REDWOOD CITY, Calif., Jan 25 (Reuters) – An immigrant farm worker accused of shooting seven people to death near San Francisco, some of them his co-workers, made his first court appearance on Wednesday after he was charged with murder in California’s second deadly gun rampage in recent days.
Chunli Zhao, 66, the lone suspect in Monday’s massacre at two mushroom farms in the seaside town of Half Moon Bay, was formally presented with seven counts of premeditated murder and a single count of attempted murder lodged in a criminal complaint filed by local prosecutors.
Zhao, handcuffed and garbed in a red jumpsuit, was ordered held without bond during a brief hearing before a judge in San Mateo County Superior Court in nearby Redwood City, California. He was assigned two private defense lawyers, but no plea was entered.
The next court proceeding in the case was set for Feb. 16.
A Mandarin-language translator was provided for the defendant, who according to District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe is a Chinese citizen who has resided in the United States for at least 10 years.
After the hearing, Wagstaffe told reporters outside the courthouse that prosecutors have not yet determined Zhao’s precise immigration status, or whether he entered the country legally.
The prosecutor said authorities do have an idea about the suspect’s motives but declined to share that with reporters.
The district attorney also said Zhao was “cooperative with sheriff’s detectives” who initially interviewed him through a Mandarin interpreter following his arrest and gave “a complete statement.”
Still, the expectation is that he will enter a not-guilty plea as the proceeding progress, “and we want to make sure this man gets a fair trial,” Wagstaffe said.
In addition to the eight felony counts it contains, the 10-page criminal complaint alleges “special circumstances” accusing Zhao of “personally and intentionally” shooting to kill.
California law declares that defendants convicted of murder with “special circumstances” can be eligible for the death penalty, but Governor Gavin Newsom in 2019 declared a moratorium on executions. The state has not executed a condemned inmate since 2006.
Otherwise, the maximum sentence carried by the charges is life in prison without the possibility of parole, Wagstaffe said.
Later on Wednesday, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, a California native, planned to travel to the Los Angeles suburb of Monterey Park, site of the first of the recent deadly rampages. She was expected to meet with some families of the 11 people who were fatally shot in a dance hall on Saturday night by a gunman who later took his own life.
Coming in quick succession, the two shootings left California reeling from one of the bloodiest spates of mass gun violence in decades in a state with some of the strictest firearm laws in the country.
Authorities said that each of the two killing sprees represented the single greatest loss of life from a single act of violence in Los Angeles and San Mateo counties, respectively.
Asked if investigators believed the Half Moon Bay killings were a “copy-cat” crime, inspired by the shooting rampage in Monterey Park two days earlier, Wagstaffe said flatly, “No.”
Zhao was taken into custody on Monday evening outside a sheriff’s station, where police said he had driven shortly after the attack on farm workers.
The precise motive for the shooting remained unclear. 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 a spokesperson for California Terra Gardens, which owns the farm. Authorities said early evidence indicated the bloodshed stemmed from a workplace grievance. The second crime scene, Concord Farms, is about a mile away.
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Half Moon Bay, Calif.; Additional reporting Tim Reid, Gabriella Borter, Rich McKay, Brendan O’Brien, Brad Brooks, Jonathan Allen, Joseph Ax, Dan Whitcomb, Eric Beech, Omar Younis and Timothy Gardner; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and David Gregorio
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