Half Moon Bay mass shooting fueled by simmering tensions among farmworkers, sources say – Orange County Register

HALF MOON BAY — The shooting massacres at two coastal mushroom farms earlier this week were apparently fueled by the suspected gunman’s mounting frustrations with his job conditions and simmering tensions with other colleagues, a law enforcement source told the Bay Area News Group.

As a clearer motive emerged on Thursday, the state’s labor watchdog agencies announced investigations into working conditions at the farms, which have become a focus of attention in the wake of the shootings. 

Chunli Zhao, 66, apparently had enough with his purported mistreatment Monday and responded by fatally shooting four people and wounding another at California Terra Garden farm, where he worked. He then drove three miles south to Concord Farms — which once employed him — and killed three more farmworkers.

The law enforcement source, who is close to the shooting investigation, also cited eyewitness accounts affirming that Zhao methodically selected his victims and ignored other people who unwittingly got in his way during the rampage.

Zhao reportedly relayed a similar narrative in a jailhouse interview with NBC Bay Area at the Redwood City jail where he is being held on seven counts of murder and one of attempted murder, with numerous sentencing enhancements attached to each charge that stand to put him in prison for life if he is convicted.

In the television report, which recounted an off-camera, Mandarin language interview with Zhao, he reportedly admitted to the shootings and described being fed up with long hours at the farm and bullying by his co-workers. The law enforcement source who spoke to this news organization said the final straw might have been an insult about his “diminutive” size, which occurred not long before the shootings.

Elected officials decried the apparent squalor in which Zhao and his colleagues lived and worked. County Supervisor Ray Mueller toured California Terra Garden on Thursday and called the living conditions “deplorable” and “heartbreaking.”

“No running water. Outdoor stoves to cook,” Mueller wrote in remarks accompanying photos he posted on Twitter. “I spoke with one farm worker today who said she slept with flood waters from the storms on the floor in her unit.”

The supervisor’s photos showed one-room, uninsulated dwellings with plywood floors and patchwork walls with large holes. One had a concrete stove apparently heated by firewood. A child’s tricycle could be seen outside another of the quarters.

“We must raise the quality of life of farm workers, NOW,” Mueller wrote.

Cal/OSHA and the state Labor Commissioner’s Office announced Thursday that they have launched investigations “into potential labor and workplace safety and health violations for the worksites in Half Moon Bay where the mass shootings took place … to ensure that employees are being afforded all the protections of California labor laws.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office added to that chorus, decrying the farmworkers’ reported $9 hourly wages and shipping container shelters.

“That is no way to live. California is investigating the farms involved in the Half Moon Bay shooting to ensure workers are treated fairly and with the compassion they deserve,” the office said in a statement.

Zhao apparently voiced remorse for the killings and suggested that his undiagnosed mental illness may have been a factor, according to the TV report. He also stated that the legally obtained semi-automatic Ruger pistol that authorities say he used was bought in 2021. The report added that Zhao said he moved to the United States 11 years ago on a green card and that he and his wife, who both lived on the farm, have a 40-year-old daughter who lives in China.

Sympathy signs in Chinese and Spanish along with candles, flowers and stuffed animals are part of the growing makeshift memorial honoring mass shooting victims at Mac Dutra Park in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

That timeline aligns with court records showing that in 2013, a one-time roommate of Zhao’s at a home in San Jose filed a civil-harassment restraining order against him after alleging that Zhao tried to smother him to death with a pillow and threatened to use a knife to “split” open his head. The conflict apparently arose, according to a court petition, from Zhao wanting his job back after quitting at a South Bay restaurant where the roommate also worked.

Zhao was arrested about two hours after the shootings in the parking lot of the sheriff’s substation in Half Moon Bay where he surrendered and was taken to the ground by police officers in a scene captured on witness video. According to the TV report Thursday, Zhao said he drove immediately to the substation and sat in his car for nearly two hours after failing to find someone to surrender to. He later gave himself up after watching police surround his vehicle and cautiously approach. Authorities found the gun and a note Zhao had written to his wife in the vehicle.

Zhao was arraigned Wednesday and could face life in prison without parole and possibly the death penalty, based on the charges filed against him by the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office.

In the meantime, community and advocacy groups are working to support the victims. Among the newest fundraising efforts is a GoFundMe campaign sponsored by the advocacy groups Chinese for Affirmative Action, Asian American Foundation, the Asian Pacific Fund, the Asian Law Caucus, and Stop AAPI Hate.

On Thursday afternoon, Concord Farms was largely quiet and devoid of activity; only a couple of workers could be spotted working at the business off Highway 1.

Three miles to the north, bouquets of flowers dotted the entrance road to California Terra Garden farm. Among the people paying their respects Thursday was 27-year-old Ryan Whitwhiki Faddegon, who placed a bright red poinsettia plant and a candle at the gate to the farm.

Whitwhiki Faddegon said he’s “had enough of gun violence — it needs to end.”

Standing in front of the gate, he gazed at the farm where four people were shot to death. Moments after he placed the flowers, a person inside the farm walked up to the closed gate, folded his hands at this chest and said, “Thank you.”

Ryan Whitwicki Faddegon, 27, places a poinsettia plant and a candle at the front gate of California Terra Gardens on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023 in Half Moon Bay, California. The farm was the site of a mass shooting on Monday. (Jakob Rodgers/Bay Area News Group)
Ryan Whitwicki Faddegon, 27, places a poinsettia plant and a candle at the front gate of California Terra Gardens on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023 in Half Moon Bay, California. The farm was the site of a mass shooting on Monday. (Jakob Rodgers/Bay Area News Group)

Staff writer Scooty Nickerson contributed to this report.



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