Half Moon Bay suspect lived at mushroom farm where shootings occurred

Law enforcement, including the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, investigate a shooting off state Highway 92.
Law enforcement officers on the scene of a shooting Monday in Half Moon Bay. (Nhat V. Meyer / Bay Area News Group)
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The shooting rampage Monday in Half Moon Bay that left seven people dead appears to be a case of workplace violence, law enforcement officials said. The gunman allegedly targeted specific co-workers in the coastal agricultural community in San Mateo County.

"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 the instance of workplace violence."

According to Half Moon Bay Vice Mayor Joaquin Jimenez, the suspect — identified by authorities as Chunli Zhao, 66 — lived with farmers who were attacked in Monday's deadly rampage at two locations.

Corpus said Zhao specifically targeted some of those he shot out of a grievance that authorities are still trying to understand.

"There was something that happened where he snapped," she told The Times in an interview.

Bystanders were caught up in the shooting, she said, but Zhao was looking for specific co-workers during the attack.

For at least three years, the suspected gunman has worked and resided in trailers at Mountain Mushroom Farm along State Route 92, the site of the first attack, Jimenez said.

Behind police caution tape three people walk up a road toward a row of greenhouses flanked by a forest.
FBI agents arrive Tuesday at a farm in Half Moon Bay, one of two locations where the shootings occurred. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Jimenez, who works with ALAS, a nonprofit that provides services and assistance to local farmworkers, said he immediately recognized the man when a photo was released by law enforcement officials.

“He received food and help from some of the programs we provided, and he was always positive in the conversation," Jimenez said.

There are an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 workers at farms and nurseries in this beach-side community, Jimenez said. Some migrant workers follow harvests, traveling across the country, but many have settled in Half Moon Bay.

That’s what shocked Jimenez when he heard the news.

"He was part of that community,” he said.

Salvador Flores Larios, 66, worked for Mountain Mushroom Farm two or three years ago. He said in an interview that he recognized Zhao when he saw news about the shooting but didn't remember ever speaking to him.

Larios said employees "worked in pairs," and the "Chinos y Mexicanos," or Chinese and Mexicans, often worked separately.

Five of those shot during the rampage were employees of California Terra Garden, which bought Mountain Mushroom Farm last March, according to spokesman David Oates.

"We remain shocked and grief-stricken over the senseless loss of four of our friends and longtime employees, and we pray for the team member that remains in critical condition," Oates said in a statement.

Oates declined to answer questions regarding Zhao and his employment at the farm, or if the company had been aware of any grievance he may have had with co-workers. He said he couldn't comment on specifics, but the company was fully cooperating with investigators.

Mugshot of Chunli Zhao
Chunli Zhao is the suspect in shootings that left seven people dead in Half Moon Bay. (San Mateo County Sheriff's Office)

Jail records show that Zhao is being held in San Mateo County’s Maguire Correctional Facility. He was booked on suspicion of premeditated murder and first-degree attempted murder, with a sentencing enhancement of discharging a firearm during a violent felony.

Dist. Atty. Steve Wagstaffe said his office has not determined what charges to file against Zhao but expects to bring charges 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."

Six men and two women were targeted in the shootings, Corpus said. The lone survivor, who sustained life-threatening injuries, was taken to a hospital to undergo surgery and was in stable condition Tuesday, officials said.

The San Mateo County coroner’s office said it had identified two of the victims early Tuesday but declined to provide more information as it worked to locate 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.

Gov. Gavin Newsom traveled Tuesday to Half Moon Bay to meet with victims’ families, local leaders and other community members. His trip came on the heels of a visit to Monterey Park, another community reeling from a mass shooting that occurred Saturday in a crowded ballroom and left 11 dead.

Speaking at an afternoon news conference, Newsom held up a handful of notes — talking points, he said, from previous shootings. He rattled off the locations: San Jose, Gilroy, Thousands Oaks.

Now, two more join the list. Newsom said he "started writing in Monterey Park, and now I have to write in Half Moon Bay. What the hell is going on?"

"This whole thing is just a stacking of issues that come to the fore. But 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?"

Police arrested Zhao after he was discovered at about 4:40 p.m. Monday in his car at the San Mateo County sheriff’s substation in Half Moon Bay, officials said. The weapon believed to have been used in the incident, a semiautomatic handgun, was found inside the car. Authorities said it was legally purchased and owned.

Video from KGO-TV showed deputies taking a man to the ground in the parking lot.

After fleeing from the second shooting scene, Corpus said, Zhao tossed his cellphone out the window in an apparent effort to prevent law enforcement from using it to find his location.

Two hours after the rampage was first reported, officials spotted him leaning back in the seat of his car, parked near the substation.

“I’m not sure that he was fully aware that our substation was in close proximity,” Corpus said.

Vanessa Lomeli was at work Monday at Coastside Tax Consultants, just steps from the substation, when she and her boss heard sirens. She checked social media and learned there was an active shooter in the area. She advised her boss to lock the building “in case he comes here,” she said.

The shooter did arrive and parked his car just outside Coastside, 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."

When she returned to work Tuesday morning, the suspect's car was gone, she said.

Half Moon Bay resident Suki Shay, 78, worries 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.”

Shay said she worries about her safety. She moved to the community from Taiwan 40 years ago and is concerned people will now discriminate against her because the suspect is Asian.

The gunman is suspected of opening fire at two rural locations about a mile apart, shooting some victims in front of children who had recently been released from school. About eight kids younger than 10 and four teenagers were in the area when the first shooting occurred, officials said.

Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, founder and executive director of ALAS, which is based in Half Moon Bay and regularly collaborates with workers on the mushroom farm, said her team was providing services at the site about an hour before the shooting.

“Our farmworkers give so much to us, and to see this violence happening is just a tragedy,” Hernandez-Arriaga said.

The families of the victims are in shock, she said.

“The reality of what they’re living through is hitting home for them,” she said. “Our town is such a safe community, a very tightknit community, and this is not something that anyone saw coming.

“What we do know is that it was a regular day, and all of a sudden it turned into a tragedy,” she said.

The workers who were affected by the shooting have remained home, as have some of the children who witnessed the incident, the vice mayor said. City and county officials are working with nonprofit groups to provide affected workers with two weeks of wages to make up for lost pay.

Meanwhile, investigators are learning more about the suspect.

The San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday reported that a former co-worker accused Zhao of trying to suffocate him and filed a restraining order against him in 2013. Corpus said investigators became aware of that incident Tuesday, noting that Zhao had presented no red flags to law enforcement during his time at Half Moon Bay.

The United Farm Workers said in a statement that it was mourning the loss of the seven farmworkers and 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 farm workers, and as human beings, they deserved far better."

The shooting has highlighted difficult living conditions for farmworkers, which ALAS brought up in a meeting with Newsom, Hernandez-Arriaga said.

Members of her team spoke about the need for mental health resources for agricultural laborers and “the invisibility of who they are in our country and what they endure in really harsh and challenging conditions,” she said.

President Biden said Tuesday that he and First Lady Jill Biden “are praying 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,” he said in a statement.

Biden said he has offered federal support to local authorities. 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.

"The Justice Department is committed to doing everything in our power to protect our communities from the gun violence that is leaving no community in this country untouched," he added.

Hernandez-Arriaga stressed the critical role of farmworkers, who toil in challenging conditions, and called for more resources, including mental health support.

“Farmworkers work so hard for us,” she said. “They give their life for us, to this job, 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.”

Half Moon Bay has been reeling for weeks from damage caused by powerful storms.

Corpus said she was proud of how the community has pulled together.

“It feels like the blows just keep coming to this community,” she said.

Times staff writers Summer Lin, Brittny Mejia and Christian Martinez contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.