Alleged Half Moon Bay gunman targeted his own workplace, police say

Photo for The Washington Post by Paul Kuroda
The scene of one of two shootings in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. – The gunman who killed seven people at two farms Monday in this rural area south of San Francisco targeted his own workplace, authorities alleged, spreading terror among agricultural workers, many of them immigrants.

Police said 66-year-old Zhao Chunli killed four people at Mountain Mushroom Farm, where he worked. He then killed three others at another nearby farm, they said. He was captured after officers spotted his vehicle parked at a local sheriff’s office.

Monday’s attack was the latest in a rapid succession of mass killings to shake a nation weary of unending gun violence. Before authorities even identified the dead in one shooting, news of another emerged.

The outburst of violence in the Half Moon Bay area came two days after the massacre of 11 people at a dance studio in Monterey Park, Calif. – and hours before three people were shot dead at a gas station in Washington state, among other shootings across the nation. One week before, six people were killed in a “targeted massacre” in Goshen, in California’s Central Valley.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said he was at a hospital visiting victims of the Monterey Park shooting when he was pulled away to receive a briefing on the Half Moon Bay shooting.

“Tragedy upon tragedy,” he wrote on Twitter.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon in Half Moon Bay, Newsom lashed out at Republicans, blaming them for inaction on gun violence. The governor reserved particular ire for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), whom he accused of ignoring the two recent mass killings in his home state.

“Only in America do we see this kind of carnage,” a visibly angry Newsom said.

A spokeswoman for McCarthy said he had ordered the flags at the U.S. Capitol to be flown at half-staff “to honor the lives lost and victims impacted due to the tragic events from this weekend.”

President Biden on Tuesday offered prayers for those killed and wounded in the Half Moon Bay area and renewed his call for Congress to pass a ban on assault weapons. “For the second time in recent days, California communities are mourning the loss of loved ones in a senseless act of gun violence,” Biden said in a statement.

The president noted that an assault weapons ban was introduced this week in the Senate and is pending in the House. “We know the scourge of gun violence across America requires stronger action,” he said.

Since 2023 began, there have been 39 mass shootings in the United States, according to the Gun Violence Archive, the highest number for any January since the database began keeping records in 2014. It defines mass shootings as incidents where four or more people, not including the shooter, are injured or killed.

Despite the recent mass killings, California’s record of gun violence remains less dire than those in other states. It has among the lowest firearm mortality rates in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, something that advocates say is a product of the state’s stringent restrictions on gun and ammunition purchases.

In Half Moon Bay, a tranquil agricultural town about 40 minutes from San Francisco, local officials were anguished as their home joined a grim fraternity of American communities scarred by gun violence.

“This is something that we get to watch on the news,” Joaquin Jimenez, the vice mayor of Half Moon Bay, told reporters. “Today, we are on the news.”

Dave Pine, the president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, spoke with a voice shaking with emotion. Gun violence in the United States is “at completely unacceptable levels,” he said.

“This is not an acceptable way for a modern society to live,” he said.

Police said Zhao’s shooting rampage ended Monday afternoon when sheriff’s deputies noticed a maroon SUV in their parking lot that matched the description of the suspect’s vehicle. They saw Zhao sitting in the vehicle and ordered him to come out, authorities said.

Three armed officers approached the car with their guns drawn, saying “Come out!” and “Hands up!” according to footage from ABC7 News, a local television station. The officers then pushed Zhao – who was wearing jeans, a vest and a baseball cap – to the ground and handcuffed him.

Christina Corpus, the sheriff of San Mateo County, said Zhao was cooperating with investigators. She said he lived in Half Moon Bay and worked at Mountain Mushroom Farm. He used a legally purchased semiautomatic handgun in the shooting, she said.

Steve Wagstaffe, the county district attorney, said Zhao would be arraigned Wednesday, with the precise charges still to be determined.

Authorities provided no further details on Zhao. Court records show that in 2013, Zhao was the subject of a temporary restraining order. A former roommate and co-worker accused Zhao of attempting to suffocate him with a pillow and threatening to kill him, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, citing court records. The two men worked together at a restaurant in San Jose, the paper reported.

Corpus said authorities believe that Monday’s attack was an incident of “workplace violence.” It is unclear whether Zhao has a direct connection to the second farm that was attacked.

Officers were dispatched to the first farm at 2:22 p.m. on Monday, Corpus said. They found four victims dead. A fifth person with life-threatening injuries was transported to Stanford Medical Center. That person is in stable condition, Corpus said.

The rampage continued three miles away at 2125 Cabrillo Highway South, a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed to The Post. The address corresponds to a business called Concord Farms, and police said three people were killed at that location.

In the two attacks, five men and two women were killed, Corpus told reporters, and the victims were of Hispanic and Asian descent.

The farms were not just places where people worked, Corpus said. They were also places where some employees lived with their families. The shootings took place in the afternoon, she noted, when children were out of school.

“For children to witness this, it’s unspeakable,” Corpus said.

Concord Farms is a family-owned mushroom farm that has operated at the Half Moon Bay location for nearly four decades. A spokesman for the farm said that it had “no past knowledge” of the suspect or his possible motives.

“Our hearts are with the victims, their families and the Chinese American community – from Half Moon Bay to Monterey Park,” Aaron Tung, principal at Concord Farms, wrote in an emailed statement.

Half Moon Bay is known for its proximity to ideal surfing waves and its quaint pumpkin festival. The town has fewer than 11,400 residents, Census Bureau data shows. Its top industries include agriculture, tourism and commercial fishing.

“We’re all shook up by this event,” resident Reyna Diaz, 67, said through tears. She was at the public library with her young grandson Monday when her cousin called to say there was a shooting nearby. They immediately went home.

Diaz, a retired schoolteacher, said she felt devastated for her community.

“It’s more heartbreaking because the jobs [in agriculture] don’t pay well and don’t have health insurance,” she said. “When you learn the kids saw the shooting – those things can really hurt people for the rest of their lives.”

Deborah Peterson, a freelance writer who has lived in Half Moon Bay for a decade, echoed that sentiment. When she was a sophomore in college in Connecticut, she said, she had friends who were killed by guns.

“You just feel the trauma,” she said. “That was decades ago, and it’s only gotten worse in our country.” Peterson and her husband on Tuesday delivered donations of food to Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, a Latino-centered nonprofit organization that is helping victims’ families.

Monday’s mass killing marked the second time the sleepy town has made headlines in the last month. In late December, several people were rescued from flooded homes in Half Moon Bay, local TV station KTVU reported, and a major highway in the community was closed because of dangerous flooding and mudslides.

On Tuesday, a San Mateo County sheriff’s cruiser blocked the driveway leading to Mountain Mushroom Farm, the site of the first killings. A cluster of farm buildings was partially visible, set amid cypress and eucalyptus trees on a sloping hillside a couple of miles inland from the Pacific Coast.

Neighbors described the violence as starkly out of character for the community and its network of generations-old family farms. At Fabbri Home and Garden, located in front of the mushroom farm, manager Oracio Ramirez, 47, said he was enjoying a day off when the shots rang out Monday.

“I’ve never heard or seen anything like this before,” he said.