Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 16, 2010

Trial set for Zumot

Palo Alto hookah-shop owner to face jury in September on murder charge

by Gennady Sheyner

Bulos Zumot, owner of the downtown Palo Alto shop Da Hookah Spot, will go to trial on arson and murder charges in September despite last-minute arguments by his attorney Tuesday morning that evidence implicating Zumot is nonexistent.

Zumot, 36, has been held without bail since Oct. 19, 2009, when Palo Alto police charged him with strangling his girlfriend, 29-year-old Jennifer Schipsi, and torching their shared cottage on Addison Avenue on Oct. 15 to hide the evidence. Zumot's attorney, Mark Geragos, downplayed the significance of police evidence — which includes various accounts of the fight Schipsi and Zumot had the night before the fire; their history of domestic violence; and the fact that a trained police dog named Rosie smelled accelerant on several articles of Zumot's clothing — and asked Santa Clara County Judge David Cena to dismiss the case.

Police arrested Zumot after a Santa Clara County medical examiner determined that a bone in Schipsi's neck had been broken before the fire and that there was no smoke in her lungs or airways. Police also found what they believed to be a melted gas can near the bed where Schipsi's body was found and reported a strong smell of gasoline emanating from the victim's body.

The coroner concluded Schipsi was dead before the fire was started.

After hearing testimony from seven police officers on Monday and Tuesday, Cena ruled that there is "sufficient cause" to believe Zumot may have been responsible for Schipsi's death. The trial is scheduled to begin in late September in San Jose Superior Court.

Much of the testimony at the pretrial hearings focused on the Oct. 14 argument between Zumot and Schipsi, which resulted in Schipsi leaving Zumot's birthday party and walking home by herself.

Palo Alto Police Agent Scott Savage, who had interviewed the couple's mutual friend Jaber Al Suwaidi, said Schipsi and a group of friends and relatives were celebrating Zumot's birthday and were preparing to leave the Dishdash Restaurant in Sunnyvale and head to Da Hookah Spot. Schipsi was inviting Al Suwaidi to join the group shortly after 10:30 p.m. Oct. 14 when Zumot reportedly interfered.

"Someone can't handle me texting. Sorry," Schipsi wrote to Al Suwaidi, according to Savage's testimony.

Minutes later, she sent him another message telling him that her "phone was just thrown at me."

The dispute was the latest episode in a volatile relationship, one that included multiple break-ups and threats, as well as a restraining order that Schipsi obtained against Zumot but later asked the court to rescind. Zumot was attending a court-ordered class in San Jose for perpetrators of domestic violence.

After her heated exchange with Zumot on Oct. 14, Schipsi left the group and walked alone to the cottage on Addison Avenue, Savage said.

At one point during the walk, she received a call from her friend, Nora Hanafy, who had arrived at Da Hookah Spot for the birthday party but could not find Schipsi, Detective James Reifschneider testified. Schipsi told Hanafy about her argument with Zumot.

"According to Ms. Hanafy, the defendant threw the cell phone angrily at the victim," Reifschneider said.

The couple also argued during the drive from the Dishdash Restaurant in Sunnyvale to Da Hookah Spot, according to testimony by Police Agent Tyson Hughes. Zumot's friend, Mansour "Victor" Chaalan was driving the couple in Zumot's car when the two passengers began arguing about an offer from another friend to help pay for the party, said Hughes, who had interviewed Chaalan.

When the group arrived at the hookah lounge, Schipsi "seemed upset and didn't want to go to the restaurant immediately," Hughes said. While Zumot and Chaalan went inside the shop, Schipsi remained outside. She then walked home.

Meanwhile, Zumot reportedly had a few drinks with his friends at Da Hookah Spot before going next door to the Bella Luna restaurant to play cards. Zumot and Chaalan then went back to Da Hookah Spot, cleaned and closed up the shop and headed to Zumot's Addison Avenue home.

When they arrived, Chaalan noticed the smell of cigarette smoke in the house, which he found strange because he knew Schipsi generally didn't smoke cigarettes. Zumot allegedly told him that Schipsi sometimes smoked and that he didn't like her smoking in the house. Chaalan stayed inside the house for about 15 minutes and mediated a discussion between Zumot and Schipsi. He left at about 2:45 a.m.

Prosecutor Chuck Gillingham said he believes that Zumot is the only person who saw or heard from Schipsi between that morning and the time her body was discovered that evening. She did not go to work on Oct. 15 and did not give a friend a ride to a post-doctoral appointment, as previously scheduled. At about 6:40 p.m., less than an hour after Zumot left his court-mandated class in San Jose for domestic-violence offenders, the cottage at 969 Addison Ave. was in flames.

Geragos maintained his client's innocence this week and pointed to Chaalan's characterization of the Oct. 14 argument between Zumot and Schipsi as a "small disagreement." Chaalan also allegedly told police that Zumot loved Schipsi and that he was planning to take a trip with her on an upcoming weekend, Geragos noted.

After Chaalan left the cottage on the morning of Oct. 15, he and Zumot swapped a few text messages. At about 3:42 a.m., Zumot allegedly sent Chaalan the message, "She is Kool now and honestly she has a clean heart. I shouldn't drink and act the fool. I love her." Chaalan also reportedly told police that he thought Zumot was "an honest man."

Geragos also dismissed evidence from the arson investigation indicating that several items of Zumot's clothing had traces of accelerant after the fire. Geragos pointed to an analysis from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which tested the same items of clothing that the accelerant-sniffing dog, Rosie, smelled but did not find evidence of gasoline on them.

Gillingham said the clothing had some substance on them, but not enough for the ATF test to find them "positive." Geragos said the analysis essentially disproved Rosie's findings.

"You now have absolute proof that either the dog was hungry or there was something else going on," Geragos said.

But Gillingham said all evidence points to Zumot, who has a history of domestic violence, who argued with Schipsi the night before her death and who police believe was the last person to see Schipsi alive.

"Unfortunately, it's an all-too-common scenario," Gillingham said.

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

Comments

Posted by Innocent Prevails, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Aug 11, 2010 at 2:54 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff].


Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 12, 2010 at 4:33 pm

I sure hope that anyone found guilty of murdering someone and then setting a fire that could have hurt or killed others and destroyed lots of property gets the maximum sentence. I hate to say I have my mind made up but I suppose from what I have read I do. I just wish that people would have the sense to get out of these toxic relationships before bad things happen. A few months to a year later who the heck cares ... separate and move on with your life.


Posted by JennyNoAngel, a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Mar 23, 2011 at 11:03 am

We all have heard a lot about the suspect who is innocent. Now here is some stuff that has been hidden from the jury and the world about Jenn.

Web Link


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