A man opened fire during a lunch reception at a Southern California church on Sunday, killing one person and wounding five senior citizens before being stopped and hog-tied by parishioners in what a sheriff’s official called an act of “exceptional heroism and bravery.”
Four of the five people wounded suffered critical gunshot injuries during the violence at Geneva Presbyterian Church in the city of Laguna Woods, Orange County Sheriff’s Department officials said.
The suspect in the shooting, an Asian man in his 60s, was in custody and deputies recovered two handguns at the scene, Undersheriff Jeff Hallock said. A motive for the shooting wasn't immediately known but investigators don't believe the gunman lives in the community, he said.
The majority of those inside the church at the time were believed to be of Taiwanese descent, said Carrie Braun, a sheriff’s spokesperson.
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Between 30 and 40 members of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church were gathered for lunch after a morning church service at Geneva when gunfire erupted, officials said.
Jerry Chen had just stepped into the kitchen of his church's fellowship hall around 1:30 p.m. Sunday when he heard the gunshots.
Chen, 72, a longtime congregant, peeked around the corner and saw church members screaming, running and ducking under tables.
“I knew someone was shooting," he said. “I was very, very scared. I ran out the kitchen door to call 9-1-1. ”
When deputies arrived, parishioners had the gunman hog-tied and in custody.
“That group of churchgoers displayed what we believe is exceptional heroism and bravery in intervening to stop the suspect. They undoubtedly prevented additional injuries and fatalities,” Hallock said. “I think it’s safe to say that had people not intervened, it could have been much worse."
The wounded victims were four Asian men, who were 66, 75, 82 and 92 years old, and an 86-year-old Asian woman, the sheriff's department said. Authorities originally said only four of the five surviving victims had been shot.
Information about the person who was killed was not immediately released.
While a motive for the shooting at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in the city of Laguna Woods was not immediately disclosed, investigators don’t believe the gunman — an Asian man in his 60s whose name was not immediately released — lives in the community.
Chen said a group of about 40 congregants had gathered in the fellowship hall for a luncheon after a morning service to welcome their former Pastor Billy Chang, who had served the church for 20 years and was a beloved and respected community member. Chang moved back to Taiwan two years ago. This was his first time back stateside, Chen said.
“Everyone had just finished lunch,” he said. “They were taking photos with Pastor Chang. I had just finished my lunch and went into the kitchen."
That was when he heard the gunshots and ran out.
Soon afterward, Chen said he heard the details of what happened inside from others who came out. Fellow congregants told Chen that when the gunman stopped to reload, Pastor Chang hit him on the head with a chair while others moved quickly to grab his gun. They then subdued him and tied him up, Chen said.
“It was amazing how brave (Chang) and the others were,” he said. “This is just so sad. I never, ever thought something like this would happen in my church, in my community.”
Most of the church's members are elderly, highly educated Taiwanese immigrants, Chen said.
“We're mostly retirees and the average age of our church is 80,” he said.
Laguna Woods was built as a senior living community and later became a city. More than 80% of residents in the city of 18,000 people about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles are at least 65. The incident occurred in an area with a cluster of houses of worship, including Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist churches and a Jewish synagogue.
“Please keep the leadership of the Taiwanese congregation and Geneva in your prayers as they care for the those traumatized by this shooting,” Tom Cramer, a spokesperson for the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, a church administrative body, said in a statement on Facebook.
Federal agents from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives responded. The FBI also sent agents to the scene to assist the sheriff.
The investigation was in its early stages, Hallock said. He said the many unanswered questions include whether the assailant attended the church service, if he was known to church members and how many shots were fired.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said on Twitter that he was closely monitoring the situation.
“No one should have to fear going to their place of worship. Our thoughts are with the victims, community, and all those impacted by this tragic event," the tweet said.
On its website, Geneva Presbyterian Church describes its mission as “to remember, tell, and live the way of Jesus by being just, kind, and humble.”
“All are welcome here. Really, we mean that! … Geneva aspires to be an inclusive congregation worshipping, learning, connecting, giving and serving together.”
The shooting came a day after an 18-year-old man shot and killed 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.
“This is upsetting and disturbing news, especially less than a day after a mass shooting in Buffalo,” said U.S. Rep Katie Porter, whose district includes Laguna Woods. “This should not be our new normal. I will work hard to support the victims and their families.”
Violence in houses of worship includes the deadliest shooting inside a church, which occurred in 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when a gunman opened fire during a Sunday service at First Baptist Church and killed more than two dozen people.
In 2015, a man fired dozens of bullets during the closing prayer of a 2015 Bible study session at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina. Nine members of the Black congregation were killed in the racist violence and the shooter became the first person in the U.S. sentenced to death for a federal hate crime. His appeal remains before the Supreme Court.
Weber reported from Los Angeles, along with Associated Press journalist Stefanie Dazio.