Half Moon Bay shooting suspect charged with 7 counts of murder, could face death penalty

Chunli Zhao appears for his arraignment in San Mateo Superior Court
Chunli Zhao appears in San Mateo Superior Court on Wednesday. (Shae Hammond / Pool / Getty Images)

The man accused of killing seven people in a shooting rampage at a farm and nursery in Half Moon Bay — unleashing waves of terror, shock and grief in this rural coastal community — faces felony charges that could make him eligible for the death penalty, authorities said.

San Mateo County Dist. Atty. Steven Wagstaffe said Wednesday that his office had yet to determine whether to seek capital punishment against the alleged gunman.

That decision "is something that will take place over the course of the next many, many months," he said during a news conference.

Chunli Zhao, 66, is accused of fatally shooting seven people and wounding another Monday in what authorities have characterized as a case of workplace violence. He was "a co-worker or former co-worker of the victims at each shooting site," the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office said.

Law enforcement officials allege the shooting took place after Zhao “snapped” because of a still-unknown grievance.

A mugshot of an older man with dark hair and dark eyes.
Half Moon Bay shooting suspect Chunli Zhao. (Associated Press)

He has been charged with seven counts of murder, one count of attempted murder, firearm use enhancements for each count, and a special circumstance allegation of multiple murder, according to court records. Zhao did not enter a plea when he appeared in court Wednesday.

He is being held without bail. An arraignment date is set for Feb. 16.

Should prosecutors decide not to seek the death penalty, Zhao could face a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019 declared a moratorium on the death penalty in California, which hasn’t executed a prisoner since 2006.

“This one is in a category that is way beyond anything we’ve ever dealt with,” Wagstaffe said of the shootings. “I’m sorry that we have joined the list of counties around this country that have had to deal with this. I always hoped that that would not be something that would occur in my career. But now that it’s here, we’ll step up. We’ll see that justice gets done.”

Authorities on Wednesday identified those killed in the shootings as Zhi Shen Liu, 73, of San Francisco; Marciano Martinez Jimenez, 50, of Moss Beach; Qi Zhong Cheng, 66, of Half Moon Bay; Ai Xiang Zhang, 74, of San Francisco; Jing Zhi Lu, 64, of Half Moon Bay; Ye Tao Bing, 43, whose residence was unknown; and Jose Romero Perez, a Mexican national.

Jose Romero Perez's younger brother Pedro Romero Perez was also shot and hospitalized, according to the district attorney's office. He underwent surgery but was stable as of Tuesday, authorities said.

The coroner’s office worked closely with the Mexican and Chinese consulates, as well as the FBI, to find ways to identify the victims and notify next of kin, officials said.

As the sun set over Main Street in Half Moon Bay on Wednesday, a few mourners began to light candles at a memorial in Mac Dutra Park. People strolled the tony, shop-lined street, glancing over at the television crews filming the quiet scene.

The memorial shrine included candles, each bearing a victim’s name, bouquets and cardboard hearts with messages written in Spanish and Chinese.

A placard referenced other mass shootings, including Sandy Hook, Colorado Springs and Monterey Park.

“We are with you,” a cardboard heart read in Spanish.

Much remains unclear about the alleged gunman and his background. According to the district attorney, Zhao is from China and has been in the United States for "at least a decade."

Local authorities said they recognized him as a farm employee who had received food and other support from a nonprofit that assists farmworkers. A Half Moon Bay official said the suspect had worked and lived for at least three years at the scene of Monday’s first shooting: California Terra Garden, formerly Mountain Mushroom Farm, on State Route 92.

At the driveway entrance to California Terra Garden on Wednesday, a young man who identified himself as the owner guarded the premises from his silver BMW, stopping other cars from entering the property.

Law enforcement officials had taken the crime-scene tape down around 3 p.m., according to the man, who declined to give his name.

Behind him sat a sprawling property of white greenhouse-like structures. Several hundred yards away, still taped off, was the group of trailers where the accused gunman was believed to have lived.

About two miles away, Concord Farms sat idle, its front gate open. There were no signs of movement or police activity at this second shooting site, and the police tape that had covered a rear barn was gone.

Next door, a backhoe shoveled dirt — its beeping and the whir of nearby traffic echoing across the eerily quiet scene.

The shootings rocked the normally tranquil community and added to days of sorrow and profound loss across California. Eleven people were fatally shot and nine others wounded at a Monterey Park dance studio on Saturday night, and one person was killed and four others wounded Monday night in Oakland during the filming of a music video.

Similarities between the shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay — both of which authorities allege were carried out by older men and motivated by some kind of personal animus — prompted speculation that the second may have been a copycat crime. But San Mateo County Sheriff Christina Corpus and Wagstaffe dismissed that theory.

"We believe the answer is no to that," Wagstaffe said.

More details on what prompted the tragedy in Half Moon Bay will emerge in the days and weeks ahead, but for now, many in the community are already turning their attention toward picking up the pieces.

San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller, whose district includes Half Moon Bay, said Wednesday that the county was providing services to 17 families directly affected by the shooting.

That includes relatives of the shooting victims as well as co-workers who were present during the rampage, he said.

Those affected have received financial assistance and accommodation at hotels, he said. Officials are also planning to open a resource center with caseworkers who can assist with food, legal and mental health needs, as well as other aid as necessary.

Although not all these individuals lost a blood relative, Mueller said, "when asked if people were their family members, their response was, 'We worked together for years. We’re all family.'

"They’re grieving," he said. "And so we’re learning as much as we can and also trying to provide as much support as we can to help them in this terrible time."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.