The night before investigators found the remains of Jennifer Schipsi at her Addison Avenue cottage in Palo Alto, Schipsi had sent a friend a message that her boyfriend, Bulos Zumot, had just thrown a cell phone at her, Palo Alto police said Monday during an intense pretrial hearing in San Jose.
Zumot, Schipsi and a group of friends and relatives were celebrating Zumot's birthday on Oct. 14, and were preparing to leave the Dishdash Restaurant in Sunnyvale and head to Da Hookah Spot, a downtown hookah shop owned by Zumot.
She was inviting her friend, Jaber 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 Monday's testimony by Palo Alto Police Agent Scott Savage."
The argument, which was detailed in Zumot's pretrial hearing Monday, was the latest episode in their volatile relationship. About an hour before the fire, Zumot was leaving a court-ordered class in San Jose for perpetrators of domestic violence.
The instructor, Fernando Aldoba, told police that Zumot used the word "rollercoaster" to describe his relationship with Schipsi, though Zumot reportedly said things were getting better between them.
But on Oct. 14, the day Zumot was turning 36, the two were once again arguing. Minutes after telling Al Suwaidi her location, she sent him another message telling him that her "phone was just thrown at me."
Schipsi, 29, reportedly left the group that night and walked alone to the cottage on Addison Avenue, according to Savage, who had interviewed Al Suwaidi on two occasions. Savage was one of four Palo Alto officers who testified at Monday's hearing for Zumot, who was arrested on Oct. 19 and charged with murder and arson.
Police Detective James Reifschneider heard a similar report about the Oct. 14 fight from Schipsi's friend, Nora Hanafy, who arrived at Dah Hookah Spot for the birthday party but could not find Schipsi at the cafe. Hanafy called Schipsi, who was walking home at the time.
Schipsi allegedly told Hanafy that Zumot became upset when he saw texts from "Jaber," a mutual friend, Reifschneider said.
"According to Ms. Hanafy, the defendant threw the cell phone angrily at the victim," Reifschneider said.
Police accused Zumot of strangling Schipsi, 29, and burning down their cottage to cover up the evidence. Police arrested Zumot after a police dog smelled accelerant on Zumot's clothing and 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.
The coroner concluded Schipsi was dead before the fire was started.
On Monday, investigators provided new details about the crime scene and the arson investigation. Officer Nanelle Newbom, who investigated the scene the morning after the fire, said she found one of stove burners at the Addison Avenue cottage set to "high" and reported seeing an aluminum liner around the stove, a possible indication that someone was tinkering with the flow of gas.
Newbom also said she detected a strong smell of gasoline emanating from Schipsi's hair and from the area around the bed where the body was found. Near the body, she also found a red, melted piece of plastic that an arson investigator told her "could be a melted gas can."
Later in the day, Reifschneider described how a police canine named Rosie, who is trained to pick up the scent of accelerants, alerted when she sniffed several items of Zumot's clothing.
But Zumot's attorney, Mark Geragos, attempted to cast doubt on Newbom's testimony by pointing out that the police didn't set up a "decontamination zone" (tubs of soapy water and clothing items designed to prevent investigators from carrying contaminants in and out of the crime scene) on Addison Avenue until late morning of Oct. 16.
This means emergency responders and anyone else who may have entered the property on the night of the crime or early the next morning could've brought in the accelerant, Geragos said.
"If you don't wear those protective pieces of clothing it exposes the site to contamination," Geragos said.
Geragos also questioned Palo Alto Detective Anjanette Holler, who accompanied Schipsi's body to the autopsy. Holler said she was told by Santa Clara County Medical Examiner Glenn Nazareno that the cause of Schipsi's death appears to be asphyxiation and that she appeared to have died before the fire.
"There was no soot in the lungs and trachea and the inside of the throat was pink and fleshy," Holler said.
Geragos countered that Schipsi's hyoid bone may have been broken through other means, including a possible fall.
Holler also mentioned a series of text messages that Schipsi swapped with her friend, Roy Endemann, whom she was scheduled to drive to a post-doctoral appointment on Oct. 15. The previous night, Schipsi reportedly called Endemann but he didn't pick up the phone, Holler said.
When he called her back, the call went straight to her voice mail. The following morning, he sent her more text messages but "got no response," Holler testified.
Endemann also allegedly told Holler that Schipsi would have agreed to marry Zumot if he were to propose.
Zumot, meanwhile, was exchanging phone calls and text messages on Oct. 15 with his friend, Joe Martinez, a deputy sheriff in the Monterey County Office of the Sheriff. Martinez, who prosecutor Chuck Gillingham said invested about $70,000 in Zumot's hookah business, swapped messages early in the day with Zumot about hookahs Martinez was reportedly interested in buying.
Later in the day, Zumot sent Martinez a text message saying he planned to propose to Schipsi. Martinez replied by congratulating him, Savage said.
At about 7:15 p.m., when the business partners spoke on the phone, Zumot was in a state of panic, Martinez told Savage. By that time, the house was aflame and Zumot told Martinez he feared Schipsi might be dead, Savage said.
"He said (Zumot) sounded panicked and scared -- that he's never heard him so scared," Savage said.
The pretrial hearing is scheduled to continue at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.