Half Moon Bay Immigrant Community Reels From Mass Shooting of Farmworkers

A 66-year-old man is facing seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.

A woman in a dark jacket places flowers at a memorial.
A flower memorial emerged to honor the victims of the Half Moon Bay shootings.Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — Marciano Martinez Jimenez arrived more than two decades ago from Oaxaca, Mexico, and learned everything he could at a Half Moon Bay mushroom farm, from irrigation to delivery, mastering the skills to the point that he was entrusted with running daily operations.

José Romero Perez was a more recent arrival but was greeted by his fellow Oaxacans as family. He leaned on fellow immigrants who spoke his languages, Spanish and Zapotec, the latter commonly spoken in Oaxaca, to navigate his new terrain in California.

On Wednesday, the small immigrant community in Half Moon Bay was reeling from the mass shooting two days earlier that left Mr. Jimenez and Mr. Perez dead, along with five other victims who worked on farms near the small coastal town that is better known for its big surfing waves and a popular pumpkin festival.

“I can’t understand so much hate, to kill seven people,” said Mireya Bautista, 46, a fellow immigrant who had gotten to know the men who work in the hongera, or mushroom, farms that attracted immigrant workers from Mexico and China. “Why would someone do something like this?”

The seven dead victims, along with Mr. Perez’s brother, who is recovering from gunshot injuries in a Bay Area hospital, were identified on Wednesday morning. Hours later, the suspect in the rampage, Zhao Chunli, 66, appeared in court in Redwood City to face seven counts of murder and one charge of attempted murder. He did not enter a plea.

The spate of killings in Half Moon Bay left two crime scenes: one at California Terra Garden, where the suspect lived and worked with his wife, and a second nursery, Concord Farms, about a mile away and where Mr. Zhao had previously worked, the police said. Every person shot was specifically targeted, Sheriff Christina Corpus of San Mateo County said in an interview.

“Other people were in his line of sight, but he didn’t target them because what we’re learning is they didn’t really have a lot of contact with him,” she said.

After the shootings, as deputies were hunting for the accused gunman, they found his cellphone lying on the side of a highway, suggesting he had disposed of it to thwart law enforcement from tracking him, Sheriff Corpus said. Deputies apprehended Mr. Zhao after discovering him sitting in his car in a parking lot near a sheriff’s station, where he was lying back in the front seat with the weapon — a semiautomatic pistol — on the passenger seat, she said.

In addition to the 50-year-old Mr. Jimenez of Moss Beach, Calif., five of the deceased victims were named by the San Mateo County Office of the Coroner as Zhishen Liu, 73, of San Francisco; Aixiang Zhang, 74, of San Francisco; Qizhong Cheng, 66, of Half Moon Bay; Jingzhi Lu, 64, of Half Moon Bay; and Yetao Bing, 43, whose residence was not known.

Mr. Perez and his injured brother, Pedro Romero Perez, were identified by the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office in a complaint filed ahead of a brief court appearance by Mr. Zhao that ended with a judge scheduling an arraignment for Feb. 16. Mr. Zhao, who was being detained without bail, wore a red jumpsuit and repeatedly covered his face with a piece of paper.

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Steve Wagstaffe, the San Mateo County district attorney, said Mr. Zhao, who has been assigned a court-appointed attorney, had spoken to investigators for several hours, describing what happened “in a matter-of-fact way.” He said prosecutors now have a sense of the motive, but he declined to reveal specifics.

“I would say the grievances that he had were personal,” Mr. Wagstaffe said, adding “as opposed to, say, a dispute about why’s my workload heavier. It was more personal.”

Mr. Zhao’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Wagstaffe said he would consider seeking the death penalty in the case. “Making that decision on the death penalty is something that will take place over the course of the next many months,” he said. “We have so much more to learn.”

If he were to seek the death penalty, it would be a largely symbolic decision. While California has the largest death row in the country, with 690 condemned inmates, the state has not carried out an execution since 2006, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a moratorium on capital punishment.

The massacre in Half Moon Bay came just two days after a gunman stormed a popular ballroom dance hall in Monterey Park, an Asian American enclave hundreds of miles away in Southern California, and killed 11 people celebrating the Lunar New Year. The suspect, Huu Can Tran, 72, shot himself dead when approached by the police in another suburb about 30 miles away, authorities said.

Investigators in Los Angeles County are still trying to determine a motive in the Monterey Park killings, but the authorities in both cases say the suspects apparently decided to settle unknown grievances against specific people with a spasm of violence.

Sheriff Robert Luna of Los Angeles County disclosed additional findings in a Wednesday night news conference. He said that investigators had determined that Mr. Tran had not visited the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in the last five years and that a motorcycle registered to the suspect had been about a block away from the site of the shooting. The authorities believe that it had been placed there as a potential getaway vehicle, Sheriff Luna said.

In Northern California, the workers and their families from the two Half Moon Bay farms, who had already suffered from the fierce rainstorms that flooded fields and washed away roads, remained in hotels on Wednesday, and it was unclear when they would be able to return to their trailers — and even if they would want to after what they have been through.

“I don’t think they will feel safe returning to the farm,” said Judith Guerrero, executive director of the Coastside Hope, a nonprofit that assists the immigrant community. “They are trying to make sense of it all.”

Tucked off Highways 92 and 1, farms in the Half Moon Bay region grow a bounty of vegetables, from mushrooms to brussels sprouts to artichokes, as well as flowers. And many farmworkers, in a region where the price of a typical home is well over a million dollars, make around $15 an hour and live in trailers or packed into tight homes where the rent can swallow much of their earnings.

David Oates, a crisis-management consultant hired by the owner of California Terra Garden after the massacre, said that Mr. Zhao had been renting a trailer on the farm property where he worked for years. The company employs 35 people at the site once known as Mountain Mushroom Farm. Four of them were killed, and one remains in the hospital, Mr. Oates said.

Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, the director of the Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, a nonprofit that works with migrant farmworkers, said that as far as she knew there were no tensions between the small group of farmworkers of Asian descent, and those who are Latino. “They live in the same community,” she said. “There’s a lot of respect there.”

Aaron Tung, whose family has owned Concord Farms since 1987, said that everyone called Mr. Jimenez, “Ma Ding,” — the Chinese words for “horse” and “nail,” a loose rendering of his last name.

Elsewhere in the community on Wednesday, residents and tourists passed through, stopping at a memorial site in the center of town, leaving bouquets of flowers.

“They are more than the hands that pick our food,” said Kati McHugh, a longtime resident. “I wanted to make sure people know them by name.”

Reporting was contributed by Mike Ives, Miriam Jordan, Isabelle Qian, Anabel Sosa, Muyi Xiao and Livia Albeck-Ripka. Kitty Bennett contributed research.