REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — A farmworker accused of killing seven people last month at a pair of mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay, Calif., pleaded not guilty on Thursday in a San Mateo County courthouse.
Dressed in an orange jumpsuit and standing behind a glass wall, the suspect, Zhao Chunli, 66, entered pleas through a Mandarin interpreter of not guilty to seven counts of murder and one charge of attempted murder.
The shootings last month in the small, coastal community south of San Francisco occurred at two farms: California Terra Garden, where Mr. Zhao lived and worked with his wife; and nearby Concord Farms, where he had previously been employed, according to the police.
California suffered a string of mass shootings in January. The Half Moon Bay shootings came less than 48 hours after a gunman opened fire in Monterey Park, a city east of Los Angeles, killing 11 people and wounding nine others at a Lunar New Year’s Eve party. Days prior, six people, including a teenage mother and her infant, were massacred by two gunmen in the Central Valley town of Goshen, the police said.
On Thursday, the hearing in San Mateo Superior Court for Mr. Zhao lasted less than five minutes. Besides pleading not guilty, Mr. Zhao also denied special allegations related to the crimes, including the use of a firearm resulting in death and the serious and violent nature of the offenses.
Defense lawyers for Mr. Zhao, Jonathan McDougall and Eric Hove, did not comment following the proceeding on Thursday.
In a court appearance earlier this month, Mr. Zhao cried when he learned that Judge Elizabeth Lee would allow news cameras to remain in the courtroom, rejecting his lawyers request to remove them, KRON-TV reported.
Mr. Zhao spoke to a local reporter and investigators soon after the Jan. 23 shootings. In a courthouse interview with NBC Bay Area last month, Mr. Zhao admitted to killing his former and current co-workers and said that he had endured years of bullying and long hours working at the two farms. He said he believed he has a mental illness.
Steve Wagstaffe, the San Mateo County district attorney, said in January that Mr. Zhao told investigators that he had been angry at the time of the shootings about his supervisor at California Terra Garden demanding that he pay $100 to repair a damaged forklift.
At the farm, there had been a disagreement over whether Mr. Zhao had been operating a forklift that collided with another vehicle on the farm, Mr. Wagstaffe said. A supervisor told Mr. Zhao that he had to pay for the damage. Mr. Zhao, enraged, later shot the man, Mr. Wagstaffe said.
“Obviously it’s not what caused this, because there was a long buildup to it over the course of some time,” Mr. Wagstaffe said in a phone interview. “But this dispute might’ve been what, in his mind, was the final straw.”
Every person shot was specifically targeted, Sheriff Christina Corpus of San Mateo County said last month.
During a manhunt following the shootings, sheriff’s deputies found Mr. Zhao’s cellphone lying on the side of the highway, an apparent attempt to prevent law enforcement from tracking him, Sheriff Corpus said. Deputies apprehended Mr. Zhao hours later in a parking lot near a sheriff’s station, she said, where they found him lying back in the driver’s seat with a semiautomatic pistol on the passenger seat.
Mr. Wagstaffe said last month that Mr. Zhao’s media interview wouldn’t affect how prosecutors build their case against the suspect. He had already admitted to detectives that he had committed the mass shootings, Mr. Wagstaffe said.
“The issue in the case is going to be what exactly was his mental state,” Mr. Wagstaffe said.
On Wednesday, Mr. Wagstaffe said that he could not provide further information about the case because Judge Lee issued a gag order last week. The ruling prohibits the D.A.’s office, Mr. Zhao, his defense lawyers and the San Mateo sheriff’s office from speaking publicly about the facts of the case or offering opinions on it.
Mr. Zhao’s lawyers had requested the order, Mr. Wagstaffe said, “naming me specifically as talking too much about the case.”
Mr. Zhao, who waived his right to a have a preliminary hearing within 10 court days, is scheduled to return to San Mateo Superior Court in May.