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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Half Moon Bay immigrant community reels from mass shooting of farmworkers


Vehicles from a crime scene cleaning firm enter the mushroom farm where a mass shooting occurred two days prior, in Half Moon Bay, Calif. on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.


By DAVID W. CHEN, TIM ARANGO, EDGAR SANDOVAL and SOUMYA KARLAMANGLA


Marciano Martinez Jimenez arrived more than two decades ago from Oaxaca, Mexico, and learned everything he could at a Half Moon Bay mushroom farm, from irrigation to delivery, mastering the skills to the point that he was entrusted with running daily operations.


José Romero Perez was a more recent arrival but was greeted by his fellow Oaxacans as family. He leaned on fellow immigrants who spoke his languages, Spanish and Zapotec, the latter commonly spoken in Oaxaca, to navigate his new terrain in California.


On Wednesday, the small immigrant community in Half Moon Bay was reeling from the mass shooting two days earlier that left Jimenez and Perez dead, along with five other victims who worked on farms near the small coastal town that is better known for its big surfing waves and a popular pumpkin festival.


“I can’t understand so much hate, to kill seven people,” said Mireya Bautista, 46, a fellow immigrant who had gotten to know the men who work in the hongera, or mushroom, farms that attracted immigrant workers from Mexico and China. “Why would someone do something like this?”


The seven dead victims, along with Perez’s brother, who is recovering from gunshot injuries in a Bay Area hospital, were identified Wednesday morning. Hours later, the suspect in the rampage, Zhao Chunli, 66, appeared in court in Redwood City to face seven counts of murder and one charge of attempted murder. He did not enter a plea.


The spate of killings in Half Moon Bay left two crime scenes: one at California Terra Garden, where the suspect lived and worked with his wife, and a second nursery, Concord Farms, about a mile away and where Zhao had previously worked, the police said. Every person shot was specifically targeted, Sheriff Christina Corpus of San Mateo County said in an interview.


“Other people were in his line of sight, but he didn’t target them because what we’re learning is they didn’t really have a lot of contact with him,” she said.


After the shootings, as deputies were hunting for the accused gunman, they found his cellphone lying on the side of a highway, suggesting he had disposed of it to thwart law enforcement from tracking him, Corpus said. Deputies apprehended Zhao after discovering him sitting in his car in a parking lot near a sheriff’s station, where he was lying back in the front seat with the weapon — a semi-automatic pistol — on the passenger seat, she said.


In addition to the 50-year-old Jimenez of Moss Beach, California, five of the deceased victims were named by the San Mateo County Office of the Coroner as Zhishen Liu, 73, of San Francisco; Aixiang Zhang, 74, of San Francisco; Qizhong Cheng, 66, of Half Moon Bay; Jingzhi Lu, 64, of Half Moon Bay; and Yetao Bing, 43, whose residence was not known.


Perez and his injured brother, Pedro Romero Perez, were identified by the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office in a complaint filed ahead of a brief court appearance by Zhao that ended with a judge scheduling an arraignment for Feb. 16. Zhao, who was being detained without bail, wore a red jumpsuit and repeatedly covered his face with a piece of paper.


Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Steve Wagstaffe, the San Mateo County district attorney, said Zhao, who has been assigned a court-appointed attorney, had spoken to investigators for several hours, describing what happened “in a matter-of-fact way.” He said prosecutors now have a sense of the motive, but he declined to reveal specifics.


“I would say the grievances that he had were personal,” Wagstaffe said, adding “as opposed to, say, a dispute about why’s my workload heavier. It was more personal.”

Zhao’s attorney could not be reached for comment.


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