HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — A farm worker accused of killing seven people in consecutive shootings at two northern California mushroom farms was charged with seven murders and one attempted murder on Wednesday.
Chunli Zhao, 66, was due to appear in court for the first time on Wednesday, but it was delayed until February 16, San Mateo District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said. His two attorneys did not immediately respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
Wagstaffe, speaking outside the courthouse, declined to give further details on Zhao’s motive for killing his current and former employees, saying he wanted to keep the details private to ensure a fair trial. Sheriff’s officials said it was workplace violence.
It was California’s third mass shooting in eight days and the largest in San Mateo County history, Wagstaffe said. It followed the killing of 11 people in the Los Angeles area during Saturday’s Lunar New Year celebrations.
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Authorities believe Zhao acted alone Monday when he entered a mushroom farm where he worked in Half Moon Bay, shooting dead four people and seriously injuring a fifth. He then drove to a nearby farm where he previously worked and killed three other people, said Eamonn Allen, a sheriff’s spokesman.
The indictments include additional charges that could carry the death penalty or life in prison without parole, despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on executions. These allegations include Zhao using a gun, causing serious bodily harm and killing several people.
The coroner’s office named six of the victims: Zhishen Liu, 73, of San Francisco; Marciano Martinez Jimenez, 50, of Moss Beach, California; Aixiang Zhang, 74, from San Francisco; Qizhong Cheng, 66, from Half Moon Bay; Jingzhi Lu, 64, from Half Moon Bay; and Yetao Bing, 43, whose hometown was unknown. The indictment documents identify Jose Romero Perez as the other person killed and Pedro Romero Perez as the eighth victim to survive the shooting.
Officials said some of the people killed were migrant workers. Some people were shot in trailers on the property, Wagstaffe said.
Servando Martinez Jimenez said his brother Marciano Martinez Jimenez, one of the victims, was a supplier and manager at one of the farms. He never mentioned Zhao or said anything about problems with other workers.
“He was a good person. He was polite and friendly to everyone. He never had problems with anyone. I don’t understand why all this happened,” Martinez Jimenez said in Spanish.
Marciano Martinez Jimenez had lived in the United States for 28 years after arriving from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Servando Martinez Jimenez said he was working with the Mexican consulate to bring his brother’s body home.
It wouldn’t have been Zhao’s first tantrum at work, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. In 2013, Zhao was accused of threatening to split open a colleague’s head with a knife and separately attempting to suffocate the man with a pillow, the Chronicle reported based on court filings.
The two were roommates and worked at a restaurant, and the man identified as Jingjiu Wang filed a restraining order against Zhao, which was granted but is no longer in effect. Wang could not be reached immediately, the Chronicle reported.
Originally from China, Zhao has lived in the United States for at least a dozen years, Wagstaffe said. He had legal paperwork to live once in the country, and investigators were determining if it was still valid, Wagstaffe said. They also investigated his previous contact with law enforcement.
The shootings erupted at California Terra Garden, formerly known as Mountain Mushroom Farm, and near Concord Farms.
The majority of farmworkers in the area are Latinos, but Mountain Mushroom Farm was one of the few to employ Asian workers, said Belinda Hernandez, executive director of ALAS, a farmworker advocacy group based in Half Moon Bay. She said mushroom farms offer the benefit of year-round work.
David Oates, a spokesman for California Terra Garden, said he didn’t know how long Zhao worked there and that he was one of 35 employees who stayed when ownership changed. He declined to comment further Wednesday and said he would contact law enforcement. And Aaron Tung, co-owner of Concord Farms, did not respond to a request for additional comment on Wednesday.
Half Moon Bay is a small, laid-back coastal and farming town about 30 miles south of San Francisco. Its sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean make it a popular spot for hikers and tourists who flock here for surfing and an annual giant pumpkin festival.
The New Year has brought six mass murders with 39 deaths in less than three weeks in the US. Three have stalked California since Jan. 16, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University. The database tracks every mass murder — defined as four dead, not including the perpetrator — in the United States since 2006.
The Half Moon Bay and Monterey Park shootings followed the January 16 killing of a teenage mother, her baby and four others at a home in California’s Central Valley. Officials discussing the investigation mentioned a possible gang connection to the killings.
Gecker reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Janie Har in San Francisco and Sophie Austin in Sacramento and researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed.