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Heroism Of Doctor Who Sacrificed His Life In Church Shooting Was No Surprise To Those Who Knew Him

Dr. John Cheng, wearing black pants and a black jacket with yellow piping, sits between two other martial arts practitioners. All three are resting their hands on their knees. Behind them stand 11 other martial arts practitioners. They are all posing in front of a mural that includes the sun and a mountain landscape.
Dr. John Cheng (seated, center) with fellow martial arts practitioners.
(Courtesy Derrick Wright )
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Brandon Jones of Tyler, Texas remembers drawing Batman comics with his buddy, John Cheng, back when they were in elementary school together.

“In fourth grade, heroes are everything,” said Jones, adding that he and Cheng became fast friends, their families living in the same neighborhood.

“We were best friends until the day he died,” added Jones, fighting back tears.

Cheng was an accomplished medical doctor who practiced in Orange County. But he also had a great love of martial arts and practiced kung fu.

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Derrick Wright, a social worker for unhoused veterans and a martial arts instructor in St. Louis, said Cheng was his teacher for more than a decade in Riverside, where Cheng was doing his medical residency. Cheng, according to Wright, was a Grand Master level in traditional martial arts.

“[He] was always willing to teach and help other people and see other people succeed,” said Wright, adding that it was Cheng who gave him a loan so he could put a down payment on a house.

Wright said he has fond memories of going with his friend to Disneyland on a whim to celebrate their 30th birthdays, and attending Cheng’s wedding.

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A posterboard-sized photo propped up on an easel shows a doctor wearing a lab coat. The photo is captioned John Cheng, DOB 6/16/69
Dr. John Cheng was fatally shot during an attack on a lunch banquet at a church in Laguna Woods.
(Robert Garrova
/
LAist)

On Cheng’s heroism at the Laguna Woods church, Wright said: “I’m proud of him because that’s exactly what someone like him would have done.”

For several people in Cheng’s “kung fu family,” it was no surprise to hear sheriff’s officials say that Cheng had charged the gunman after he opened fire in a Laguna Woods banquet hall on Sunday, sacrificing his life for several others. Cheng was fatally shot and five other people, with ages ranging from 66 to 92, were wounded. Cheng is survived by his wife and two children.

“Without the actions of Dr. Cheng, it is no doubt that there would be numerous additional victims in this crime,” Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes told a press conference on Monday.

“I can see John [thinking], 'I gotta stop this guy',” Jones said. “John never wavered. Anybody that knows him will say he never wavered.”

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In an email, Johnna Gherardini, a medical colleague who worked with Cheng at South Coast Medical Group, described him as a “natural protector and healer.”

“His heroism saved so many people NOT only at that church, but throughout his career,” Gherardini wrote.

Dr. Cheng, or Sifu Cheng as L.A.-based filmmaker Christian Everhard remembers him, was by several accounts a caring martial arts teacher who touched the lives of hundreds.

Everhard said he first met Cheng about 20 years ago when he began his journey in martial arts. It was his “kung fu brothers and sisters” who first gave Everhard the news of the shooting.

“In kung fu, there’s a lineage from teacher to student,” said Everhard, remembering his old friend. “And he has so many students that his spirit will live on with any student that he’s touched.”

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