Suspect in Half Moon Bay shootings lived at site of killings; arraignment today: Updates

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The farmworker accused of fatally shooting seven people at two Northern California mushroom farms faced arraignment Wednesday on seven counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and related charges.

Chunli Zhao, 66, of Half Moon Bay is accused of killing five men and two women, whose names have not yet been released.

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said Wednesday that Zhao also faces a special circumstance allegation of multiple murder, as well as sentencing enhancements on each count for the use of a firearm. Zhao could face life in prison without the possibility of parole – or even the death penalty, although Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium on executions in 2019.

Other developments

►In 2013 Zhao was accused of threatening a coworker with a knife and of trying to suffocate the man with a pillow, court documents indicate.

►A semiautomatic gun used in the fatal shootings was legally bought and owned, San Mateo Sheriff Christina Corpus said

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Zhao lived at the property where four of the victims were killed, a company spokesman said Wednesday. David Oates told CNN the site, known as Mountain Mushroom Farm before it was acquired by California Terra Garden last year, has three mobile homes and six trailers where some employees live. Zhao was working at the farm, which has about 35 employees, when it was bought, Oates said.

“Everyone had background checks, and there was nothing to indicate anything like this was even a possibility,” Oates said. 

The Half Moon Bay tragedy came two days after a rampage in Monterey Park, less than 400 miles southwest, left 11 people dead. The victims were identified as Latino and Asian American farm workers. 

On Twitter, Rep. Grace Meng, D-New York, wondered whether a better mental health services system could have prevented the violence.

“We don’t know motives yet, but I wonder how things could’ve been different had there been a strong mental health and social service network,” Meng wrote. “Yes it’s about gun safety laws, yes it’s about stopping Asian hate, but also a generation of (Asian American Pacific Islander) elders with a life of unaddressed trauma.”

The farm primarily grows mushrooms for retail and wholesale customers, Oates said, along with herbs such as basil, oregano. The owners of the farm are bringing in grief counselors for all the employees, Oates said.

“Their goal right now is to try to bring everybody together to start a long healing process,” Oates said. “They look at team members more like family.” 

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The attack began Monday at a mushroom farm where Zhao was employed, authorities said. Police called to the scene shortly after 2 p.m. found four workers dead of gunshot wounds and another worker seriously injured. The suspect then proceeded to Concord Farms, a short drive down the road, where three more people were killed, authorities said.

Some workers lived on the premises and children may have witnessed the shooting, authorities said. The suspect was arrested in his vehicle, parked outside a sheriff’s substation, at about 4:40 pm.  Video of the arrest has been widely circulated on social media.

 “All of the evidence we have points to this being the instance of workplace violence,” the sheriff said.

Contributing: The Associated Press