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 sa
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.
The church started in 1994 at Creekside Christian Fellowship in Irvine, growing from 30 to 40 people, according to a blog post from the Presbytery of Los Ranchos. The congregation moved several times, always nesting within other houses of worship, before settling at Geneva in 2012. Many members are retired and live in Laguna Woods Village, the blog post said.
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.
“Churches are intended to be safe sanctuaries from hate and violence,” Spitzer said. “That serenity was shattered this afternoon by a gunman who unleashed unspeakable violence in a house of worship.”
Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador in Washington, D.C., tweeted that she was “shocked and saddened” by the shooting. “I join the families of the victims and Taiwanese American communities in grief and pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded survivors,” she said.
The violence stunned residents in the suburban south Orange County community, which is made up of predominantly senior citizens. Police closed off El Toro Road and emergency vehicles lined the street in front of the church. Many businesses around the scene shut for the day as helicopters circled overhead.
Residents stood for hours on the street across from the church waiting for information. Some took photographs of the police activity, which they say is unusual in Laguna Woods.
Grief counselors were ushered into the church area to talk with grieving witnesses. Investigators, including a deputy with a bloodhound, continued arriving at the scene in waves hours after the shooting.
News of the shooting trickled in slowly for the faithful at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Laguna Woods, less than a mile away from the scene. At a retirement gathering for senior pastor Leland Lanz, there were somber whispers and prayers for victims.
Lanz counted himself a friend and admirer of the Rev. Dr. Steven M. Marsh, Geneva’s pastor. “He’s wonderful and a leader of his flock,” Lanz said. “He’s a peaceful and caring man and it’s just bizarre to ever expect anything like this to happen.”
Randy Hall of Los Angeles was visiting a cousin in Orange County when they heard that a friend had attended services at Geneva just before gunshots were fired. Hall’s phone rang with word that churchgoers were making food baskets for the families of victims. Others were asking for donations and for the faithful to pray.
“We were heading for the beach,” Hall said as police helicopters circled overhead. “Now we’re heading to buy sympathy flowers.”
Cindy Frazier, 65, was running errands when she heard the overwhelming wail of police and fire engine sirens as they raced to Geneva Presbyterian Church. At first, she thought it was a recent coastal fire flaring back up.
“But it was just one after the other,” the Laguna Woods resident said of the procession of emergency vehicles. “It’s just so heartbreaking. Why? Why our community?”