Suspect in Half Moon Bay Farmworker Massacre Charged With 7 Counts of Murder

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three figures walk along a road towards what appear to be greenhouses in the distance as a yellow crime scene tape crosses the image in the foreground
FBI agents arrive on Tuesday at a farm where a mass shooting occurred on Monday in Half Moon Bay. Seven people were killed at two separate farm locations that were only a few miles apart. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

This story will no longer be updated.

Update, 10 a.m. Thursday: Days after eight farmworkers were gunned down at their worksites in Half Moon Bay, San Mateo County officials and activists are calling out the deplorable conditions that some of them lived in.

During his visit to the mourning community on Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom noted that farmworkers, many of whom are migrants, often labor for just $9 an hour and are forced to live in on-site shipping containers, as was the case for some of the victims of Monday’s shooting rampage.

California’s minimum wage is $15.50 per hour.

“Look at what's happening in terms of the living conditions,” San Mateo District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe said Wednesday, after the shooting suspect’s first court appearance. “Our office will focus on the prosecution. But I have spoken with the county manager … [and] the president of our board of supervisors. They have been out there. They have seen some of the squalor that exists out there. … Now we have to act on it.”

Update, 3 p.m. Wednesday: The suspect in Monday's deadly rampage at two Half Moon Bay farm sites was denied bail during his first court appearance since the attacks.

During Wednesday’s hearing in San Mateo County Superior Court, District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe emphasized that Chunli Zhao, the 66-year-old suspect, is a Chinese national and not a U.S. citizen, and therefore has “plenty of motive to run.”

“For that reason, it was to me a very straightforward and simple request for no bail,” he told reporters afterward.

Zhao’s arraignment, initially scheduled for Wednesday, was postponed until Feb. 16, to allow him time to meet with his two attorneys, who were appointed by the court during the hearing.

Zhao, who used a Mandarin-language interpreter, used court papers to cover his face for much of the hearing and spoke only briefly to confirm his name when asked by Judge Susan Jakubowski.

He did not enter a plea.

Before the hearing, Wagstaffe released Zhao’s charging documents, which include seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. He said the charges were listed in the order in which the victims are believed to have been shot.

If convicted of the charges, Zhao could receive the death penalty or face life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“Making that decision on the death penalty is something that will take place over the course of the next many, many months as we have so much more to learn about this individual, about the victims and their families and the harm that's been inflicted here,” Wagstaffe said, noting that the massacre was the deadliest set of mass shootings in the county's history. “So we have a long way to go before we make that decision.”

He also said that after Zhao's arrest, the suspect spoke with sheriff’s investigators through an interpreter and did not request an attorney at that time.

“We do have a feeling on the motive at this point based on what he told us,” Wagstaffe said, but declined to provide specific details.

“I would say the grievances that he had were personal.”

Zhao had been renting a trailer at California Terra Garden (formerly Mountain Mushroom Farm), where he had worked for years, a crisis-management consultant hired by the farm told The New York Times.

Update, 12 p.m. Wednesday: The San Mateo County Coroner’s Office on Wednesday confirmed the identities of six of the seven victims who were killed in Monday’s back-to-back shootings at two different mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay.

The victims include Zhishen Liu, 73, of San Francisco; Aixiang Zhang, 74, of San Francisco; Qizhong Cheng, 66, of Half Moon Bay; Jingzhi Lu, 64, of Half Moon Bay; Marciano Martinez Jimenez, 50, of Moss Beach; and Yetao Bing, 43, whose residence is still unknown.

Jose Romero Perez was the seventh person killed in the attack, according to charging documents released Wednesday by the San Mateo District Attorney's Office. It also identified Pedro Romero Perez, his brother, as the one surviving victim. He is currently being treated at Stanford Medical Center.

The Mexican consulate confirmed that two of the deceased victims were Mexican nationals, as is survivor Pedro Romero Perez, according to The San Francisco Standard, which also reported that both Mexico and China will provide visa and travel assistance to the bereaved families.

Servando Martinez Jimenez said his brother, Marciano Martinez Jimenez, 50, was a delivery person and manager at one of the farms.

“He was a good person. He was polite and friendly with everyone. He never had any problems with anyone. I don’t understand why all this happened,” Martinez Jimenez said, in Spanish, while standing outside his Half Moon Bay home.

He said his brother never mentioned Zhao or discussed any issues related to him.

Marciano Martinez Jimenez had lived in the United States for 28 years after arriving from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, according to Servando Martinez Jimenez, who said he is now working with the Mexican consulate to get his brother’s body home.

Update, 10 a.m. Wednesday: Prosecutors will charge a farmworker accused of killing seven of his co-workers and former co-workers in back-to-back shootings on Monday at two Half Moon Bay mushroom farms with seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.

The charges, which San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe announced Wednesday morning, will be filed before the suspect, 66-year-old Chunli Zhao, makes his first court appearance Wednesday afternoon.

It was not immediately clear whether Zhao had an attorney who could speak on his behalf.

Zhao, who is believed to have acted alone, also faces a special-circumstance allegation of multiple murder, as well as sentencing enhancements on each count for the use of a firearm, Wagstaffe said.

The charges include additional allegations that could result in life in prison without parole or the death penalty, although Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued a moratorium on executions. Among those allegations are that Zhao used a gun, caused great bodily injury, and killed multiple people.

Update, 4:45 p.m. Tuesday: California leaders are calling for tighter laws and regulations for assault weapon sales and high-capacity magazines following deadly shootings in Monterey Park, Half Moon Bay and Oakland this week.

“It’s said all the time, ‘Only in America. No. 1 in gun ownership, No. 1 in gun deaths.’ It’s not even complicated,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “This happened on our watch. It doesn’t have to be this way. It wasn’t always this way. A few decades ago we didn’t experience these things. We have allowed this to happen.”

Newsom, who recently visited residents and businesses reeling from the mass shooting in Monterey Park near Los Angeles that killed 11 people, appeared visibly shaken before reporters in Half Moon Bay on Tuesday. But he didn’t shy away from quickly politicizing the tragic event, calling out specific judges and politicians who have blocked gun safety legislation from moving forward.

“I’m still waiting for Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House of Representatives. We haven’t heard a damn word from him. Not since Monterey Park, not here, not even one expression of prayers,” Newsom said.

There have been 39 mass shootings in the United States since the start of the year — more than any other year on record this early into the new year — according to the Gun Violence Archive, an independent gun violence data and research organization, which defines a mass shooting as an incident in which at least four victims are shot, either injured or killed, not including the shooter.

Many of the country’s mass shooting events have occurred since the federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004.

“To have two horrific shootings in our state in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay come on the heels of the Lunar New Year is just unimaginable. It makes me think of everything we have done [to address gun violence in California],” said Assemblymember Phil Ting. “But unfortunately, it is still way too easy to purchase a legal firearm in this state. When two individuals who really absolutely have no right to have firearms and obtain it legally or illegally, there’s little we can do. My colleagues at the state level will be going back to work.”

Congressmember Anna Eshoo echoed those sentiments and outrage. “We have unfinished business in our country to address gun violence and workplace violence. Until that is finished business, there will be pain in many communities,” she said. “The story of America is not only to meet the challenges, but to make good on the promises.”

Vice President Kamala Harris will visit California on Wednesday to honor lives lost in the multiple mass shootings this week.

The seven people killed in Half Moon Bay were agricultural workers at two separate mushroom farms. Many lived with their families at the work sites and faced harsh work and living conditions before the attack.

Some of the workers live in shipping containers and make around $9 per hour, Newsom said, far less than California’s $15.50 minimum wage, without access to health care.

“We have exposed how our farmworker community is living, let’s not ignore that. The mental health support they need, let’s not ignore that,” said Half Moon Bay Vice Mayor Joaquín Jiménez Ureña. “Many come to this community for the pumpkin [festival] and ignore the farmworkers. Not today.”

Update, 3:30 p.m. Tuesday: San Mateo County Sheriff Christina Corpus confirmed that a gunman killed five men and two women at two different farm-site locations in Half Moon Bay on Monday afternoon.

Another man, who was critically wounded during the shooting rampage, is out of surgery and in stable condition, she said.

“What I can tell you is that the coastal community came together and they were here together in a time of need,” Corpus said.

Update, 1 p.m. Tuesday: Arraignment has been set for Half Moon Bay shooting suspect Chunli Zhao for Wednesday, Jan. 25, at 1:30 p.m. at the Hall of Justice in Redwood City.

Zhao is facing seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, plus enhancements for using a firearm, according to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office.

Update, 12:30 p.m. Tuesday: The suspect in a recent mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, who killed seven agricultural workers and left one in critical condition, had previously been accused of threatening and suffocating a coworker at a prior workplace, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

In 2013, the suspect’s then-coworker filed a temporary restraining order against alleged shooter Chunli Zhao, court records show.

On Monday, Zhao, 66, allegedly opened fire at California Terra Garden (formerly Mountain Mushroom Farm), where he was an employee, and then Concord Farms, both located on the outskirts of Half Moon Bay. Officials believe the attack was an instance of workplace violence.

The U.S. The Department of Labor considers workplace violence to be any act or threat of physical violence, harassment or intimidation that occurs at the work site.

Acts of violence are the third-leading cause of fatal workplace injuries in the U.S., according to the department.

On Tuesday, Aaron Tung, the principal at Concord Farms, expressed gratitude for the groundswell of support following the shootings.

“For certain, we thank the outpouring of thoughts and support from the community. We thank law enforcement for their swift response and actions,” he said.

Tung said Concord Farms is a family owned and operated mushroom farm that has been at its current location for 37 years.

“We are shook and very eager to gain more information from the authorities and their investigations,” he added. “Our hearts are with the victims, their families and the Chinese American community—from Half Moon Bay to Monterey Park.”

A police officer patrols an area at night that's cordoned off with caution tape.
A San Mateo County sheriff's deputy patrols the area as law enforcement officials conduct an investigation hours after a shooting massacre at two mushroom farms on Jan 23, 2023, in Half Moon Bay that left seven workers dead and another critically injured. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Original story, 7 p.m. Monday (updated 11 a.m. Tuesday): Seven agricultural workers were killed and another was critically injured in a related pair of shootings Monday afternoon at two different mushroom farms on the outskirts of Half Moon Bay, marking California's third mass killing in just eight days.

The suspect, whom police apprehended just over two hours after the shootings, was an employee at the first site he attacked, officials said.

San Mateo County Sheriff Christina Corpus said the victims worked at the two facilities. She said some were Asian and others were Hispanic, including a number of migrant workers. The coroner's office is still working on identification of victims and notifying the next of kin, she added.

“As some of these victims were members of our migrant community, this represents a unique challenge when it comes to notifications and identifications of next of kin,” Corpus said.

The sheriff's office said it received reports of a shooting at California Terra Garden (formerly Mountain Mushroom Farm), off Highway 92, at around 2:20 p.m. Deputies found four people dead from gunshot wounds. A fifth victim was rushed to Stanford Medical Center with life-threatening injuries, and is now out of surgery and in stable condition.

Minutes later, officers found three more people dead from gunshot wounds at Concord Farms, about five miles south, along Highway 1.

Officers arrested 66-year-old Chunli Zhao just before 5 p.m., after finding him in his car in the parking lot of a sheriff’s substation. He was taken into custody “without incident,” the sheriff's office said. The firearm Zhao is believed to have used in the shootings — a legally purchased semi-automatic handgun — was inside his car, officials said.

Corpus on Tuesday confirmed that Zhao was an employee at California Terra Garden (formerly Mountain Mushroom Farm). Officials hadn't determined a motive for the shooting, she said.

“The only known connection between the victims and the suspect is that they may have been co-workers,” Corpus said during a morning press conference. “All of the evidence we have points to this being the instance of workplace violence.”

She added that some workers at one facility lived on the premises and children may have seen the shooting.

“For children to witness this is unspeakable,” said Corpus, who was just sworn in earlier this month and is the county's first Latina sheriff. “This is a devastating tragedy for this community and the families touched by this unspeakable act of violence.”

An aerial phot of police walking past several large warehouse buildings that are cordoned off with caution tape.
An aerial view of San Mateo County sheriff's deputies patrolling one of the Half Moon Bay mushroom farms where a gunman opened fire on Jan. 24, 2023. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Officials did not comment on Zhao's criminal history, but said he had not been on their radar.

“I will say there were no specific indicators that would have led us to believe he was capable of something like this. And he was not known to us,” said Eamonn Allen,  a sheriff's office spokesperson.

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said the arraignment will be Wednesday afternoon.

“Cases like this, we've never had one in this county of this many deaths at one time,” he said.

In a statement, the United Farm Workers union said the tragedy “leaves us heartbroken, angry, and demanding answers.”

“While we did not know them, they were part of the too often invisible, yet always essential, agricultural workforce that feeds America and the world,” the statement said.

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Monday's rampage was the nation's sixth mass killing (of four people or more) — and the third in California — just three weeks into the new year. It come less than 48 hours after a gunman opened fire at a ballroom dance hall in the Southern California city of Monterey Park during a Lunar New Year celebration, killing 11 people.

Just a week earlier, a 16-year-old mother and her 6-month-old baby were among six people killed in a shooting at a home in the Central Valley town of Goshen, in what authorities believe was a targeted attack.

“Half Moon Bay has just faced tremendous hardship with the storms,” said County Board of Supervisors President Dave Pine. “It's a very close-knit community. And the workers are known in the community. And it's just tearing at everyone's hearts.”

Pine said he assumed the suspect was a “disgruntled worker.”

“Gun violence has to stop,” he said. “This is a crazy and tragic world we live in right now.”

President Biden on Tuesday pledged “the full support of the federal government in the wake of this heinous attack.”

“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. “Even as we await further details on these shootings, we know the scourge of gun violence across America requires stronger action.”

He urged Congress to “act quickly and deliver this Assault Weapons Ban to my desk.”

County Supervisor Ray Mueller said his first thought after learning of the shootings was to mobilize county mental health services to support the farmworker community.

“We need to get those services in place both in English and Spanish for the community at large because this community's been through so much,” Mueller said.

“The strength of this community will persevere,” he added. “But this is heartbreaking.”

On Monday evening, Qing Hai Zhao, a resident of nearby El Granada, dropped off blankets at a family reunification center at the I.D.E.S. Portuguese Hall in Half Moon Bay on Main Street.

“[This] is a very peaceful place,” he said. “And although you've heard of such kind of tragedy happening in many places, you can't believe it actually happened in Half Moon Bay.”

This article includes reporting from KQED's Farida Jhabvala Romero and The Associated Press.

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