An immigrant farm worker has been formally charged with premeditated murder in the fatal shooting of seven co-workers near San Francisco, the state’s second deadly gun rampage just two days apart that claimed a total of 18 lives.
- Chunli Zhao, 66, had his first court appearance in Redwood City
- The defendant was expressionless throughout the hearing
- The next court proceeding in the case is set for February 16
Chunli Zhao, 66, a Chinese citizen and the lone suspect in Monday’s massacre at two mushroom farms in the seaside town of Half Moon Bay, was charged with seven counts of murder and a single count of attempted murder during his first court appearance in nearby Redwood City.
Mr. Zhao, wearing red-colored prison clothes and enclosed behind a glass panel, was ordered to be held in custody during a brief hearing before a San Mateo County Superior Court judge.
The defendant, with close-cropped gray hair, was expressionless throughout the hearing.
He was assigned two private defense lawyers and no plea was entered.
The next court proceeding in the case was 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 resided in the United States for at least 10 years.
After the hearing, Mr. Wagstaffe told reporters outside the courthouse that prosecutors have not yet determined Mr. Zhao’s precise immigration status, or whether he entered the country legally.
The prosecutor said authorities do have an idea about the suspect’s motives, but declined to share any details.
Mr. Wagstaffe also revealed a note was found inside Mr. Zhao’s car, although he declined to disclose what it said.
The district attorney said Mr. Zhao was “cooperative with sheriff’s detectives” who initially interviewed him through a Mandarin interpreter, without an attorney present, following his arrest and that he gave “a complete statement”.
Still, the expectation is that Mr. Zhao will enter a not-guilty plea as the proceedings progress, and Mr. Wagstaffe said they “want to make sure this man gets a fair trial.”
In addition to eight felony counts, the 10-page criminal complaint alleges “special circumstances,” accusing Mr. Zhao of “personally and intentionally” shooting to kill.
Under California law, defendants convicted of murder with “special circumstances” can be eligible for the death penalty, although Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on executions in 2019.
The state has not put a condemned inmate to death since 2006.
Otherwise, the maximum sentence is life in prison without the possibility of parole, Mr. Wagstaffe said.
Meanwhile, US Vice-President Kamala Harris arrived in Los Angeles to visit the suburb of Monterey Park, where the first of the recent deadly rampages took place.
She was expected to meet with some families of the 11 people who were fatally shot in a dance hall on Saturday night by a man who later took his own life.
‘Not a copy cat’
California’s firearm laws are among the strictest in the country, and the two shootings coming in quick succession left the state reeling from one of the bloodiest spates of mass gun violence in decades.
Authorities said each of the killing sprees represented the single greatest loss of life from a single act of violence in Los Angeles and San Mateo counties.
Asked if investigators believed the Half Moon Bay killings were a “copy-cat” crime inspired by the shooting rampage in Monterey Park two days earlier, Mr. Wagstaffe said flatly, “No.”
Mr. Zhao was taken into custody on Monday evening outside a sheriff’s station, where police said he had driven shortly after the attack on farm workers.
The precise motive for the shooting remained unclear.
Employed by one of the growers, Mountain Mushroom Farm, Mr. Zhao had lived at the property along with some other employees, according to the farm owner California Terra Gardens.
Authorities said early evidence indicated the bloodshed stemmed from a workplace grievance.
The second crime scene, Concord Farms, is about a mile away.
Sheriff Christina Corpus said in a CNN interview that the gunman “went after and pursued” specific victims, even though he had the chance to hurt others and that he was a “co-worker or former co-worker” of the victims at both shootings sites.
She said Mr. Zhao was not known to law enforcement before Monday’s bloodshed.
CNN and other media outlets have reported Mr. Zhao was the subject of a temporary restraining order after a former co-worker accused him of attacking and threatening him in 2013.
Half Moon Bay, a town of 12,000 residents south of San Francisco, is home to both a luxury resort and a low-income farming community.
The shooting cast a renewed spotlight on hardships faced by the area’s farm workers, many of them immigrants from Latin America and Asia who often live in squalid labor encampments and toil long hours under poor conditions for extremely low pay.
The killings unfolded two days after a gunman 380 miles to the south opened fire at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, a club frequented mostly by older patrons of Asian descent in Monterey Park.
Both rampages were notable for the suspects’ age, much older than typical in deadly mass shootings that have grown all too commonplace in the United States.
Authorities said both gunmen used a semi-automatic pistol, and the victims in each case came from immigrant communities.