Half Moon Bay shootings may have been triggered by $100 repair bill, DA says

A farmworker accused of shooting and killing seven people in Half Moon Bay had longstanding work-related grievances but may have been triggered by a $100 repair bill over a farm-equipment crash, the San Mateo County district attorney said Friday.

Chunli Zhao, 66, had long felt aggrieved over work-related disputes, but the repair bill may have "lit the candle," said District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.

The $100 repair bill had to do with a collision at California Terra Garden off Highway 92, where authorities say Zhao killed his first four victims, his supervisor, two co-workers and the wife of one of the victims.

Zhao then allegedly drove to a second farm where he previously worked and killed two more farmworkers and the wife of one of the victims. 

"This is not a case that involves what happened.  We know what happened. The case will involve what exactly was in his mind, what was justified, not justified," Wagstaffe said.

The prosecutor said Zhao acted with premeditation and deliberation, the elements of first-degree murder 

"We feel none of the conduct is justified. But we've got a lot to learn," he said.

Zhao has been charged with seven counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and the special circumstance of multiple murder, which could make him eligible for the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole if he is convicted.

KTVU legal analyst Michael Cardoza said, "This will not be an excuse to reduce this from a murder to a manslaughter."

Cardoza said the dispute over $100 could very well have set off the shootings, but it may not help Zhao legally. 

"The fact there was a $100 bill he had to pay and he got upset about - and because of that he decides he's going to kill seven people - nobody's gonna buy into that," Cardoza said.

Cardoza said a key issue for the defense will be to determine whether their client is mentally competent to stand trial. 

"In an insanity-type defense, you have to probe that the defendant did not know right from wrong, and that's pretty tough to show," Cardoza said.