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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Half Moon Bay mass shooting suspect pleads not guilty

Chunli Zhao stands accused of murdering seven people in mass shootings in January.

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (CN) — The man accused of killing seven people at mushroom farms in the coastal Northern California city of Half Moon Bay pleaded not guilty Thursday before a packed San Mateo County courtroom.

Chunli Zhao, 66, stands accused of back-to-back shootings at two mushroom farms in the small agricultural enclave about 30 miles south of San Francisco. San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen M. Wagstaffe charged him in January with seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, after announcing the deaths. 

In a second arraignment hearing Thursday, Zhao entered a plea of not guilty through an interpreter, with his attorneys Jonathan McDougall and Eric Hove present. His next court appearance has been set for May 3.

Zhao appeared in court last week, when his lawyers asked the judge to keep cameras out of the courtroom. Judge Elizabeth Lee refused, saying she doesn’t take the importance of public access to the judicial process lightly. Zhao left visibly in tears. 

The shootings occurred Jan. 23 at California Terra Garden, previously known as Mountain Mushroom Farm, and nearby Concord Farms. The majority of farmworkers in the area are Latinos but the Garden was one of the few that employed Asian workers, according to a farmworker advocacy group based in Half Moon Bay. 

Authorities believe Zhao acted alone when he entered the mushroom farm where he worked, shot and killed four people and seriously wounded a fifth. He then drove to a nearby farm where he worked previously and killed three more people, according to Eamonn Allen, a sheriff’s spokesperson. Officials have said some of the people killed were migrant workers. Some people were shot in trailers on the property.

It was California’s third mass shooting in eight days, and the worst in San Mateo County’s history, Wagstaffe said. 

The charges against Zhao include additional allegations that could result in the death penalty or life in prison without parole, though Governor Gavin Newsom has issued a moratorium on executions and the state hasn't executed anyone since 2006. 

Zhao is from China and has lived in the United States for at least a dozen years, Wagstaffe said. He had legal paperwork to live in the country at one time and investigators were determining whether it is still valid. In 2013, he was accused of threatening to split a coworker’s head open with a knife and separately tried to suffocate the man with a pillow, according to court documents.

“We continue to call on our federal and California legislators to enact laws to help bring this senseless wave of violence to an end,” Wagstaffe said in a statement after the tragic shooting.

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