Half Moon Bay shooting labeled ‘workplace violence,’ suspected shooter’s dark history comes to light

HALF MOON BAY — A day after a mass shooting at two mushroom farms shook this seaside community, horrific details began to emerge of farm workers hiding in portable toilets as a suspected gunman with a dark history opened fire, killing seven.

Officials said Chunli Zhao, the alleged 66-year-old shooter, lived with his wife in what locals describe as a ramshackle collection of trailers and tent-like structures housing a community of Asian and Latino immigrant workers. Court records suggest he may have been prone to violence, attempting to suffocate and threatening to “split (the) head” of a former roommate.

Chunli Zhao, 67, the suspect in the killing of seven people in Half Moon Bay on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. (San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office) 

He also worked at Mountain Mushroom Farms, the first of the two shooting-spree locations. On Tuesday, law enforcement officials described Zhao was a “disgruntled” employee who showed up Monday with a semi-automatic pistol he purchased legally.

Evidence so far “points to this being an instance of workplace violence,” the San Mateo sheriff’s office said. The deadliest mass shooting in San Mateo County history came as the state reels from a crescendo of gun violence over the past 72 hours.

“They were killed with purpose, with intent, execution style,” said Congresswoman Anna Eshoo. Eshoo met with survivors, some who sought cover in portable toilets as the carnage ensued. “They’re fearful about their livelihoods, fearful for their families, and (there is) a great deal of trauma.”

Flowers rest in a makeshift memorial to honor mass shooting victims at Mac Dutra Park in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Seven adults were killed by one suspect at two different locations on Monday. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

U.S. Representative Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) speaks to the media outside ALAS, a local nonprofit in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Jan. 24, 2023, one day after a gunman shot and killed seven farmworkers. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

A candle is added to a makeshift memorial for the seven victims killed in yesterday's mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Connie Cunningham,73, of Cupertino tears up before dropping off flowers at the reunification center in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Seven people were killed in Half Moon Bay on Monday night. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)

A tribute banner is displayed along with seven candles and flowers in a makeshift memorial to honor mass shooting victims at Mac Dutra Park in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Seven adults were killed by one suspect at two different locations on Monday. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Yvonne Hecht, of El Granada, and members of the community attend a vigil to honor mass shooting victims at the Lutheran church in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Seven adults were killed by one suspect at two different locations on Monday. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

A person on a bike rides past a makeshift memorial to honor mass shooting victims at Mac Dutra Park in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Seven adults were killed by one suspect at two different locations on Monday. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Faith leaders and members of the community gather during a vigil to honor mass shooting victims at the Lutheran church in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Seven adults were killed by one suspect at two different locations on Monday. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Members of the community arrive at the Lutheran church in Half Moon Bay, Calif., for a vigil to honor mass shooting victims on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Seven adults were killed by one suspect at two different locations on Monday. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

A vase of flower is left outside the family reunification center in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Tuesday morning, Jan. 24, 2023, one day after a gunman shot and killed seven farmworkers in this coast side community. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

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San Mateo authorities said Tuesday there were “no proceeding factors” suggesting Zhao was readying for an attack. But recently unearthed court records from a decade ago detail a history of violent, workplace-related outbursts.

In 2013, Zhao’s former roommate and co-worker at a San Jose restaurant filed a successful restraining order in Santa Clara County court against Zhao after claiming he said, “Today I am going to kill you.”

The violent spat in March 2013 was tied to a dispute over Zhao’s losing his job at a San Jose restaurant and being told he’d have to pick up his final paycheck at the restaurant. Zhao’s roommate said he “took a pillow and started to cover my face and suffocate me” and also threatened to “use a kitchen knife to split my head” if he could not return to the job.

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said Tuesday that his investigators are learning all they can about the shooter. “We’re trying to find out, how did he buy a gun? Was he here on a work visa? Did he overstay a work visa?”

Wagstaffe anticipates that his office will file seven counts of murder, one count of attempted murder, along with other gun and special circumstances charges against Zhao on Wednesday, when he is expected to be arraigned in a Redwood City courtroom.

The shooting in Half Moon Bay is part of a rash of gun violence that has rocked the state. A shooter killed 11 people during a Lunar New Year’s celebration in Monterey Park on Saturday. And on Monday night, a gas station shooting in Oakland killed one person and injured four others.

“Only in America, number one in gun ownership, number one in gun deaths — it is not that complicated,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday from Half Moon Bay.

But Newsom said that the Half Moon Bay shooting is also a “stacking of issues” related to squalid living conditions of agricultural workers and poor pay, a sentiment echoed by local officials and aid workers.

“What the hell is wrong with us,” he asked, “that we allow these weapons of war and large-capacity clips out on our streets and sidewalks?”

Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during a press conference at the reunification center in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Seven people were killed in Half Moon Bay on Monday night. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)

Governor Gavin Newsom holds up a list of talking points from past mass shootings including notes from the VTA shooting in San Jose at the reunification center in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Seven people were killed in Half Moon Bay on Monday night. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)

Half Moon Bay Vice Mayor Joaquin Jimenez stands behind Governor Gavin Newsom as he speaks during a press conference at the reunification center in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Seven people were killed in Half Moon Bay on Monday night. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)

People watch as Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during a press conference at the reunification center in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Seven people were killed in Half Moon Bay on Monday night. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom heads to a press conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Jan. 24, 2023, one day after a gunman shot and killed seven farmworkers. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

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Among the victims are five adult males and two adult females of Latino and Asian descent who have yet to be publicly named. Family members and friends, however, identified to the Bay Area News Group two of the dead, Martin Martinez and Jose Romero Perez, and an eighth person, Pedro Romero Perez, who survived the shooting and is being treated at a Stanford trauma center.

Jose and Pedro Romero Perez are brothers who left behind multiple children in Mexico, according to Maria Melgar who owns the Hilltop Grocery store. “I’m a store owner, so I see them all the time,” said Melgar. She said the brothers came to Half Moon Bay to build a livelihood but were considering moving out of state to seek better work.

“I remember (they) would come in and buy the normal stuff, tortillas, tomatoes, bread and things,” said Melgar, who had tears streaming down her face. “I was taking a rest day yesterday, but when I got the call I was so sad I started crying. It’s so sad.”

Renato Juarez Perez, who is cousins with the two brothers, said he spoke with one of them just two days ago.

“He asked me to give him the number for the Mexican consulate to see about getting a passport to go back home and visit family,” said Juarez Perez. “I told him I couldn’t help him because I was going into work. Our shifts just didn’t line up. I didn’t get to see him.”

Alicia Ortega grieves at her home in Moss Beach, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, one day after her boyfriend was killed by a gunman in a mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, Calif. Seven lives were lost. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Alicia Ortega and Martin Martinez are photographed at a wedding event in 2022. Ortega says Martinez was among the seven farmworkers killed in the Half Moon Bay mass shooting. (Photo courtesy of Alicia Ortega)

Renato Juarez Perez had two cousins shot during yesterday’s mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, Calif. He talks about the tragedy, Tuesday morning, Jan. 24, 2023, as one cousin clings to life at Stanford Medical Center. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Jose Romero Perez, 38, was killed at Mountain Mushroom Farm during a workplace shooting in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. Chunli Zhao, 66, of Half Moon Bay, the suspect in the shooting that killed seven people and injured an eighth, was arrested the same day in a sheriff’s substation parking lot as he sat inside his car. (photo courtesy Perez family)

Pedro Romero Perez, of Half Moon Bay, is in the hospital after being shot during a workplace shooting at Mountain Mushroom Farm in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. Chunli Zhao, 66, of Half Moon Bay, the suspect in the shooting that killed seven people and injured an eighth, was arrested the same day in a sheriff’s substation parking lot as he sat inside his car. (photo courtesy Perez family)

Maria Melgar, manager of Hilltop Grocery on Highway 92, talks Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023 about yesterday's mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, Calif. Melgar, a 40-year resident of Half Moon Bay, said some of the victims were her customers. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

The entrance of Mountain Mushroom Farms is blocked off by San Mateo County Sheriffs in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Four people were shot at Mountain Mushroom Farms on Monday night. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)

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Sheriff’s Capt. Eamonn Allen said there is also a “very real concern of retribution” against Zhao’s wife, who lived on the mushroom farm with the suspected shooter. Allen added that his office has been “providing her resources” and considering her welfare in the aftermath of the shooting.

Democrats at all levels of leadership continue to call for heightened gun control measures in the face of a seemingly endless string of mass shootings.

State Assemblymember Phil Ting, of San Francisco, said he will be “going back to work” to see if lawmakers can tighten California’s gun laws, already among the strictest in the country.

Zhao, who is suspected of using a legally purchased semi-automatic handgun to carry out the attack, was spotted sitting in his vehicle in front of a sheriff’s substation on Monday and arrested about two hours after the shootings started.

Monday’s rampage echoes the Bay Area’s deadliest mass shooting when a disgruntled Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority employee shot and killed nine of his coworkers in 2021. That attack has left deep scars among the victims’ families and the transit agency workers.

State Sen. Josh Becker, who represents Half Moon Bay, said he was speaking with an attorney involved in the VTA shooting aftermath.

“Farmworkers may not be aware of all their rights, and under worker’s comp we take care of workers here. We’re here to make sure they’re aware of all their rights,” Becker said during a visit to a farmworker aid center.

Less than 24 hours ago, state Assemblymember Marc Berman said he was standing on the steps of the Capitol building in Sacramento for a vigil for the Monterey Park victims.

“It’s jarring, it’s tragic and it’s senseless,” Berman said. “I used to think that protecting our farmworkers was about protection from the sun or from wage theft. But now it’s from gun violence, too.”

As the shock lingered, President Biden early Tuesday promised “the full support of the federal government” as the community begins to recover.

Biden also called for stronger gun action across the United States. On Monday, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein, of California, and Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both of Connecticut, introduced legislation to ban “military-style assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines or ammunition feeding devices. Another bill introduced by the three would raise the minimum purchasing age of an assault weapon to 21.

“Jill and I are praying for those killed and injured in the latest tragic shooting in Half Moon Bay,” Biden said in a statement. “For the second time in recent days, California communities are mourning the loss of loved ones in a senseless act of gun violence.”

Staff writer Austin Turner contributed to this report.