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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Alexandra E. Petri, Salvador Hernandez and Terry Castleman

Suspect admits to killings in Half Moon Bay shootings in jailhouse interview

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — The man charged with killing seven co-workers in a pair of mass shootings at farms in Half Moon Bay admitted to his role in the deadly shootings in a jailhouse interview Thursday.

Chunli Zhao, 66, spoke to NBC Bay Area’s Janelle Wang, telling the reporter he had experienced “years of bullying” and working long hours at the farm before he took a semiautomatic handgun and opened fire on his co-workers Monday.

“He admitted that he did do it,” Wang said in the report.

San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen M. Wagstaffe told The Times in an interview that although he could not go into details in the case, Zhao’s comments to the TV station were “consistent with what he told law enforcement.”

In the 15-minute interview, Zhao also said he had been suffering from “some sort of mental illness” and was “not in his right mind” at the time of the shooting.

Zhao said he planned to turn himself in to law enforcement when he drove to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office and was writing a note in his car before he was taken into custody.

Wang said Zhao also told her that he regretted the deadly incident.

Zhao’s comments also come as state officials say they have opened investigations into labor and workplace practices at the two sites of Monday’s fatal shootings and cast a spotlight on the lives of California’s farmworkers who often live and work in dangerous conditions.

The investigation comes after Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday visited the beachside community, where he spoke with the victims’ families and co-workers about the deadly shooting and their workplace environments.

Without naming specifics, Newsom said some farmworkers were “living in shipping containers” and working for $9 an hour, well below the state minimum wage of $15.50.

“No healthcare, no support, no services, but (they’re) taking care of our health, providing a service to us each and every day,” he said at the news conference.

A spokesperson for Newsom called the workers’ conditions “simply deplorable” in a statement.

“Our country relies on their back-breaking work, yet Congress cannot even provide them the stability of raising their families and working in this country without fear of deportation, which contributes to their vulnerability in the workplace,” Daniel Villaseñor, deputy press secretary for Newsom’s office, said in the statement. “California is investigating the farms involved in the Half Moon Bay shooting to ensure workers are treated fairly and with the compassion they deserve.”

News of the investigation was first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health and the labor commissioner’s office confirmed they’re investigating the two work sites in Half Moon Bay for potential labor and workplace safety and health violations.

Both agencies “want to ensure that employees are being afforded all the protections of California labor laws,” according to a statement.

Half Moon Bay is a rural beach town where the bedrock industry is vegetable and flower farms, though many, particularly the flower farms, have closed in recent years, impacting job opportunities. Farm owners have also pointed to the state’s extreme weather, with floods and heavy winds, devastating their fields and the surrounding infrastructure.

About 2,500 to 3,000 farmworkers live in the town at any given time, officials said. Many settle in the wealthy community, after finding steady work, often living in mobile homes or trailers on the farms where they’re employed — just a short drive, but out of sight, of the town’s multimillion-dollar coastal homes.

The two farms subject to the probe are California Terra Garden along State Route 92, the site of the first attack, and Concord Farms on Cabrillo Highway, the site of the second attack.

David Oates, a crisis public relations expert hired by California Terra Garden, declined to comment on the investigation but told The Times an official with the state’s labor commissioner’s office was at the farm Wednesday.

Newsom’s characterization of low pay and poor living conditions for workers doesn’t “reflect the conditions at California Terra Gardens,” he said.

The company typically employs about 35 people, and about eight families live on site in mobile trailer homes that are permitted and inspected by the county, Oates said.

The families pay about $300 a month for rent, are compensated between $16.50 to $24 an hour and receive health benefits, he said.

“We treat them like family members,” he said, adding that some of the families have lived on the property before California Terra Garden acquired the farm in March 2020.

Officials with Concord Farms did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The investigation comes after a gunman, whom authorities have identified as Zhao, opened fire at both locations, killing seven people and injuring one in what authorities have characterized as a case of workplace violence.

The suspect, who officials said has worked at and resided in trailers at Mountain Mushroom Farm, was “a co-worker or former co-worker of the victims at each shooting site,” the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office said.

Law enforcement officials allege the rampage took place after Zhao “snapped” because of a still-unknown grievance.

The suspect faces felony charges that could make him eligible for the death penalty, authorities said.

The shooting, which came less than 48 hours after a mass shooting in Monterey Park that killed 11 people, has drawn attention to what advocates say is a well-known secret: Farms across the state — and the United States — often thrive on poor and vulnerable agricultural workers, many of whom are undocumented and are unaware of their rights.

Local authorities in recent days have also pledged to improve working conditions at area farms.

Wagstaffe at a news conference Wednesday described the “squalor” that employees live in, and said the county executive told him in a phone call that morning, “Now we know about it, and we have to act on it.”

Times staff writer Susanne Rust contributed to this report.

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