Shortly after Bulos Zumot blew out the candles on his birthday cake at the DishDash Restaurant in Sunnyvale, he found himself arguing with his girlfriend, Jennifer Schipsi, over the bill, according to testimony presented Wednesday.
The two were in a car driven by a mutual friend, Victor Chaalan, and were on their way to Zumot's business, Da Hookah Spot, in downtown Palo Alto on Oct. 14, 2009, the night before Schipsi's body was found in the burned cottage she shared with Zumot. During the drive, Zumot began to argue with Schipsi over a collection one of the guests at the party had started to reimburse the couple for the restaurant bill -- a gesture that Zumot opposed, attorneys for both sides said.
Chaalan said Wednesday that he couldn't remember many of the details from the night of Zumot's 36th birthday party. But he recalled that Zumot and Schipsi got into an argument that night and that she was "crying like a baby," making it hard for him to understand what she was saying. Chaalan had told the police during the investigation that Zumot had thrown Schipsi's phone at her during the car ride, transcripts indicate.
But on Wednesday, as he was cross-examined by Zumot's attorney Mark Geragos, Chaalan said Zumot may in fact have been simply handing her the phone by raising his arm and tossing it back.
Chaalan wavered in his testimony, occasionally contradicting the statements he allegedly made to the Palo Alto police shortly after Zumot was arrested on arson and murder charges.
Chaalan's testimony frustrated prosecutor Charles Gillingham, who persistently pressed Chaalan on whether Schipsi seemed upset the night after the fight. Chaalan said he wasn't interested in the personal life between Zumot and Schipsi, which he said is none of his business.
Chaalan said Palo Alto officers had interviewed him on several occasions and asked him several times to repeat details about the items he saw when he entered the residence.
He also criticized the Palo Alto officers who interviewed him and testified that one of the officers told him that the district attorney will "come down on you hard" during the trial. Gillingham disputed this accusation and said Chaalan's allegation isn't supported by anything in the transcripts or recordings of the interviews.
Gillingham repeatedly showed Chaalan the transcript in an attempt to refresh his memory about the argument, but Chaalan said the fight was none of his business and that he knew little about it.
Chaalan's earlier version of the story was corroborated by pre-trial testimony from Palo Alto police Agent Scott Savage, who had interviewed Schipsi's friend Jaber Al Suwaidi. Savage had testified that during the car ride, Schipsi had sent a text message to Al Suwaidi saying that her "phone was just thrown at me."
Chaalan also testified that when they arrived at Da Hookah Spot after Zumot's birthday dinner, Schipsi declined to go into the hookah lounge and walked home by herself, Chaalan testified. Chaalan stayed with Zumot to smoke hookah and play cards until after 2 a.m. and later drove behind him to make sure Zumot got home without any trouble, even though Zumot appeared perfectly sober. Zumot had also asked Chaalan to call Schipsi before they went to the Addison Avenue cottage. Chaalan complied.
Prosecutor Charles Gillingham brought up this episode to demonstrate how upset Schipsi was the night before the fire. But Zumot's attorney, Mark Geragos, downplayed the argument and accused Palo Alto police of constructing a false scenario during their interviews with Chaalan, an auto mechanic who has known Zumot for about eight years.
Chaalan wasn't the only friend of Zumot who testified Wednesday about the relationship between Zumot and Schipsi. Joseph Martinez, a deputy sheriff at the Monterey County Sheriff's Office, said the relationship was what prompted him to break off his business partnership with Zumot. The two were close friends who invested in a San Jose hookah shop in early 2008.
Martinez said Zumot and Schipsi were often together and that Zumot "cleared his schedule for her."
"From the time we met, they were together as much as they could possibly be together," Martinez said.
But the relationship was also characterized by frequent arguments and "drama," Martinez said. Schipsi and Zumot broke up in early 2008, but later reconciled and Schipsi started to spend time at the hookah shop. Martinez said he was "concerned that it would eventually start back up again" and asked Zumot if he could buy him out. Later, when cross-examined by Geragos, he said he didn't want to be around her when she was with Zumot.
After several weeks of negotiation, Zumot bought Martinez out.
Zumot and Martinez remained friends and on the afternoon of Oct. 15, 2009, Martinez called Zumot to wish him a happy birthday and to talk to him about buying hookah supplies. During the conversation, Zumot allegedly mentioned his argument with Schipsi and told Martinez that she walked away upset after he told her to shut up.
Later that day, at about 7:15 p.m., Zumot called Martinez and told him his house was on fire. He also said he hadn't seen Schipsi since that afternoon and went over what he did that afternoon. Martinez testified that Zumot told him that he went to Restaurant Depot, a supply store for restaurants, and then went to his court-ordered class for domestic-violence offenders before going to Da Hookah Spot.
The next morning, they spoke again and this time Zumot allegedly gave him a different version of events. This time, Zumot mentioned that he made a stop at his house before coming to Da Hookah Spot.
"He said he went to Restaurant Depot, he went to the domestic violence class, he went home and saw Jennifer sleeping and then he went to the hookah lounge," Martinez said.
Police arrested Zumot four days after the fire and charged him with arson and murder. The trial is scheduled to resume Friday morning (Jan. 7).