HALF MOON BAY, Calif. (AP) — A farmworker accused of killing seven people in back-to-back shootings at two Northern California mushroom farms will be charged with seven counts of murder and one of attempted murder, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
The charges will be filed before Chunli Zhao, 66, makes his first court appearance Wednesday afternoon, said Steve Wagstaffe, the district attorney for San Mateo County.
It was not immediately clear whether Zhao had an attorney who could speak on his behalf.
Authorities believe Zhao acted alone Monday when he entered a mushroom farm where he worked in Half Moon Bay and opened fire, killing four people and seriously wounding a fifth, San Mateo County sheriff’s officials said. He then drove to another nearby farm where he had previously worked and killed an additional three people, said Eamonn Allen, a sheriff’s spokesperson.
The sheriff’s office said it believes the shootings were “workplace violence” but has not further detailed a motive. It was California’s third mass shooting in eight days, including the killing of 11 in Monterey Park in the Los Angeles area amid Lunar New Year celebrations Saturday.
Zhao also faces a special circumstance allegation of multiple murder, as well as sentencing enhancements on each count for the use of a firearm, Wagstaffe said.
If convicted of the special circumstance, Zhao could face life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium on executions in 2019.
Officials have not yet released the names of the five men and two women who died, nor the one man who was injured. Some were Asian and others were Hispanic, and some were migrant workers.
Servando Martinez Jimenez said his brother Marciano Martinez Jimenez, who was a delivery person and manager at one of the farms, was among those killed. Servando Martinez Jimenez said his brother never mentioned Zhao or said anything about problems with other workers.
“He was a good person. He was polite and friendly with everyone. He never had any problems with anyone. I don’t understand why all this happened,” Martinez Jimenez said in Spanish.
Marciano Martinez Jimenez, 50, had lived in the United States for 28 years after arriving from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Servando Martinez Jimenez said he is working with the Mexican consulate to get his brother’s body home.
Allen declined to answer questions about whether Zhao had any previous criminal history, saying, “there were no specific indicators that would have led us to believe he was capable of something like this.”
But it would not have been Zhao’s first fit of workplace rage, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. In 2013 Zhao was accused of threatening to split a coworker’s head open with a knife and separately tried to suffocate the man with a pillow, the Chronicle reported, based on 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 be immediately reached, the Chronicle reported.
The shootings occurred at California Terra Garden, previously known as Mountain Mushroom Farm, and nearby Concord Farms.
David Oates, a California Terra Garden spokesperson, said that he did not know how long Zhao worked there and that he was one of 35 employees who had stayed when ownership changed. Oates declined to provide details of the four slain workers.
Concord Farms owner Aaron Tung said in a statement that the farm was waiting for more information before it could comment.
Half Moon Bay is a small, laid-back, coastal and agricultural city about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of San Francisco. Its sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean make it a popular spot for hikers and tourists, who flock there to surf and for an annual giant pumpkin festival.
The new year has brought six mass killings in the U.S. in fewer than three weeks, accounting for 39 deaths. Three have occurred in California since Jan. 16, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University. The database tracks every mass killing — defined as four dead, not including the offender — in the U.S. since 2006.
The shootings in Half Moon Bay and Monterey Park followed the killing of a teenage mother, her baby and six others at a home in California’s Central Valley on Jan. 16. Officials discussing the investigation mentioned a possible gang link to the killings.
Gecker reported from San Francisco.