A farm worker accused of gunning down colleagues in Half Moon Bay faces more murder charges than anyone ever faced over a single incident in San Mateo County.
Chunli Zhao, a 66-year-old Chinese citizen, showed up in court for the first time Wednesday on a slew of charges—including seven counts of murder and one of attempted murder—that could get him life in prison or even the death penalty.
Authorities say Zhao killed seven migrant coworkers and injured an eighth in back-to-back shootings Monday at two farms in Half Moon Bay. While prosecutors declined to publicly disclose their theory about Zhao’s motive, the local sheriff called the shootings “workplace violence.”
The bloodshed in Half Moon Bay marked the second massacre in as many days to terrorize California. The other one unfolded this past weekend in Southern California, where a gunman killed 11 people and injured nine others at a dance studio in Monterey Park.
Zhao appeared in a Redwood City courtroom Wednesday with close-cropped gray hair, a red T-shirt and wrists shackled to his waist. He sat behind a clear pane and listened to the hearing through a Mandarin interpreter.
A judge granted San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe’s request to jail Zhao without the option of posting bail. Wagstaffe argued that Zhao was a danger to the community and a flight risk because Zhao is a Chinese national with “plenty of motive to run.”
How the Shootings Unfolded
San Mateo County law enforcement say they found four of the slain victims and the one survivor at 2:22 p.m. Monday at California Terra Garden, previously known as Mountain Mushroom Farm.
Not long after, deputies found three more gunshot victims dead at another nearby agricultural area in Half Moon Bay.
Zhao was later arrested in the parking lot of a police substation. Authorities say they found a legally owned and purchased semi-automatic handgun in his car.
What We Know About the Victims
The shootings claimed the lives of five men and two women, according to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office. The eighth victim, a man, was taken to a local hospital with life-threatening injuries but survived.
The victims identified by authorities so far are Zhisen Liu, 73, of San Francisco; Qizhong Cheng, 66, of Half Moon Bay; Marciano Martinez Jimenez, 50, of Moss Beach; Yetao Bing, 43; Aixiang Zhang, 74, of San Francisco; and Jingzhi Lu, 64, of Half Moon Bay.
Authorities said all the victims were Zhao’s current or former colleagues.
Jimenez has worked as an assistant manager at Concord Farms, which is one of the farms near the second shooting, according to court records.
When the farm was named in a federal indictment, Jimenez penned a letter asking for leniency for his employer, saying they “paid close attention to everyone’s personal and professional needs while always showing us respect and providing fair treatment and employment.”
What We Know About the Suspect
Zhao has been in the U.S. for at least a decade, prosecutors said, but his immigration status is unclear.
A spokesperson said Zhao worked full-time at California Terra Garden, the mushroom farm where authorities say the first shooting happened.
Zhao also worked at the farm for a number of years before the business changed owners in March 2022, according to the spokesperson. It was previously known as Mountain Mushroom Farm.
Four of the victims killed in the shooting and the one surviving victim worked at the farm, according to the spokesperson.
“As we fully cooperate with law enforcement in their investigation, we are marshaling resources to care for the loved ones of our team members who passed away from this horrific tragedy,” spokesperson David Oates said.
Zhao has no known criminal history in San Mateo County, according to the local sheriff. Authorities said they had no indication Zhao “was about to carry out this heinous act of violence.”
Zhao was, however, previously accused of suffocating his roommate and ex-coworker with a pillow at their apartment in San Jose, court records show. Zhao was upset that he could not get his job back at a restaurant where he previously worked with the roommate, according to the records.
“Mr. Zhao said to me, 'Today, I am going to kill you,'” his roommate Yingjiu Wang wrote in a 2013 request for a restraining order. “He then took a pillow and started to cover my face and suffocate me.”
“While I couldn’t breath, I used all my might within the few seconds to push him away with my blanket,” Wang added.
Zhao is due back in court Feb. 16 to enter a plea.
Michael Barba can be reached at [email protected]
Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at [email protected]