A man suspected of killing seven people and injuring one other person in shootings last month at two farms in Northern California pleaded not guilty to all charges against him at a an arraignment on Thursday.
Chunli Zhao entered the pleas for seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder in the January 23 killings in Half Moon Bay, which a prosecutor has said comprised the deadliest attack in San Mateo County’s history.
Authorites said Zhao, a Chinese citizen who was 66 at the time, shot five people at a mushroom farm where he worked – killing four – and fatally shot three more at a farm about 2 miles away. Five of the seven killed were Chinese citizens, China’s consulate in San Francisco said.
The suspect was a “coworker or former coworker” of the victims at each shooting site, and evidence pointed to the attack being an instance of workplace violence in which specific people were targeted, San Mateo County Sheriff Christina Corpus has said.
During Thursday’s swift court proceeding, Zhao spoke through a Mandarin interpreter. After his public defense attorneys asked for time to go through evidence, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Hill set the next court hearing for May 3.
Zhao was seen looking down in court for most of the hearing when he wasn’t speaking with his interpreter.
Suspect regrets shootings, report says
Zhao spoke in Mandarin during the 15-minute interview on January 26, according to the news outlet. CNN did not confirm independently what Zhao said in the interview and reached out to his attorneys for comment.
Zhao said he wasn’t in his right mind and didn’t know “what was happening mentally” when the shootings occurred, NBC Bay Area News reported. Zhao also expressed remorse and said he regrets the attacks, the outlet reported.
Statements the suspect made to law enforcement “were consistent with what he told the reporters,” San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe told CNN, referring to the NBC Bay Area News interview.
Wagstaffe told local news station KTVU after the shootings that Zhao “had a dispute with the first victim regarding a $100 bill” for the cost of repairing a piece of farm equipment involved in an accident at his workplace. The district attorney said the dispute may have contributed to the pair of shootings.
“But I am not declaring it a fact that (the $100 bill dispute) sparked the shooting,” he said. “Much more investigation to do. But it is certainly what Zhao is saying.”
Zhao had legal possession of a semi-automatic weapon that was registered to him, Corpus told CNN.
Zhao was not previously known to local law enforcement, though he had been accused of violence before. He was subject to a temporary restraining order after a former coworker and roommate in San Jose accused him of attacking and threatening him in 2013, according to court records obtained by CNN.