Farmworker who survived mass shooting at Northern California mushroom farm sues company and owner

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HALF MOON BAY, Calif. (AP) — A migrant farmworker who survived a mass shooting last year at a Northern California mushroom farm has filed a lawsuit against the farm and one of its owners, saying they failed to keep him safe from the colleague who authorities say committed the killings, the worker and his attorneys said Friday.

Pedro Romero Perez, 24, was in the shipping container that served as his and his brother’s home at California Terra Gardens in Half Moon Bay when authorities say Chunli Zhao barged in and opened fire, killing his brother Jose Romero Perez and shooting him five times, including once in the face.

Prosecutors say Zhao killed three other colleagues at the farm on Jan. 23, 2023, after his supervisor demanded he pay a $100 repair bill for damage to his work forklift.

They say he then drove to Concord Farms, a mushroom farm he was fired from in 2015, and shot to death three former co-workers. Zhao pleaded not guilty during his arraignment in February.

The lawsuit by Pedro Romero Perez and another lawsuit by his brother’s wife and children against California Terra Garden, Inc. and Xianmin Guan, one of its owners, say there was a documented history of violence at the farm and that the company failed to take action to protect workers after another shooting at the property involving a then-manager in July 2022.

“All landlords have a duty to protect their tenants from the criminal acts of people who come onto the property,” said Donald Magilligan, an attorney representing Pedro Romero Perez and his brother’s family. “And California Terra Gardens did nothing to protect Pedro or his brother or the other victims of that shooting.”

Guan did not immediately respond to a phone message from The Associated Press seeking comment. A phone number or email couldn’t be found for California Terra Garden.

The complaints say the company knew Zhao had a history of violence. In 2013, a Santa Clara County court issued a temporary restraining order against Zhao after he tried to suffocate his roommate at the farm with a pillow. Two days later, Zhao threatened that same person by saying that he could use a knife to cut his head, according to the complaints.

Zhao told investigators that he slept with the loaded gun under his pillow for two years and that he purchased it because he was being bullied, according to the lawsuits.

The killings shed light on the substandard housing the farms rented to their workers. After the shooting, San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller visited the housing at California Terra Garden, where some of its workers lived with their families, and he described it as “deplorable” and “heartbreaking.”

Muller, who represents Half Moon Bay and other agricultural towns, posted photos on social media showing a shipping container and sheds used as homes.

Pedro Romero Perez migrated to California from Oaxaca, Mexico, and lived and worked at California Terra Garden starting in 2021. His brother Jose later joined him, and they rented a shipping container from the farm that had no running water, no insulation, and no sanitary area to prepare food, according to the lawsuit.

He said at a news conference Friday that he hasn’t been able to work since the shooting and that he and his brother’s family in Mexico are still struggling.

“I had two bullets in my stomach, one in my face, one in my arm and a bullet in my back,” Romero Perez said. “And I’m still healing. I’m still in pain and still trying to get better.”

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