An armed man, allegedly motivated by political hatred of Taiwan, opened fire on Taiwanese members of the Presbyterian Church in Southern California on Sunday, killing one person and injuring five others.
Former Pastor Billy Chang was on duty in Laguna Hills, California. He spoke with the Mandarin Service VOA and described Sunday’s attack, which began when members of Taiwan’s Irwin Presbyterian Church had lunch.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Chang was pastor of Taiwanese Presbyterian priest Irwin for 21 years, and in 2020 left the church in Taiwan. Chang, who recently returned from Taiwan, was the guest of honor at Sunday dinner, local media reported.
Authorities have charged suspect Las Choas of Las Vegas with 10 assaults, including first-degree murder.
Police said Chow traveled to Orange County, Southern California on Saturday, and attended a dinner Sunday hosted by senior parishioners of Taiwanese Presbyterian Irwin before opening fire.
John Cheng, a church member, accused Zhou of allowing other church members to act. Chang said he picked up the chair and threw it at Zhou, who fell to the floor. Chang said he and several other church members rushed to Zhou, holding him and tying him up until authorities arrived.
Chen was killed during the attack.
The following interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Voice of America: Tell us your story about the church and what happened on the day of the shooting?
Former Pastor Billy ChangA: I flew to the US from Taiwan on May 9th. Since I have been friends with my brothers and sisters in the church for over 20 years, they have been very happy and hoped to see me. Their current pastor also kindly invited me to a sermon on Sunday, May 15th. I was glad to see a lot of people that day. We then had worship at 11 a.m. and Sunday school at 11:30 p.m. This time I shared my good experiences in Taiwan for the last two years. I was gone for so long and I had a lot of feelings to share. Then we went to dinner.
Until this Sunday the church always gave dinner. After they finished Sunday school, people went to the social hall to get lunch and eat at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This time, as I recently returned and the pandemic seemed to be slowing in the US, the church has announced that there will be a special welcome party and if people want to stay, we can host a dozen roundtables in the social hall and have extra food. About 100 people decided to stay and we ate together around 12:30
After lunch some people asked to be photographed with me, so we went on stage in front of the public hall. The scene in the hall is quite modern and not very high off the ground. People stood one behind the other to be photographed with me in groups of four to 10 people.
It was about 1pm when I heard the shots. I can’t remember the exact time. I had no idea what was going on outside. When I turned my head and looked to the right, about 10 steps away, there was a man I didn’t recognize. He was dressed as a security guard. It was later confirmed that he was a licensed security officer, so he had the equipment. He was dressed in tactical equipment, as if someone was accompanying an armored car. He started filming, and the sound was very loud, because the social hall is a closed space that echoes. Everyone, including me, was surprised. Maybe at first I didn’t realize what danger we were in. I thought it was a joke, a prank, someone playing with a toy gun to scare people.
But after he made three or four shots, I was shocked. As he fired fast and kept firing, I just stood there and felt something was wrong. I turned my head and saw that all my brothers and sisters were lying on the ground, hiding under the tables, and some of them were trying to escape.
He seemed to be shooting where something was moving. I felt it was wrong and needed to be stopped. We have a majority of elderly people in the church. I’m not that young, but felt I had to act. When I saw that his gun was not aimed at me, I sensed that he was going to change bullets. I’m not very familiar with the weapon, but it has already fired from a pistol 9-10 times.
So, I ran up. I grabbed a chair and threw it at him. He probably didn’t expect anyone to attack him. He was shocked, fell to the floor and dropped his pistol. I quickly hugged him. I was afraid he would pick up the gun again because the gun was in his left hand and still within his reach. I hugged his arms and head. I said, “Hurry up, help me hold him.” Three parishioners helped me press his neck.
Only then did I see that someone was lying in front of us, Doctor. [John] Chen. I saw that he was very badly injured because he was not moving at all and it was very good to see blood on his back. My wife Yu Ling came over and quickly took off the gun, but I didn’t know if he had another gun. Later they [the police] said he also had a gun tied to his leg … that he had two guns. I don’t know if he had an accomplice, so the wife hid the gun in the fridge in the kitchen. We could not find any rope, so we tied his legs with an orange electric cord and then called 911. Police arrived 10 minutes later and they took control of the situation.
This was the first time Dr. Chen came to church. He accompanied his mother, and I did not recognize him at first. He was lying on the floor face down, and so I didn’t immediately realize it was his mother’s son. She was photographed with me on stage. After the scene was taken under control, she could not find her son, and then, turning around, cried, “This is my son, this is my son.”
We later learned that the killer was preparing for the massacre. When he closed the door, some of our parishioners saw him and thought it was the guards who came to lock the door because we rented the place and had to leave before 1-14 p.m. It had two entrances. managed to close, but there was one in the kitchen, which he probably did not know. Some people escaped from this door and called the 911 service. At one of the main entrances he locked the door with chains and nailed the other door to the parking lot. Later I heard that the keyholes were also sealed with superglue.
VOA: Did the shooter say anything while he was there?
Former Pastor Billy Chang: He didn’t say a word or shout, so I thought it was a joke and it was a toy gun, and other people thought the sound was bursting with a balloon. After we subdued him, he said only one sentence, so I realized he was Chinese. At first some thought he was from the Middle East. I knew he was Chinese when he said “I can’t breathe” in Chinese, probably because someone was holding his neck and then they relaxed a bit so the gunman could breathe.
Voice of America: When the shooter arrived at the church that day, did any of the parishioners see or communicate with him?
Former Pastor Billy Chang: I heard he came in during our service. Our registrar asked him to leave his name so we could welcome him to our service, but he said he had been in the service before and therefore did not leave his name. Some parishioners are very enthusiastic and every week bring last week’s newspaper to distribute for free. I heard the shooter took a Chinese newspaper and read it during the service. He did not seem to take worship seriously and then left. When he reappeared, there was a shooting.
VOA: Do we know anything about why the shooter was traveling from Las Vegas to Irvine, California, specifically to target this church?
Former Pastor Billy Chang: Now that I think about it, he did it not just by accident, he had a plan. I don’t know if he had relatives or friends in Irvine or the Orange County area, but he probably knew that our church was one of the most populous Taiwanese-speaking churches. I don’t think he started preparing just on the day of the shooting. He brought chains and explosives, so he had already planned an attack. He watched us, maybe even been here before. Maybe he chose us because he wanted to kill as many people as possible. If I had not subdued him, I think there would have been a dozen or even a hundred people injured or killed.
Many people today are wondering whether our church is preaching about Taiwan’s independence or about Taiwan’s politics. I invite everyone to read about us on our church website. Let it be the pastor [Albany] Whether or not we all preach the gospel of God. We spread love, peace, mercy, compassion and inclusion.
Voice of America: We now know that the motive for this crime is political. Are you surprised?
Former Pastor Billy Chang: In fact, it reflects the dire geopolitical situation that Taiwan is now facing, the threat of the Chinese military. … [China considers self-ruled Taiwan a breakaway province and has not ruled out the use of force to reunify the two sides.] We very much hope that the international community will be able to pay attention to this, from the security of individuals to Taiwan as a whole. At least we need to be able to defend ourselves, as we did with the chair, and not treat us so fiercely.
VOA: We know that between the Taiwanese community that advocates Taiwan independence and the community that advocates the unification of Taiwan, there is not much interaction in the U.S., what do you think will happen between the two communities after the shooting?
Former Pastor Billy ChangA: Honestly, I am worried that the confrontation between the groups advocating for Taiwan’s independence and the groups advocating the unification of Taiwan will intensify, and it is unfortunate that this incident has taken place. I hope that in Taiwanese society we can have different political positions and be tolerant of each other. We are truly one island, one life. If an external force can invade us, no one will be spared such a tragic end, so we hope to learn from this incident to respect each other and not use this incident to incite confrontation.
VOA: The suspect faces 10 counts of assault, including one count of first-degree murder. If you had the opportunity to see an armed man again, what would you tell him?
Former Pastor Billy Chang: The victim has already sacrificed his life, no matter what, using the killer’s life to pay for his life will fail to heal the grief in our hearts. Of course, justice must happen, and I hope that justice will be used so that everyone knows that such an act is unacceptable to society as a whole. As for the killer, I really can’t understand what kind of message he wants to convey because he may hate some innocent elders and kill such a peaceful group for his political philosophy. He wanted to destroy us all. If I take a step back and think about it when I advocate for Taiwan to become independent, is it a crime leading to the death penalty? Is it an unforgivable sin that should lead to the death of the other party? If I think that if I want to love someone, I have to pay the price of life. What is the reason for this? I don’t understand his logic and I have no words to tell him.