‘Just two days ago we were talking.’ Families grieve victims of Half Moon Bay massacre

HALF MOON BAY — Renato Juarez Perez got the gut-wrenching call around 4 p.m. on Monday — one of his cousins was killed and another badly injured in the mass shooting that claimed seven lives in this coastal farming community.

The brothers, Jose and Pedro Romero Perez, are among the victims of Monday’s violence at two farms in Half Moon Bay. Jose, in his late 30s, was killed at Mountain Mushroom Farm, while Pedro, in his 20s, was badly injured there and transported to a local hospital, Juarez Perez said.

“Just two days ago, we were talking,” Juarez Perez said. Now he, along with family and friends in the U.S. and Mexico, are left wondering how — and why — the brothers were killed.

Pedro Romero Perez, left, was wounded and Jose Romero Perez, 38, right, was killed at Mountain Mushroom Farm during a workplace shooting in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. Chunli Zhao, 66, of Half Moon Bay, the suspect in the shooting that killed seven people and injured an eighth, was arrested the same day in a sheriff’s substation parking lot as he sat inside his car. (photo courtesy Perez family) 

Officials say the suspected shooter, 66-year-old Half Moon Bay resident Chunli Zhao, worked at Mountain Mushroom Farm and may have been involved in a workplace dispute.

Alicia Ortega also is searching for answers. Just a few miles down the coast from where the brothers were shot, three more people were gunned down at Concord Farms, including her boyfriend and next door neighbor, Martin Martinez, who helped cultivate and pick mushrooms.

Alicia Ortega grieves at her home in Moss Beach, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, one day after her boyfriend was killed by a gunman in a mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, Calif. Seven lives were lost. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Ortega said she was cooking in her Moss Beach home when she received the call from a friend that Martinez had been killed.

“I’m on my way there,” Ortega told her friend.

“Don’t go,” the friend said. “The shooter is still on the loose.”

Ortega raced there anyway until she was stopped by sheriff’s deputies.

Ortega’s husband died three years ago, she said, and now she has lost Martinez, who was 50 and had no children. He had worked for Concord Farms for 27 years and had worked with Zhao about 7 years ago, she said. She doesn’t remember Martinez ever mentioning him.

“What can I tell you? Only great things about him,” she said. “He was a human being with a big heart. He cares about everyone.”

Alicia Ortega and Martin Martinez are photographed at a wedding event in 2022. Ortega says Martinez was among the seven farmworkers killed in the Half Moon Bay mass shooting. (Photo courtesy of Alicia Ortega) 

When her husband was sick, Martinez would walk with Ortega and her husband through their mobile home park for exercise. When she needed help moving him, Martinez would come over to lift him. And when her husband was dying, after Martinez finished his shift at the farm, “instead of coming home to rest, he would go to the hospital to see my husband and stay there until 10 o’clock,” she said. “Until my husband told him to go home, you have to go to work tomorrow.”

Then Martinez would be up and at work by 6:30 the next morning. After her husband died, she and Martinez became closer. The week before he died, she cooked his favorite meals — including chile rellenos and tacos — and every day she would leave a lunch bag on the roof of his car to find in the morning.

The Romero Perez brothers had not been in Half Moon Bay long.

Renato Juarez Perez said his cousins came to the coastal community a short time ago to be close to family and contribute to the support system that keeps many farmworker families above water financially and socially.

He described Jose as a very nice, very quiet and sociable guy, a family man who provided for four children and a wife while living at the mushroom farm. Juarez Perez remembers fondly all of the family dinners, reunions, parties and simple errand running they would do together. Pedro, he said, was the same — a quiet, reserved, hard-working man who never made a fuss.

Renato Juarez Perez had two cousins shot during yesterday’s mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, Calif. He talks about the tragedy, Tuesday morning, Jan. 24, 2023, as one cousin clings to life at Stanford Medical Center. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Both cousins were thinking about leaving California after a couple of thin paychecks and little work, said Maria Melgar, who runs the Hilltop Grocery store on Highway 92 — about half a mile from Mountain Mushroom Farm — that the family frequented.

“I’m a store owner, so I see them all the time,” Melgar said, tears running down her face. “I was taking a rest day yesterday, but when I got the call, I was so sad I started crying. It’s so sad.”

The identities of the five men and two women who were killed and the one man who was injured had not been officially released as of Tuesday evening. It is not yet clear if Zhao targeted specific victims, officials said.

Maria Melgar, manager of Hilltop Grocery on Highway 92, talks Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023 about yesterday’s mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, Calif. Melgar, a 40-year resident of Half Moon Bay, said some of the victims were her customers. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Fabiola Procopio, Melgar’s daughter, said she occasionally drove customers home to the mushroom farm and found their living conditions spartan. There were a number of trailers, she said, but also tent-like structures where workers lived.

“Sometimes, they didn’t even have like a real roof, they would just make one,” she said. “I mean, they needed to find money and a place to live, so I didn’t really question it.”

Juarez Perez said his cousins were thinking of moving on from Half Moon Bay.

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“You come here and you make plans and sometimes things don’t happen the way you thought,” Juarez Perez said. “They weren’t happening as planned.”

Connie Cunningham,73, of Cupertino drops off flowers at the reunification center in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Seven people were killed in Half Moon Bay on Monday night. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)

A van load of people are brought to the family reunification center at the IDES Hall in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, after a gunman shot and killed seven people. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

San Mateo County Sheriff Christina Corpus speaks during a press conference in downtown Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

Police investigate the scene of a mass shooting off Cabrillo Highway in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

A San Mateo County Sheriff’s officer looks inside of a car in the parking lot of the police station in downtown Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group

A child keeps an eye on law enforcement officers as they investigate a shooting off of Highway 92 in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

Law enforcement investigate a shooting off of Highway 92 in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

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