Man accused of shooting parishioners at Taiwanese OC church pleads not guilty

A 68-year-old man accused of fatally shooting one person and injuring five others at a Taiwanese Presbyterian church in Laguna Woods pleaded not guilty on Friday to multiple crimes stemming from the attack, which authorities called a hate crime.

Charges against David Wenwei Chou of Las Vegas include murder and attempted murder.

Prosecutors also added hate crime enhancements, alleging that Chou’s killing of Dr. John Cheng, 52, and the injuries of other parishioners on May 15 were motivated by race, color, religion, nationality or country of origin.

Chou could face the death penalty if convicted on all counts.

Chou, who is being held at Theo Lacy Jail in Orange without bail, wore a bright yellow jumpsuit and surgical mask when he appeared in a Santa Ana courtroom on Friday to enter his plea.

A Mandarin interpreter translated the proceedings to him via headset, but Chou seemed to have trouble understanding. At one point, he asked Judge Cynthia Herrera what he was supposed to do.

“I’m not clear,” he said in English.

Prosecutors turned over evidence they said appeared to be medical records obtained during a search of Chou’s Las Vegas home. The contents of these folders were not immediately clear.

Chou’s attorney, Jennifer Ryan, declined to comment to reporters outside the courtroom.

In May, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes called the shooting a “politically motivated hate incident” and said authorities believed Chou was “specifically targeting the Taiwanese community.”

Barnes said Chou left Chinese notes in his car saying he didn’t believe Taiwan should be independent from China. He apparently had a problem with Taiwanese over the way he was treated while living in Taiwan, Barnes said. Chou grew up in Taiwan as waishengren — someone with recent roots in China.

China views Taiwan as a breakaway province and has become increasingly aggressive in reclaiming the democratic and self-governing island. In Taiwan, a majority of people favor maintaining the status quo, with some wanting to openly declare independence and a small minority wanting to one day unite with China.

The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan is known for supporting independence causes, and the Laguna Woods congregation holds services in the Taiwanese dialect rather than Mandarin.

Prosecutors allege Chou entered the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, where the Irvine Taiwan Presbyterian Church rents space, with two 9mm handguns, several backpacks containing additional magazines and four Molotov cocktail machines.

He allegedly hid the backpacks in a church banquet hall and chained several closed doors, then mingled with parishioners. The group was there for a luncheon in honor of longtime pastor Billy Chang, who was visiting after two years in Taiwan.

When the shooter opened fire, Chang returned fire and was shot. Five others, aged 66 to 92, were hospitalized and survived.

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