Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 28, 2011

Jury to hear about accused murderer's threats

Judge allows prosecution to show jury evidence about Bulos Zumot's alleged threats to kill girlfriend

by Gennady Sheyner

In August 2009, about two months before her death, Jennifer Schipsi complained to Palo Alto police that her boyfriend, Bulos "Paul" Zumot, had just threatened to kill her, according to police evidence the prosecution plans to show at the San Jose trial.

Schipsi, a 29-year-old real estate agent, allegedly told the police on Aug. 24, 2009, that Zumot had called her earlier that day and told her he would kill her. She said she feared for her life and described Zumot as having "infatuation with murder," according to the police reports.

Schipsi's conversations with Palo Alto officers are among those that Judge David A. Cena agreed Thursday to admit as evidence in Zumot's arson-and-murder trial. Cena also agreed to allow the jury next week to hear testimony relating to a phone call between Schipsi and Leslie Mills, whose father owns a florist business that shares a building with Da Hookah Spot, a hookah lounge on University Avenue that Zumot owned.

According to police reports, Schipsi called Mills in late August and left a voice mail saying that she had information about a tenant. Mills then spoke to her sister, Susan Diggle, who told her that Zumot threatened to burn down the building to collect insurance money. But when Mills called Schipsi back, Schipsi told her that she was no longer interested in discussing the subject. According to a police report, Schipsi told Mills that "Zumot threatened to kill and burn down Jennifer Schipsi's house, if Jennifer talked to the police."

Cena ruled Thursday that these statements could be admitted into evidence under a "hearsay exemption" that went into effect this year. The exemption, codified in Evidence Code section 1390, allows victims' statements to be admitted as evidence even when the victim isn't present as a witness — provided that the prosecution can demonstrate that the defendant had a motive to keep the victim from testifying.

Another statement that Cena agreed to admit is one that Schipsi made to her friend Heather Winters. Schipsi had reportedly told Winters about Zumot's desire to burn down the hookah lounge building.

Winters was one of several witnesses to testify this week about the volatile relationship between Zumot and Schipsi. She said Wednesday that she saw Zumot on Oct. 17, 2009, two days after the fire, when he was playing cards at Da Hookah Spot.

"I said, 'Hi.' He didn't say anything" — including any mention of Schipsi's death, Winters said of her Saturday-night encounter.

Winters didn't learn of the death until the following Monday, she told Deputy District Attorney Charles Gillingham.

Winters also said that Schipsi had told her in August 2009, during an off-period in Schipsi's on-and-off relationship with Zumot, that he was abusive and that she had a safe-deposit box that contained a note that said, "If anything happens to me, then Paul did it," Winters said.

"She called me and let me know," Winters said of the note.

Jacob Allen, a friend and former fiancee of Schipsi, who dated her for nine years before she began dating Zumot, also took the stand Wednesday and recounted a similar story about the Wells Fargo safe-deposit box.

Defense Attorney Mark Geragos, however, challenged Allen's testimony that he heard the story of the safe-deposit-box note from Schipsi, citing Palo Alto Police Department audio recordings of a police interview with Allen.

Allen also testified that he read "disturbing" text messages sent by Zumot to Schipsi early in their stormy relationship, when Schipsi first requested a restraining order against Zumot when living at San Jose's Santana Row.

"It would be 'I hope you die,' but it wouldn't say, 'I want to kill you,'" Allen said.

Allen said he received a call from Schipsi requesting his help as she hurriedly moved her belongings from the residence she later shared with Zumot in Palo Alto, although the defense tried to render his description of her state of mind inadmissible.

"She was very frantic, stressed out. ... She was actually trying to pick what to take," Allen said.

Other witnesses also testified Tuesday about the couple's turbulent relationship. Millard Hampton, who until recently served as an officer in the San Jose Police Department, recalled meeting Schipsi on March 17, 2008, when she went into the station to report that she was assaulted and that her boyfriend dented her car.

"She was nervous; she was scared; and she feared that Zumot would harm her at some point," Hampton said.

While she was at the station, Zumot called her several times, Hampton said. Eventually, Hampton picked up the phone and told him that Schipsi was scared and that he should stay away from her.

"He was emotional," Hampton recalled. "His response was that he cares about her and that he loves her."

Craig Robertson, who lived across the hallway from Schipsi in San Jose, also testified Tuesday that he became worried about Schipsi as he learned about her relationship. Robertson said that on about three occasions, Schipsi would visit his apartment and have a glass of wine. On one such occasion, her phone went off more than 100 times, he said. Schipsi told him it was her boyfriend calling, he said. One time, as Robertson was entering his apartment, he heard a slapping sound coming from the hallway. He then saw Zumot and Schipsi walking together. She was holding her face, Robertson said.

The jury also saw this week surveillance footage from Da Hookah Spot, taken on the evening of the fire. The video shows Zumot entering his business at about 6:47 p.m. and then sitting for a few minutes on the sofa just outside the lounge's Ramona Street entrance. He then receives a call and leaves.

Less than a minute before Zumot's first appearance in the video, the flashing lights of an emergency vehicle could be seen streaking down University Avenue.

The surveillance videos were intended to bolster the prosecution's argument that Zumot was not at the lounge when the fire was reported at 6:39 p.m.

But Geragos countered that the security cameras didn't capture the full story. Zumot could have been in the lounge's private basement room before he walked into the building's ground-floor area and made his first appearance in the video.

The trial will resume Monday morning in San Jose.

Editor's note: Follow the trial on Twitter. Go to twitter.com/#!/paw_court

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

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