'Heroic': Congregation Helped Detain Suspect After Deadly Shooting at Laguna Woods Church

One person was killed and five others were wounded on May 15, after a gunman opened fire on a church congregation in Laguna Woods, California.

In a press conference live streamed on the Orange County Sheriff’s Facebook page, local authorities said “we believe a group of church goers detained him (the suspect) and hogtied his legs with an extension cord and confiscated at least two weapons from him. He was detained when deputies arrived”.

Orange County Undersheriff Jeff Hallock labelled the congregation as heroes saying, “that group of churchgoers displayed exceptional heroism and bravery in intervening to stop the suspect. They undoubtedly prevented additional injuries and fatalities.”

Hallock said the suspect, aged in his 60’s, was taken into custody. Authorities said the gunman’s motives were unclear. Credit: Orange County Sheriff’s Department via Storyful

Video transcript

SCOTT STEINLE: Doctor?

- Spelling's after.

SCOTT STEINLE: Spelling's after.

- And we have a sheet for you with spellings of names right after. All right.

SCOTT STEINLE: OK, good afternoon. My name is Sergeant Scott Steinle. I'm the public information officer for the Orange County Sheriff's Department. First of all, we'd like to just let the public know that our-- our hearts reach out to those affected by this tragic event.

For today's press conference, the following speakers will be in this following order. First is Jeff Hallock, Undersheriff, Orange County Sheriff's Department; Brian Fennessy, Fire Chief, Orange County Fire Authority; Kristi Johnson, Assistant Director in Charge, FBI Los Angeles; Stephen Galloway, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, ATF Los Angeles; Lisa Bartlett, Orange County Board of Supervisors, 5th District; and Carole Moore, Laguna Woods Mayor. We will take questions at the conclusion of this press conference.

JEFF HALLOCK: Good afternoon. First and foremost, I want to send our thoughts and prayers to all those that are impacted by this incident. This is a very tragic incident for the victims, their families, and this entire community.

I want to start by asking for your patience. Also, as you know, we've-- this is an active investigation that's been going on for less than four hours. Our investigators are still diligently processing the scene. So we're here to provide as much information as we can at the time, but again, just-- I ask for your patience, and please understand that we're working as quickly as we can to have more details and the information that you're looking for.

At about 1:26 PM this afternoon, a male subject opened fire here at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in the city of Laguna Woods. One person is confirmed deceased at the scene. Four others are critical, and one other victim sustained minor injuries.

The injured victims were taken to local hospitals. We currently do not have a status of the injured four that are in critical condition. When deputies arrived on scene, they provided immediate medical aid to the victims here at the church.

Shortly after, our partners from the Orange County Fire Authority arrived on scene and began providing advanced medical lifesaving measures. We're very grateful to the Orange County Fire Authority for their quick response and their ability to provide critical lifesaving treatment.

The incident happened at lunch-- at a lunch banquet following the morning service. And again, to remind you, this is all very preliminary information. We believe a group of church goers detained him, and hogtied his legs with an extension cord, and confiscated at least two weapons from him. He was detained when the deputies arrived.

That group of church goers displayed what we believe is exceptional heroism-- heroism and bravery in interfering or intervening to stop the suspect. They undoubtedly prevented additional injuries and fatalities.

The suspect was not injured during the incident and was taken into custody. He's believed to be an Asian male adult in his 60s. We don't believe he lives in this area, and investigators are working to determine his city of residence and whether he has any connection to this church or to the congregation.

At this time, we do not know what the suspect's motive may be, or whether he had an intended target, or whether this is even a hate-related incident. Following the incident, the Sheriff's Department Hazardous Device Section utilized bomb canines and swept the church grounds to ensure there were no secondary devices. Members from the Trauma Intervention Program also are on scene to provide crisis counseling to the congregants.

BRIAN FENNESSY: Multiple OCFA resources responded as part of a potential MCI, a Mass Casualty Incident, as part of the active shooter response. Resources included multiple firefighter paramedic units, our specialized mass casualty unit, private ground ambulances, and a helicopter air ambulance.

An MCI was declared, and our firefighter paramedics quickly triaged, treated, and transported five patients. As the undersheriff said, four critical and one minor status, and one victim was pronounced deceased at the scene.

In addition, OCFA chaplains responded to the church in the hospitals. We also have started our critical incident stress debriefing for our OCFA first responders. Our hearts are with the victims, their families, and our community. Thank you.

KRISTI JOHNSON: Thank you, Undersheriff Hallock and Chief Fennessy. Good afternoon. My name is Kristi Johnson, and I'm the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office, which has jurisdiction here in Orange County and throughout the area. First of all, my sincerest condolences to the families and the victims here today. And also, a heartfelt thank you to the congregants who were very brave today in their actions.

We arrived today as we would in response to any report of a mass shooting. The FBI responded to offer resources as needed to our partners here at the Orange County Sheriff's Department. Currently, we have investigators working with the Sheriff's Department who are taking logical investigative steps.

Obviously, motive is always the question which determines the extent of involvement at the federal level or whether federal or local prosecution is pursued. And at this time, we are working very hard to determine the motive.

We will continue to provide resources regardless of the motive as needed by the Sheriff's Department to deliver justice to the victims. We have linguists who are going to arrive soon to assist, we have our evidence response team who is on standby, and we also have our behavioral analysis unit present on scene. And again, on behalf of the FBI, our heartfelt condolences to the victims and their families. Thank you.

STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Good afternoon. On behalf of the men and women of ATF, I want to send my sincere condolences to the victims, the families, and the community that's been affected by this tragedy. Upon receiving reports of the shooting, agents from our Santa Ana Field Office responded to the scene immediately to provide assistance to the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

Since the scene has been secured, our agents have initiated an emergency trace on the recovered firearms. That-- those traces are currently in progress and will be thoroughly investigated once they're complete. ATF will continue to work in close tandem with our law enforcement partners until this investigation is completed. Nothing further at this time. Thank you.

LISA BARTLETT: Good afternoon. Orange County Supervisor, Lisa Bartlett, 5th District. Today is a very dark day for the people of Laguna Woods and Orange County, and our thoughts and prayers are those with all those affected by this senseless tragedy.

Just a day after the tragic and hate-filled actions that led to the senseless deaths of Americans at the Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo, New York, we too are now dealing with people shot in their place of worship here in Laguna Woods.

I'd like to thank Sheriff Don Barnes and the heroic actions of our Orange County Sheriff's Department and deputies who are able to bring the perpetrators swiftly and securely on the site. I'd also like to thank Chief Fennessy of the Orange County Fire Authority to attending to the victims of this senseless tragedy.

To the church congregants impacted by the violence that took place here today, we are here for you, and we will seek justice for you. To the perpetrator of such heinous acts, our county will work to ensure justice for the victims.

As 5th District supervisor, I am making sure that our county's mental health counselors are available for the victims and their families of today's shooting. I want to thank the Orange County Health Care Agency Department for being so quick to respond to the needs of our citizens. And to the citizens of Orange County, please know that we will continue to have my unwavering support to ensure the safety and security of all of the residents here in Orange County. Thank you.

CAROL MOORE: Good afternoon. My name is Carol Moore. I want to thank those people who were wise enough to take action and endanger themselves to save others in that church. That is so impressive. Our thoughts are to all of the members of that congregation and their families.

And I think that we have to think, and I know we do think, the city of Laguna Woods is so pleased. The cities nearby immediately contacted it and wanted to support us. It was so outstanding to have that happen.

On top of that, we have all these first responders. Please look at these people that are providing our safety. Our Fire Department, our Sheriff's department, the FBI, the ATF-- we're so thankful. Thank you for taking the time to cover this properly.

JEFF HALLOCK: All right, this time, we'll take any questions you may have.

- How many arms were recovered?

JEFF HALLOCK: I'm sorry?

- How many arms were recovered?

JEFF HALLOCK: Two firearms were recovered at the scene.

- What kind of firearms were they? Were they handguns, rifles?

JEFF HALLOCK: Two handguns is what were recovered.

- Can you talk a little bit about how all of this transpired, how quickly those parishioners intervened? Like, can you describe what-- how they said the things there actually developed?

JEFF HALLOCK: Yeah, so the question was how quickly this unfolded. We don't have that information. The dispatch call came in at about 1:26 PM. Deputies were here within minutes, and by the time we arrived, the parishioners had the subject hogtied and in custody. So this happened really quickly.

- Jeff, do you know if anyone was injured in the process?

JEFF HALLOCK: That's still part of the active investigation. Like I said earlier, we have five that were injured, four critically. Obviously, we're saddened to say that one is deceased. But we're still working through kind of the details and how it unfolded.

- [INAUDIBLE]?

JEFF HALLOCK: We don't have that information. That will be part of the investigation.

- Did anyone recognize him?

- Did anyone happen to recognize the assailant?

JEFF HALLOCK: That's still part of the investigation. There are a number of witnesses inside, about 30 to 40, that investigators are interviewing now. And so until we get through all of those interviews and that information, we won't really have a-- a good idea if he was known to the congregants.

- Do you know if there wasn't a specific line that was spoken or said anything that connected this event to [INAUDIBLE]?

JEFF HALLOCK: Not at this time. That's the stuff that they're still working for.

- Can you speak to-- you know, you said he had two weapons. Did he have any more ammunition with him? And can you speak to how important was that these folks actually took a stand and tried to stop him? It could have been a different story that we're talking about.

JEFF HALLOCK: That's correct. I can't speak to exactly where the weapons were, if we had any additional ammunition. Again, that's part of the investigation. But as I said a little bit earlier, they're-- based on the preliminary investigation and the interviews, it does seem that one or more of the congregants did act quite heroically, and jumped in, and tried to do what they could to subdue the-- subdue the suspect immediately.

- Was he attending the service before, or did he show up to the bunch after the fact?

JEFF HALLOCK: Those details, I'm not sure.

- Can you identify the suspect?

- Do you have any comment on security on site? Does the church have no security?

JEFF HALLOCK: I don't-- I don't know the answer to that.

- What about surveillance footage? Was there surveillance footage inside the church?

JEFF HALLOCK: We don't know, but if there is, that's something that investigators will-- will get to as quick as they can and be able to review that.

- Do we know if the victims--

- Do we know if this is a hate crime? Is there a reason that-- is there any consideration-- is that why the FBI is involved?

JEFF HALLOCK: Absolutely, and that's what the-- that all goes to the motive. And that's still things we're working through, so we won't have answers to that for--

- Can you give us an age range for the shooter? [INAUDIBLE].

JEFF HALLOCK: Again, we're still working through all of that. We don't.

- Do we know at the time if he's a 68-year-old man? Is that correct? He's 68 years old, and he came from Las Vegas?

JEFF HALLOCK: We're not identifying him. I will say it's a male. It's a male, but no information on age or date of birth. We'll say male.

- Do we know if those victims were [INAUDIBLE] among those two types have seen him? In other words, do we know if some of the victims were--

JEFF HALLOCK: You know, there was 30 to 40 people in there. Obviously, we had the five people that were injured and the one that was deceased. Again, whether they were the ones that were actually trying to detain him, I-- I can't answer that.

Again, there's a lot of interviews. We're still only three and a half, four hours into this active investigation. It just takes time to work through it. So again, I just ask for your patience with some of the details.

- Can I ask a question on the ATF?

JEFF HALLOCK: Sure.

- You had mentioned the phrase, emergency tracing on firearms?

STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Correct.

- What is that, and what does that give you?

STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So our National Tracing Center, which is located in West Virginia, we send the information on the serial numbers. That goes to the tracing center and provides us with results. What I mean by emergency trace, it's a emergency situation, right? This is a-- it's not a routine trace. So we'll get that information back hopefully within the hour, and then our agents will-- will start tracking down the-- the federal firearms licensee who sold that firearm and-- and hopefully trace it back to the original purchaser.

- You mean the ballistics and the serial number?

STEPHEN GALLOWAY: No, specifically the serial number off the firearm.

- Can you specify on those serial numbers?

- So they're not ghost guns?

STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Commercially-- the information I have is commercially made firearms with serial numbers.

- Can you give an age range for the victims?

STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I wouldn't have that.

- Sorry.

- Can you tell us if both firearms were fired?

JEFF HALLOCK: We don't know that yet.

- The age range of the victims?

JEFF HALLOCK: No, we're just-- we're identifying everybody as adults at this point, so until we can confirm everything.

- And what about the linguists? Are they-- is that for the assailants? Is that for the victims or a congregation member, the linguists?

JEFF HALLOCK: That's for both, yeah, for both.

- Can you tell us if any leaders of the church were injured?

JEFF HALLOCK: I cannot. I don't know. The people that were injured, I don't know what their responsibilities were here.

- Do you know how many shots were fired?

JEFF HALLOCK: I-- I do not. Again, still working through all those statements.

- No children were inside the church when this happened?

JEFF HALLOCK: I'm sorry?

- No children were inside when this happened?

JEFF HALLOCK: That, I'm not sure of, if there were. I'm-- I'm not aware of any children that were here.

- Do you know whether-- oh, sorry.

- Can you confirm that this was a Taiwanese congregation honoring one of their former pastors?

JEFF HALLOCK: I cannot. I know it was some type of banquet after the service, but as far as exactly what the banquet was for, who they were honoring, I don't have that information.

- Can you characterize his demeanor once your deputies took custody of him?

JEFF HALLOCK: I-- I have not spoken to the deputies. So I know he was in custody, and he was-- he was hogtied immediately, taken and detained by the deputies.

- Was he part of the banquet, or was he-- or did he just come in or swarm in?

JEFF HALLOCK: We don't-- we don't know that.

- Do you know him?

- Do you know how much ammo he had left and if these folks hadn't been so early, I mean, how much more seems to have been based on what you had on?

JEFF HALLOCK: I don't know what he may have had or if he had any additional ammunition, but I think it's safe to say that had people not intervened, it could have been much worse. There was 30 to 40 people inside the church.

- Do you happen to know if the subject walked into the church, or did he drive here? Is there a vehicle involved?

JEFF HALLOCK: That's part of the investigation that we're working through. So--

- Why would they start searching for bombs? Had there been threats or--

JEFF HALLOCK: Just-- just based on the activity and how the shooting occurred, we just want to make sure that it's safe for everybody, so--

- Is he going to be in federal or state court?

JEFF HALLOCK: Well, we're still in the investigative phase, and so we'll review the case and decide based on motive and the information that we gave whether we present it to prosecute at state or federal.

- So [INAUDIBLE] questions, has there been any recent threats to the church or any--

JEFF HALLOCK: Not that I'm-- not that I'm aware of. But again, remember, we're only four hours into this. There's a lot of people they interview. It's a very detailed and diligent investigation. So we will have-- we will put out more information this evening, whether it's through social media or a written press release. And you can anticipate another press conference probably early tomorrow morning.

- Was the assailant a non-native [? citizen? ?]

JEFF HALLOCK: I don't have that information now.

- All right, ladies and gentlemen, I think we-- we know there's a lot more questions than answers. We're going to do everything we can. So as the undersheriff said, we'll have an update for you tonight. Social media press conference-- or sorry, social media or a press release and a press conference are expected tomorrow, and we'll announce that on our Twitter page. Thank you so much.

JEFF HALLOCK: Thank you.

- Thank you.

- Take care.

- Thank you, guys.

- We do have a list of speakers over here. Right now--

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