The 66-year-old farm worker, who is accused of fatally shooting seven of his colleagues and injuring another, “freaked out” over a still-unknown complaint against some of the people he lived and worked among for years, law enforcement officials said on Tuesday.
Chunli Zhao remained in jail for a day after he allegedly opened fire on workers at two farms in Half Moon Bay, a coastal farming community south of San Francisco.
“The only known connection between the victims and the suspect is that they may be employees,” San Mateo County Sheriff Christina Corpus said at a news conference Tuesday. “All the evidence we have points to this being [an] Case of workplace violence.”
Corpus added in an interview with The Times: “Something happened where he banged.”
The suspected shooter had worked and lived for at least three years at Mountain Mushroom Farm off State Route 92, the scene of Monday’s first shooting, a Half Moon Bay official said.
Local authorities said they immediately recognized Zhao as both a farm worker and someone who received food and other assistance from a nonprofit organization that helps farm workers after his arrest.
“He was always positive in conversation,” said Joaquin Jimenez, Half Moon Bay’s vice mayor and director of the farm worker program for Ayudando Latinos a Soñar, or ALAS, a nonprofit organization that supports the local Latino community.
Gov. Gavin Newsom traveled to Half Moon Bay on Tuesday to meet with victims’ families, local leaders and other community members.
He named the many communities he has visited in the wake of mass shootings and said he must now add Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay to the list. “What the hell is going on?” asked Newsom.
“The only common denominator is those damn guns,” he said. “I have no ideological opposition to anyone responsibly owning a gun, but what the hell is wrong with us that we allow these large capacity weapons of war and clips to roam the streets or sidewalks? Why did we allow this culture, this pattern to continue?”
Half Moon Bay, with a population of about 11,000, is home to Silicon Valley refugees and an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 workers who work in farms and nurseries. Some track crops and harvests across America, while others have settled in Half Moon Bay year-round, Jimenez said.
A former employee at Mountain Mushroom Farm said they “worked in pairs” and “chinos y Mexican”, or Chinese and Mexicans, often worked separately.
Local residents marveled at the audacity of the shootings, which took place in front of teenagers and younger children who had just been released from school.
Part of Jimenez’s shock stemmed from Zhao’s close connections in the city. “He was part of that community,” he said.
Although Zhao did not show red flags to law enforcement during his time at Half Moon Bay, Corpus said her department learned Tuesday of a restraining order issued against the suspect in 2013. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that a former employee received the order after accusing Zhao of trying to suffocate him while the two lived together.
Six men and two women were targeted in Monday’s shooting, Corpus said. The sole survivor with life-threatening injuries was taken to a hospital to undergo surgery and was in stable condition Tuesday, officials said.
Five of those shot worked for California Terra Garden, which bought Mountain Mushroom Farm last March, spokesman David Oates added in a statement: “We remain shocked and saddened by the senseless loss of four of our friends and longtime friends Employees.”
Two of the victims had been identified by the San Mateo County coroner, who declined to release the names as it worked to notify their families.
“Because some of the victims were members of our migrant community, this presents a unique challenge when it comes to identifying and notifying next of kin,” Corpus said.
After fleeing the second shooting, Zhao threw his cellphone out the window in an apparent attempt to prevent law enforcement from finding his location, the sheriff said. Two hours after the first reports of the killing spree, the suspect showed up near the Sheriff’s Substation in Half Moon Bay and sat back in his parked car. A video from KGO-TV showed MPs taking him to the ground with their guns drawn.
“I’m not sure if he was aware that our substation was in close proximity,” Corpus said.
Authorities said they found a semi-automatic pistol that Zhao bought and kept legally in the car.
Just steps from the substation, Vanessa Lomeli had been working at Coastside Tax Consultants when she heard sirens. The shooting suspect came and parked his car right outside, she said.
“We saw a couple of police officers running with guns and saying, ‘Down, down,'” Lomeli recalled, adding that she and her co-workers crawled under their desks.
“We were so scared,” said Lomeli, who had to walk home after emergency vehicles blocked her car. “I’m still shaken.”
Deputies booked Zhao on first-degree first-degree first degree murder and attempted murder with an increased sentence for disposing of a firearm during a violent crime. Dist. atty Steve Wagstaffe said his office expects to file charges against Zhao by Wednesday morning.
“Cases like this, we’ve never had one in this county with so many deaths in one place or time,” he said. “This is an early stage case; it has a long way to go in the coming months and years.”
Half Moon Bay resident Suki Shay, 78, worried that the town associated with waves, sand and sun will now be known for filming.
“It ruined this place,” she said. “It ruined our people, our businesses and our name.”
The farming community targeted by the shootings had already weathered an uneasy winter in which heavy rains flooded homes and brought farm work to a standstill.
“Our farm workers give us so much and to see this violence is just a tragedy,” said Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, founder and chief executive officer of ALAS, who regularly serves workers at the mushroom farm where Monday’s first shooting took place.
The employees affected by the shooting have not returned to their jobs. City and county officials said they would work with nonprofit groups to provide two-week wages to make up for the lost wages.
Hernandez-Arriaga called for more resources for farm workers, including mental health support.
“They give their lives for us, for this job,” she said. “In the rain, in bad weather, in a crisis, during the pandemic. It is time we responded with direct resources and support in a real, transformative way.”
In a statement, the United Farm Workers said they mourned the loss of those killed, adding they were “heartbroken, angry and demanding answers”.
“Though we didn’t know them, they were part of the too often invisible but always essential farm workforce that feeds America and the world,” the union said. “As farmhands and as people, they deserve much better.”
President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden also weighed in Tuesday and prayed “for those killed and injured in the recent tragic Half Moon Bay shooting.”
“For the second time in recent days, California communities are mourning the loss of loved ones to a senseless act of gun violence,” Biden said in a statement, referring to Saturday night’s shooting at a Monterey Park ballroom that killed 11 people became.
The federal government has offered support to local authorities, Biden said. It’s unclear whether he and Vice President Kamala Harris, who will be traveling to Monterey Park on Wednesday, will visit Half Moon Bay.
atty General Merrick Garland vowed Tuesday that “all of us at the Justice Department, including the FBI and [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives]will continue to support the Half Moon Bay community in the difficult days ahead.”
Half Moon Bay pulled itself together during a traumatic event, Corpus said, adding that she is proud of its residents.
“It feels like the blows keep coming down on this community,” she said.
And with this latest blow, Half Moon Bay has become yet another American city wracked by gun violence and whose residents face fear and grief.
“We only hear the pain, the excruciating pain and the shock that they are in,” Hernandez-Arriaga said. “All the farm workers who live there, their families. It’s a fear that has penetrated her soul. How do we get back from this? There is much to do.”
Times contributors Summer Lin, Brittny Mejia, Luke Money, and James Rainey contributed to this report.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-01-25/half-moon-bay-farm-worker-snapped-before-shootings-sheriff-says Half Moon Bay shootings suspect ‘snapped,’ sheriff says