Bulos "Paul" Zumot, 37, the Palo Alto hookah lounge owner who was charged with the Oct. 15, 2009, murder of his girlfriend, real-estate agent Jennifer Schipsi, was found guilty Thursday afternoon in a San Jose courtroom.
The four-man and eight-woman jury took less than 14 hours to return the verdict following a trial that began Jan. 3 and included three days of testimony from Zumot in his own defense.
Minutes after the verdict was read, the victim's father, Jim Schipsi, thanked the Palo Alto police detectives who investigated the case and the prosecuting attorneys.
"At last, the person responsible will pay for his crime," he said.
"Now I can go on living my life with my two children, doing what Jennifer wanted, which was for us to be happy," he said.
When he heard the verdict, he said, it released the tensions and the emotions the family's had since day one.
Jennifer Schipsi's grandmother, Peggy Schipsi, said the outcome was never in doubt in her mind. Nonetheless, she said she prayed a little longer than usual Wednesday night.
It felt wonderful to hear the verdict, she said: "Sad but wonderful. Justice has been done."
Members of Zumot's family declined to speak to reporters, but defense attorney Mark Geragos pledged outside the courtroom that he and his client would not accept the guilty verdict.
"It's a difficult time. The client is bewildered and so am I, but the jury was diligent. We'll be filing a motion for a new trial, and if that doesn't work, we'll appeal," Geragos said.
The prosecution, led by Deputy District Attorney Charles Gillingham, painted a picture of a man who had a history of domestic abuse against his girlfriend and killed her following an argument on his birthday.
"This is no longer a whodunit -- it never was," Gillingham said early in his closing argument on Tuesday, before going on to summarize the evidence from cell phones, witnesses and surveillance videos that the jury saw.
Gillingham said Zumot, former owner of the Da Hookah Spot in downtown Palo Alto, was the only person who had the motive, the opportunity and the desire to kill Schipsi, 29. He pointed to their two-year history of domestic disputes -- disputes that led both Zumot and Schipsi to file police complaints against one another. He also emphasized the long strings of insulting text messages Schipsi sent Zumot early in the morning of Oct. 15 -- messages in which she threatened to go to the police if he didn't pay her the money she claimed he owed her.
Gillingham argued that Zumot strangled Schipsi that day and later dowsed the house with gasoline and turned on the burner on the stove in hopes of causing an explosion that would hide his crime. There were no signs of a forced entry into the home nor of a burglary, Gillingham said, and no one disputed the coroner's finding that Schipsi was murdered before the fire occurred.
Gillingham told the jury that Zumot was with Schipsi all day and had "absolutely no alibi" for Oct. 15. No one who could vouch that they saw Zumot until that evening, he said.
During his closing arguments, Geragos had dismissed the prosecution's evidence as "a lot of nonsense" that the prosecution put in front of the jury "in the guise of evidence." Geragos, whose previous clients included Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson, argued that Palo Alto police, rather than investigating who committed the murder, decided on the day of the fire that Zumot was the killer and focused its resources on building a case against him.
"They had a theory, and they weren't going to be bothered with the evidence," Geragos said.
He told the jury that the prosecution's theory about Zumot taking Schipsi's phone and traveling with both phones on the day of the fire didn't stand up to evidence. He also derided the testimony of Jim Cook, the prosecution's cell-phone expert who used data from AT&T cell-phone towers to map out the locations of Zumot's and Schipsi's iPhones on the day of Oct. 15, 2009.
During his cross-examination of Cook, Geragos showed numerous instances in which the records seemed to suggest that a person could be using a tower in Hawaii and California within minutes of each other and argued that the phone company "merged" the data, making it impossible to figure out who is making the call and who is receiving it. Gillingham later countered in his rebuttal that in most cases, the phone calls Cook mapped were corroborated by other phone records, as well as videos and witness testimony.
Geragos also pointed to a lab report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which examined Zumot's clothing and did not find any evidence of accelerant on his sweatshirt, pants or socks. This finding contrasted with that of Rosie, an accelerant-sniffing dog used by arson investigators after the fire.
Geragos recalled testimony from a Palo Alto police officer who testified that Zumot did not have any scratch marks or bruises on Oct. 15, 2009. The fact that there "wasn't a single mark" on Zumot suggests that he did not get into a fight with Schipsi that day, Geragos argued.
He also criticized Palo Alto police for not investigating Hisham Ghanma, a person against whom Schipsi and Zumot had both filed a restraining order shortly before the fire, and for not following up on a statement made by Zumot's landlord, John Eckland, who testified that he saw a dirty white sedan parked close to the house on the day of the fire.
"They didn't show you any evidence linking Bulos to the crime," Geragos told the jury.
The prosecution, Geragos maintained, focused much of its case on "character assassination." He said that the long and heated string of messages exchanged between Zumot and Schipsi on the day of the fire consisted of insults and threats that she was sending him -- not the other way around. The only major actions Zumot had taken against Schipsi over their relationships occurred in 2008, when he kicked her car and spat at her. She filed a police report, and Zumot pleaded guilty to sending her harassing text messages. He was put on probation and forced to take domestic-violence classes in San Jose.
"This guy has learned over a year ago that he couldn't do those kinds of things," Geragos said, pointing at Zumot.
During Zumot's time on the witness stand, he acknowledged under cross-examination Monday that he deleted many of the text messages from Schipsi while he was at his domestic-violence class on Oct. 15, 2009. The class began at 4 p.m. and concluded less than an hour before the fire was reported.
Zumot offered several explanations for why he deleted those texts. He first said he wanted to get rid of "negative" messages in his phone. When Gillingham pointed to seemingly innocuous messages and asked Zumot why he deleted those, he said he deleted them because they meant nothing. Minutes later, Zumot said he "just randomly picked which I delete."
Zumot testified that he and Schipsi had completely reconciled on Oct. 15 and "everything was fine." He said he became extremely concerned about Schipsi when he learned the house was on fire. But Gillingham pointed to phone records showing that when Zumot arrived at the scene of the fire, he made dozens of phone calls over a two-hour stretch, but only two to Schipsi.
He also didn't send her any text messages that evening -- behavior that Gillingham argued was unusual for a man who on a typical day would exchange dozens if not hundreds of texts. During his closing argument to the jury, Gillingham recalled Zumot's lack of texts to Schipsi on the evening of the fire.
"His silence is damning. His silence is deafening," Gillingham told the jury during closing arguments. "His silence yells louder than anything he could've said at the witness stand: 'I murdered Jennifer.'"
Roy Endemann, Schipsi's best friend, cried outside of the courtroom after the verdict.
"I'm glad he's guilty, but it's sad for me to close this chapter in my life," he said. "It definitely makes things better for me, but it's very hard to hear from the jury, the judge, that your best friend had been killed."
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