Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 19, 2010

Victim: Murder suspect 'infatuated with killers'

No bail for Bulos Zumot of Palo Alto, who is charged with strangling girlfriend, setting house on fire

by Gennady Sheyner

Accused murderer Bulos Zumot of Palo Alto was "infatuated with serial killers" and wanted to "plan the perfect murder where no one would suspect him," according to a police report released Tuesday by Chuck Gillingham, Santa Clara County deputy district attorney and the lead prosecutor in the case against Zumot.

Zumot, whom police allege murdered his girlfriend, Jennifer Schipsi, and set the cottage they shared on fire to cover up the crime, was in Santa Clara County Superior Court Tuesday morning in hopes of being released on bail. However, Judge Patricia Lucas denied Zumot's request despite arguments from the defense that Zumot is not a flight risk and that the circumstances of the case have changed significantly since the court first decided to hold him without bail.

Lucas ruled against Zumot after the prosecution released new evidence, including excerpts from police reports in which Schipsi accused Zumot of having a "shady" thought process, "suspicious paranoid nature, fascination with crime scene shows, creating the perfect crime, and making sure he would never be caught."

Zumot, 36, has been held without bail since Oct. 19, when Palo Alto police arrested him and charged him with killing 29-year-old Schipsi and burning down their Addison Avenue cottage. Zumot's attorney, Cameron Bowman, filed a motion last month asking the court to set bail for his client, who pleaded not guilty to the charges last month.

Zumot, who operated Da Hookah Spot on University Avenue in Palo Alto before his arrest, was charged with homicide and arson after an accelerant-sniffing dog detected accelerant on Zumot's shoes, socks, pants and sweatshirt. Bowman had disputed these results and pointed to an analysis from the U.S. Department of Justice, which could not verify the police dog's findings.

Bowman had argued that Zumot was at Da Hookah Spot at the time of the Oct. 15 fire and thus could not have committed the crime.

Bowman said Tuesday that a "reasonable bail" in this case would be about $1 million.

He argued that Zumot is not a flight risk and said Zumot's family is willing to pay for an electronic-monitor bracelet and to hire a security guard to make sure Zumot doesn't flee.

But Gillingham maintained that Zumot would pose a danger to the public if released. He pointed to Zumot's history of domestic violence with Schipsi; his 1994 conviction following a family spat in Washington; his recent fallout with Hisham Ghanma, a former friend against whom Zumot and Schipsi had obtained a restraining order; and new evidence suggesting that Zumot may have been involved in money laundering.

Gillingham also pointed to a conversation Zumot allegedly had with his distant cousin and business associate, Said Hattar, the day after the Oct. 15 fire. According to a report from Palo Alto police, Hattar told Zumot, "If you did these things, let me help. We'll get you out of the country at least." Zumot responded, "No, I wouldn't lie to you."

Bowman argued that the conversation in fact supports defense's position. Zumot was given an opportunity to flee, but he chose to stay and defend himself from accusations, Bowman said.

"When given the opportunity to leave, he chooses to stay and fight the case," Bowman said.

But Gillingham noted that Zumot is originally from Jordan and argued in his brief that unlike other defendants Zumot "has a country to flee to with monetary resources located therein." He also pointed to a "suspicious activity report" filed by Zumot's bank on Oct. 14, the day before the fire. According to the report, Zumot had received a $79,000 wire transfer from the United Arab Emirates on Sept. 17, reportedly for "personal needs."

The bank, Comerica, also observed a "sudden increase in currency withdrawal transactions" and "what seems to be a suspicious movement of funds transacted on Bulos Zumot's business and personal accounts."

Gillingham also cited a series of police reports further detailing the ongoing dispute between Zumot and Schipsi, a real-estate agent who moved to Palo Alto from San Jose last year. According to one report, Schipsi had told the police that Zumot "always talks about his infatuation with murder and how he would plan the 'perfect murder.'" Schipsi also told the police that Zumot was "very angry" and that he swore at her and told her he would kill her.

Zumot had also allegedly talked about burning down Da Hookah Spot for insurance money, according to a police report. His plans had prompted Schipsi to leave a voicemail message for the daughter of the building's owner, informing her that she has information about a "tenant at the hookah bar." Later, in a phone conversation with the daughter, Schipsi allegedly "stated that Bulos Zumot threatened to kill and burn down Jennifer Schipsi's house, if Jennifer talked to the police."

Gillingham also dismissed Bowman's argument that Zumot was at Da Hookah Spot at the time of the crime. He said surveillance evidence shows that Zumot was only at his smoke shop for about 3 minutes and could have easily set the fire and then drove to Da Hookah Spot. Bowman had told the judge that Zumot was at the University Avenue smoke shop for about 30 minutes.

"The reality is that the defendant was at his business for a mere 3 minutes prior to the call regarding the fire," Gillingham wrote. "That fact makes his arson alibi non-existent and certainly does not make for a change of circumstances warranting a lower bail."

After the fire, a Santa Clara County medical examiner concluded that Schipsi had a broken hyoid, which suggested death by strangulation. According to the police report, the medical examiner "said that the body smelled like gasoline."

The day after the fire, investigators found that Schipsi's back was relatively untouched by fire, which suggested to the police that the victim was "incapacitated or dead at the time of the fire." Palo Alto police also found that the victim's hair appeared to have been soaked in an accelerant such as gasoline. Police also smelled gasoline around the house and found a comforter on the couch that appeared to be soaked in an accelerant, according to a police report written by Detective Aaron Sunseri.

Court records show that Zumot and Schipsi had a turbulent history of breaking up and getting back together again. In February 2008, Schipsi took out a restraining order against Zumot and accused him of harassing her with threatening calls and text messages. But in October 2008, she asked the court to rescind the order.

Last August, Schipsi obtained an emergency restraining order against Zumot after he allegedly threatened her. Zumot also told the police that he and Schipsi had been arguing the day of the fire, according to a Palo Alto police report.

Zumot also acknowledged to the Palo Alto police that he was "involved in illegal drug usage." Officers found vials of human growth hormone (HGH) and syringes at the Addison Avenue cottage after the fire. According to Gillingham's declaration, Zumot told the police that he would "inject the drug into himself and the victim."

On Tuesday, Zumot's sister Khaloud Diggs, testified that her family had no reason to suspect any friction between Zumot and Schipsi. She said the pair kissed and hugged during social gatherings. Everything between them seemed to be fine, she said.

Gillingham then asked her whether Zumot's family became suspicious after the police intervened on two occasions.

"The fact that the police were brought in twice — did you or your family members decide to get involved and make sure it didn't happen again?" Gillingham asked her.

"Everything was fine," she responded.

Zumot's pretrial hearings are scheduled to begin on April 12.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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