Gunman Opens Fire At Korean Retreat In California

By: Gillian Flaccus, Associated Press Email
By: Gillian Flaccus, Associated Press Email

TEMECULA, Calif. (AP) - A 69-year-old resident of a remote Korean Catholic retreat shot a woman resident to death and wounded her husband before he was beaten and disarmed by a couple he also tried to shoot, authorities said Wednesday.

The second couple were also injured in the fierce struggle Tuesday night in rural Riverside County.

The gunman, identified as John Chong, was hospitalized in serious condition with trauma to the face and remained unconscious, said sheriff's Sgt. Michael Lujan. No relatives had been located.

Detectives, who were having to use translators, were unable to immediately determine a motive.

Chong had lived at the Kkottongnae Retreat Camp for about a year as a volunteer after moving from the Los Angeles suburb of Lynwood, and the two couples also were resident volunteers.

"We have no evidence that this was a domestic dispute. We do not have a motive or reason for this incident," Lujan said.

The man who was shot was hospitalized in serious condition, and the couple injured in the fistfight also remained hospitalized although their conditions were not serious, said sheriff's Capt. Mitchell Alm said.

The Sheriff's Department was conferring with the district attorney's office and will likely seek charges against Chong in the next several days, Lujan said. Charges under consideration include one count of murder, three counts of attempted murder and a count of unlawful possession of a firearm.

The retreat, about 85 miles southeast of Los Angeles, is marked by a simple white sign along Highway 79, a two-lane road that winds through the hills of the Temecula wine country. A mile off the highway, a lane climbs toward the hidden retreat. A large white cross stands on one hilltop and another white cross is painted on a boulder on an opposite cliff.

Deputies were called to the retreat shortly before 7:30 p.m.

Investigators determined that Chong, who lived alone in a bungalow, had gone to the first couple's bungalow and shot the woman once in the head with a .32-caliber revolver, killing her immediately, Lujan said. Her husband was then shot in the torso.

Chong then went to a second bungalow about 300 yards away and attempted to shoot the second couple but they fought him off in what appeared to be a violent and extensive fistfight, Lujan said.

Two shots were discharged from the revolver during the brawl but no one was hit.

"From all accounts it was hand-to-hand," Lujan said. "There was physical evidence that a significant altercation had occurred. We're talking turned-over furniture, damage to the door, damage to furnishings and fixtures."

Officers began interviewing people at what appeared to be a triage center for injured victims, sheriff's spokesman Dennis Gutierrez said, but most of them only spoke Korean.

"We have some nuns that are very distraught," Gutierrez said.

Deputies also formed search teams to look for any other suspects and to corral witnesses.

Lujan said about 100 people were staying on the retreat property, but he wasn't sure how many were residents and how many were visitors. The retreat has eight or 10 bungalows spread over about three or four acres. The retreat also has hookups for recreational vehicles, a lecture room, a prayer room and a conference room.

Victor Nam, 59, of Diamond Bar, came to a roadblock outside the retreat after hearing the news. He said he was close friends of the couple who were shot. He said the man is 59 and the woman was 58 and they had an adult daughter.

Nam said the couple immigrated from South Korea in 1987, became U.S. citizens and lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance before moving to the retreat five years ago.

"They are very faithful. They devote themselves to God. They are very nice people and I couldn't believe this happened," he said, adding, "I know nothing about the killer. All I can say is the victims' family were my closest friends."

The camp will be closed for the next month "as we come to terms with Tuesday's events," said a statement from Sister Thaddeus Suh, community supervisor for the Congregation of the Sisters of Jesus, a Korean order that operates the retreat.

The area is part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino. Bishop Gerald Barnes asked for prayers for the victims. "In these troubling times when we are seeing so many acts of senseless violence, we must hold God's peace and grace in our hearts and ask for his strength to bear these tragedies," he said in a statement.

On Wednesday morning, people familiar with the retreat began to show up but were turned away by yellow police tape and sheriff's deputies guarding the entrance.

Young Balser, of Temecula, said she visits the retreat about once a month. Balser said she wanted to see whether she could help the nuns.

"I got shaken up, those nuns must be pretty shaken up," she said. "They pray morning to noon, their life is so pure. That's why I came here, to try to be close to them. I can feel how much suffering they're going through and how scared they are."

The retreat is one of four U.S. branches of the Kkottongnae Brothers and Sisters of Jesus, a Roman Catholic organization dedicated to serving the poor and homeless. It was founded in the city of Cheongju, South Korea, by Father Oh Woong Jin in 1976.

Kkottongnae means "flower village" in Korean.

A woman who answered the phone at the group's Lynwood branch about 10 miles from downtown Los Angeles said she did not speak English well and declined to discuss the shooting. Several elderly residents could be seen inside the stucco building that was not much larger than the other homes along the residential street. Riverside County investigators did not know if Chong's previous residence in Lynwood was at that branch.

At the group's headquarters in Eumseong, South Korea, south of Seoul, spokesman Brother Matthew Park said he has been unable to get through to branch officials in California and only learned about the shooting through news reports.

The retreat was previously a summer camp before the group bought it.

Several women from the retreat sat wrapped in blankets outside the law enforcement lines.

"This is the last place this is supposed to happen," Gutierrez said.
Associated Press writers Thomas Watkins and Raquel Maria Dillon in Los Angeles and Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul, South Korea contributed to this report.

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