A gunman attacked a lunch banquet at a Taiwanese church in Laguna Woods, killing one person and wounding five others Sunday before congregants tackled him, hogtied him with an extension cord and grabbed his two weapons, authorities said.
“That group of churchgoers displayed what we believe is exceptional heroism and bravery,” Undersheriff Jeff Hallock said, later adding, “It’s safe to say that had they not intervened this situation could have been much worse.”
The violence left the south Orange County suburb — home to the sprawling retirement community once known as Leisure World — reeling and in grief, coming a day after a racist attack at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket left 10 dead.
Gunfire rang out at 1:26 p.m. inside Geneva Presbyterian Church in the 24000 block of El Toro Road. Between 30 and 40 congregants were attending the banquet after a morning church service. A law enforcement source said the gunman had sealed the doors to prevent parishioners escaping.
The congregation had just finished eating lunch — a special bento with teriyaki chicken — and were taking photos with a pastor who was returning after two years in Taiwan when the shooting began, said Jerry Chen, 72, who was in a nearby kitchen at the time.
“I heard the gun sounds,” he said. “Then I heard two or three more gunshots. He was just randomly shooting. I saw some people fall down or go under the table. I knew something was wrong. I called 911.”
The pastor hit the gunman with a chair when the shooter paused to reload his weapon, Chen said, and other members of the congregation tackled him.
The injured — four men ages 66, 92, 82 and 75, and an 86-year-old woman — were all Asian, officials said. All five were shot and four sustained critical injuries.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department detained the suspect, an Asian man in his 60s, and recovered two commercially available handguns from the scene, officials
said. The suspect is not likely from this area, they said.
A motive remains unclear, and officials said they don’t know whether the incident was hate-related.
Before the service started, members had greeted the gunman — whom they had never seen before — and welcomed him. He told them he had attended services several times, but the members were doubtful because no one recognized him, Chen said.
The congregants were members of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which has been holding services at Geneva for 10 years.
Tom Cramer, leader of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos and a former pastor at the Geneva Presbyterian Church, said the shooting happened at a lunch reception honoring the former pastor of the Taiwanese church, who is returning to Taiwan to lead a congregation there. Cramer did not know if the pastor was harmed in the shooting. “They are sisters and brothers in Christ. They have been good friends with us,” he said. “This is a shock to us that anything like this would happen.”
The congregation has been active in the local Taiwanese community, holding weekly educational seminars and workshops. It’s one of the largest Taiwanese churches in the city, he said.
Peggy Huang, a Yorba Linda city councilwoman, said her parents are members of the congregation. They have been in Taiwan since the beginning of the pandemic, so they weren’t there Sunday when the shooting started.
“Them being stuck in Taiwan turned out to be a blessing, because they would have been there,” she said.
Huang was texting members of the congregation all day to check in on them. They told her that they didn’t recognize the gunman and that they hadn’t seen him at the church before. The man opened fire as the churchgoers were taking photographs with the pastor, who was visiting from Taiwan.
After the shots rang out, the pastor picked up a chair and hit the gunman with it, Huang was told. Then other members of the congregation grabbed him, Huang said. She added that many members of the church have military backgrounds.
The man who was killed was in his 40s and didn’t frequently attend the church services in Laguna Woods, she said. He was a physician and was accompanying his mother.
Cynthia Conners, a Geneva church member and mayor pro tempore of Laguna Woods, said she is “very worried about the Taiwanese being so many of the victims.” About 150 people usually attend Sunday service in Taiwanese, she said, often gathering after for a group lunch serving noodles, steamed jasmine rice and Chinese dishes.
Conners recalled when the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church joined her church years earlier. “We considered it really lucky that they came to us,” she said. “We have tried to be inclusive and share many activities. They go to ours and we go to theirs. We want to have a family-friendly ministry and be multigenerational.”
Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer said his office is working with local and federal law enforcement partners “to ensure the person responsible is held accountable.” Homicide prosecutors were on the scene.