REDWOOD CITY, California, Jan 25 (Reuters) – An immigrant farm worker accused of shooting dead seven people near San Francisco, some of whom were his co-workers, appeared in court for the first time on Wednesday after being charged with murder in California. second deadly gun rampage in recent days.
Chunli Zhao, 66, the only suspect in Monday’s massacre at two mushroom farms in the seaside town of Half Moon Bay, was officially presented with seven counts of premeditated murder and a single count of attempted murder filed in a complaint criminal case filed by local prosecutors.
Zhao, handcuffed and wearing a red jumpsuit, was held without bond for a brief hearing before a San Mateo County Superior Court judge near Redwood City, California. He was assigned two private defense attorneys, but no pleas were entered.
The next court proceeding in the case has been set for February 16.
A Mandarin interpreter was made available to 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 had yet to determine Zhao’s specific immigration status, or whether he had entered the country legally.
The prosecutor said authorities had an idea of the suspect’s motives, but declined to share it with reporters.
The district attorney also said Zhao was “cooperative with sheriff’s detectives” who first interviewed him through a Mandarin interpreter after his arrest and gave “a full statement.”
Still, he’s expected to plead not guilty as the case progresses, “and we want to make sure this man gets a fair trial,” Wagstaffe said.
In addition to the eight counts it contains, the 10-page criminal complaint alleges “special circumstances” accusing Zhao of “personally and intentionally” shooting to kill.
California law says defendants convicted of murder in “special circumstances” may be eligible for the death penalty, but Governor Gavin Newsom in 2019 declared a moratorium on executions. The state has not executed a convict since 2006.
Otherwise, the maximum sentence the charges carry is life in prison without the possibility of parole, Wagstaffe said.
Later Wednesday, US Vice President Kamala Harris, a native of California, planned to visit the Los Angeles suburb of Monterey Park, site of the first of recent deadly rampages. She was due to meet some of the families of the 11 people who were shot and killed in a dance hall on Saturday night by a gunman who later took his own life.
Following each other in rapid succession, the two shootings has left California reeling from one of the bloodiest outbreaks of mass gun violence in decades in a state with some of the toughest gun laws in the nation.
Authorities said each of the two killings represented the greatest loss of life from a single act of violence in Los Angeles and San Mateo counties, respectively.
When asked if investigators believe the Half Moon Bay murders were a “copycat” crime, inspired by the Monterey Park shooting two days earlier, Wagstaffe said emphatically, “No.”
Zhao was taken into custody on Monday night outside a police station, where police said he drove shortly after the attack on farmworkers.
The precise motive for the shooting remained unclear. Zhao had been employed by one of the growers, Mountain Mushroom Farm, and resided on the property with 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, California; Additional reporting Tim Reid, Gabriella Borter, Rich McKay, Brendan O’Brien, Brad Brooks, Jonathan Allen, Joseph Axe, 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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