The 66-year-old farmworker accused of fatally shooting seven of his co-workers and wounding another “snapped” because of a still-unknown grievance against some of the people among whom he had lived and worked for years, law enforcement officials said Tuesday.
Chunli Zhao remained in jail a day after he allegedly opened fire on workers at two farms in Half Moon Bay, a coastal agricultural community south of San Francisco.
“The only known connection between the victims and the suspect is that they may have been co-workers,” San Mateo County Sheriff Christina Corpus said at a news conference Tuesday. “All the evidence we have points to this being [an] instance of workplace violence.”
Corpus added in an interview with The Times: “There was something that happened where he snapped.”
The suspected gunman had worked and lived for at least three years at Mountain Mushroom Farm on state Route 92, the scene of Monday’s first shooting, a Half Moon Bay official said.
Local authorities said they immediately recognized Zhao after his arrest as both a farm employee and someone who had received food and other support from a nonprofit that assists farmworkers.
“He was always positive in the conversation,” said Joaquin Jimenez, Half Moon Bay’s vice mayor and director of the farmworker program for Ayudando Latinos a Soñar, or ALAS, a nonprofit supporting the local Latino community.
Gov. Gavin Newsom traveled Tuesday to Half Moon Bay to meet with victims’ families, local leaders and other community members.
He named the many communities he has visited after mass shootings and said he now had to add Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay to the list. “What the hell is going on?” Newsom asked.
“The one common denominator is these damn guns,” he said. “I have no ideological opposition to someone owning a gun responsibly, but what the hell is wrong with us that we allow these weapons of war and large-capacity clips out on the streets or sidewalks? Why have we allowed 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 labor in farms and nurseries. Some follow crops and harvests across America, but 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 Mexicanos,” or Chinese and Mexicans, often worked separately.
Residents expressed amazement over the brazenness of the shootings, which occurred 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 town. “He was part of that community,” he said.
Although Zhao had presented no red flags to law enforcement during his time in Half Moon Bay, Corpus said her department Tuesday became aware of a 2013 restraining order filed against the suspect. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that a former co-worker obtained 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 shootings, Corpus said. The lone survivor, with life-threatening injuries, was taken to a hospital to undergo surgery and was in stable condition Tuesday, officials said.
Five of those who were shot worked for California Terra Garden, which bought the Mountain Mushroom Farm last March, according to spokesman David Oates, who added in a statement: “We remain shocked and grief-stricken over the senseless loss of four of our friends and long-time employees.”
Two of the victims had been identified by the San Mateo County coroner’s office, which declined to release the names as it worked to notify their families.
“As some of the victims were members of our migrant community, this represents a unique challenge when it comes to identification and notifications of next of kin,” Corpus said.
After fleeing from the second shooting scene, Zhao tossed his cellphone out the window in an apparent effort to prevent law enforcement from using it to find his location, the sheriff said. Two hours after the first reports of the rampage, the suspect turned up near the sheriff’s substation in Half Moon Bay, leaning back in his seat in his parked car. Video from KGO-TV showed deputies, with guns drawn, taking him to the ground.
“I’m not sure that he was fully aware that our substation was in close proximity,” Corpus said.
Authorities said they found a semiautomatic handgun — which Zhao purchased and kept legally — inside the car.
Just steps from the substation, Vanessa Lomeli had been working at Coastside Tax Consultants when she heard sirens. The shooting suspect arrived and parked his car just outside, she said.
“We saw a couple cops running with guns, saying, ‘Get down, get down,’ ” Lomeli recalled, adding that she and her colleagues crawled under their desks.
“We were just so terrified,” said Lomeli, who had to walk home because her car was blocked by emergency vehicles. “I’m still shaken.”
Deputies booked Zhao on charges of premeditated murder and first-degree attempted murder, with a sentencing enhancement for discharging a firearm during a violent felony. Dist. Atty. Steve Wagstaffe said his office expected to bring charges against Zhao by Wednesday morning.
“Cases like this, we’ve never had one in this county of this many deaths at one scene or one time,” he said. “This is a case that is at the beginning stage; it has a long road to travel over the coming months and years.”
Half Moon Bay resident Suki Shay, 78, worried that the city associated with waves, sand and sun will now be known for the shooting.
“It’s ruined this place,” she said. “It’s ruined our people, our businesses and our name.”
The farmworker community targeted in the shootings already had been enduring a winter of trepidation, with heavy rains flooding homes and shutting down agricultural work.
“Our farmworkers give so much to us, and to see this violence happening is just a tragedy,” said Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, founder and executive director of ALAS, which regularly serves workers at the mushroom farm where the first shooting occurred Monday.
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 weeks of wages to make up for lost pay.
Hernandez-Arriaga called for more resources for farmworkers, including mental health support.
“They give their life for us, to this job,” she said. “In rain, in bad weather, in crisis, during the pandemic. It’s time we respond to them with direct resources and support in a real way that makes a change.”
In a statement, the United Farm Workers said it mourned the loss of those killed, adding that it was “heartbroken, angry and demanding answers.”
“While we did not know them, they were part of the too often invisible, yet always essential, agricultural workforce that feeds America and the world,” the union said. “As farmworkers, and as human beings, they deserved far better.”
President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden also weighed in Tuesday, extending prayers “for those killed and injured in the latest tragic shooting in Half Moon Bay.”
“For the second time in recent days, California communities are mourning the loss of loved ones in a senseless act of gun violence,” Biden said in a statement, referring to the Saturday-night shooting in a Monterey Park ballroom that killed 11 people.
The federal government has offered support to local authorities, Biden said. It is unclear whether he and Vice President Kamala Harris, who will travel to Monterey Park on Wednesday, will visit Half Moon Bay.
Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland pledged 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 together during a traumatic event, Corpus said, adding that she was proud of its residents.
“It feels like the blows just keep coming to this community,” she said.
And with this latest blow, Half Moon Bay has become yet another American town rocked by gun violence, with residents left confronting anguish and grief.
“We’re just hearing the pain, the excruciating pain and shock they’re in,” Hernandez-Arriaga said. “All the farmworkers that live there, their families. It’s a fear that has penetrated their soul. How do we come back from this? There’s a lot of work to be done.”
Times staff writers Summer Lin, Brittny Mejia, Luke Money and James Rainey contributed to this report.