Immigrant farm worker charged with 7 murders in Northern California shooting


By Jorge Garcia and Steve Gorman

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (Reuters) – A 66-year-old immigrant farmworker was indicted on Wednesday for premeditated murder in the fatal shooting of seven co-workers near San Francisco, the second of two California shootings in recent days. . in which 18 people died.

Chunli Zhao, a Chinese national and the sole suspect in Monday’s massacre at two mushroom farms in the coastal city of Half Moon Bay, was indicted on seven counts of murder and a single count of attempted murder during his first appearance before the court in nearby Redwood City. .

Zhao, who was wearing red prison attire and locked behind a glass panel, was held without bail during a brief hearing before a San Mateo County Superior Court judge. The stocky defendant, with close-cropped graying hair, remained expressionless throughout the hearing. He was assigned two private defense attorneys; no plea was filed.

The next court proceedings in the case have been set for February 16.

A Mandarin language translator was provided for the defendant, who according to District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe is a Chinese citizen who has lived in the United States for at least 10 years.

After the hearing, Wagstaffe told reporters outside the courthouse that prosecutors have yet to determine Zhao’s exact immigration status, or whether he entered the country legally.

The prosecutor said authorities have an idea about the suspect’s motives, but declined to share details. Wagstaffe also revealed the existence of a tip, saying a note was found inside Zhao’s car, though he refused to reveal what it said.

The district attorney said Zhao was “cooperative” when initially interviewed by authorities after his arrest and gave “a full statement.”

Still, the expectation is that Zhao will plead not guilty as the trial progresses, “and we want to make sure that this man gets a fair trial,” Wagstaffe said.

In addition to eight felony counts, the 10-page criminal complaint alleges “special circumstances,” accusing Zhao of “personally and intentionally” shooting to kill.

Under California law, defendants convicted of murder in “special circumstances” may be eligible for the death penalty, though Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on executions in 2019. The state has not sentenced an inmate to death since 2006.

Otherwise, the maximum sentence is life in prison without the possibility of parole, Wagstaffe said.

Late on Wednesday, Vice President Kamala Harris paid a condolence visit to the Los Angeles suburb of Monterey Park, where 11 people were killed in a separate rampage at a ballroom Saturday night by a gunman who later took off. life.

Harris, originally from California, laid flowers at a memorial outside the dance studio and, in brief remarks to reporters, called on Congress to enact stronger national gun safety measures. He then met privately with the families of the victims.


California’s gun laws are among the strictest in the country, and the two shootings, which occurred in quick succession, left the state reeling from one of the bloodiest waves of mass gun violence in decades.

Authorities said each of the two killings represented the largest loss of life from a single act of violence in Los Angeles and San Mateo counties.

When asked if investigators believed the Half Moon Bay murders were a “copycat” crime inspired by the Monterey Park shootings two days earlier, Wagstaffe said emphatically “no.”

Zhao was detained Monday night outside the sheriff’s station, where police said he had driven shortly after the attack on farm workers.

The precise motive for the shooting remained unclear. Zhao had been an employee of one of the growers, Mountain Mushroom Farm, and resided on the property along with other employees, according to its owners. Authorities said early evidence indicated the bloodshed was the result of a workplace complaint. The second crime scene, Concord Farms, is about a mile away.

Sheriff Christina Corpus said in an interview with CNN that the gunman “chased and chased” specific victims, even though he had the opportunity to hurt others and was a “coworker or former coworker” of the police. victims in both shootings. sites

He said law enforcement did not know Zhao before the bloodshed on Monday. CNN and other news outlets reported that Zhao was the subject of a temporary restraining order after a former coworker accused him of attacking and threatening him in 2013.

Half Moon Bay, a city of 12,000 just south of San Francisco, is home to both a luxury resort and a low-income farming community. The shooting drew renewed attention to the difficulties faced by area farmworkers, many of them immigrants from Latin America and Asia who often live in labor camps and work long hours in poor conditions for extremely low wages.

The killings there unfolded two days after a gunman 380 miles to the south opened fire at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, a club frequented mainly by older patrons of Asian descent in Monterey Park.

In addition to the 11 people killed, nine were wounded in Saturday night’s shooting, which some survivors and bystanders said they initially mistook for fireworks as the predominantly Asian-American community was celebrating Lunar New Year.

Authorities said the shooter, 72-year-old Huu Can Tran, drove to a second dance hall a short time later, where the operator of that club disarmed him before he could open fire.

The next morning, Tran committed suicide behind the wheel of his vehicle when police approached him in South Los Angeles.

Although his motive was unclear, Tran was a well-known regular at the Star Ballroom. A tenant of a Los Angeles rental property he owned suggested that Tran may have been holding a grudge against other clients.

Both riots were highlighted by the age of the suspects, much older than normal in the deadly mass shootings that have become all too common in the United States.

Authorities said both gunmen used semi-automatic pistols.

(Reporting by Jorge Garcia in Redwood City, California; Writing and reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer, Tim Reid, Gabriella Borter, Rich McKay, Brendan O’Brien, Brad Brooks, Jonathan Allen, Joseph Axe, Dan Whitcomb, Eric Beech, Omar Younis, and Timothy Gardner; editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, David Gregorio, and Leslie Adler)