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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Robert Salonga and Jakob Rodgers

Half Moon Bay shooting: Massacre fueled by simmering tensions among farmworkers, sources say

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — The shooting massacres at two coastal mushroom farms earlier this week were fueled by the suspected gunman’s mounting frustrations with his job conditions and simmering tensions with other colleagues at the farm where he lived and worked, a law enforcement source told the Bay Area News Group.

The workplace problems included co-workers picking on him over his small stature, said the source.

Chunli Zhao, 66, apparently had enough with his purported mistreatment Monday and responded by fatally shooting four people and wounding another at California Terra Gardens farm, where he worked. He then drove three miles south to Concord Farms — which once employed him — and killed three more farm workers.

That’s the general sense of investigators to this point, and sheds light on why early on, San Mateo County Sheriff Christina Corpus may have been so confident in calling the shooting a instance of “workplace violence” without offering more detail. The same goes for Peninsula Rep. Anna Eshoo, who said the victims “were killed with purpose, with intent, execution style,” while similarly not revealing what supported that swift conclusion.

The law-enforcement source, who is close to the shooting investigation, also built upon eyewitness accounts illustrating what seemed to be deliberate targeting by Zhao, affirming that Zhao methodically selected his victims and ignored other people who unwittingly got in his way during the rampage.

Then on Thursday, Zhao reportedly affirmed this narrative in a jailhouse interview with NBC Bay Area at the Redwood City jail where he is being held on seven counts of murder and one of attempted murder, with numerous sentencing enhancements attached to each charge that stand to put him in prison for life if he is convicted.

In the television report, which recounted an off-camera interview with Zhao, he is said to have admitted to committing the shootings and described being fed up with long hours at the farm and bullying by his co-workers. The law-enforcement source who spoke to this news organization said the final straw might have been an insult about his “diminutive” size, which is said to have occurred not long before the shootings.

He reportedly voiced remorse for the killings, and suggested that an undiagnosed mental illness may have factored into his actions.

Zhao also stated that the legally obtained semi-automatic Ruger pistol that authorities say he used was bought in 2021, and that he moved to the United States 11 years ago on a green card. He and his wife, who both lived on the farm, have a 40-year-old daughter who lives in China, according to the report.

That timeline aligns with court records showing that in 2013, a one-time roommate of Zhao’s at a home in San Jose filed a civil-harassment restraining order against him after alleging that Zhao tried to smother him to death with a pillow and threatened to use a knife to “split” open his head. The conflict apparently arose, according to a court petition, from Zhao wanting his job back after quitting at a South Bay restaurant where the roommate also worked.

Zhao was arrested about two hours after the shootings in the parking lot of the sheriff’s substation in Half Moon Bay, where he surrendered and was taken to the ground by police officers in a scene captured on witness video. According to the TV report Thursday, Zhao reportedly said he drove immediately to the substation and sat in his car for nearly two hours after failing to find someone to surrender to. He later gave himself up after watching police surround his vehicle and cautiously approach. Authorities found a note Zhao had written to his wife in the vehicle.

Zhao was arraigned Wednesday and could face up to life in prison without parole, and possibly the death penalty, based on the charges filed against him by the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office.

In the meantime, elected officials and community and advocacy groups are working to support the farmworkers who worked at the shooting sites and the families of the shooting victims. Among the newest fundraising efforts is a GoFundMe campaign sponsored by the advocacy groups Chinese for Affirmative Action, Asian American Foundation, the Asian Pacific Fund, the Asian Law Caucus, and Stop AAPI Hate.


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