The text messages began pouring into Bulos "Paul" Zumot's phone just after midnight on Oct. 15, 2009.
The first one told him to stay away. The next one wished him good night. The one after that called him a "selfish cold hearted ungreatful 'human being' scam artist liar."
The sender, Jennifer Schipsi, had just walked home from Da Hookah Spot, Zumot's cafe in downtown Palo Alto, to the cottage she shared with Zumot at 969 Addison Ave. Less than an hour before she left downtown Palo Alto in tears, she had been celebrating Zumot's 36th birthday at his favorite dining spot, Dishdash Restaurant in Sunnyvale, with about a dozen friends. Photos from the party show them together and having fun: He blows out the candles on the birthday cake. She smears icing on his face. He looks at the camera, a goofy grin flashing through the icing.
Schipsi's mood appeared to have soured around 10:30 p.m., as she and Zumot headed from Dishdash to an after-party at Da Hookah Spot. They were in Zumot's silver Range Rover with Zumot's friend, Victor "Vinny" Chaalan, driving. Zumot and Schipsi had both had a few drinks. Zumot sat in the passenger seat. Schipsi sat in the back. Music was blaring, Zumot later testified at the trial, and everyone was having fun.
During the drive, Schipsi received a text message from her friend Jaber Al Suwaidi, who missed the party because he was moving from Atherton to Menlo Park that day. Al Suwaidi, who often worked out and smoked hookah with the couple, asked Schipsi to pass by his new house on San Mateo Drive. Around that time, Zumot confronted Schipsi about Al Suwaidi's text messages, took her phone when she showed it to him and tossed it back at her.
"I can't," Schipsi responded to Al Suwaidi. "My phone was just thrown at me."
As the Range Rover pulled into a parking spot on Ramona Street, across the street from Da Hookah Spot, Schipsi was in tears. Zumot testified that he headed straight to the café because he wanted to give her space and "diffuse the situation." Chaalan offered to wait for Schipsi, but she declined. Chaalan saw her get out of the vehicle and sit on the bumper. When the men went in, she began her walk home.
Witnesses gave different accounts for what started the argument between Schipsi, 29, and Zumot, the man whom she'd been dating for two years and who police say strangled her to death around noon on Oct. 15. Chaalan recalled Zumot and Schipsi fussing over the Dishdash bill, which totaled $619. A guest at the party offered to start a collection to pay for it. Zumot objected to the offer and asked Schipsi during the drive whether she accepted the money. Zumot said he felt he and Schipsi should have been the ones footing the bill.
Schipsi's friend, Nora Hanafi, joined the party at Da Hookah Spot, noticed Schipsi's absence and called Schipsi several times, finally reaching her at about 11:20 p.m. She testified that Schipsi told her she and Zumot argued after one of their mutual friends sent her a text message requesting they stop by his home. The message made Zumot "angry," Schipsi told Hanafi.
Al Suwaidi, who also talked to Schipsi on the phone while she was walking, testified that he heard her "breathing heavily and crying." She told him that Zumot "humiliated her and that she slammed the door and left."
"She said she's done and that she can't handle it anymore," Al Suwaidi testified. "She was hysterical."
Zumot himself testified that he confronted her during the drive after she began deleting messages from Al Suwaidi. He said Schipsi was upset because he told her to shut up and accused her of lying about Al Suwaidi's texts.
Chaalan corroborated Zumot's statement. "I remember him saying, 'Tell me the truth; stop lying to me'" during the drive to Palo Alto, Chaalan said.
Zumot said he didn't see anything strange about Schipsi's stormy departure.
"She'd done that a couple of times — when we argue she'd walk home," Zumot said. "It was not a big deal at all."
But that's when the text messages from Schipsi began. They continued to gush into his phone that night as he smoked hookah and played cards with his friends. Each message was more furious than the last.
At 12:16 a.m., Schipsi asked him to cancel their scheduled flight to Palm Desert, where Zumot was planning to propose to her that weekend. Over the next 10 minutes, the messages became more obscene and provocative, with Schipsi calling Zumot a "f--," a "b----" and a "d---head" and telling him that his "karma will bite u in your own ass."
Zumot's responses were brief and somewhat dismissive. "I love u too," he wrote at 12:26 a.m. Four minutes later, he followed up with, "U need to relax."
Zumot testified that he hoped to calm her down with his curt replies, but they appeared to have achieved the opposite effect. Schipsi berated him at 12:34 a.m. for "scamming" his way through life and, in the same message, said her new goal in life was to open a hookah lounge across the street from his so that he could see how things should be done.
"U turned part of my heart black," she wrote in the same message. "Stay the f--- away so I can regain my happiness and satisfaction."
The subject then turned to money. In a series of angry texts that began just after 1 a.m., Schipsi ordered Zumot to pay her the $10,000 he owed her and told him not to "ever threten (sic) me again or I will seek ultimate justice." She then added other items to the bill, including money for a dresser she said he destroyed ($800), a bed that he allegedly tossed when he kicked her out of his home in San Jose ($750), a "zebra painting" that she said he slashed ($499), a buffet ($1,150), a hookah ($1,200) and a kitchen table and chairs ($1,980). She asked him not to come home and to leave the check under her door.
Schipsi also told him several times that if he didn't pay up by 11 a.m., she would call the police. Zumot said she made this threat frequently, and he didn't it take seriously. But he was still on probation from a domestic dispute he had with Schipsi in March 2008. So at 1:40 a.m. that morning, just after Schipsi threatened to go to the police, he responded, "No police plz."
Zumot testified that at the time of this exchange, he was playing poker with Chaalan at Bella Luna, a restaurant that shared the same brick building as the hookah café. They finished shortly after 2 a.m., went back to the café to count the money and then headed back to the house. Zumot said he still felt at that time that Schipsi's behavior was "not a big deal," but he asked Chaalan to call Schipsi and tell her they're coming home. He also asked Chaalan to follow him home.
"I knew Jennifer was upset, and I didn't want to go back to the house and make things worse," Zumot said on the witness stand. "I put him in as the middleman."
By the time Zumot and Chaalan arrived at the cottage at about 2:30 a.m., Schipsi was already in bed. She declined to leave the bedroom even after Zumot sent her a message at 2:36 a.m. saying, "Come out plz." Six minutes later, he sent her another message: "This is not fair."
In his testimony, Zumot maintained that he and Schipsi made up shortly after he returned to the cottage from Da Hookah Spot. After Chaalan left, Zumot said Schipsi came out of the bedroom to use the restroom and he coughed to get her attention.
"I said, 'I'm sorry,' and we sat down and started talking," Zumot testified.
He said she requested a hookah, and he prepared one for them to smoke. He also went back to the car to pick up the birthday cake. He said they "smoked, talked and had a great time." He also testified that at about 3:40 a.m., they had sex and recorded it on Schipsi's iPhone, as was their custom (police later found the recording on her phone). Zumot said they went to bed at 4:20 a.m.
The make-up apparently didn't last long. At about 11 a.m., Schipsi resumed her angry texts to Zumot to demand her money.
"I am serious BRING me my f---ing check and I will go buy a esspresso ...," she wrote at 11:12 a.m.
During the murder investigation, police recovered five more text messages that were sent from Schipsi's phone that day. Investigators believe the last four were all authored by Zumot after he strangled Schipsi and took possession of her phone. But no one at the trial disputed that it was Schipsi who wrote the text message to Zumot at 11: 14 a.m.
"I'm going to SJPD to file charges by 3 if my check is not here," the message read.
Police believe Zumot strangled Schipsi some time in the next hour. Her texts to Zumot suddenly stop and, as Deputy District Attorney Charles Gillingham pointed out during the trial, none of Schipsi's friends heard from her from that point on. Nora Hanafi said she called Schipsi at 11 a.m., but no one picked up and Schipsi never called her back.
The only person other than Zumot who may have heard Schipsi's voice that afternoon was William Koopman, who lives next door to the cottage. Koopman said he was outside his house at around noon on Oct. 15, 2009, when he heard a voice coming from the cottage. He initially thought it was a voice of a young boy who previously lived in the cottage, but he testified that the voice might have belonged to a woman.
Koopman said the voice stopped and started, as if the speaker was engaged in conversation. The volume was high, but the speaker wasn't exactly shouting.
"It was the kind of voice you'd use if you were to communicate to someone in the next room," he said.
When Al Suwaidi received a text message from Schipsi's phone at 12:48 p.m. that afternoon, he became suspicious. The previous night, as Schipsi was walking home from Da Hookah Spot, Al Suwaidi sent her a message, "Why is he pissed at me?" referring to Zumot's behavior in the car. He and Schipsi then had a phone conversation in which she told him about her fight with Zumot.
Now, nearly 14 hours after he sent her that message, he received a response from her phone: "He is not he was drunk last night."
It wasn't just the timing that made Al Suwaidi suspicious. Schipsi, a real-estate agent, was constantly on her iPhone, calling and texting friends and clients. Al Suwaidi said he and Schipsi exchanged hundreds of texts. He knew Schipsi liked to fill her texts with slang and abbreviations, and he thought the message he received that afternoon was too formal.
"It's not her writing," he testified.
Al Suwaidi assumed the message was written by Zumot, who he knew was sore at him for missing the Dishdash party. Zumot, in fact, wrote him a text message the previous evening, admonishing him for not calling and wishing him a happy birthday. Al Suwaidi replied that he wanted to say it in person. When he received a text message from Schipsi's phone the following afternoon, he thought he recognized Zumot's style and assumed Zumot was trying to make amends.
"I thought it was Paul," Al Suwaidi testified. "I thought he wanted to become friends again."
Al Suwaidi then sent another message to Schipsi's phone: "I called him 10 times and he's still not answering." Seconds later, he received a response, "He is in San Jose with his attorney I believe." This message was also written in a tone that Al Suwaidi felt was too formal to be Schipsi's.
"They're different," Al Suwaidi testified. "If you have them as friends, you know."
Schipsi's best friend, Roy Endemann, also received a text from her phone that afternoon. The message, which phone records indicate went out at 12:24 p.m., said, "How are you." It was almost identical to the message Schipsi sent Endemann the previous afternoon, minutes after he was out of surgery. The only difference was that in the earlier message Schipsi wrote, "How r u."
At 1:47 p.m. Schipsi's phone received a message from Zumot. "Can you call me plz," Zumot wrote.
Bulos Zumot said he last saw Schipsi around noon that afternoon. In his version of events, Schipsi was still in bed when he went to the Palo Alto police station at 11 a.m. to pick up a police report. On his way out, Schipsi asked him for a hug but he kept going, possibly triggering the angry reaction reflected in her texts that morning. His trip proved fruitless because he couldn't find parking outside the police station. He returned to the cottage, he testified.
Schipsi was still in bed when he got back home, Zumot said. He lifted weights, exercised with his jump-rope, had a sandwich and a bottle of water, played on his computer for a bit and then drove to the station for the second time. Again, there was no parking so he returned to the cottage. On the way back, he stopped by Peet's Coffee and Tea to pick up the latte Schipsi asked for.
The angry texts didn't deter him. Zumot said there was nothing strange about Schipsi getting mad at him and then forgiving him. Their rocky relationship was marked by numerous break-ups, make-ups, restraining orders and police complaints, some of which were later recanted.
One heated dispute occurred on Aug. 24, 2009. Schipsi called Palo Alto police that afternoon after Zumot allegedly threatened her life and called her obscenities, officers testified at the trial. Schipsi also told Palo Alto officers that Zumot had a "shady thought process" and an "infatuation with murder." She asked for an emergency restraining order, which was granted. She also told Palo Alto Officer Jared Monroe that Zumot "planned to burn down his business in Palo Alto and collect the insurance money," according to a police report.
By mid-September, however, Zumot and Schipsi were back together. They moved into the Addison Avenue cottage and took a trip to Lake Camanche. Photos from the trip, which were shown during the trial, showed both of them outdoors and smiling, his arm around her.
Zumot said he assumed everything was normal between them on Oct. 15. He testified that when he got back home, Schipsi was still in bed so he left the latte on the nightstand next to her. He said they spoke briefly and she told him she planned to see her mother and Endemann later that day. According to his timeline, that was their last conversation.
Zumot testified that after dropping off the latte he returned to the police station, this time parking in a yellow zone. He picked up the police report, which concerned a complaint he said he made against Hisham Ghanma. It was just after 1 p.m. He then went back to the café to make sure everything was in order before his Palm Desert trip. He made a list of items he would need to buy for that weekend, checked the surveillance systems and counted the money. He took a quick drive to a gas station to fill up his Range Rover. He then returned to Da Hookah Spot, smoked a hookah and spent some time on his computer.
Throughout the day, he said he was wearing a hooded Guess sweatshirt — a factor that Gillingham said explains why police officers observed a lack of scratches and bruises on his body when they interviewed him later that night.
Phone records indicate that shortly after 2:30 p.m., Zumot left the café and took off for San Jose, where he was scheduled to take a court-ordered domestic-violence class. On his way to the class, he stopped in Mountain View to buy some Torani syrup from his cousin's warehouse, Earthly Delights Gourmet Foods. He made another stop at the Restaurant Depot in Sunnyvale, but he testified that he left the supply store empty-handed because the line was too long. Surveillance footage shows him leaving the Sunnyvale supply store at 3:35 p.m.
When Fernando Alcoba arrived to teach his domestic-abuse class in San Jose at about 3:45 p.m., he saw Zumot waiting outside the classroom, a phone in his hand. At around that time, phone records show that Zumot made eight phone calls to his landlord, John Eckland, whose house is located in the back of the Addison Avenue property. When he finally got through, Zumot asked Eckland if he received the rent check.
Eckland said he thought the call was "odd." He testified that he had already spoken to Zumot about the rent check the previous day and assured him that he received it. When Zumot reached him at 3 p.m., Eckland reaffirmed his earlier statement, he said.
"I told him, reassuringly, 'Yes!'" Eckland testified.
Zumot's phone remained busy during the class. At about 5 p.m., he sent a text to his friend Joe Martinez to tell him that he planned to propose to Schipsi that weekend and asked for his support. He also acknowledged on the witness stand that while in class he deleted dozens of text messages that Schipsi had sent him the previous night and that morning — including the messages in which she threatened to go to the police.
Alcoba said he noticed Zumot seemed "a lot more relaxed" in previous classes than he was on Oct. 15, 2009. He also noticed something different about Zumot's appearance.
"He wasn't shaved that day and his hair wasn't groomed as normal. He looked tired," Alcoba testified. "He told me it was his birthday. He was up all night."
About 30 minutes after Zumot's class began in San Jose, Schipsi's phone received its final text of the day. The message was from Schipsi's friend, Heather Winters.
"Jenniferrr!!! Where are you???" it read.
Susie Scholpp said she was in front of her Lincoln Avenue home at a little after 6 p.m., unloading groceries from her car. She testified that she saw a car speeding down her block — a sight that always upset her. Scholpp had approached the city in the past about installing speedbumps in her quiet residential neighborhood, but to no avail.
She turned around and looked at the driver, making "direct eye contact."
"My eyes were following him," Scholpp testified. "I was pretty much giving a glare as the person was speeding down the block."
Scholpp, whose home is located a block away from the Addison Avenue cottage, testified she was "100 percent" sure the man was Zumot. Three months after the speeding incident, she saw Zumot's photo in a newspaper and called the police.
"I know it was him because our eyes met when he was speeding down our block," Scholpp said.
John Eckland recalled that he left his house at precisely 6:25 p.m. to pick up his father, Herb, for their customary Thursday dinner. Their friend, Eden Salomon, would join them that evening, as would her daughter and another friend, Herb Brams.
Salomon once lived in the cottage in front of Eckland's house, and she still felt "a little sentimental" about her former home, she testified. She arrived shortly before 6:30 p.m. Eckland and his father drove up a few minutes later.
The party went inside and the guests began to chat when lights began to flicker and a man started banging on the door. That man, Daren Beaumont, told Salomon the cottage was on fire. Beaumont testified that he was driving down Addison when he noticed smoke under the eaves of the cottage. He parked his car, approached the cottage and banged on the door. There was no response.
He then tried the large house in the back. Salomon answered the door. He told her the cottage was burning, and they each grabbed a garden hose and ran to the cottage. At that point, Beaumont said, window glass was exploding and smoke was "bellowing out of the windows and under the eaves." Salomon said she was approaching the cottage when the two windows "burst out" and "flame and smoke started coming out."
John Eckland, who was upstairs when Beaumont banged on the door, quickly joined them and commandeered one of the garden hoses — spraying water through one broken window while Salomon dowsed the burning bedroom through the other.
Police said the fire was reported at 6:39 p.m. By the time firefighters arrived, the fire was largely extinguished. Salomon testified that she didn't learn about the dead body until the following morning. But as she and Eckland saw additional police cruisers and fire engines arriving at the scene, they began to get suspicious.
"We wondered why there's so much commotion about the fire, so we began to speculate," Salomon said.
Palo Alto Fire Captain Carter French was the first person to spot the body. The bedroom was filled with smoke when French crawled toward the bed wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus — the firefighter's heavy-duty respirator. He saw the bed through the heavy smoke. As he neared it, he saw the victim.
French said his first reaction was to grab the body and pull it toward him. He moved it about six inches and noticed that it was completely incinerated.
"It definitely met the criteria for establishing death," French testified.
The following morning, Barbara Maxwell, a special agent for fire investigation with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, would spot several signs that suggested to her that the victim died before the fire. The body's position — supine across the middle bed, with one leg bent and a hand raised in a "pugilistic manner" — was "unique for a fire scene," Maxwell testified.
Maxwell also noticed a melted red plastic object that appeared to be a remnant from a gasoline can. As the body was lifted up, they noticed a "distinct smell of gasoline" emitting from the body, especially near the hair.
"We determined the fire was intentionally set in incendiary nature," Maxwell testified.
Investigating officers also noticed that the front right burner on the gas stove in the kitchen was missing its protective covering and had a piece of foil around it. The gas switch on the burner was turned on high. This led them to believe the perpetrator wanted the house to disintegrate in a natural-gas explosion after the fire was set.
The coroner's office later confirmed Maxwell's determination that the victim died before the fire. According to the coroner's report, the hyoid bone in Schipsi's windpipe was crushed, suggesting strangulation. Also, her lungs didn't contain any soot, which suggested that she was no longer alive when the fire started.
Minutes later, the quiet block was swarming with firefighters and police officers.
A little more than a mile away, Zumot entered Da Hookah Spot at 6:47 p.m., a surveillance tape from the café showed. He paced around for a minute and settled on a sofa near the café entrance on Ramona. Footage showed him sitting and smoking a hookah. A café employee walked up to him, and they chatted briefly. Zumot took a few more drags and exhaled clouds of smoke. At 6:50 p.m., he got a call that lasted 12 seconds. He quickly walked out.
Joe Martinez spoke to Zumot several times on the day of the fire. Martinez, a deputy sheriff at the Monterey County Sheriff's Office, testified that he met Zumot at a San Jose gym in 2007, and they quickly became close friends. He and Zumot were neighbors, and they regularly worked out and smoked hookah together, he said. Martinez later invested more than $70,000 in Zumot's hookah café in San Jose, becoming a partner in the business. He said he called Zumot "Bulos" when they discussed business and "Paul" when they spoke as friends.
On at least one occasion, Zumot used Martinez as a shield against Schipsi's threats. On March 14, 2008, the couple had a dispute outside a Starbucks in San Jose, which ended with Zumot spitting at Schipsi and kicking her Mercedes, damaging its grill.
When Schipsi threatened to call the police that morning, Zumot replied, "I will come w jo. He is gonna help me carry da stuff. Yeah call da police wen jo w me." Zumot allegedly flooded her with 88 text messages that day and sent her hundreds more in the next two days. On March 17, she applied for a restraining order and cited Zumot's "I will come w jo" message in her application.
Later that afternoon, he sent her two more messages that the prosecutor would later cite as evidence of how toxic the relationship had become. "Ur a cancer and u know it," he wrote at 1:02 p.m. "I have 2 get u out of my life @ any price," he added an hour later.
"He has mentioned several times that there is nothing I can do because his best friend, Joe Martinez, is a police officer and that he (Zumot) has family members employed by the FBI, and if I contact the law I will regret it," Schipsi wrote.
The friendship between Zumot and Martinez began to cool off in the fall of 2008 — around the time Schipsi and Zumot resumed their relationship after a brief period of separation. Martinez testified that he didn't like the "drama" surrounding the relationship and asked Zumot if he could buy out his share in the café. Zumot ended up buying Martinez out.
The two remained on collegial terms. On the afternoon of Oct. 15, 2009, Zumot sent Martinez a text message from his domestic-violence class, telling him about his plans to propose to Schipsi. He knew Martinez and Schipsi didn't like each other, and he asked Martinez for his support. They exchanged seven text messages while Zumot was in class.
Zumot also continued to value Martinez's police expertise. Shortly after 7 p.m., after receiving the call about his burning home, he stood a block away from the cottage and watched police and fire investigators swarm his house. He called Martinez and asked him for help.
"He said his house was on fire, and he wanted me to come down to Palo Alto. I thought it was random, and he sounded really scared and really panicked," Martinez testified.
During that conversation, Zumot also recounted his actions that afternoon. Martinez said Zumot recalled going to the Restaurant Depot and to his domestic-violence class. He said Zumot told him he then went from the class straight to the hookah shop.
Early the next morning, Zumot called him again, Martinez testified. This time, his account of the previous day's actions was slightly different. Martinez said Zumot told him that between the domestic-violence and the hookah cafe, he stopped by the cottage and saw Schipsi sleeping.
Zumot remained near the cordoned-off scene of the fire for the next two hours. He told a police officer he was worried about his girlfriend and asked if he could get into the cottage. The officer, Agent Craig Lee, advised him against going in and told him to try calling Schipsi.
Lee recalled seeing Zumot making a series of phone calls from the scene and looking upset. He said he didn't see Zumot cry.
Phone records indicate that Zumot made a series of phone calls from the perimeter of the fire scene, including the one to Martinez and one to Eckland at about 7 p.m. He asked Eckland if Schipsi's white BMW was parked outside the cottage, and Eckland said it was. He also called Da Hookah Spot and spoke to a cafe employee, Ahmed Alaghbash. He asked him about Schipsi. Alaghbash said he hadn't seen her, according to a police report.
Zumot called Schipsi two times around the time of the fire, but he didn't text her that evening. During the trial, the prosecution characterized his behavior that evening as strange, given Zumot's tendency to send texts and make phone calls by the dozens.
During the trial, several witnesses testified about Zumot's obsessive phone calling. One was Craig Robertson, who lived across the hall from Schipsi's apartment in San Jose's Santana Row. Robertson recalled on the witness stand an incident in which Schipsi came over for a glass of wine. He said her phone went off more than 100 times that evening, and she told him it was her boyfriend calling.
Hanafi said Zumot was "obsessive" about texting Schipsi. Martinez also recalled Zumot's persistence when it came to calls and texts.
"That's Paul's personality," Martinez testified. "He'd call and text a lot — even me. He'd call 10 times until I'd answer. That was his personality. It was distracting and annoying, but you accepted it because it's part of his personality."
In his closing argument, Gillingham recalled several episodes in which Zumot flooded Schipsi with calls and text messages. Zumot's silence that evening was "deafening" and "damning," Gillingham told the jury.
"His silence yells louder than anything he could've said at the witness stand, 'I murdered Jennifer,'" Gillingham said.
At about 9 p.m. that evening, Zumot returned to the Palo Alto police station. An officer asked him to come in to answer a few questions.
During his interview with detectives Aaron Sunseri and Brian Philip, Zumot acknowledged that he and Schipsi had argued the previous night. He also told the officers that evening about the messages from Schipsi he had deleted earlier that day.
After the interview, police seized Zumot's clothing, according to a report from Sunseri. Four days later, an accelerant-sniffing dog alerted on both of his shoes, his socks, his pants and his sweatshirt. An analysis by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives later proved less conclusive. The forensic examination could not identify ignitable liquids on his sweatshirt, jeans or socks, an ATF report shows. The lab found gasoline on Zumot's shoes, but the report noted that the shoes often contain petroleum products.
Zumot said he stayed at the station well past 1 a.m. that night and felt hungry and tired.
"I was out of it. I was shocked. I couldn't believe it," Zumot testified.
Four days later, on Oct. 19, Zumot arrived at Da Hookah Spot at around 5 p.m. and received a call from Sunseri, the lead investigator. Zumot said he looked outside and saw a "big number" of police officers outside the cafe. They pulled out their guns, told him he was under arrest, handcuffed him and escorted him into a police cruiser.
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