Suspect's life was collapsing before Laguna Woods church shooting

Laguna Woods, CA - May 15: A first responder grief counselor comforts a parishioner after a person opened fire during a church service attended by a Taiwanese congregation, killing one person and critcally injuring four others at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods Sunday, May 15, 2022. Authorities are interviewing more than 30 people who were inside the church at the time. The victims were described as mostly Asian and mostly of Taiwanese descent, authorities said. A law enforcement source said officials believe the suspect was a 68-year-old Asian man who is originally from Las Vegas. The source said after the suspect opened fire he was "subdued" by parishioners. No other details were available. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
A counselor comforts a parishioner after a man opened fire Sunday, killing one and injuring five, at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Months before police say he opened fire inside a Laguna Woods church, killing one person and wounding five others in what authorities have called a politically motivated attack, David Wenwei Chou’s life in Las Vegas was unraveling.

His wife had returned to Taiwan in December, to seek treatment for cancer but also to leave Chou in the midst of a divorce, according to their next-door neighbor, Balmore Orellana.

Between Orellana's account and a declaration that Chou wrote as he tried to stave off eviction, a picture emerges of an embittered man whose world was collapsing around him. His critically ill wife had left him; he was unable to pay his rent, which was twice his monthly income; and he struggled to find work as a 68-year-old casino security guard.

For nine years, Chou and his wife, Crystal Juei-Hong Lee, owned the building they lived in, one of about a dozen shabby stucco four-plexes that line a cul-de-sac about a mile west of the Las Vegas Strip. They lived in a unit on the ground floor, Orellana said.

He described Chou as a considerate landlord: He never raised the rent in the five years that Orellana and his family lived there, and when the COVID-19 pandemic swept into Las Vegas, Chou often asked if they needed a break with the rent. He tended a small garden on the side of the building, and he’d regularly bring fruit, vegetables and cookies for Orellana’s family.

A small apartment building
An apartment building formerly owned by David Chou in Las Vegas on May 16. (Ken Ritter / Associated Press)

But he was “verbally aggressive” toward his wife, Orellana said, and he’d hear Chou yelling through the walls. By the time she left for Taiwan, diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, “you could tell she was just tired of him.” With her gone, “he took it pretty hard,” Orellana said.

Orange County Sheriff’s officials said Chou’s wife is living in Taiwan. Records of their separation weren’t immediately available.

Chou told Orellana he was born in Taiwan but considered himself Chinese. He believed China and Taiwan were one country, Orellana said.

“To him, there’s no border," he added.

At 10 a.m. on Sunday, Chou showed up to an Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church service in Laguna Woods, police say. After reading a Chinese-language newspaper in the back of the church for several hours, he chained its doors shut and tried to jam the locks with glue, then opened fire with a handgun, according to authorities and an account by churchgoers.

Chou killed Dr. John Cheng, 52, who had tried to stop him, and wounded five others before the pastor and several congregants managed to subdue him and hogtie him with an extension cord, authorities said. Inside the church. investigators found two handguns, purchased legally in Nevada, and several improvised incendiary devices.

Chou is being held in an Orange County jail, charged with one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder. Prosecutors accused Chou of using a gun and lying in wait in committing the attack.

If proven, those special circumstance allegations would require Chou be sentenced either to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. He also was charged with possessing destructive devices with an intent to kill or harm.

Investigators found notes in Chou’s car stating his belief that Taiwan should not be independent from China, officials said, but prosecutors have yet to file a hate crimes enhancement against Chou.

Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer said Tuesday that while authorities had found "very strong evidence" that Chou was "motivated by hate," his prosecutors were still working with the FBI and other agencies to "put together all the evidence that confirms that theory."

The Orange County Sheriff's Department said Tuesday evening that Chou indicated he was born and raised in Taiwan, and an official from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles said Chou was born in Taiwan, holds a Taiwanese passport and completed compulsory military service there.

Chou’s family apparently was among many forcibly removed from mainland China to Taiwan sometime after 1948, Spitzer said.

Chou worked as a journalist in Taiwan before coming to the United States, Orellana said. In his adopted country, he told neighbors he served in the Marines and was “very proud” of it, Orellana said, recalling how Chou draped some 20 American flags throughout his property.

A military spokesman said they could find no record of Chou serving in the Marines.

Chou and his wife sold the building in 2021, records show, although he remained in his former property as a tenant. But he could not afford the rent, and the buyer, Abraham Barhoum, began eviction proceedings against him. Barhoum didn't return calls seeking comment.

In an angry, rambling declaration filed in the eviction case, Chou accused Barhoum, whom he described as "greedy, avaricious and sucking," of negotiating the purchase with his "sick and crazy" wife, who was dying of lung cancer.

"Her brain and mind is not clear at all times," Chou wrote, "but she did sign all the closing papers, so I loss my loved home" in October. Chou testified in March that his wife, who was now living in Taiwan, had sold the building without his consent, according to a record of the eviction hearing.

Barhoum set his monthly rent at $1,050, an amount Chou told the court he could not afford. His income was just $548 a month in Social Security payments, he said.

"This is our home and I had been living here for over nine years," Chou wrote. "I am willing to pay reasonable rent for go on living in my room." He believed the owner should "offer me a very, very and very special discount or low, low and low rent" — $300 to $400, "or even free for two months."

Instead, Barhoum asked a court to evict him. Chou testified that he had sought rental assistance from Clark County authorities, but the court found no record that he had ever applied for the aid and ordered him evicted, according to a record of the hearing.

Chou expressed to his neighbor a frustration that, at 68, the government wouldn’t provide him housing or an income, Orellana said. He believed he was too old to find the type of work upon which he could support himself.

By then Chou was living on Social Security and intermittent work as a security guard, Orellana said. He worked for a company that provided security at the Sands and Venetian casinos, according to Orellana; public records show he was employed by various security firms and licensed to carry a firearm. Chou was lucky to get a job once a week, Orellana said.

“Sometimes they wouldn’t call him for three months," he said.

Orellana recalled Chou saying he’d asked several churches in the Las Vegas area if they had a place for him to stay, but he was rejected by all of them. He seemed embittered by this, Orellana said.

In his attempt to stave off eviction, Chou wrote, "God bless the humble home sellers in the USA also in this miserable world!"

Chou was evicted in March, court records show. Orellana helped him carry trash out of his unit to a dumpster. It was the last time he’d see him.

“He was just a homeless old man,” Orellana recalled. While Chou didn’t voice thoughts of suicide explicitly, Orellana said: “He told me, ‘I just don’t care about my life anymore.’”

Orellana said the tenants who moved into Chou’s old unit found “horrible pictures” that he’d left behind: photographs of Chou posing with a gun, including one that appeared to have been taken at a memorial to a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas.

The image, as described by the tenants, showed Chou with a gun and an expression as if he were “laughing hysterically,” Orellana said. The tenants threw the photographs away, he said.

In hindsight, Orellana believed Chou showed signs of mental instability. Chou described to him an incident that he said deeply affected his physical and mental well-being: About six years ago, Chou was managing a different apartment complex when he told a tenant who was three months behind on rent to move out. Instead, the tenant beat Chou, fracturing his skull and breaking his arm.

Chou still has the scars, according to Orellana.

“He said, ‘My body is getting worse, my back is getting worse.’”

The beating also left Chou with serious anxiety, he said.

About a month after Chou was evicted, Orellana said he heard from neighbors that he was spotted “lingering around” his former property and had been caught breaking into his old mailbox.

Orellana did not know what, if any, connection Chou had to California.

He arrived at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church service around 10 a.m. Sunday, lingering in the back of the building for several hours, according to an account published by the church.

After a luncheon for a former pastor, attended by about 140 people, parishioners saw Chou locking the doors with chains and assumed he was a security guard. One churchgoer saw him using a hammer and nails to seal the doors.

Then, according to the account, he opened fire.

Times staff writers Richard Winton and Hannah Fry contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.