Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 7, 2011

Zumot murder-arson trial begins

Witnesses recount arguments between defendant and murder victim during first week of trial

by Gennady Sheyner and Sue Dremann

Shortly after Bulos Zumot blew out the candles on his birthday cake at the DishDash Restaurant in Sunnyvale, he found himself arguing with his girlfriend, Jennifer Schipsi, over the bill, according to testimony presented during the first week of Zumot's murder-arson trial.

The two were in a car driven by a mutual friend, Victor Chaalan, and were on their way to Zumot's business, Da Hookah Spot, in downtown Palo Alto on Oct. 14, 2009 — the night before Schipsi's body was found in the burned cottage she shared with Zumot. During the drive, Zumot began to argue with Schipsi over a collection one of the guests at the party had started to reimburse the couple for the restaurant bill — a gesture that Zumot allegedly opposed.

Zumot was arrested four days after the fire and charged with arson and murder. Police said he killed Schipsi, a 29-year-old real estate agent, and burned their Addison Avenue cottage to cover up the crime.

Chaalan said Wednesday that he couldn't remember many of the details from the night of Zumot's 36th birthday party. Chaalan wavered in his testimony, occasionally contradicting the statements he allegedly made to the Palo Alto police.

Chaalan's testimony frustrated prosecutor Charles Gillingham, who persistently pressed Chaalan on whether Schipsi seemed upset after the fight. Chaalan said several times that the relationship between them is none of his business.

Gillingham repeatedly showed Chaalan the transcript in an attempt to refresh his memory about the argument, but Chaalan said he knew little about the fight.

Chaalan, an auto mechanic who has known Zumot for about eight years, wasn't the only friend of Zumot who testified Wednesday about the relationship between Zumot and Schipsi. Joseph Martinez, a deputy sheriff at the Monterey County Sheriff's Office, said the relationship was what prompted him to break off his business partnership with Zumot. The two were close friends who invested in a San Jose hookah shop in early 2008.

Martinez said Zumot and Schipsi were often together and that Zumot "cleared his schedule for her."

"From the time we met, they were together as much as they could possibly be together," Martinez said.

But the relationship was also characterized by frequent arguments and "drama," Martinez said. Schipsi and Zumot broke up in early 2008 but later reconciled, and Schipsi started to spend time at the hookah shop. Martinez said he was "concerned that (the relationship) would eventually start back up again" and asked Zumot if he could buy him out. Later, when cross-examined by Geragos, he said he didn't want to be around Schipsi when she was with Zumot.

After several weeks of negotiation, Zumot bought Martinez out.

Zumot and Martinez remained friends and on the afternoon of Oct. 15, 2009, Martinez called Zumot to wish him a happy birthday and to talk to him about buying hookah supplies. During the conversation, Zumot allegedly mentioned his argument with Schipsi and told Martinez that she walked away upset the previous night after he told her to shut up.

Later that day, at about 7:15 p.m., Zumot called Martinez and told him his house was on fire. He also said he hadn't seen Schipsi since that afternoon and went over his activities that day. Martinez testified that Zumot told him that he went to Restaurant Depot, a supply store for restaurants, and then to his court-ordered class for domestic-violence offenders before proceeding to Da Hookah Spot.

The next morning, they spoke again and Zumot allegedly gave him a different version of events. This time, Zumot mentioned that he made a stop at his house before coming to Da Hookah Spot.

"He said he went to Restaurant Depot, he went to the domestic violence class, he went home and saw Jennifer sleeping and then he went to the hookah lounge," Martinez said.

Earlier in the week, the jury heard from arson investigators and officers who inspected the scene of the fire. On Tuesday, Geragos challenged the testimony of Dennis Johnsen, Santa Clara County chief fire investigator and handler of Rosie, the accelerant-sniffing dog that detected accelerant on Zumot's shoes, socks, pants waistband, sweatshirt and on the passenger-side floor mat and rug of his black Land Rover.

Geragos said that Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) laboratory testing only found accelerant on the shoes — a common occurrence given that shoes often contain petroleum products.

Geragos showed the jury an ATF report that noted K-9s (sniffer dogs) will sometimes come up with a false positive for accelerants.

"Lab verification of all positives is necessary," according to the report.

Johnsen said he did not agree with ATF's analysis. At a training for dogs and handlers, several had complained that ATF tests were unable to detect what dogs can sniff.

Johnsen said he could not say how many false positives Rosie had produced. In seven years with Rosie, she had done 60,000 to 70,000 sniffing times, he estimated.

"There's no way to test those thousands of times" to find which were false positives, Geragos countered.

Johnsen said he was confident the dog had correctly identified the accelerant. The dog's behaviors and actions were strong positive alerts, he said.

Geragos also pointed to chemist's notes, which Johnsen said he had not seen.

"Are you aware of a strong smell of cologne on those items?" Geragos asked. Johnsen said he didn't recall smelling cologne.

Geragos asked: What if components of some colognes are the same chemically as in gasoline? Had Rosie ever been tested for false positives for cologne?

Johnsen admitted she hadn't.

Johnsen confirmed that other combustible products, such as tar paper, contain similar substances as gasoline but there were no such distractors for the dog in the car, he said.

Pressed by Geragos over what could cause the discrepancy between the dog's and ATF's analysis, Johnsen seemed flustered.

Something could have happened to the evidence after it was repackaged and sent to the lab, but he did not know what, if anything had occurred.

A Santa Clara County forensic pathologist also testified Tuesday afternoon Palo Alto police forgot to call the Santa Clara County Coroner's Office and delayed examination of Schipsi's body for 18 hours.

Glenn V. Nazareno said his examination of Schipsi's charred remains showed she had died after being strangled and was then set on fire to cover up the crime.

Nazareno admitted that police had first told his office not to come immediately to the burned Addison Avenue cottage to pick up her remains but to wait for the police to call. That call did not come until about 18 hours later, breaking protocol, because police forgot, he said.

Nazareno said the delay did not alter the evidence or his conclusion about how Schipsi died.

"Could it have affected the time of death?" Geragos asked.

"Given the fact that a fire was created ... all bets are off" in terms of establishing a precise time of death, Nazareno said.

Geragos continued to press Nazareno: "None of the protocol was followed in this case?" Geragos asked.

"Yes, that's correct," Nazareno said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com. Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com Editor's note: Follow the trial on Twitter. Go to twitter.com/#!/paw_court.

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