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Suspect in Half Moon Bay mass shooting pleads not guilty

Chunli Zhao appears at the San Mateo County Hall of Justice on Feb. 10.
Chunli Zhao appears for a hearing at the San Mateo County Hall of Justice on Feb. 10. Zhao was in court again Thursday.
(Dai Sugano / Associated Press)
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The man accused of gunning down seven migrant farmworkers last month during a shooting rampage at two mushroom farms in the coastal hamlet of Half Moon Bay pleaded not guilty Thursday to a slew of murder charges.

Chunli Zhao, 66, showed little emotion while denying the charges against him in the Jan. 23 attack, which ranks as the deadliest mass shooting in San Mateo County’s history.

Appearing behind glass in the courtroom, wearing a red jail jumpsuit with his head bowed, Zhao appeared far less demonstrative than he did at his last hearing Feb. 10. At that proceeding, Zhao sobbed openly in court while a judge imposed a gag order barring attorneys from speaking to the media. His wails were so loud that the judge called for a brief recess.

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He spoke only three times Thursday, answering in the affirmative when a Mandarin translator relayed several questions from the judge about his understanding of his rights and his not-guilty plea.

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Prosecutors say Zhao killed four workers and severely wounded a fifth at California Terra Garden, a mushroom farm in Half Moon Bay where he lived and worked for the last seven years, most recently as a forklift driver. The violence appeared to stem from a workplace grudge, according to authorities — one triggered by a $100 equipment bill from his boss for damage to heavy-construction equipment.

Moments before opening fire, Zhao vented his frustrations at the supervisor and a co-worker whom Zhao blamed for a collision between his forklift and a bulldozer, prosecutors allege. After the confrontation, he allegedly shot the supervisor and the co-worker, along with the co-worker’s wife and two others at the farm.

Prosecutors suspect Zhao continued his attack at Concord Farms, another mushroom farm across town. There, investigators say he killed a former assistant manager whom he felt wronged by, as well as another couple.

In a phone call from the San Mateo County Jail to an NBC Bay Area reporter, Zhao admitted to the killings and expressed remorse for the bloodshed.

Zhao remains held without bail on seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, along with numerous sentencing enhancements.

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The shooting illuminated deep concerns about living conditions among migrant workers living on farms across San Mateo County. County and state officials have described the workers’ dwellings at California Terra Garden as “deplorable,” with families living in shacks with leaky roofs and no running water or kitchens.

Officials are looking to see if they can help farmworkers find new homes and work after two shootings left seven people dead in Half Moon Bay on Jan. 23.

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A subsequent Bay Area News Group investigation found that laws meant to ensure livable farmworker housing often went unenforced in San Mateo County, allowing farm owners to neglect their struggling workforce, including the shooter and his victims.

After the shooting, California Terra Garden announced plans to spend the next 12 months building new permanent housing for its workers on its property along Highway 92.

The next hearing in Zhao’s case was scheduled for May 3.

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