Immigrant farm worker charged with 7 murders in Northern California shooting

REDWOOD CITY, Calif., Jan 25 (Reuters) – An immigrant farm worker accused of shooting and killing seven people near San Francisco, some of them colleagues, made his first court appearance on Wednesday after being charged with Murder in California is the second deadly shooting in recent days.

Cho Chun-li, 66, the sole suspect in Monday’s massacre at two mushroom farms in the seaside town of Half Moon Bay, was formally charged with seven counts of attempted murder and one count of attempted murder in a criminal complaint filed by local prosecutors .

In San Mateo County Superior Court near Redwood City, Calif., a judge briefed Zhao, handcuffed and wearing a red jumpsuit, without bond. He was assigned two private defense attorneys, none of whom entered a plea.

The next court hearing in the case is scheduled for February 2. 16.

A Mandarin interpreter was provided to the defendant, who, according to District Attorney Steve Wagstaff, is a Chinese national who has lived in the United States for at least 10 years.

After the hearing, Wagstaff told reporters outside the courtroom that prosecutors have not yet determined Zhao’s exact immigration status, or whether he entered the country legally.

Prosecutors said authorities did know the suspect’s motive but declined to say so.

The DA also said Zhao “cooperated with the sheriff’s detectives,” who initially interviewed him through a Chinese translator after his arrest and provided a “full statement” without an attorney present.

Still, he is expected to enter a not guilty plea as the lawsuit progresses, “and we want to make sure this guy gets a fair trial,” Wagstaffe said.

In addition to the eight felony counts, the 10-page criminal complaint alleges “exceptional circumstances” accusing Zhao of “personally and intentionally” shooting to kill someone.

Under California law, defendants convicted of “exceptional circumstances” for murder are eligible for the death penalty, but Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on executions in 2019. The state has not executed a death row inmate since 2006.

Otherwise, Wagstaff said, the maximum penalty is life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Meanwhile, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, a California native, is scheduled to visit on Wednesday the Los Angeles suburb of Monterey Park, site of the first deadly rampage in recent days. She is expected to meet with some of the families of the 11 people who were shot and killed Saturday night at the ballroom by the gunman, who later killed himself.

Not “Copy Cat”

California’s gun laws are among the strictest in the country, and the back-to-back shootings plunged the state into one of the bloodiest episodes of mass gun violence in decades.

Authorities said each of the two killing spree represented the largest loss of life in a single act of violence in Los Angeles and San Mateo counties.

Asked whether investigators believed the Half Moon Bay killings were a “copycat” crime inspired by the Monterey Park shooting two days earlier, Wagstaff said emphatically, “No.”

Zhao was detained Monday night outside a police station where police say he drove shortly after the farm worker was attacked.

The exact motive for the shooting remains unclear. Zhao was employed by one of the growers, Mountain Mushroom Farm, and lived on the property with some other employees, according to a spokesman for California Terra Gardens, which owns the farm. Authorities said early evidence suggested the bloodshed stemmed from workplace grievances. A second crime scene, Concord Farms, is about a mile away.

Half Moon Bay, a community of about 12,000 residents south of San Francisco, ranges from luxury resorts to low-income farming communities. The shooting has brought renewed attention to the hardships faced by farm workers in the region, many of them immigrants from Latin America and Asia, who often live in squalid labor camps for long periods of time in harsh conditions. Hard work for extremely low wages.

The charging documents list the deceased as Yetao Bing, Qizhong Cheng, Jingzhi Lu, Zhishen Liu, Aixiang Zhang, Jose Romero and Marciano Martinez Jimenez. The coroner’s office listed victims as ranging in age from 43 to 73.

Jose Romero’s brother Pedro was wounded in the attack and was hospitalized on Tuesday, a cousin told Reuters.

The Half Moon Bay killings came two days after another gunman opened fire 380 miles to the south at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, a club frequented by mostly older Asian patrons in Monterey Park.

Some survivors and bystanders said they initially mistook fireworks for the Saturday night shooting that killed 11 people and wounded nine, as the predominantly Asian-American community celebrated the start of the Lunar New Year.

The attacker, Huu Can Tran, 72, drove to a second dance hall in the neighboring town of Alhambra a short time later, authorities said. There, the club’s operator disarmed him before he opened fire.

Tran shot himself behind the wheel of the getaway vehicle the next morning as police surrounded him south of Los Angeles.

While motives are unclear, Tran is known to be a longtime Star Ballroom regular. An acquaintance — a tenant at a Los Angeles rental property he owns — suggested Tran may have been harboring a grudge against other customers there.

Both atrocities were notable for the retirement age of the suspects, much older than the typical perpetrator of the deadly mass shootings that have become commonplace in the United States.

Both men used semiautomatic handguns, and the victims in each case were from the immigrant community, authorities said.

Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Half Moon Bay, CA; Additional reporting by Tim Reid, Gabriella Borter, Rich McKay, Brendan O’Brien, Brad Brooks, Jonathan Allen, Joseph Ax, Dan Whitcomb, Eric Beech, Omar Younis and Timothy Gardner; Steve Gorman at Writing and additional reporting in Los Angeles; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and David Gregorio

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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