Aaron Kehoe / AP
HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — A farm worker killed seven people in a shootout at two mushroom farms where he worked in Northern California, and the massacre is being considered a “workplace violence incident,” officials said Tuesday. The state mourned the third massacre in eight days.
Officers arrested Chunli Zhao, 66, on Monday after they found him in his car in the parking lot of the sheriff’s substation, San Mateo County Sheriff Cristina Corpus said.
Authorities believe Zhao acted alone when he entered Mountain Mushroom Farm in Half Moon Bay, California, where he was working and opened fire, killing four people and seriously injuring another. He then drove to another nearby farm where he used to work and killed three more people, said Eamonn Allen, a spokesman for the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Allen declined to answer questions about whether Zhao had any previous criminal record, saying “there were no specific indications that would lead us to believe he was capable of something like that.” .
“All the evidence we have right now points to an incident of workplace violence,” Allen said. Five men and two women were killed. The eighth victim of the firearms, a man, remained in the hospital. Some of them were Asian, others were Hispanic, and some were migrant workers.
But it wouldn’t be Zhao’s first fit of rage in the workplace, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday. In 2013, Zhao was accused of threatening to cut open a colleague’s head with a knife and separately trying to suffocate a man with a pillow, Chronicle reports based on court documents.
The two were roommates and worked at a restaurant at the time, and a man identified as Jingjiu Wang filed a temporary restraining order against Zhao, which was granted and is no longer in effect. Wang could not be contacted immediately.
The owner of the mountain mushroom farm, where Zhao allegedly killed four people and wounded a fifth, was not immediately contacted.
After the first incident, Zhao allegedly killed three more at nearby Concord Farms. Owner Aaron Tang said in a statement that the institution is waiting for more information before being able to comment. He said the farm has been family-run for 37 years and thanked the community for their support.
Half Moon Bay is a small, laid back coastal town with agricultural roots about 30 miles (50 km) south of San Francisco. Its stunning Pacific Ocean views make it a popular destination for hikers and tourists who flock to the surf beaches and the annual Giant Pumpkin Festival.
Earlier this month, the area was hit by heavy rainstorms that caused flooding and damage, temporarily making it impossible for farm workers to earn a living, Half Moon Bay Vice Mayor Joaquin Jimenez said. Several farm workers and their families lived at Mountain Mushroom Farm in mobile homes and were moved to hotels after the shooting and offered psychological and other support. He said the farm employs 20 to 30 Chinese and Latin American workers, some of them in the country without official permission.
“A lot of fear. We must understand that many of our community of agricultural workers are also undocumented, so there is fear of their legal status. So it will be very difficult for them to ask for help,” said Jimenez, who is also director of the farm worker program at ALAS, the city’s Hispanic community advocacy group.
Thousands of farm workers work in the wider San Mateo County, an area known for growing mostly flowers, peas, Brussels sprouts and beans. According to B. J. Burns, president of the San Mateo County Farm Bureau, there are several small mushroom growers in the area.
“We don’t need that kind of stuff in farming,” he said of the shooting.
Aerial television footage on Monday showed police gathering evidence at a farm with dozens of greenhouses where police found four dead. On Tuesday morning, the police continued to block the place. There was little noticeable activity on the second farm.
California is still reeling from the attack in Monterey Park near Los Angeles, which killed 11 people and overshadowed the celebration of the Lunar New Year, an important holiday for many Asian American communities. Authorities are still looking for a motive for Saturday’s shooting.
“For the second time in recent days, California communities are mourning the loss of loved ones in a senseless act of gun violence,” President Joe Biden said Tuesday. violence across America calls for more decisive action.”
The New Year brought six massacres to the US in less than three weeks, resulting in 39 deaths. Three cases have occurred in California since January 16, according to a database compiled by the Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University. The database has tracked every mass murder – defined as four people, not counting the perpetrator – in the US since 2006.
About two hours after receiving the first reports of the shooting, a sheriff’s deputy noticed Zhao’s car parked outside the sheriff’s office at the mall and arrested him.
“He didn’t actively surrender to us,” Allen said, declining to answer the question of why Zhao went there.
The video shows three police officers approaching a parked car with their weapons drawn. Zhao got out of the car, the police pushed him to the ground, handcuffed him, and took him away. According to eyewitnesses, weapons were found in the car. The video was filmed by Cathy McHugh, a Half Moon Bay resident who witnessed the arrest.
“We’re still trying to figure out exactly what happened and why, but it’s just incredibly, incredibly tragic,” said State Senator Josh Becker, who represents the area and called it a “very close-knit” farming community.
This is a community in which the majority is white. According to the census, about a third of the population is Hispanic and about 5% is Asian.
At an afternoon news conference Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he met with Chinese farm workers who witnessed their colleagues being shot. According to him, in a conversation through an interpreter, they said that they did not immediately understand what had happened.
“They walked up to the people they were shooting at and thought they were pretending,” Newsom said. “They have never heard such a sound. … They didn’t even know how to understand a gunshot wound.”
The shootings in Half Moon Bay and Monterey Park followed the January 16 killing of a teenage mother, her child and six others at a home in California’s Central Valley. Officials discussing the investigation mentioned the gang’s possible connection to the killings.
Contributions were made by Associated Press correspondents Jocelyn Gecker and Janie Har from San Francisco and Sophie Austin from Sacramento, California.