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Half Moon Bay Commemorates 1-Year Anniversary of Mass Shooting That Killed 7

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A person with a goatee stands in front of a large group of people sitting in fold-out chairs in a room painted bright orange.
Half Moon Bay Mayor Joaquin Jimenez speaks during a roundtable discussion at the ALAS Sueño Center in Half Moon Bay on Jan. 23, 2024, marking one year since the mass shooting at two farms claimed the lives of seven people on Jan. 23, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Updated 2:15 p.m. Wednesday

Residents of Half Moon Bay gathered Tuesday to commemorate the first anniversary of a tragic pair of shootings that left seven farmworkers dead, shocking the small oceanfront town and beyond. Most of the victims — all of them Chinese and Latino immigrants — were 64 and older.

The murders at the mushroom farms, deemed an extreme case of workplace violence, also exposed what local and state officials described as deplorable housing conditions for the workers who lived on-site, as well as wages that were nearly half of the minimum mandated by California law.

The accused gunman, Chunli Zhao, was charged last year with seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. Zhao appeared briefly in court on Tuesday morning after San Mateo County prosecutors revealed that a criminal grand jury had indicted him on seven counts of first-degree murder, among other charges. Zhao’s defense attorney requested a continuance, and the judge scheduled an arraignment for the end of February.

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The former forklift operator allegedly gunned down the first five victims, one of whom survived, at California Terra Garden, where he worked and lived. Zhao, 66 at the time of the attack, then shot and killed three more people at nearby Concord Farms, where he previously worked.

Speaking to reporters after the Half Moon Bay shootings, a visibly rattled Gov. Gavin Newsom said some of the workers at the farms had been living in shipping containers and made as little as $9 an hour, way below the state’s $15.50 hourly minimum at the time (it is now $16 per hour).

One year later, several state and county investigations of the employers are ongoing, including a “joint investigation” with state regulators at both farms for wage theft claims, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe told KQED.

The California Labor Commissioner’s Office cited California Terra Garden for violations of paid sick leave and supplemental paid sick leave laws. The employer settled for $150,000, according to a spokesperson for the agency.

A successor business at the same site, Li & Son Mushroom Farms, was also cited, including for failure to maintain workers’ compensation insurance and violations under the San Mateo County minimum wage, which is higher than the state’s. But that company appealed the citations and has not paid them yet, the spokesperson said.

And last summer, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, also known as Cal/OSHA, issued proposed penalties of nearly $114,000 against California Terra Garden for 22 workplace safety violations. The agency also cited Concord Farms for more than $51,000 for 19 violations.

Both cases remain open, with California Terra Garden contesting the penalties in August. A spokesperson with the Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees Cal/OSHA and the Labor Commissioner’s Office, confirmed that the employers have not yet paid any of the safety citation amounts.

Others in attendance at the gathering included elected officials such as Rep. Anna Eshoo, representatives from the White House, the U.S. Department of Labor and several state agencies.

“I have never seen a community pull together the way this community has,” said Eshoo, adding that she has been in elected office for 41 years. “But out of that pain, this community understood the shame that was under it and committed from day one … to get rid of the shame and [work on] the need for decent housing for human beings, for the workers in this community.”

Rep. Anna Eshoo speaks during a roundtable discussion at the ALAS Sueño Center in Half Moon Bay on Jan. 23, 2024.

Antonio De Loera-Brust, who directs communications for the United Farm Workers, expressed frustration at the pace of state cases against the Half Moon Bay employers.

“If we can’t get accountability for a case that was this public, that had this much attention from the highest elected officials in the state of California, what does that say about what’s happening in the rest of California?” De Loera asked.

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors has also taken steps to address some of the longstanding squalid living and working conditions agricultural workers often face. Last December, the body greenlighted (PDF) a new countywide Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, which will help workers file complaints with state regulators and educate employers and workers about their obligations and rights.

Several people face a man at a podium holding a microphone.
A memorial for seven farmworkers who lost their lives during a mass shooting one year prior is held at ALAS Casita and Garden in Half Moon Bay on Jan. 23, 2024. The event was called Corazón del Campesino, or Heart of the Farmworker, and artist Fernando Escartiz unveiled a sculpture in tribute to the victims. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

This month, county supervisors approved the $9 million purchase of a 50-acre lot in Half Moon Bay for the potential future development of farmworker housing. The county has also secured another $7.25 million to develop, in collaboration with the city of Half Moon Bay, 47 units of affordable manufactured homes, including more than a dozen for displaced relatives of the shooting victims.

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“After the first memorial of the shooting, I looked at the families who attended and I told them there was nothing I could do to bring their loved ones back … that the only thing that we could do every day was to move forward and to try to improve conditions,” said Supervisor Ray Mueller, who championed the initiatives.

“That would be a way that we could honor the lives of those we lost and try to heal that trauma going forward. That’s what we are committed to every day,” added Mueller, whose district includes Half Moon Bay.

In response to the shooting, the county also created a task force to inspect about 110 total agricultural properties in the county and improve employer-provided housing.

Rocio Avila, who has lived in the Half Moon Bay area for 14 years and personally knew some of the victims, said the tragedy brought the community closer together and made local agricultural workers like her feel “more seen” as people.

“We know that this will always be a loss, and the pain doesn’t go away,” said Avila, 40, in Spanish.

Avila, the mother of three children, said she was initially dismayed to learn that new housing projects will likely take several more years to be completed. She and her family need more living space. Currently, her oldest daughter sleeps on a mattress on the floor while Avila, her husband and two younger kids share a queen-size bed in the same room, she said.

But Avila said the shooting and its aftermath steeled her resolve to ensure the county and city build the affordable housing units they’ve talked about. Avila, who is part of a “just housing” committee at the nonprofit Ayudando Latinos a Soñar, or ALAS, has been speaking up at supervisor meetings and participating in regular marches and vigils to involve others in that goal.

Several people hold candles outside.
A memorial for seven farmworkers who lost their lives during a mass shooting one year prior is held at ALAS Casita and Garden in Half Moon Bay on Jan. 23, 2024. The event was called Corazón del Campesino, or Heart of the Farmworker, and artist Fernando Escartiz unveiled a sculpture in tribute to the victims. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“This drives me to continue fighting. To continue fighting and speaking about the lives of people going through housing issues and eviction,” she said.

At the Tuesday afternoon ceremony, community members and local and federal officials held a moment of silence for the lives lost. Many said they are committed to helping the community long term.

A person with long hair speaks in front of others.
Marisela Martinez-Maya, the niece of Marciano Martínez, who was killed in last year’s Half Moon Bay mass shootings, speaks during a roundtable discussion at the ALAS Sueño Center in Half Moon Bay on Jan. 23, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Marisela Martinez-Maya remembered her uncle Marciano Martinez, who was 50. He had wanted to show her his hometown in Mexico. Instead, she traveled there to bury him.

“As my uncles were carrying my uncle’s casket … I just had the sudden realization that this was not OK,” she said, her voice breaking as her father, Cervando Martinez, cried next to her. “This should not have happened. This is not the way that my uncle and I were supposed to go back home.”

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