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California farm mass shooting suspect pleads not guilty

Zhao Chunli, seen here at an earlier court appearance, has denied seven counts of murder and one of attempted murder in connection with the mass killings at farms in Half Moon Bay last month. ©AFP

Los Angeles (AFP) - The man accused of killing seven people and injuring another by opening fire on mushroom farms in northern California pleaded not guilty on Thursday, reports said.

Zhao Chunli, 66, is charged with murdering fellow farmworkers at two sites in Half Moon Bay last month, in what prosecutors believe was a workplace dispute.

The January 23 killings came less than 48 hours after another elderly Asian man shot dead 11 people at a dance studio in southern California as they celebrated Lunar New Year.

Zhao, a Chinese national who has been in the United States for over a decade, spoke through an interpreter at the court in Redwood City to deny the seven murder charges, one count of attempted murder, and one special circumstance allegation of multiple murder.

Most of those who died were also Chinese.Two were Mexican.

Zhao and his wife were among workers who lived at the site of the first attack.

A judge ordered him to appear in court again on May 3, the San Jose Mercury reported.

Days after he was arrested, Zhao told a reporter who visited him in jail that he carried out the killings and believed he was suffering from mental illness.

Zhao told NBC Bay Area's Janelle Wang -- who had identified herself as a journalist -- that he had endured years of bullying and overwork, but that his complaints were never addressed.

Just days before the northern California shooting, a 72-year-old gunman killed 11 people at a dance hall near Los Angeles.

Before he was able to continue his attack at another studio, his gun was wrestled away.

Huu Can Tran, who police said was of Vietnamese origin, but had lived in Hong Kong previously, shot himself dead the following morning as officers moved in.

The two horrific episodes, both involving semi-automatic weapons, sparked bafflement from California's large Asian American community, as people struggled to come to terms with what had happened.

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