Farmworker Describes Coming Face to Face With Half Moon Bay Gunman

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — Marciano Martinez was working alongside a co-worker in one of the mushroom greenhouses at Concord Farms in Half Moon Bay on Monday afternoon when someone opened the door.

He used to work here, Mr. Martinez nonchalantly said. “Ah, fine,” said the co-worker.

Then the visitor took three steps, went up to Mr. Martinez, and shot him.

Startled, the fellow farmworker feared that he would be next. But the assailant looked at him and didn’t say anything.

“He just made that gesture to me, as in, don’t worry,” said the co-worker, who recounted the shooting on the condition that he be identified only by his nickname, Rino, because of concerns about his personal safety.

Rino said he dashed outside and hid for what he estimated was 15 minutes. After he saw the assailant drive away from the farm, he stumbled upon the bodies of two co-workers, a husband and wife from China, on a footpath connecting the greenhouses.

Rino’s account offered one of the earliest and most detailed descriptions yet of a mass rampage that has claimed the lives of seven people who worked on farms near this small coastal town south of San Francisco.

Alicia Ortega, a close friend to Marciano Martinez, holding a photograph of the two together at her home in Half Moon Bay.Credit…Matt Mills Mcknight/Reuters

Zhao Chunli, a 66-year-old farmworker, has been charged with multiple counts of murder after he was arrested near a San Mateo County Sheriff’s substation on Monday. Mr. Zhao did not enter a plea on Wednesday and shielded his face with a piece of paper during his brief appearance in a Redwood City courtroom.

But in a jailhouse interview on Thursday with NBC Bay Area, Mr. Zhao told a reporter in Mandarin that he committed the shootings after enduring years of bullying while he worked at two different nurseries, and that he had logged long work hours. Mr. Zhao said that he had no difficulty buying a weapon in 2021, even though he believes that he suffers from mental illness, NBC Bay Area reported. A lawyer for Mr. Zhao did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The mass shooting in Half Moon Bay punctuated a 48-hour skein of gun violence that has devastated immigrant communities in Northern and Southern California.The first rampage occurred on Saturday night, when a gunman barged into a ballroom dance hall in Monterey Park, an Asian American enclave outside Los Angeles, and killed 11 people celebrating the Lunar New Year. The authorities said the suspect, Huu Can Tran, 72, shot himself dead when approached by the police, hours later, in a suburb about 30 miles away.

Most of the victims in the Monterey Park shooting had yet to be identified publicly when the attacks occurred on Monday in Half Moon Bay. Gavin Newsom, the California governor, said he was visiting with injured victims in a Southern California hospital when he was told of the massacre about 380 miles to the north.

Mike Zhang, 71, was filming videos of the Lunar New Year celebration at Star Ballroom Dance Studio on his phone just minutes before a gunman entered and killed 11 people on Jan. 21.

Authorities were trying to piece together the actions and motives of the suspect, Mr. Zhao, in the Half Moon Bay attacks. The first occurred at California Terra Garden, where Mr. Zhao had lived and worked with his wife. The second was at Concord Farms, about a mile away and where Mr. Zhao had worked several years earlier, the police said.

Mr. Zhao appeared to target people he knew — and spare people he didn’t, like Rino, the authorities said. In an interview, Steve Wagstaffe, the San Mateo County district attorney, also said that based on Mr. Zhao’s statements, it seemed as though Mr. Zhao planned the attack on the same day he is accused of carrying it out.

“Sometimes it’s a specific instance, somebody was picking on him this day, and that’s what lit the fuse to the dynamite,” Mr. Wagstaffe said. “We just need to be exploring more to understand why this day.”

Four people were killed and one was injured in the shooting at California Terra Garden. The farm, which grows basil and other herbs in addition to mushrooms, was the site of another violent conflict seven months earlier, The Mercury News reported. Martin Medina, who was 49 at the time, is accused of threatening to kill another farmworker and of shooting a bullet into the glass front door of the person’s trailer.

Governor Newsom visited Half Moon Bay on Tuesday and spoke to families affected by the tragedy. He said that workers were living in shipping containers and getting paid $9 an hour without health care in a state where the hourly minimum wage is now $15.50.

But on Thursday, David Oates, a crisis-management consultant hired by the owner of California Terra Garden after the massacre, challenged that characterization, saying that employees were paid between $16.50 and $24 an hour and received company-sponsored health insurance, among other benefits.

“No one lives in anything like shipping containers or tents,” Mr. Oates said.

A cluster of mobile homes at California Terra Garden, formerly Mountain Mushroom Farm, in Half Moon Bay.Credit…Santiago Mejia/San Francisco Chronicle, via Associated Press

By Thursday, more information was starting to trickle in about the victims, including that a married couple at Concord Farms — Zhishen Liu, 73, and his wife, Aixiang Zhang, 74 — were among the dead.

Family members who were reached declined to comment.

In an interview, Aaron Tung, whose family has owned Concord Farms since 1987, said about Mr. Zhao: “He was totally under the radar. Monday night, we didn’t even know who this guy was, until a past employee told us he was with us four or five years ago.”

Mr. Tung said that his parents had gone to Half Moon Bay as soon as they heard the news, leaving their home in Los Angeles, where most of Concord’s business operations are based.

His mother, Grace Tung, and father, David Tung, are both avid ballroom dancers, he said. His mother had participated in a dance competition in Orange County during the day on Saturday, so she didn’t go to the Star Ballroom Dance Studio that night for the Lunar New Year’s Eve party.

She later learned that she knew many people who were shot at the popular venue in Monterey Park, including a volunteer at the door.

“This really weighs on us,” he said. “It’s unimaginable pain.”

Reporting was contributed by Soumya Karlamangla, Miriam Jordan and Isabelle Qian. Kitty Bennett and Robin Stein contributed research.

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