou, believing he was “too radical.”