HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — The shooting rampage in Half Moon Bay that left seven people dead Monday in the coastal agricultural community in San Mateo County appears to be a case of workplace violence, law enforcement officials said.
“The only known connection between the victims and the suspect is that they may have been co-workers,” San Mateo County Sheriff Christina Corpus said at a news conference Tuesday. “All the evidence we have points to this being the instance of workplace violence.”
According to Half Moon Bay Vice Mayor Joaquin Jimenez, the suspect, identified by authorities as Chunli Zhao, 66, also lived with the farmers who were attacked in Monday’s deadly rampage.
For at least three years, the suspected gunman has resided in trailers at Mountain Mushroom Farm along State Route 92, where law enforcement officials said the suspect was employed and was the site of the first attack.
Jimenez, who also works with ALAS, a nonprofit that provides services and assistance to local farm workers, said he immediately recognized the man when a photo of him was released by law enforcement officials.
“He received food and help from some of the programs we provided, and he was always positive in the conversation,” Jimenez said.
There are an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 workers in this beach-side community who labor in farms and nurseries there, Jimenez said. Some of the migrant workers follow harvests and work, traveling across the country, but many of them settled in Half Moon Bay.
That’s part of what shocked Jimenez when he saw the news. “He was part of that community,” he said.
Jail records showed the suspect was being held in San Mateo County’s Maguire Correctional Facility. He was booked on charges of premeditated murder and first-degree attempted murder, with a sentencing enhancement of discharging a firearm during a violent felony.
District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said his office has not yet determined what charges to file against Zhao but expected to bring charges by Wednesday morning.
“Cases like this, we’ve never had one in this county of this many deaths at one scene or one time,” he said. “This is a case that is at the beginning stage; it has a long road to travel over the coming months and years. And to that extent we don’t want to try it out in the public eye.”
Seven men and one woman were targeted in the shootings, which happened near nursery and farming businesses, Corpus said. The lone survivor, with life-threatening injuries, was taken to a hospital to undergo surgery and was in stable condition Tuesday, officials said.
The San Mateo County coroner’s office said it had identified two of the victims early Tuesday, but declined to release their names or provide more information as it worked to locate their families.
“As some of the victims were members of our migrant community, this represents a unique challenge when it comes to identification and notifications of next of kin,” Corpus said.
Police arrested the suspect after he was discovered in his car at the San Mateo County sheriff’s substation in Half Moon Bay at about 4:40 p.m. Monday, officials said. The weapon believed to have been used in the incident, a semi-automatic handgun, was found inside his car.
Authorities declined to offer specifics about the gun used, saying that it was a semi-automatic handgun that was legally purchased and owned.
Video from KGO-TV showed deputies taking a man to the ground in the parking lot.
Vanessa Lomeli was at work Monday at Coastside Tax Consultants, just steps from the substation, when she and her boss heard sirens. She checked social media and learned there was an active shooter in the area. She advised her boss to lock the building “in case he comes here,” she said.
The alleged shooter did arrive and parked his car just outside Coastside, she said. “We saw a couple cops running with guns, saying ‘get down, get down,’ ” Lomeli recalled, adding that she and her colleagues crawled under their desks.
“We were just so terrified,” said Lomeli, who had to walk home because her car was blocked by emergency vehicles. “I’m still shaken.”
When she returned to work Tuesday morning, the suspect’s car was gone, she said.
The gunman is suspected of opening fire at two rural locations about a mile apart, shooting some of the victims in front of children who lived nearby and had recently been released from school. About eight children younger than 10 and four teenagers were in the area when the first shooting occurred, officials said.
Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, founder and executive director of ALAS, which is based in Half Moon Bay and regularly collaborates with workers on the mushroom farm where the suspect first opened fire, said her team was at the farm about an hour before the shooting to provide services.
She began notifying her squad about the shooting, adding that everything was on lockdown until the shooter was apprehended.
“Our farmworkers give so much to us and to see this violence happening is just a tragedy,” Hernandez-Arriaga said.
The workers who were impacted by the shooting have remained home, as well as some of the children and teenagers that witnessed the incident, the vice mayor said. City and county officials are working with nonprofit groups in an effort to provide affected workers with two weeks of wages to make up for any lost pay.
Investigators are still learning about the suspect, who was not previously known to local law enforcement, Corpus said Tuesday morning in an interview with CNN.
“Here in San Mateo County, he wasn’t a red flag for us, nothing to put him on our radar,” Corpus said. “He was known to the individuals at his workplace because he was employed there.”
The United Farm Workers union said in a statement it was mourning the loss of the seven farmworkers killed in the attacks, adding it was “heartbroken, angry, and demanding answers.”
“While we did not know them, they were part of the too often invisible, yet always essential, agricultural workforce that feeds America and the world,” the organization said in the statement. “As farm workers, and as human beings, they deserved far better.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom was expected to travel to Half Moon Bay on Tuesday to meet with victims’ families, local leaders and community members affected by the tragedy. His trip comes on the heels of a visit to Monterey Park, another community reeling from a mass shooting after a gunman opened fire in a crowded ballroom Saturday, killing 11 people.
President Joe Biden said Tuesday that he and first lady Jill Biden “are praying for those killed and injured in the latest tragic shooting in Half Moon Bay.”
“For the second time in recent days, California communities are mourning the loss of loved ones in a senseless act of gun violence,” he said in a statement.
Biden said he has offered federal support to local authorities. It is unclear whether he and Vice President Kamala Harris, who will travel to Monterey Park on Wednesday, will visit Half Moon Bay.
Attorney General Merrick Garland pledged Tuesday that “all of us at the Justice Department, including the FBI and ATF, will continue to support the Half Moon Bay community in the difficult days ahead.”
“The Justice Department is committed to doing everything in our power to protect our communities from the gun violence that is leaving no community in this country untouched,” he said.
Hernandez-Arriaga stressed the critical role of farmworkers, who toil day in and day out in challenging conditions, and called for more resources, including mental health support.
“Farmworkers work so hard for us,” she said. “They give their life for us, to this job. In rain, in bad weather, in crisis, during the pandemic. It’s time we respond to them with direct resources and support in a real way that makes a change.”
(Los Angeles Times staff writers Summer Lin and Brittny Mejia contributed to this report.)