The 66-year-old man accused of gunning down seven people and critically injuring one other at two mushroom farms earlier this week made his initial court appearance Wednesday. Chunli Zhao did not enter a plea, his lawyers instead requesting that the judge give them more time to meet with their client. His arraignment was rescheduled to Feb. 16.
Zhao is charged with seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, the highest number ever filed for a single incident in San Mateo County according to San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe.
If convicted, Zhao could face life in prison without parole or the death penalty. Wagstaffe said he planned to find out as much as possible about the defendant and victims over “many, many months” before deciding whether to seek capital punishment.
Zhao, who speaks Mandarin and communicated through an interpreter, spoke only once during the proceedings, saying “yes” to confirm his name. He wore a red jumpsuit and was shackled with handcuffs attached to his waist. He sat in an adjacent room behind glass panels, holding a yellow paper in front of his face, unmoving throughout the proceedings, which lasted under five minutes.
Dozens of journalists, community members and law enforcement officials packed into Courtroom 4-A for the arraignment, which was scheduled to take place Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. One woman, who wore a white shirt with the word “LOVE” printed on it, could be seen wiping away tears before entering the courtroom.
Zhao, who did not request a lawyer, was appointed two private defenders, Jonathan McDougall and Eric Hove. The defendant was denied bail and will remain in custody until his next court appearance on Feb. 16.
Wagstaffe requested to hold Zhao without bail based on the assessment that the defendant is a Chinese citizen and presents “a danger to the community.” Zhao has “plenty of motives to run,” Wagstaffe said in a news conference following the court proceeding.
The victims, six of whom have been publicly identified, were migrant farm workers in Half Moon Bay. Two of the victims who were killed were Mexican citizens; five others were of Asian descent and the only surviving victim was of Mexican descent. The names of the six victims who have been identified are Marciano Martinez Jimenez, 50, of Moss Beach; Zhushen Liu, 73, of San Francisco; Qizhong Cheng, 66, of Half Moon Bay; Yetao Bing, 43, who had no listed city of residence; Aixiang Zhang, 74, of San Francisco; and Jingzhu Lu, 64, of Half Moon Bay.
Investigators have an idea about Zhao’s motive for the shootings, Wagstaffe said, though he declined to elaborate. He said they don’t believe the attack was a copycat of last weekend’s Monterey Park shootings, during which eleven people between the ages of 57 and 76 are believed to have been killed by 72-year-old Huu Can Tran.
Zhao, who had lived in the United States for at least a decade, was employed at Mountain Mushroom Farm—where the first shooting took place—for “years,” according to Wagstaffe. The second shooting occurred at Concord Farms off Cabrillo Highway South.
Zhao was “cooperative” with the sheriff’s detectives who conducted the initial interview through an interpreter, Wagstaffe said.
A letter was found in Zhao’s car after he was apprehended in the parking lot of the Half Moon Bay Police Bureau Substation, according to Wagstaffe, who did not comment on the contents of the note. Zhao also had a semi-automatic handgun in his car, officials said.
On Monday, Jan. 23 at about 2:22 p.m., deputies responded to the 12700 block of San Mateo Road, or Highway 92, in unincorporated San Mateo County, on reports of a shooting involving multiple victims, according to Sheriff Christina Corpus.
Upon arriving, deputies found four people dead with gunshot wounds, Corpus said. They also found a fifth person with gunshot wounds who was taken to Stanford Medical Center with life-threatening injuries. Zhao was not immediately located, according to the sheriff's office.
Shortly after, three additional victims were found dead with gunshot wounds at a separate location in the 2100 block of Cabrillo Highway South.