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7 murder counts expected in Half Moon Bay farm killings

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A note is seen at a makeshift memorial at Mac Dutra Park in response to a fatal mass shooting the day before, in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. The suspect, 66-year-old Chunli Zhao, was arrested in what investigators believe to be workplace violence. (Stephen Lam/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. (AP) — Prosecutors will charge a farmworker accused of killing seven people in back-to-back shootings at two Northern California mushroom farms with seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said Wednesday.

The charges will be filed before the suspect, 66-year-old Chunli Zhao, makes his first court appearance Wednesday afternoon.

It was not immediately clear whether Zhao had an attorney who could speak on his behalf.

Authorities believe Zhao acted alone when he entered a mushroom farm in Half Moon Bay and opened fire, killing four and leaving another seriously wounded, San Mateo County Sheriff’s officials said. He then drove to another nearby farm where he had previously worked and killed an additional three people, said Eamonn Allen, a sheriff’s spokesperson.

The sheriff's office said it believes the shootings were “workplace violence" but has not further detailed a motive.

Zhao also faces a special circumstance allegation of multiple murder, as well as sentencing enhancements on each count for the use of a firearm, Wagstaffe said.

If convicted of the special circumstance, Zhao could face life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium on executions in 2019.

Officials have not yet released the names of the five men and two women who died, nor the one man who was injured. Some were Asian and others were Hispanic, and some were migrant workers.

Servando Martinez Jimenez said his brother Marciano Martinez Jimenez, who was a delivery person and manager at one of the farms, was among those killed. Servando Martinez Jimenez said his brother never mentioned Zhao or said anything about problems with other workers.

“He was a good person. He was polite and friendly with everyone. He never had any problems with anyone. I don’t understand why all this happened,” Martinez Jimenez said in Spanish outside his Half Moon Bay home.

Marciano Martinez Jimenez, 50, had lived in the United States for 28 years after arriving from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Servando Martinez Jimenez said he is working with the Mexican consulate to get his brother’s body home.

Allen declined to answer questions about whether Zhao had any previous criminal history, saying, “there were no specific indicators that would have led us to believe he was capable of something like this.”

But would not have been Zhao’s first fit of workplace rage, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. In 2013 Zhao was accused of threatening to split a coworker’s head open with a knife and separately tried to suffocate the man with a pillow, the Chronicle reported, based on court documents.

The two were roommates and worked at a restaurant at the time, and the man, identified as Jingjiu Wang, filed a temporary restraining order against Zhao that was granted but is no longer in effect. Wang could not be immediately reached, the Chronicle reported.

The sheriff’s office identified the first shooting location as Mountain Mushroom Farm. But California Terra Garden took over the business last year, company spokesperson David Oates said. He did not know how long Zhao worked there, adding that he was one of 35 employees who had stayed on when ownership changed. Oates declined to provide details of the four slain workers.

The site of the second shooting was nearby Concord Farms. Owner Aaron Tung said in a statement that the farm was waiting for more information before it could comment.

Half Moon Bay is a small, laid-back, coastal and agricultural city about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of San Francisco. Its sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean make it a popular spot for hikers and tourists, who flock there to surf and for an annual giant pumpkin festival.

California was still reeling from an attack in Monterey Park, just outside Los Angeles, that killed 11 and cast a shadow over celebrations of Lunar New Year, an important holiday for many Asian American communities. Authorities are still seeking a motive for the Saturday shooting.

The new year has brought six mass killings in the U.S. in fewer than three weeks, accounting for 39 deaths. Three have occurred in California since Jan. 16, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University. The database tracks every mass killing — defined as four dead, not including the offender — in the U.S. since 2006.

The shootings in Half Moon Bay and Monterey Park followed the killing of a teenage mother, her baby and six others at a home in California’s Central Valley on Jan. 16. Officials discussing the investigation mentioned a possible gang link to the killings.

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Gecker reported from San Francisco.

Olga R. Rodriguez And Jocelyn Gecker, The Associated Press