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‘Dr. John Cheng saw the gun and immediately took action’

Orange County Register 5/17/2022 Erika I. Ritchie, Steve Fryer, The Orange County Register
Deborah Kipers, a patient of shooting victim Dr. John Cheng, talks about him outside his office in Aliso Viejo, CA, on Monday, May 16, 2022. Cheng was killed in a shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods on May 15. © Jeff Gritchen/The Orange County Register/TNS Deborah Kipers, a patient of shooting victim Dr. John Cheng, talks about him outside his office in Aliso Viejo, CA, on Monday, May 16, 2022. Cheng was killed in a shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods on May 15.

The Aliso Viejo doctor who charged an enraged gun-wielding man on Sunday and lost his life in a Laguna Woods Church, saving a group of parishioners, was known for his compassion and love of people.

Dr. John Cheng’s bravery surprised no one.

Cheng,  52, a family care and sports medicine physician in Aliso Viejo, sprang into action when the gunman, David Wenwei Chou, 68, first fired toward the ceiling of Simpson Hall at Geneva Presybertarian Church on El Toro Road.

A group of Taiwanese church members were gathered at a banquet outside the sanctuary to honor Pastor Billy Chang, a former pastor of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church visiting from Taiwan.

In a text, Chang described the moments before the doctor was shot: Chou had “nailed down two exit doors with hammers and nails.”

After Chou fired the bullet, “Most church members thought that was the sound of a large balloon popping,” Chang said in an interview Monday. “Dr. John Cheng saw the gun and immediately took action to try and stop him.

“Chou shot Dr. Cheng dead with three bullets.”

When news of Cheng’s heroics spread and his identity was released by Sheriff Don Barnes during a press conference Monday, those who knew him were crushed.

“I’m so upset and sad,” said Joe Cockrell, a Laguna Beach resident who has been Cheng’s patient for 10 years. “I heard some people talking about how he wasn’t even a member of the church but had taken his mother there for a special event. Then I heard the name ‘Dr. Cheng’ and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ “

Cockrell then tuned into the sheriff’s news conference where his worst fears were confirmed. as photos of Cheng were shown.

“I remember my first visit with him,” Cockrell said. “His bedside manner was so nice. He wanted to know everything about me. What my diet was, did I drink enough water? It didn’t matter if you were seeing him for a broken arm, he would still ask all about your life.”

When his insurance changed through his job, Cockrell said he always made sure that Cheng would fit in the new plan before he signed up.

Cheng also was a martial arts enthusiast, and he was big on youth sports and keeping children and young adults active.

“There were all these athletes in his office,” Cockrell said. “And, if they were a lower income kid, he’d give them a free physical.”

Once during a visit, he said he mentioned to Cheng that he was raising money for the Costa Mesa Boys and Girls Club’s efforts to improve their facilities.

“I joked with him about donating,” Cockrell said. “When he came back with the prescription, he also handed me a $500 check. I was really floored.”

On Monday afternoon, a memorial of flowers and signs grew in front of the doctor’s Aliso Viejo office.

Among those paying their respects was Mina Lee, also a patient of Cheng’s.

“He was always so very caring and paid a lot of attention to details,” she said. “He was one of the best doctors in town.”

Lee, who is also Taiwanese, said Cheng treated her and her family. When she learned of what he did on Sunday, she was not surprised.

“As a doctor, he has that personality,” she said. “He’s very caring and he loves people. I see it in the way he treats his staff. He volunteers at Aliso Niguel High School. He was very involved in the community. I would have expected no less than that from him.”

Andrew Mashburn, the athletic director at Aliso Niguel, said Cheng was the football team’s physician and ran yearly physicals with all the student-athletes.

“We just finished working with him last Wednesday where he personally cleared 400 of our student-athletes for participation in athletics for the 22/23 school year,” Mashburn said. “Dr. Cheng was an amazing man. Kind, caring, happy. He was calm, cool and collected and we were blessed to be able to work with him and his staff. Such a devastating loss for our community.”

Echoing others’ sentiments, he added, Cheng “would be that man that would put everybody’s needs in front of his own.”

Aliso Niguel varsity football head coach Mike Callahan, who graduated from the school in 2005, couldn’t remember a time that Cheng wasn’t the team doctor.

Callahan said he first found out via email that Dr. Cheng died in the attack.“What I read was a gut punch,” he said. “It’s the worst thing I’ve read in a long time.”

Aliso Niguel High varsity girls lacrosse coach Dave Elkins has sent many of his injured athletes to Cheng and, was also a patient.

“All of my four kids when they were athletes went to him, too,” said Elkins, who started the Aliso Niguel girls lacrosse program in 2008. “He was just a great guy. Very strong in his faith and very strong in his belief in this country, very strong in this idea of doing the right thing.”

Cheng’s heroism was noted beyond Orange County.

Cleveland Browns fullback Johnny Stanton tweeted Monday that Cheng was his primary physician.

“Absolute hero,” Stanton wrote. “He attacked the gunman and helped save so many in that church. I just wanted his name to be known.”

Cheng is survived by his wife and two children.

Staff writer Dan Albano contributed to this story

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