California mass shooter due in court

Chunli Zhao, 66, is accused of shooting and killing seven farm workers in Half Moon Bay, California. PHOTOS: REUTERS

HALF MOON BAY, California - The man accused of shooting and killing seven farm workers near San Francisco in the latest of two back-to-back gun rampages in California that claimed 18 lives overall was due in court on Wednesday for his initial appearance before a judge.

Zhao Chunli, 66, the lone suspect in Monday’s massacre at two mushroom farms in the seaside town of Half Moon Bay, is expected to be formally presented with murder and other charges at the San Mateo County Superior Court in nearby Redwood City.

Also on Wednesday, US Vice-President Kamala Harris, a California native, planned to travel to the Los Angeles suburb of Monterey Park, where 11 people were fatally shot on Saturday night by a gunman who later took his own life.

Coming in quick succession, the two shooting sprees have left California reeling. It has been one of the bloodiest spates of mass gun violence in decades in the state, touted by its Democratic political leadership as having some of the strictest firearm laws in the country.

The authorities said Zhao was taken into custody on Monday evening outside a sheriff’s station, where he had driven himself, apparently to surrender, a short time after the attack on farm workers.

The motive for the shooting remained undetermined. But the authorities said Zhao had been employed by one of the growers, Mushroom Mountain Farms, and early evidence indicated the bloodshed stemmed from a workplace grievance. The second crime scene, Concord Farms, is about 1.6km away.

The suspect was described as a resident of Half Moon Bay, a community of about 12,000 residents known for its foggy weather, fishing and agriculture.

The area was hard hit by a string of deadly “atmospheric river” storms that lashed much of the California coast with pounding surf, extreme winds and torrential rain for several weeks, starting after Christmas.

The shooting, coming on the heels of the storms, cast a renewed spotlight on hardships already faced by the area’s farm workers – many of them immigrants from Latin America and Asia – who live in squalid labour encampments and toil long hours under poor conditions for extremely low pay.

The theory of a workplace-related disagreement at the root of the Half Moon Bay violence seemed buttressed by court records, obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, showing that a restaurant co-worker had obtained a restraining order against Zhao after accusing him of assault and death threats, the newspaper reported on Tuesday. The court order is no longer in effect.

San Mateo County jail records showed that Zhao was booked on suspicion of premeditated murder, attempted murder and firearms offences.

The Half Moon Bay killings unfolded two days after another gunman 610km to the south opened fire at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, a club frequented mostly by older patrons of Asian descent in Monterey Park.

Eleven people were shot to death and nine were injured in Saturday night’s gunfire, which some survivors and bystanders said they initially mistook for the sound of Chinese firecrackers as the predominantly Asian-American community was observing the start of Chinese New Year.

The authorities said the assailant, Huu Can Tran, 72, drove a short time later to a second dance hall in the neighbouring town of Alhambra, but was disarmed without firing a shot in a struggle with that club’s operator.

The next morning, Tran shot himself to death behind the wheel of his getaway vehicle as police closed in on him south of Los Angeles, leaving investigators with few clues as to what precipitated the dance hall carnage.

Although his motive was a mystery, Tran was known to have been a longtime regular of the Star Ballroom. At least one acquaintance – a tenant of a Los Angeles rental property he owned – suggested Tran may have been nursing a grudge against other patrons there.

Huu Can Tran, 72, shot himself to death behind the wheel of his getaway vehicle as police closed in on him. PHOTO: AFP

Ms Harris, a Democrat, who served as state attorney-general and a US senator from California before becoming both the first African-American politician and first Asian American elected vice-president, planned to pay a visit to Monterey Park and “to mourn its victims” on Wednesday, the White House said in a statement.

The shootings in both Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay were notable for the retirement age of their respective suspects, much older than typical perpetrators of deadly mass shootings that have grown all too commonplace in the United States. The authorities said the two men both used a semi-automatic pistol, and the victims of both attacks came from immigrant communities.

US President Joe Biden on Tuesday renewed his call for Congress to pass a national ban on assault weapons.

“Even as we await further details on these shootings, we know the scourge of gun violence across America requires stronger action,” he said.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, addressing reporters in Half Moon Bay, said he was disgusted with politicians, and even judges, at all levels who have blocked tougher gun regulation, despite an unrelenting tide of firearms violence in America.

“Thirty-nine now of these mass shootings, and we’re only on day 24 of the new year,” Mr Newsom said, citing figures from the national database kept by the non-profit Gun Violence Archive.

“Only in America. No. 1 in gun ownership. No. 1 in gun deaths. It’s not even complicated.”

The governor, a second-term Democrat, singled out US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, as among those leading the Republican opposition to gun control.

At a news conference on Capitol Hill, Mr McCarthy expressed condolences to families who lost loved ones in the recent bloodshed.

Asked if Congress would take up legislation to combat mass shootings and gun violence generally, Mr McCarthy said he wanted more information about the latest massacres, adding that California has some of the nation’s strictest gun laws and “apparently that did not work in this situation”.

Countering such arguments, Mr Newsom said a series of reforms enacted by legislators in Sacramento from 1993 and 2017 had lowered California’s firearm deaths by 55 per cent, while the state ranks 37 per cent below the national average in the rate of gun deaths.

“Gun safety works,” he said. “But we can’t do it alone.” REUTERS

Flowers left at a gate near the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, where 11 people were killed in a mass shooting, in California, on Jan 23. PHOTO: NYTIMES
People visit a makeshift memorial outside of Star Dance Studio in Monterey Park, California on Jan 23. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

News of the Half Moon Bay shooting broke as detectives were still investigating the Saturday night shooting at Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, where Tran had been a long-time patron.

On Monday, Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said investigators had collected 42 bullet casings and a large-capacity ammunition magazine from the Star Ballroom, attesting to the firepower unleashed at the dance studio.

A 57-year-old patron who was there and identified herself only as Ms Shally recounted momentarily mistaking the first gunshots for firecrackers, then huddling beneath a table with her dance partner when they realised what was happening.

“We were dancing, so happy, you know, then suddenly the gun sound,” she recalled in a Reuters interview on Tuesday. “I told my partner, ‘Don’t say anything, just lie down, please don’t say anything.’“

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When the gunfire ended, and the suspect had fled, Ms Shally said, she told her partner to “wake up now”, but “he didn’t respond”.

At that point, she panicked as she found her hand covered in blood, then realised her partner had been shot.

He did not survive.

Asked if she would attend another dance class, Ms Shally shook her head. “I think it will take a while to heal.” REUTERS

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