Bulos Zumot, the owner of the Palo Alto hookah shop Da Hookah Spot, will undergo an arson and murder trial in September despite last-minute arguments by his attorney Tuesday morning that the evidence implicating Zumot is virtually nonexistent.
Zumot, 36, has been held without bail since Oct. 19, 2009, when Palo Alto police arrested him and charged him with strangling his girlfriend, 29-year-old Jennifer Schipsi, and torching their shared cottage on Addison Avenue to hide the evidence. Zumot's attorney, Mark Geragos, on Tuesday 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 an accelerant-sniffing dog named Rosie who smelled accelerant on several articles of Zumot's clothing -- and asked Santa Clara County Judge David Cena to dismiss the case.
But after hearing testimony from four Palo Alto officers Monday and from three more Tuesday morning, 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.
On Tuesday, Palo Alto police provided more details about the fight that transpired between Zumot and Schipsi on Oct. 14, the night before a fire destroyed the cottage they shared. These included testimony from Mansour "Victor" Chaalan, Zumot's friend who attended Zumot's birthday party on Oct. 14 and then followed Zumot home after the party.
The party began with a dinner at the Dishdash Restaurant in Sunnyvale and later proceeded to Da Hookah Spot, according to testimony from Officer Tyson Hughes. Chaalan was driving Zumot and Schipsi from Sunnyvale to Palo Alto in Zumot's car when the two passengers began arguing about an offer from another friend to help pay for the party.
When the group arrived at Da Hookah Spot at about 10:30 p.m, 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 and ultimately decided to leave the party and walk home by herself.
Meanwhile, Zumot reportedly had a few drinks with his friends at Da Hookah Spot before proceeding to the Bella Luna restaurant next door to play cards. Zumot and Chaalan then went back to Da Hookah Spot, cleaned and closed up the shop and proceeded 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 the discussion between Zumot and Schipsi. He left at about 2:45 a.m.
Prosecutor Chuck Gillingham said Zumot is the only person who had seen or heard from Schipsi between that morning and the time her body was discovered. She did not go to work the next day and did not give her friend a ride to a post-doctoral appointment, as 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.
But Geragos maintained that his client is innocent 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.
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. That evidence was obtained through an accelerant-sniffing dog, who alerted after sniffing Zumot's sweatshirt, pants and socks. Geragos pointed to an analysis from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which tested the same items of clothing 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 be considered positive. Geragos said the analysis essentially disproved the dog'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 long history of domestic violence, who argued with her 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.