REDWOOD CITY, California - A 66-year-old immigrant farm worker was formally charged with premeditated murder on Wednesday in the fatal shooting of seven co-workers near San Francisco, the second of two gun rampages in California in recent days in which 18 people were killed.
Zhao Chunli, a Chinese citizen and the lone suspect in Monday’s massacre at two mushroom farms in the seaside town of Half Moon Bay, was formally presented with seven counts of murder and a single count of attempted murder during his first court appearance in nearby Redwood City.
Zhao, wearing red-coloured jail garb and enclosed behind a glass panel, was ordered to be held without bond during a brief hearing before a San Mateo County Superior Court judge.
The defendant, with close-cropped gray hair, was expressionless through the hearing. He was assigned two private defence lawyers; no plea was entered.
The next court proceeding in the case has been set for Feb 16.
A Mandarin-language translator was provided for the defendant who, according to District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, is a Chinese citizen who has lived in the United States for at least 10 years.
After the hearing, Mr Wagstaffe told reporters outside the courthouse that prosecutors have not yet determined Zhao’s precise immigration status or whether he entered the country legally.
The prosecutor said the authorities have an idea about the suspect’s motives but declined to share any details. Mr Wagstaffe also revealed the existence of one clue, saying a note was found inside Zhao’s car, though he declined to disclose what it said.
The district attorney said Zhao was “cooperative” when initially interviewed by the authorities following his arrest and gave “a complete statement”.
Still, the expectation is that Zhao will enter a not-guilty plea as the proceedings progress, “and we want to make sure this man gets a fair trial”, Mr Wagstaffe said.
In addition to eight felony counts, the 10-page criminal complaint alleges “special circumstances”, accusing Zhao of “personally and intentionally” shooting to kill.
Under California law, defendants convicted of murder with “special circumstances” can be eligible for the death penalty, though Governor Gavin Newsom in 2019 declared a moratorium on executions. The state has not put a condemned inmate to death since 2006.
Otherwise, the maximum sentence is life in prison without the possibility of parole, Mr Wagstaffe said.
Late on Wednesday, Vice-President Kamala Harris paid a condolence visit to the Los Angeles suburb of Monterey Park, where 11 people were killed in a separate rampage at a ballroom dance hall last Saturday night by a gunman who later took his own life.
Ms Harris, a California native, laid flowers at a memorial set up outside the venue, and in brief comments to reporters called for Congress to enact tougher national gun safety measures. She then met victims’ families privately.
Not a ‘copy cat’
California’s firearm laws are among the strictest in the country, and the two shootings, coming in quick succession, left the state reeling from one of the bloodiest spates of mass gun violence in decades.
The authorities said each of the two killing sprees represented the single greatest loss of life from a single act of violence in Los Angeles and San Mateo counties.
Asked if investigators believed the Half Moon Bay killings were a “copy-cat” crime inspired by the shootings in Monterey Park two days earlier, Mr Wagstaffe said flatly, “No.”
Zhao was taken into custody on Monday evening outside a sheriff’s station, where police said he had driven shortly after the attack on farm workers.
The precise motive for the shooting remained unclear. Zhao had been employed by one of the growers, Mountain Mushroom Farm, and had resided at the property along with some other employees, according to its owners. The authorities said early evidence indicated the bloodshed stemmed from a workplace grievance.
The second crime scene, Concord Farms, is about 1.6km away.
Sheriff Christina Corpus said in a CNN interview that the gunman “went after and pursued” specific victims, even though he had the chance to hurt others, and that he was a “co-worker or former co-worker” of the victims at both shooting sites.
She said Zhao was not known to law enforcement before Monday’s bloodshed. CNN and other media outlets have reported that Zhao was the subject of a temporary restraining order after a former co-worker accused him of attacking and threatening him in 2013.
Half Moon Bay, a town of 12,000 residents south of San Francisco, is home to both a luxury resort and a low-income farming community.
The shooting cast a renewed spotlight on hardships faced by the area’s farm workers, many of them immigrants from Latin America and Asia who often live in labour encampments and toil for long hours under poor conditions for extremely low pay.
The killings there unfolded two days after a gunman over 600km to the south opened fire at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, a club frequented mostly by older patrons of Asian descent in Monterey Park.
In addition to the 11 people killed, nine were wounded in last Saturday night’s gunfire, which some survivors and bystanders said they initially mistook for fireworks, as the predominantly Asian-American community was celebrating the Chinese New Year.
The authorities said the assailant, Huu Can Tran, 72, drove a short time later to a second dance hall, where that club’s operator disarmed him before he could open fire.
The next morning, Tran shot himself to death behind the wheel of his vehicle as police closed in on him south of Los Angeles.
Although his motive remained unclear, Tran was a known regular of the Star Ballroom. A tenant of a Los Angeles-rental property he owned suggested that Tran may have been nursing a grudge against other patrons.
Both rampages were notable for the suspects’ age, much older than typical in deadly mass shootings that have grown all too commonplace in the US.
The authorities said both gunmen used semi-automatic pistols. REUTERS