The tragic shooting this week at a mushroom farm in northern California’s Half Moon Bay wasn’t the first time workers there witnessed gun violence. In fact, according to one of the former owners of the farm, the suspect at the center of Monday's mass shooting, Chunli Zhao, was there during the earlier incident and documented the aftermath on video.
On July 3, 2022, a day after the incident, Zhao sent a video to his former boss Huizhong Li on WeChat, a Chinese social media app. Li, who no longer lives in the San Francisco Bay area, shared the video with VOA's Mandarin service.
According to court documents from the San Mateo County District Attorney's office, one farm manager had threatened to kill another and fired bullets into the man’s trailer. No one was hurt.
As Zhao walked through mobile homes on the farm in Half Moon Bay, he provided narration in Chinese, explaining how 9 mm bullets whizzed through the exterior walls and windows of the mobile homes housing other farm workers at California Terra Garden, a commercial mushroom grower. He showed how one bullet passed through a window and cardboard boxes before lodging in interior walls.
“Let the whole world know about America's gun violence," Zhao said in the video. “We don’t feel safe at all. Bullets were flying everywhere.”
In that same chat, Zhao also shared a video with Li of him firing rounds with a handgun at a local shooting range.
Fast forward six months and now Zhao, 66, is the suspect in the latest and deadliest shooting that left seven people dead.
On Wednesday afternoon, Zhao appeared in a San Mateo County court, where he was charged with seven counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and related charges in back-to-back shootings on Monday.
A semiautomatic weapon was legally registered to him, said San Mateo County Sheriff Christina Corpus, speaking to CNN.
Zhao did not enter a plea and was not granted bail. District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said Zhao was a flight risk, according to KGO-TV, which reported Wagstaffe’s office is trying to determine Zhao’s immigration status.
Zhao told KNTV-TV, another San Francisco Bay area station, that he has lived in the U.S. for 11 years and has a green card. He also said he bought a handgun in 2021.
The 10-page criminal complaint from the district attorney’s office also alleges "special circumstances" and that Zhao "personally and intentionally" shot to kill.
Under California law, defendants who are convicted of murder with "special circumstances" are eligible for the death penalty, although the state declared a moratorium on executions in 2019.
San Mateo County sheriff’s officials said they believe Zhao acted alone when he entered California Terra Garden and opened fire, killing four and leaving another person seriously wounded. He then drove to a nearby farm where he had previously worked and killed three people and wounded another, sheriff’s office spokesman Eamonn Allen told reporters Tuesday.
Officials have identified the seven victims and said they were of Asian and Hispanic descent. The survivor was Hispanic.
Li said one of the victims at the first site was Zhao’s manager. Two more victims were Zhao’s co-workers and neighbors who, like Zhao, hailed from northeastern China.
Li told VOA Mandarin that Zhao started working with him at California Terra Garden at the end of 2016 or early 2017 when it was known as Mountain Mushroom Farm. Li said he was the CEO until the business was taken over later in 2017.
Li said Zhao lived in one of the farm homes with his wife and that the couple has a daughter in China. Li said he believes that Zhao and his wife are permanent residents of the United States.
David Oates, spokesman for the current owner, California Terra Garden, told VOA Mandarin that Zhao has a legal work permit and Social Security number.
Oates told CNN that Zhao worked at the farm about seven years. He also said that, like the other 34 employees at the farm, Zhao had gone through a background check and there was “nothing to indicate anything like this was even a possibility.”
However, according to San Mateo County court documents, in 2013 Zhao was accused of threatening Yingjiu Wang, 44 at the time, who worked at a restaurant with him in San Jose. According to the documents, Zhao on March 12, 2013, attempted to suffocate Wang with a pillow around 6 a.m. and on March 14, threatened to split open Wang’s head with a knife.
The court granted Wang, who was also Zhao’s roommate at that time, a temporary restraining order against Zhao on June 4, 2013. The men had had disagreements related to work, according to the filing.
“Mr. Zhao said to me, today I am going to kill you. … He then took a pillow and started to cover my face and suffocate me," Wang told investigators according to the court filings.
Li remembers Zhao as a “narrow-minded” and “petty” person without friends.
“In terms of work, if there is any friction between him and certain employees, he liked to report them behind their back saying that other employees are not good, but he is better,” Li said. “If you made it easier for him and gave him more money at work, he thought you were very good.”
This story originated in VOA's Mandarin Service.