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Cell phone takes center stage at Zumot trial

Prosecution points to text messages, records from cell towers in arguing that Zumot killed his girlfriend, set house on fire

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

Less then an hour before Palo Alto firefighters found the charred remains of 29-year-old Jennifer Schipsi in a burned cottage on Addison Avenue in Palo Alto, her boyfriend, Bulos Zumot, was allegedly driving back to the city from San Jose with her phone in his vehicle, Zumot's prosecutor said Monday morning.

Zumot, who had a volatile two-year relationship with Schipsi, had argued with her the night before the Oct. 15, 2009, fire.

As his trial for murder and arson kicked off Monday morning in Santa Clara County Superior Court, the prosecutor and the defense attorney clashed over whether the couple's fight led to reconciliation, like so many of their previous fights, or to arson and murder.

Deputy District Attorney Charles Gillingham argued in his opening statement that text messages on the two cell phones and records from cell towers between Palo Alto and San Jose clearly demonstrate that Zumot, who formerly owned Da Hookah Spot in Palo Alto, had both the incentive and the opportunity to commit the crime.

Zumot's attorney, Mark Geragos, characterized the prosecution's evidence as "hocus pocus" and said his client was nowhere near the fire at the time it was committed. He also pointed to a video of Zumot and Schipsi having sex after their fight -- a video that was shot on Schipsi's cell phone -- as proof that the two had reconciled after their fight.

"There is absolutely no evidence that he would hurt a fly, much less murder someone," Geragos said, tapping his client's shoulder for emphasis.

Though much of the evidence discussed Monday had been previously revealed in pretrial hearings and in motions filed by both sides, the hearing gave the jury its first opportunity to listen to the attorneys' arguments.

The jury also heard testimony from three witnesses -- a Palo Alto officer who led the crime scene investigation, a Palo Alto fire captain who responded to the blaze and found Schipsi's body, and the man who first saw the fire and dialed 911.

Officer Nanelle Newbom, the prosecution's first witness, said she noticed when she arrived at the Addison Avenue cottage the morning after the fire that the bedroom in which Schipsi's body had been found smelled like gasoline. She also found a gasoline can on the scene and noticed that the front right burner on the stove was in the "on" position.

Gillingham pointed to this evidence as indication that Zumot wanted to burn the house down to conceal the murder.

"The person who set the fire to the house, the defendant, also wanted it to explode in natural gas," Gillingham said.

Fire Captain Carter French, who responded to the 911 call and discovered Schipsi's body as he was crawling through the smoky bedroom, said the fire was "hot and fast," which indicated that accelerant may have been used to intensify the fire. By the time the firefighters arrived at the scene, the blaze had already been largely knocked down by nearby residents, armed with garden hoses.

Daren Beaumont testified that he was driving by the scene when he noticed smoke coming out near the eaves of the cottage at 969 Addison. He banged on two doors at the cottage but received no response. He then alerted Zumot's landlord, John Eckland, who lives in a larger house at the back of the property. Eckland's guests joined Beaumont in battling the flames before firefighters arrived.

But much of the evidence that emerged Monday centered on the phone calls and text messages Zumot and Schipsi had exchanged the day before and the morning of the fire. Many of these messages, Gillingham said, were initially deleted by Zumot but later recovered over the course of the police investigation.

Gillingham highlighted the history of domestic violence between Zumot and Schipsi and detailed the argument the two had the night before the fire, at Zumot's birthday party. Gillingham said Zumot became angry after one of the party guests began a collection to pay the bill. The two started arguing about the money on their way back from DishDash Restaurant in Sunnyvale to Da Hookah Spot. Both were passengers in a car driven by their friend, Victor Chaalan.

Schipsi ended the fight by walking home while Zumot proceeded to the hookah shop with his friends.

The messages, which were exchanged after the two got into a fight at Zumot's birthday party, show Schipsi getting increasingly angry at Zumot and demanding money for items that he allegedly damaged.

At one point, she threatened to go to the police if he didn't give her a $11,200 check by the following afternoon. She also demand $10,000 from him for damaging her car and threatened to "seek ultimate justice" if he doesn't pay. She became more and more frustrated and at one point, called him "selfish," "coldhearted" and a "scam artist."

The Oct. 14 fight was the latest of many clashes between Zumot and Schipsi, who began dating in October 2007. At one point, Schipsi filed a restraining order against Zumot and accused him of stalking her. She later recanted her accusations and asked that the restraining order be lifted.

The messages ceased by the following afternoon, at which point the police believe Schipsi was no longer alive. Though Gillingham said the two appeared to have made up after their fight and even had sex, the anger returned the following morning.

On Oct. 15, the day of her death, Schipsi's phone received several text messages from a friend, Jabar Al Suwaidi, who was unable to attend Zumot's party and was wondering why Zumot was mad at him.

She apparently sent a response back saying Zumot wasn't mad, but Al Suwaidi said he believed the message did not come from Schipsi but from Zumot. Al Suwaidi and Schipsi had discussed the subject the previous night, and Al Suwaidi felt the Oct. 15 response was both unnecessary and uncharacteristic of Schipsi.

Gillingham also pointed to records showing that the various cell towers that were used to transfer these messages were the same exact towers that were transmitting Zumot's messages as he was commuting from Palo Alto to San Jose, where he was taking a class for domestic-violence offenders, and back to Palo Alto. Cell-tower records indicate that Schipsi's phone was located near Zumot's San Jose class by late afternoon, Gillingham said.

These records, as well as Zumot's own admission that he stopped by the Addison Avenue house on his way from San Jose to Da Hookah Spot, indicate that he was at the scene of the crime at the time of the fire, Gillingham argued.

"The defendant, through his words, conduct and phone calls puts himself at the house," Gillingham said.

Gillingham also used his opening statement to show the jury photos from the scene, including ones of Schipsi's body, blackened by fire, lying supine across the bed, one leg bent behind her back.

Geragos countered that the prosecution's evidence "falls miserably short" and argued a cell phone's location cannot be conclusively pinpointed through cell tower records alone. The most these records can indicate is that a signal from a certain cell phone "pinged on a tower," which does not mean the phone was actually near that tower.

He also said Zumot and Schipsi had made up after the fight and had smoked a hookah -- which is why the police found a piece of foil on the stove and a hose in the trash can.

"There is no evidence, and this is all hocus pocus," Geragos said.

Related stories:

Boyfriend arrested in Palo Alto death of Jennifer Marie Schipsi

New attorney seeks bail for Bulos Zumot

Police say Zumot, Schipsi fought before she died

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