Susie Scholpp said she was unloading groceries from her car outside her Lincoln Avenue home shortly after 6 p.m. on Oct. 15, 2009, when she saw a man in a sports utility vehicle speed down her block.
That man, she testified Friday morning, was Bulos Zumot and he was driving toward downtown Palo Alto shortly that evening. After unloading the groceries, Scholpp said she walked over to Addison Avenue to take care of a pet and saw that the street was blocked because of a house fire.
In January, roughly three months after she saw the SUV speed by, she saw a photo of Zumot in a newspaper and recognized him as the driver.
Zumot had been arrested four days after the fire and charged with killing his girlfriend, Jennifer Schipsi, and setting their cottage on fire to cover up the evidence. The photo triggered Scholpp's memory and she called Palo Alto police to recount her experience.
Scholpp, who lives about a block away from the cottage, told the story again Friday morning, when she testified during Zumot's arson-and-murder trial.
She said she glared at the driver as he sped down her block at about 6:20 p.m. and held eye contact with him for several seconds. She said she had "no doubt" Zumot was the driver.
Speeders are her pet peeve, Scholpp said, and she had approached the police in the past in hopes of getting speed bumps installed on her block.
"I know it was him because our eyes met when he was speeding down our block," Scholpp testified.
But while she said she was "100 percent" sure it was Zumot, she was far less certain about the vehicle. According to police transcripts, she told police the driver appeared to be in a dark sports utility vehicle.
Her story corroborated earlier testimony from Zumot's friend Joseph Martinez, who said Zumot called him the morning after the fire and told him that he had stopped by the cottage on the evening of Oct. 15, 2009. Martinez said Zumot told him he was on his way back from a court-mandated domestic-violence class in San Jose, and saw Schipsi sleeping inside the cottage. He said he then proceeded to Da Hookah Spot, his business in downtown Palo Alto, Martinez testified.
Zumot's attorney, Mark Geragos, had maintained that Zumot was at Da Hookah Spot during the fire and didn't get to the Addison Avenue cottage until after he learned about the fire.
On Friday, Geragos challenged Scholpp's testimony, particularly her hazy recollection of the vehicle that sped by her. He said she had described that vehicle to the police as a dark SUV and said Zumot's black Range Rover was in a car shop and had not been used that day. The statement was corroborated Wednesday by testimony from Zumot's friend Victor Chaalan, an auto mechanic, and the mileage count on the vehicle. Zumot has two Range Rovers, a black one and a silver one.
"I wasn't focused on the car," Scholpp responded. "I was focused on looking at the person to get him to slow down."
Geragos also questioned her ability to clearly see the driver, given that he was more than 10 feet away from her and that she was only able to see him for a "fraction of a second." But Scholpp said she stared at him for several seconds.
"My eyes were following him," she said. "I was pretty much giving a glare as the person was speeding up."
Witnesses testified earlier in the week about the argument Zumot, 36, and Schipsi, 29, had the night before the fire as they were driving back from Zumot's birthday party. Prosecutor Charles Gillingham characterized the argument as the latest dispute in a volatile relationship that ultimately culminated in murder.
At one point, Schipsi got a restraining order against Zumot after he allegedly flooded her cell phone with threatening text messages. She later asked for the restraining order to be rescinded.
The jury on Friday heard testimony from a computer forensics expert who helped Palo Alto police retrieve deleted text messages from Zumot's and Schipsi's iPhones. Detective James Eichbaum from the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Office described the process of recovering erased text messages from iPhones.
He was one of two forensics experts to testify this week on iPhone data. Both he and Jonathan Zdziarsky, who testified Wednesday, talked about ways to recover deleted data.
Zdziarsky had copied the data from Zumot's and Schipsi's phones onto an external drive, which Palo Alto police provided to Eichbaum for analysis. Zdziarsky said that while deleted messages fade from view they actually remain on the "unallocated" portion of the phone's hard drive until they are overwritten by other data -- a process that usually takes a long time under the iPhone's operating system.
Eichbaum said he succeeded in recovering the text messages from the night before the fire, including messages Schipsi had exchanged with her friend Jabar Al Suwaidi while on her way back from Zumot's birthday party. But he also acknowledged that hundreds of messages that Schipsi and Zumot had exchanged could only be retrieved on Schipsi's phone and not Zumot's.
Geragos suggested during cross-examination that the files could have been damaged while the phones were copied and the files were being analyzed by the forensics experts. He disputed the notion that it was Zumot who intentionally deleted the messages and argued that the Eichbaum's software should have been able to retrieve them.
When pressed by Geragos, Eichbaum couldn't explain for certain why all of the deleted messages had seemed to disappear from Zumot's phone.
"I have no idea," Eichbaum said. "They could've been written over by data after they were deleted.
Eichbaum is scheduled to continue his testimony when the trial resumes Monday morning.
■ Zumot's friend recalls night before fatal fire
■ Police handling of Schipsi murder challenged
■ Zumot-trial attorneys clash over arson evidence
■ Cell phone takes center stage at Zumot trial
■ Boyfriend arrested in Palo Alto death of Jennifer Marie Schipsi
on Feb 10, 2011 at 11:24 am
on Feb 10, 2011 at 11:24 am
I find it hard to believe that Zumot would leave his cottage and head down Fife St. to Lincoln speeding by where Scholpp lives to get to downtown, since that would be going out of his way and the opposite direction of downtown. Zumot would hardly have reason to go by this witness' residence, since Scholpp lives on the section of Lincoln directly parallel to the Zumot cottage on Addison. Anyone who knows this neighborhood and where the two residences are would doubt that Zumot would ever go around the block and go past the Scholpp place from any direction he would take to go to or away from his cottage on Addison, since one would turn off of Lincoln at Fife to go to Addison if one were coming from University Ave. or one would go from Channing to Addison, and never have reason to drive the section of Lincoln where this witness lives.
Also, that she held his eyes for several seconds as he sped by sounds improbable to me, since one wouldn't go speeding by looking at someone like that if they were trying to get away from somewhere quickly, and speeders wouldn't have much time to hold a glance for very long, and that business about holding the gaze for several seconds sounds unlikely if one were to go past where she lives and count one-one thousand, two-one thousand, etc. and see how long one could look at someone if they were speeding. Sorry, this doesn't seem to make much sense and appears unlikely.
The last bit of this testimony that seems odd to me is that this witness says she didn't know about the murder in the cottage until reading about it three months later when seeing his picture in the paper. Wouldn't it be basic human nature for a person (who saw the burnt cottage and firemen at the scene while she said she was going to her pet sitting job right there) to look for what happened there in the papers? I knew about it right away as I heard the sirens that day and looked for it in the paper to see what had happened, as I am sure a lot of other neighbors would have. When I look up her name in this publication I see that she has made comments before, including one about not liking the "drug paraphernalia" at Mac's Smoke Shop, so I see that this person does read what is published in this paper, so how could she not know about the incident until three months later?