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Bulos "Paul" Zumot, the Palo Alto man facing murder and arson charges, took the stand in his own defense Wednesday afternoon (Feb. 2) and, fighting back tears, testified that he loved Jennifer Schipsi and was not responsible for her death.
Zumot, who was arrested Oct. 19, 2009, became emotional as he recalled his relationship with Schipsi, a 29-year-old real estate agent whose body was found four days before the arrest. Police believe Zumot had strangled Schipsi and then burned down their cottage to hide the crime.
Earlier in his trial, the prosecution pointed to the history of domestic violence between Zumot and Schipsi and witnesses testified about an argument the couple had on Oct. 14, 2009, just after Zumot's birthday party. Police believe Zumot killed Schipsi the following day.
Zumot, 37, began his testimony by telling the jury he was innocent.
"I did not kill Jennifer Schipsi," Zumot said, when asked by defense attorney Tina Glandian why he agreed to take the stand. "I did not burn the house.
"There are a lot of things that need to be answered that we haven't covered yet."
Zumot said he met Schipsi in 2007 when they were both exercising at a San Jose gym. They became friends and then started dating, Zumot testified.
"I fell in love with her," he said. "I still love her.
"We loved each other. We had our problems and we had our ups and downs like everyone else."
Zumot said he and Schipsi got into their first serious argument on Feb. 7, 2008, at which time he said he kicked her car, causing damage to the side. But one week later, they were back together. Glandian showed a screenshot of text messages they exchanged on Feb. 14, 2008. She wrote to him, "Miss you... Love you!"
Zumot also recalled another altercation that took place in March 2008. He said he had spit at her outside a Starbucks in San Jose. Schipsi then filed charges against him and he pleaded guilty to making harassing phone calls. He received three years of probation and had to take 52 classes for perpetrators of domestic violence.
Zumot said he and Schipsi got back together in October 2008, shortly after Schipsi visited him at his University Avenue café, Da Hookah Spot, and told him she was sorry for what happened. On Oct. 26, 2008, she had allegedly sent him an e-mail telling him she loved him and saying that she couldn't wait to spend her life with him. She also modified her restraining order against him to allow "peaceful contact."
When Glandian showed the e-mail on the projection screen, Zumot cried for several minutes.
Zumot said Schipsi had e-mailed him at the end of October, but he didn't want to talk to her until the courts modified the restraining order. He said he tried to keep his distance from her until things cooled off.
"She wanted to be back together and work it out at any cost at that time," Zumot said.
Zumot testified that they got back together in December but continued to have their fights. He said Schipsi became jealous whenever she found him in contact with other women. In one case, she became angry when an ex-girlfriend sent him a text message wishing him a merry Christmas. Zumot said Schipsi became really upset, broke his phone into pieces and hit him over the head with his keys, causing blood to gush from the side of his face.
He then went to the police, who took photos of his cut. The photo was shown in court Wednesday.
But the fight didn't last long, he said. Zumot said Schipsi received an arrest warrant because of the incident, but he ended up bailing her out, changing his story and making sure the charges against her would be dropped.
Zumot said in early March he realized the relationship wasn't working out and asked Schipsi if they should go their separate ways. Glandian read an e-mail from Zumot to Schipsi in which he tells her, "I'll be praying for us whether we continue or split." He signed off, "Love you, Paul."
A few days after that he once again told her he didn't think the relationship was going well because they had "different goals." He said she agreed.
"It's like a roller-coaster," he said. "Every day, up and down."
Nevertheless, the relationship continued and so did the arguments. Zumot said he and Schipsi got into a fight on Aug. 23, 2009, after Schipsi's friend, Heather Winters, showed her a picture of Zumot at the café with a female friend. He said he came home and found that Schipsi had packed away all of his belongings and left some of his clothes in a bag. He said he slept at the café that night.
Zumot said he tried again to end the relationship. He said Schipsi threatened to go to the police any time they had an argument and he proposed splitting up. Because he was on probation, he took the threats seriously.
On Aug. 24, 2009, the day after their argument, Schipsi called the police and claimed that he drove into her car, Zumot said. When the police investigated, they found no damage marks on his car and took no action, he said.
"She thought I was cheating, so she lied to the police," Zumot said.
In early September, he and Schipsi were once again back together, Zumot said. She e-mailed him photos of the two of them together, including one of them at a camping trip at Lake Camanche. In the photo they are sitting together, his arm around her. She sent him another photo of herself, which he planned to frame and hang at the house.
But Zumot said Schipsi was also feeling depressed because of the faltering economy and the rough real-estate market. She complained to him and he responded by offering to give her space to think things over. In one text message he told her he was not avoiding or ignoring her but he "wants things to calm down before we talk again."
Zumot also said the two of them planned to get engaged in mid-October. They had plans to go to Palm Springs on the weekend of Oct. 17, 2009. In one text message, she requested "no ring, please."
Zumot said Schipsi surprised him on Oct. 14, 2009, by taking him to his favorite restaurant for his birthday party. They went to the DishDash Restaurant in Sunnyvale, where about 10 other friends were waiting.
Zumot said the group had a great time. He said he had a couple of drinks, while Schipsi had four or five.
After DishDash, they went back to Palo Alto, where they were planning to relax at Da Hookah Spot. His friend, Victor Chaalan was driving them back to Palo Alto when Schipsi received a text message from her friend, Jaber Al-Suwaidi. Zumot said she showed him the phone with the message. He said he looked at the message and tossed the phone back toward her because he didn't want to talk to Al-Suwaidi at the moment.
Zumot also said he told Schipsi to "shut up" at one point during the car trip. He said he meant it jokingly, but she took it very seriously. She was in the back seat, crying.
They arrived at Da Hookah Spot and Zumot said he went straight into the café. He said he tried to call Schipsi a few times but she didn't call back. He assumed she went home.
"She'd done that a couple of times -- when we argue, she'd walk home," Zumot testified.
"It was not a big deal at all."
Zumot will continue his testimony Friday.