HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — A farm worker accused of killing seven people in consecutive shootings at two Northern California mushroom farms was charged Wednesday with seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.
Chunli Zhao, 66, was scheduled to make his first court appearance on Wednesday but it has been postponed until February 16, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said. His two attorneys did not immediately return calls and emails seeking comment.
Wagstaffe, speaking outside the courthouse, declined to share additional details about Zhao’s motive in the murder of his current and former co-workers, saying he wanted to keep the details out of the public eye to ensure a fair trial. Sheriff’s officials have said it was workplace violence.
It was the third mass shooting in California in eight days and the largest in San Mateo County history, Wagstaffe said. It followed the murder of 11 in the Los Angeles area amid Lunar New Year celebrations on Saturday.
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Authorities believe Zhao acted alone Monday when he entered a mushroom farm where he worked in Half Moon Bay, shooting and killing four people and seriously wounding a fifth. He then drove to a nearby farm where he had previously worked and killed three more people, said Eamonn Allen, a sheriff’s spokesman.
The charges include additional charges that could result in the death penalty or life in prison without parole, although Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued a moratorium on executions. Among those accusations are that Zhao used a weapon, caused serious bodily injury and killed multiple 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, of San Francisco; Qizhong Cheng, 66, of Half Moon Bay; Jingzhi Lu, 64, of Half Moon Bay; and Yetao Bing, 43, whose place of origin is unknown. Charging documents identify José Romero Pérez as the other person killed and Pedro Romero Pérez as the eighth victim, who survived the shooting.
Authorities have said some of the people killed were migrant workers. Some people were shot in trailers on the property, Wagstaffe said.
Servando Martínez Jiménez said that his brother Marciano Martínez Jiménez, one of the victims, was a delivery man and manager of 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 kind to everyone. He never had any problems with anyone. I don’t understand why all this happened,” Martínez Jiménez said in Spanish.
Marciano Martínez Jiménez had lived in the United States for 28 years after arriving from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Servando Martínez Jiménez said he is working with the Mexican consulate to bring his brother’s body home.
It would not have been Zhao’s first workplace rage, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. In 2013, Zhao was charged with threatening to split a co-worker’s head in with a knife and separately trying to suffocate the man with a pillow, the Chronicle reported, according to court documents.
The two were roommates and worked at a restaurant, and the man, identified as Jingjiu Wang, filed a temporary restraining order against Zhao that was granted but is no longer in effect. Wang could not immediately be reached, the Chronicle reported.
Zhao is from China and has lived in the United States for at least a dozen years, Wagstaffe said. She had legal papers to live in the country at one point and investigators were determining if it was still valid, Wagstaffe said. They were also looking into her previous contact with the police.
Shootings broke out at California Terra Garden, formerly known as Mountain Mushroom Farm, and at nearby Concord Farms.
Most farmworkers in the area are Latino, but Mountain Mushroom Farm was one of the few that employed Asian workers, said Belinda Hernandez, executive director of ALAS, a Half Moon Bay-based farmworker advocacy group. . She said mushroom farms offer the benefit of year-round labor.
David Oates, a spokesman for the California Terra Garden, said he did not know how long Zhao worked there and that he was one of 35 employees who stayed behind when ownership changed. He declined to comment further Wednesday, saying he would defer to police. And Aaron Tung, co-owner of Concord Farms, did not respond to a request for additional comment Wednesday.
Half Moon Bay is a small, sleepy, coastal, 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 for surfing and for an annual giant pumpkin festival.
The new year has brought six mass murders in the US in less than three weeks, representing 39 deaths. Three have hit 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 deaths, not including the offender, in the US since 2006.
The Half Moon Bay and Monterey Park shootings followed the killing of a teenage mother, her baby and four others at a home in California’s Central Valley on January 16. Officials discussing the investigation mentioned a possible gang link in the killings.
Gecker reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Janie Har in San Francisco and Sophie Austin in Sacramento, along with researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York, contributed.