HALF MOON BAY, CALIFORNIA (AP) – A farmworker accused of killing seven people in back-to-back shootings at two Northern California mushroom farms was charged on Wednesday with seven counts of murder and one of attempted murder.
Chunli Zhao, 66, was set to make his first court appearance on Wednesday but it was postponed until February 16, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said. His two attorneys did not immediately respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
Wagstaffe, speaking outside the courthouse, declined to share any additional details on a motive in the killing of Zhao’s current and former co-workers, saying he wanted to keep the details out of the public eye to ensure a fair trial. Sheriff’s officials have said it was workplace violence.
It was California’s third mass shooting in eight days, and the largest in San Mateo County’s history, Wagstaffe said. It followed the killing of 11 people in the Los Angeles area amid Lunar New Year celebrations last Saturday.
Authorities believe Zhao acted alone on Monday when he entered a mushroom farm where he worked in Half Moon Bay, shot and killed four people and seriously wounded a fifth.
He then drove to a nearby farm where he worked previously and killed three more people, said a sheriff’s spokesperson Eamonn Allen. Erlin Ortiz and her sister, Miriam Ortiz, pack mushrooms at the farm where Zhao is accused of killing four people.
They were sitting in their car after their shift when they saw Zhao, who was about 12 metres away, pull a gun from a backpack, shout something in Mandarin to a fellow farmworker and then shoot the man, they told the Bay Area News Group.
Zhao then shot a second worker, and gunned down the first worker who had gotten to his feet and tried to run away, Erlin Ortiz said.
“He was super red and very angry,” she said of Zhao.
Shocked and horrified, Miriam Ortiz’s husband, who was behind the wheel, started the car and prepared to drive away.
Zhao turned to look at them, then hopped onto a forklift and headed toward an encampment on the farm where he and the sisters lived. His demeanour had changed, they said.
“He was laughing, he was smiling,” Erlin Ortiz said.