Los Angeles Times

Shooting suspect confesses

Man accused of mass killings in the Half Moon Bay area tells of ‘years of bullying.’

- By Alexandra E. Petri, Salvador Hernandez and Terry Castleman

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — Amid a state investigat­ion into workplace conditions at the San Mateo County farms where seven people were killed this week, the farmworker charged in the massacre said he had experience­d “years of bullying” and working long hours before opening fire.

Chunli Zhao, 66, in a jailhouse interview with NBC Bay Area, admitted that he took a semiautoma­tic handgun and opened fire on his co-workers Monday.

San Mateo County Dist. Atty. Stephen M. Wagstaffe told The Times in an interview that although he could not go into details in the case, the suspect’s com- ments to the TV station were

“consistent with what he told law enforcemen­t.”

In the 15-minute interview, Zhao also said he had been suffering from “some sort of mental illness” and was “not in his right mind” at the time of the shooting.

He said he planned to turn himself in to law enforcemen­t when he drove to the San Mateo County Sheriff ’s Office and was writing a note in his car before he was taken into custody.

NBC Bay Area’s Janelle Wang said he also told her he regretted the deadly incident.

State officials Thursday said they had opened investigat­ions into labor and workplace practices at the two sites of Monday’s fatal shootings, casting a spotlight on the lives of California’s farmworker­s, who often live and work in dangerous conditions.

The investigat­ion comes after Gov. Gavin Newsom visited the beachside community Tuesday. Newsom spoke with the victims’ families and co-workers about the deadly shooting and their workplace environmen­t. Newsom said some farmworker­s were “living in shipping containers” and working for $9 an hour, well below the state minimum wage of $15.50.

“No healthcare, no support, no services, but [they’re] taking care of our health, providing a service to us each and every day,” he said at the news conference.

A spokespers­on for Newsom called the workers’ conditions “simply deplorable” in a statement.

“Our country relies on their backbreaki­ng work, yet Congress cannot even provide them the stability of raising their families and working in this country without fear of deportatio­n, which contribute­s to their vulnerabil­ity in the workplace,” Daniel Villaseñor, deputy press secretary for Newsom’s office, said in the statement. “California is investigat­ing the farms involved in the Half Moon Bay shooting to ensure workers are treated fairly and with the compassion they deserve.”

California’s Division of Occupation­al Safety and Health and the labor commission­er’s office confirmed they’re investigat­ing the two Half Moon Bay-area work sites for potential labor and workplace safety and health violations.

Both agencies “want to ensure that employees are being afforded all the protection­s of California labor laws,” according to a statement.

Half Moon Bay is a rural beach town where the bedrock industry is vegetable and flower farms, though many have closed in recent years, affecting job opportunit­ies. Farm owners have also pointed to the state’s extreme weather devastatin­g their fields and the surroundin­g infrastruc­ture.

About 2,500 to 3,000 farmworker­s live in the town at any given time, officials said. Many settle in the wealthy coastal community after finding steady work, often living in trailers on the farms where they’re employed — out of sight of its multimilli­on-dollar coastal homes.

The two farms subject to the probe are California Terra Garden along State Route 92, the site of the first attack, and Concord Farms on Cabrillo Highway, where the second attack occurred.

Court records show that the deadly shooting Monday was not the first time an employee at California Terra Garden had attempted to shoot a co-worker on the farm grounds.

On July 1, 49-year-old Martin Medina allegedly confronted one of his coworkers around 11:30 p.m., banging on the door of his home and threatenin­g to kill him.

Dist. Atty. Wagstaffe told The Times that Medina allegedly fired a gun into the home. No one was struck, but Medina was later taken into custody and charged with attempted murder.

Both Medina and the victim were managers at the farm, and Wagstaffe said the confrontat­ion was sparked by a workplace dispute. Despite the location, Wagstaffe said the incident and the people involved were not connected to Monday’s shooting.

David Oates, a crisis public relations expert hired by California Terra Garden, declined to comment on the state investigat­ion but told The Times an official with the state labor commission­er’s office was at the farm Wednesday.

Newsom’s characteri­zation of low pay and poor living conditions for workers doesn’t “reflect the conditions at California Terra Gardens,” he said.

The company typically employs about 35 people, and about eight families live on site in mobile trailer homes that are permitted and inspected by the county, Oates said.

The families pay about $300 a month for rent, are compensate­d at a rate of $16.50 to $24 an hour and receive health benefits, he said.

“We treat them like family members,” he said.

Officials with Concord Farms did not immediatel­y respond to requests for comment.

Eric DeBode, executive director at Abundant Grace Coastside Worker in Half Moon Bay, said his charitable organizati­on primarily serves the homeless population of the Half Moon Bay area but also farmworker­s. The organizati­on runs a farm whose produce is given for free to the very people working low-wage farming jobs that produce much of the area’s food.

A “large portion of folks we serve,” DeBode said, “are making the food we eat and aren’t able to afford it themselves.”

On Thursday, another organizati­on serving farmworker­s and other community members was overflowin­g with goods in the wake of the massacre.

Volunteers were stacking boxes of produce, snacks, eggs, milk and frozen chickens at Ayudando Latinos a Soñar.

The group had gathered mounds of clothing, and its food pantry was overwhelme­d by the community response.

A man emerged from a Lexus outside the group’s small, bright yellow building and dropped a bag on a table with a thud. “You said you needed underwear,” he said before returning to his car.

The community’s interest will wane eventually, said volunteer Victoria Sanchez De Alba. But, she said, unacceptab­le housing conditions for workers will remain: “Why can’t we hold these farm owners accountabl­e?”

DeBode called the housing conditions on the farms “shocking” and “deplorable,” adding that farmworker­s and the tourists who come to the area “are living in two different worlds.”

Monday’s rampage stunned the entire community. The gunman opened fire at the two rural locations, killing seven people and injuring one in what authoritie­s have characteri­zed as a case of workplace violence.

The suspect was “a coworker or former co-worker of the victims at each shooting site,” the San Mateo County Sheriff ’s Office said.

He faces felony charges that could make him eligible for the death penalty, authoritie­s said.

The shootings, which came less than 48 hours after a mass shooting in Monterey Park that killed 11 people, have drawn attention to what advocates say is a wellknown secret: Farms across the state often thrive on the labor of poor agricultur­al workers, many of whom are undocument­ed.

Local authoritie­s in recent days have pledged to improve working conditions at area farms.

 ?? Ray Chavez Mercury News ?? A PHOTO of Half Moon Bay mass-shooting victim Jose Romero Perez stands in Oakland at a memorial for shootings in those two areas and Monterey Park.
Ray Chavez Mercury News A PHOTO of Half Moon Bay mass-shooting victim Jose Romero Perez stands in Oakland at a memorial for shootings in those two areas and Monterey Park.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States