California farm worker pleads not guilty to 7 murder counts

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) -A 66-year-old immigrant farm worker accused of murdering seven colleagues in a mass shooting last month at two mushroom-growing sites near San Francisco pleaded not guilty on Thursday to all charges, according to the San Mateo County district attorney.

Chunli Zhao, a Chinese citizen and lone suspect in the Jan. 23 massacre in the seaside town of Half Moon Bay, entered the plea himself, speaking through a Mandarin-language interpreter, during a brief court hearing in nearby Redwood City, the DA said.

The next hearing in the case was set for May 3, the district attorney, Steve Wagstaffe, confirmed to Reuters. That proceeding was scheduled to set a future date for a so-called preliminary hearing, where prosecutors present their case to persuade the judge they have sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.

Zhao is charged with seven counts of premeditated murder and a single count of attempted murder in a criminal complaint that also cites “special circumstance” allegations accusing him of “personally and intentionally” shooting to kill.

Under California law, defendants convicted of murder with “special circumstances” are eligible for the death penalty, though Governor Gavin Newsom in 2019 declared a moratorium on executions. The state has not put a condemned inmate to death since 2006.

Authorities have said they have yet to establish a clear motive for the killings, the second of back-to-back deadly gun rampages in California last month in which a total of 18 victims were slain two days apart.

Zhao had been employed by one of the growers, Mountain Mushroom Farm, and had resided at the property along with some other employees, according to its owners.

Authorities said early evidence indicated the bloodshed stemmed from a workplace grievance. The second crime scene, Concord Farms, is about a mile away from Mountain Mushroom.

The shooting spree also cast a renewed spotlight on hardships faced by the area’s farm workers, many of them immigrants from Latin America and Asia who often live and work under squalid conditions and toil long hours for extremely low pay.

The Half Moon Bay killings unfolded two days after a gunman 380 miles to the south opened fire at a ballroom dance studio frequented mostly by older patrons of Asian descent in Monterey Park, near Los Angeles.

Eleven people were killed there and nine were wounded at the dance club on Jan. 21, the first night of Lunar New Year celebrations in the community.

Authorities said the Monterey Park assailant, Huu Can Tran, 72, shot himself to death the next day as police closed to make an arrest.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los AngelesEditing by Alistair Bell and Aurora Ellis)