Half Moon Bay shooting suspect charged with murder as victims identified

Shae Hammond/ Pool via REUTERS
Chunli Zhao appears for his arraignment at San Mateo Superior court in Redwood City, California, U.S., January 25, 2023.

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. – Prosecutors charged a California agricultural worker with seven counts of murder following Monday’s shooting rampage at two farms in this small coastal community south of San Francisco.

The suspect, 66-year-old Zhao Chunli, lived and worked at the first farm attacked. Prosecutors said he previously worked at the second location he targeted. Police called the massacre a case of “workplace violence.”

The shooting came just two days after another mass killing rocked California, when 11 people died at a dance studio in Monterey Park, a predominantly Asian community that had just begun to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Zhao was apprehended within hours of the shooting after he parked his SUV at the local sheriff’s office.

On Wednesday, he appeared in court in Redwood City but did not enter a plea. If convicted of all charges, he could face life in prison or the death penalty, San Mateo District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe told reporters outside the courthouse.

During the hearing, Zhao sat behind a glass partition and wore a dark orange jumpsuit, his wrists shackled. He communicated through a court-provided interpreter who translated the proceedings into Mandarin.

Wagstaffe said that Zhao, a Chinese national who has lived in the United States for at least a decade, had targeted his victims but would not elaborate on his possible motive. A note was found inside Zhao’s car the day of the attack, he said, without describing its contents. The prosecutor said the shooting did not appear to be a “copycat” crime inspired by the Monterey Park shooting.

Zhao’s court-appointed lawyers, Jonathan McDougall and Eric Hove, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Monday’s killings cast a spotlight on the area’s agricultural workforce, which endures arduous living conditions, long hours and low pay, according to local activists. Wagstaffe said that since the shooting, county officials have “seen some of the squalor” in which the farmworkers appeared to be living.

Zhao was a longtime employee of what was previously known as Mountain Mushroom Farm before it was purchased by California Terra Garden last year. The farm’s 35 employees grow mushrooms and herbs on the 150-acre property. Some of them live there, together with their families, in a collection of trailers and mobile homes.

At around 2:20 p.m. Monday afternoon, Zhao opened fire at the farm, police said, killing four people. A fifth was transported to the hospital and is in stable condition.

The gunman’s next target was Concord Farms, about three miles away. Three people were killed there, police said. Five men and two women were killed in the two attacks and the victims were of Hispanic and Asian descent, according to Christina Corpus, the sheriff of San Mateo County. The weapon used in the shootings was a legally purchased Ruger semiautomatic handgun, authorities said.

On Wednesday, the San Mateo Coroner’s Office released the names and ages of six of the people killed: Zhishen Liu, 73; Qizhong Cheng, 66; Marciano Martinez Jimenez, 50; Yetao Bing, 43; Aixiang Zhang, 74; and Jingzhi Lu, 64.

The seventh person killed, Jose Romero Perez, was identified in the document charging Zhao. The suspect was also charged with attempted murder in the case of Pedro Romero Perez, the person who was shot and injured.

Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) said Tuesday that the victims had been killed “execution-style.” Corpus, the sheriff, declined to comment on that characterization, saying she could not release the details of an ongoing investigation.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said he learned about the shootings in the Half Moon Bay area as he was consoling victims of the Monterey Park mass killing two days earlier.

Newsom emphasized the vulnerability of the farmworkers targeted in the shootings. He said the workers were living in shipping containers and earning $9 an hour, well below minimum wage.

Newsom met with some of the workers who witnessed the shooting, he said, immigrants from China who spoke via a translator. When they heard gunfire and saw their friends fall, they initially thought they were acting, Newsom said.

“They didn’t even know how to comprehend a gunshot wound,” Newsom said. “It’s not something they’ve ever experienced. Only in America do we see this kind of carnage.”

California Terra Garden is “shocked and grief-stricken over the senseless loss of four of our friends and longtime employees,” David Oates, a spokesman for the company, said in a statement. The company is making grief counseling available to its staff. Oates said the employees are paid $16.50 an hour or more and are charged approximately $300 a month in rent.

Zhao had worked at the farm for years and was living there “up to the tragedy,” Oates said. There had been no official complaints about Zhao from other employees, he said.

An executive at Concord Farms, the second property targeted, did not respond to requests for further comment.

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.

The California Terra Garden mushroom farm is tucked amid the trees along a stunning stretch of coastline that’s known for world-class surfing, a network of family farms that provide herbs and vegetables to local restaurants and farmers markets, and tranquil bedroom communities for affluent Bay Area employees.

But even before several of their colleagues were slain in a mass shooting Monday, the dozens of Hispanic and Chinese employees at the farm had faced trials of a different kind.

During the recent series of rainstorms that battered the California coast, flooding swamped some of their trailers and communal kitchens. Workers on their breaks had to bail water from their homes and continue working, said Judith Guerrero, executive director of Coastside Hope, a local nonprofit.

“They live in conditions that are not up to standards because there is no other option,” said Guerrero, who interviewed several of the California Terra Garden employees while they are being housed in a Quality Inn in Half Moon Bay as police investigate the shooting.

A new survey by the UC Merced Community and Labor Center found that the median personal wage for California farmworkers is $21,915 a year. Just over half of the more than 1,300 farmworkers surveyed said they had health insurance, while 10 percent reported suffering from anxiety and 8 percent cited depression, said Edward Flores, faculty director of UC Merced Community and Labor Center who helped oversee the survey.

Most of the mushroom farm employees approached Wednesday declined to comment about their working conditions or describe how the shooting unfolded. Some acknowledged hearing shots fired but said they were working in other areas at the time.

Since the shootings, residents of Half Moon Bay have rallied to help the victims’ relatives and co-workers. Volunteers from an organization called Table of Plenty, which hosts weekly dinners for farmworkers and others, delivered breakfast burritos Wednesday to the displaced farmworkers.