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Sunday, August 23, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Who Murdered Mia Zapata? -- No Arrests, Few Clues 5 Years After Slaying

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Every moment of Mia Zapata's last full day was accounted for, except 80 minutes. In that period, she traveled, or was moved, 1.6 miles. Somewhere in that block of time and space, her life was taken, her body left lying in the street face up, positioned, witnesses said, in the form of a crucified Christ. Five years after her murder, the killer remains as elusive as a phantom.

She would have turned 33 this Tuesday.

In the summer of '93, a near-record year for killings in Seattle, Mia was homicide victim No. 33. Her death stood out because she was a celebrity of sorts, the fiery lead singer for an up-and-coming punk band, The Gits, at a time when Seattle was the focus of the rock-music world.

Some pegged her a rising star. In the underground world she inhabited, she was already a star. Unknown nationally, she was popular locally, a musician's musician.

If Kurt Cobain was the international icon of the Seattle music scene, Mia Zapata was an in-house friend. Cobain's 1994 suicide made headlines around the world. Grief for Zapata was mostly an insider's affair: concert tributes, private candle-lit ceremonies, midnight toasts at local watering holes. A thousand people attended her dusk-to-dawn wake in Seattle - a thousand tattooed, pierced, wailing, fringe-dwelling, guitar-banging friends. Her father paid for the beer.

Her murder set in motion certain events: Her inner circle of musician friends, part of a collective of bands, broke apart; women comrades, feeling a new vulnerability, formed a self-defense group, Home Alive, still punching and kicking phantom attackers to this day; and the Seattle rock-music scene, at least a portion of it, let go of a certain defining naivete.

"It was innocence lost," says Daniel House, owner of C/Z Records, a local label that signed The Gits. "The brutal way she was killed changed the fabric of the community. We could no longer proceed with the same openness. Having that person (the killer) still walking around - maybe he's the guy at the bar, maybe he's someone at your own party - that changes the way you look at the world. People haven't recovered from it."

The Seattle music community, including its most famous bands - Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden - helped raise $70,000 to hire a private investigator for three years. The funds dried up. But the investigator, Leigh Hearon, continues to investigate on her own time.

Like all unsolved homicides, the case remains open, and Seattle police continue to theorize. Psychics and true-crime hobbyists continue to volunteer hypotheses, including one who is convinced Mia was murdered by a serial killer. Police doubt that scenario in one breath but, in the next, say it is as viable as any number of other theories.

After five years, hundreds of interviews, thousands of pages of investigative paperwork, "we're no closer to solving the case than we were right after the murder," says Seattle police Detective Dale Tallman. No arrests, no suspects, no persons of interest. Nowhere to go but to return again and again to the void.

Mia was last seen alive July 7, 1993, on Capitol Hill at 2 a.m. Her body was discovered by a streetwalker at 3:20 a.m. on a dead-end street in the Central Area. Eighty minutes and 1.6 miles. Point A to Point B.

"We're not talking about great distances or great periods of time," says her father, Richard Zapata, holding up his hands to indicate a span small enough to grasp. He is a handsome, silver-haired man with an easy charm that does not co-exist easily with his grief. It makes his voice crack and his face contort unexpectedly. He is 65, a retired media executive. Two years ago, he bought a condominium blocks from where Mia used to hang out.

Zapata has retraced his daughter's footsteps "as many times as I have hair on my head," and for him, as for everyone involved, all paths lead to this blank spot in the story. The answers lie in there somewhere. Somebody must have seen or heard something.

"There are a hundred ways of getting to where her body was found," he says. "Sometimes I'll take what I think was the route she took. Other times I'll try a different route to see if it fits into the scheme of things. I want to understand. It's a pilgrimage for me, I guess. I don't know. Maybe I think by doing this I'll figure out what happened."

Final hours: 11 a.m. to midnight

Mia got out of bed around 11 a.m. on July 6, 1993, a clear, warm Tuesday. Seattle was still picking itself up from the Fourth of July. Richard Zapata drove in from Yakima, where he lived, and took his daughter to lunch at a Thai restaurant on Queen Anne. Afterward, they walked to Tower Records and then drove to the Seattle Art Museum.

Father and daughter got together once or twice a month. Zapata did not condone the lifestyle his daughter had chosen. At times he was revolted by it. And he worried for her. "She was very naive about the life she chose," he says.

About 3 p.m. they said goodbye at the bottom of the steps of her Rainier Valley rental. Zapata told his daughter he would call her in a few days. Mia did laundry, walked the dog. At least one roommate was home at the time.

Around 6:30 p.m., she found her way to the Winston Apartments on Capitol Hill. In the back was a makeshift rehearsal studio. She rehearsed with her boyfriend's band, Hells Smells, for a couple of hours. Her boyfriend, whose name was tainted early in the investigation before police cleared him, asked that his name not be printed here.

At about 8:30 p.m., Mia walked over to the Comet Tavern, a loud, friendly, thoroughly lived-in watering hole a block away, on East Pike Street. The tavern was a hangout for The Gits and their circle. On one carved-up booth in the back, Mia's name is still inscribed in the wood.

She sauntered in wearing the same clothes she'd worn all day: boots, rolled-up blue jeans, a hooded black sweatshirt with "Gits" on the back. She carried a Walkman, and one of her calves bore a tattoo of a chicken in honor of her childhood nickname, "Chicken legs."

She was 27, stood 5-foot-8 and had a tomboy haircut over an always-thinking face. Friends described her alternately as "in your face" and soft, as raucous and withdrawn, the kind of person who would tear her heart out on stage and minutes later would hide away scribbling in a journal.

Her journals revealed someone who experienced life in an emotionally raw way. She came across both mad at and in love with the world. At her core was a thick knotty strain of compassion, a sort of street-tough love.

"Mia was the best of our family," Richard Zapata says. "She had a complete and total social conscience. She cared about people. She would see people on the street, homeless, and tell us that it wasn't their fault."

During her wake, person after person gave testimony of good deeds, and everyone, including her father, seemed surprised by how many people she had touched: She helped friends recover from drug addictions, took in homeless acquaintances, counseled dozens through various crises. And her best gift:

Her voice. She moved people with it.

Matt Dresdner, 31, bass player for the Gits, remembers the first time he heard her sing. It was at a college coffee house. Normally a composed, unsappy guy, Dresdner says "her voice literally made me cry." The sound came from somewhere deep, and worked its way to her mouth with a burr-bluesy resonance full of sadness.

Mia was also a brooder.

That last night, she drank a lot. Mia liked to drink. She smoked pot and occasionally took harder stuff, but her demon was alcohol. Her fellow Gits once warned her that if she didn't control her drinking, she was out.

Mia had been on the wagon for two weeks, but on that day she dived off. Friends say she had started drinking as soon as she woke up that morning.

She was breaking up with her boyfriend with whom she had just spent two tense hours rehearsing. She was agitated. She kept filling her glass. She made a call from a pay phone in the tavern. No one knows whom she called.

She decided she wanted some hard liquor. She and two friends walked to a pizzeria a few blocks east, Piecora's, where Mia worked part time as a waitress. They downed a few shots, then walked back to the Comet and drank a little more.

Besides the funk about her boyfriend, Mia also had reason to celebrate. The Gits - a name taken from a Monty Python skit called "The Sniveling Little Rat-faced Gits" - had just returned from a West Coast tour and had been approached by a major record label from Los Angeles. During a power lunch with two of its executives, Mia eyed the menu and asked bluntly, "You sure you guys got the money to pay for this?"

Money was something she neither had nor sought with much vigor. She was familiar with comfort - growing up in the upper-middle-class suburb of Douglass Hills in Louisville, Ky., with parents who each had six-figure incomes - and she rejected the lifestyle. She was in some ways a child of her generation: disaffected, inward-looking, cynical beyond her years but full of passion.

She met the other Gits at Antioch College, a small, free-thinking liberal-arts school in Ohio. The band moved to Seattle in 1989, as the city's grunge scene was being discovered, and defined, by the rest of the world.

The Gits made a point of distancing themselves from the hype. They considered themselves progressive punk rockers, more interested in art than fame.

Mia, the main lyricist, spoke for the rest of the band - Dresdner, Steve Moriarty and Andy Kessler - when she sang: "Some fool came up to me and said, `You'd make a star with that band,' and I said, `That's not why we're doing this. Why can't you get it?' "

She told friends that all she wanted in life was a cabin to live in, an old Jeep to drive and a sheep dog to ride shotgun.

Now the prospect of fame made her nervous and excited. The band released two singles and one album, "Frenching the Bully," and was finishing the vocals on a second album. In a few days they would launch a cross-country tour starting in New York.

So that night at the Comet, Mia drank to a future of uncertain promise. And she drank to the past, to a musician friend, Stefanie Sargent, who had died a drug-induced death a year earlier, and to the boyfriend. They had talked marriage, and now he was seeing someone else.

By the time Mia left the Comet that night, she was soused.

Midnight to 2 a.m.

Richard Zapata usually begins his pilgrimage at the Comet. Based on information he gathered from a variety of sources, he retraces Mia's footsteps on her last night. He narrates the story as he walks. Friends and investigators fill in the gaps.

Mia left the tavern around midnight to see the boyfriend. She thought he might still be rehearsing.

The studio was a block away, in the basement of the Winston Apartments, an old three-story, wood-frame building, as drab as its residents were colorful. The studio was a dingy, littered room with various halls and antechambers. Four bands shared the rehearsal space. A would-be filmmaker was using it as the set for a homemade slasher film.

Mia likely went down a narrow stairwell on the side of the building. The stairwell led to a vacant lot behind the building, where the main entrance to the studio was. A resident on an upper floor reported seeing a group of people smoking crack cocaine in the lot that night and yelling at them to stop making so much noise. The same resident saw Mia walking up a wooden ramp to the studio shortly after midnight.

The boyfriend was not there. Mia decided to visit another friend on the second floor, Tracy Victoria Kenly, 34. TV, as she was known, sang for the boyfriend's band. She and Mia talked. Mia was upset and distracted and mumbled a lot, TV says. At one point, Mia bolted from the apartment without saying anything, then returned minutes later and apologized.

TV urged her to crash there for the night, but Mia said she would catch a cab home. Mia didn't have a driver's license and often took taxis, even though she told everyone she hated cabbies.

TV watched Mia descend the central staircase that wound down to the exit doors. That was the last documented time Mia was seen alive.

TV says a rerun of "Get Smart" was starting on the Nickelodeon channel. That set the time at 2 a.m., July 7.

The missing minutes: 2 a.m. to 3:20 a.m.

Mia could have left the building by the front or rear door. She could have walked two blocks west to a Texaco station on Broadway, known at the time as a taxi stand. Mia had gone there many times before; an inscription of her name is still in the pavement there. No one at the station remembers seeing her.

She could have gone five blocks north to the apartment of a friend, Maria Mabra, who had asked her earlier to spend the night. The boyfriend was in another house nearby, and he says he believes Mia went there looking for him.

She could have walked east, back to Piecora's restaurant. Or she could have decided to walk south, to her place in Rainier Valley. She had walked home at least once before, but in daylight and with a friend. It would have been a long trek at the ambling pace she favored.

About 3:20 a.m., a 27-year-old prostitute, who called herself Charity, was trolling the street behind Catholic Community Services in the Central Area. She was on 24th Avenue South, a dead end at the time. East of the street was an open field, overgrown and littered, a known market for drug buys and prostitutes.

Charity spotted something on the street, next to the west curb. She thought it was a bag of garbage. When she got closer, she realized it was a person. The spill of a nearby street lamp revealed a woman, lying face up, partially clothed, legs crossed at the ankles, arms laid out perpendicular to her body. Charity later told private investigator Hearon that the body appeared to be in the form of a cross.

Charity went to a fire station a block and a half away for help. The victim showed no signs of life, but medics worked to revive her; she was declared dead around 3:35 a.m.

Detective Tallman later said he believed it was the medics who placed Mia's arms perpendicular to her body so they could work on her. But the medics, interviewed by Hearon, corroborated Charity's story that her arms were outstretched before anyone touched her.

Mia Zapata had been strangled by the drawstrings of her own sweat shirt. She had been beaten. She had been raped, a fact that police would not disclose for years. The autopsy results slowly leaked out through the same underground network Mia herself traveled. Police still want to keep certain aspects of the slaying secret.

"Someday, somebody's going to say something about the murder that only we (police) know about," says Detective Tom Pike, who was partnered with Tallman. "Someone saying something might be the only hope for solving this case."

Boyfriend is cleared

Police initially suspected the slaying was drug-related or connected to prostitution. When they realized who the victim was, the focus shifted to the only person ever seriously questioned as a suspect: the boyfriend.

He was a Vietnam veteran two decades older than Mia, gruff and mean-looking. Even some of his friends described him as "scary." Some of Mia's friends thought for sure he was the killer, but police and Hearon soon were convinced he wasn't.

"He was genuinely heartbroken after Mia's death, and he was the most cooperative witness you could ask for," Hearon says. He passed two lie-detector tests. He gave blood and hair samples, and, unlike many in Mia's circle, showed up for every one of his appointments with investigators. And the capper: He had a solid alibi. He spent his time that night with a group of people, and then with another woman.

Since the boyfriend was cleared, the police have had nothing solid to pursue. Mia had no known enemies. Police found no witnesses who saw or heard her after 2 a.m. And there was another vital missing element: a crime scene. Police believe Mia was killed somewhere else and dumped where she was found; because she could have traveled in a number of directions from the Winston Apartments, the area of investigation was inordinately large.

Hearon, who worked on the case 20 hours a week for three years, says as many as 200 people with violent criminal records lived or hung out within a 2-mile radius of where Mia's body was found. Evidence pointed to none of them. Even so, suspicion permeated Mia's world.

"In the beginning, everyone was a suspect," says Dresdner. He and the other two surviving Gits organized a series of benefit concerts to raise money for the investigative fund that paid Hearon. "I'd walk into the Comet and look at people I knew as potential murderers."

Says TV, the last known person to see Mia alive: "We were all so angry, and there wasn't anyone to be angry at. We were suspicious; we were frustrated. When we all hung out together, we were all sad. A lot of bands broke up. I was still crying a year later."

So little is known about what happened in those 80 minutes that just about any credible scenario can elicit a "That's possible" from police. Mia could have been killed by a fan or acquaintance or cab driver or complete stranger. By a local or someone passing through. By more than one killer. She could have been killed in a house, van or car. If her body were dumped, it's likely she spent some time in a vehicle.

Hearon says Mia could have returned to the rehearsal studio and been killed there. Many people had access to the studio, and because it was soundproofed, no one would have heard her scream or struggle.

A loading ramp outside the studio would have made it easy to load her body in a car. Her personal microphone, something she would not normally part with, was found in the studio the next day. Two weeks later, the studio was mysteriously cleaned up, possibly for the first time.

Mia was known to mouth off. Somebody could have propositioned her on the street and she would have told him off in the loud, crude way she sometimes had, Hearon says. The guy could have gotten angry, assaulted and killed her, then dumped her body in a high-crime area for camouflage.

It could have been a serial killer who just happened upon her, says Ed Shau, a psychologist writing a book about the Green River killer. Shau works with Eastside police agencies as a counselor and consultant.

"The murder of Mia Zapata is probably the most significant unsolved homicide in Seattle in the 1990s," Shau has written. He believes Mia was mistaken for a prostitute, killed and deliberately "staged" in religious symbolism.

Detective Tallman balks at the theory. "There's no indication this is related to any serial incidents that we know of," he said. But later he said the truth of what happened was "anybody's guess."

Detective Bob Gebo, trained by the FBI as a profiler, and a consultant on the Zapata case, lent some weight to the serial theory but is cautious. Gebo prefers the term "serial offender." Based on the brutal violence committed on Mia, Gebo says the killer "didn't just crawl out from under a rock and say, `I think I'll go kidnap and murder a girl tonight.' This guy had a predisposition for acting out violently. This guy had assaulted females in the past."

`Only three people know'

Richard Zapata heads east to the Winston Apartments, then to Piecora's, and then south on 14th Avenue to Yesler Way. He takes a left, walks 10 blocks to 24th Avenue South and turns right. A block and a half down, he stops and looks at a spot near the curb.

"Only three people know how Mia got here that night," he says. "The murderer, Mia and Jesus Christ."

The chalky outline of Mia's body stayed on the ground for three years, fading each year until it was gone. Sometimes, Zapata finds wildflowers at the site. Once he found a bottle with a rosary dangling from its tip. Obviously others make the same pilgrimage.

Back in Louisville, Ky., where Mia is buried, yellow roses - her favorite - arrive on her grave every year on her birthday. "You are always with me," the unsigned card says. They are from the boyfriend. Another set of flowers arrives on her birthday - one red rose and a yellow rose for every year since her death. These are from her father.

"You don't realize what forever is," Zapata says, standing in a different place but looking at the same spot on the pavement. "You drive your daughter to school, tell your wife, `Have a good day, I'll see you later.' You assume you'll be together at the end of the day. But then something happens, and forever is forever. It doesn't matter what I do, how I do it, how I pray, how I wish. Nothing on Earth is going to bring Mia back."

New houses stand where the overgrown field was. The dead-end street now leads to a new Walgreen's drugstore. Behind the Winston Apartments is a new blacktop parking lot. At the Comet Tavern, Matt Dresdner, the Gits' former bass player, tends bar. "I know. It's ironic," he says.

The Gits stopped being The Gits after Mia died, but they continued releasing albums. They were finishing "Enter the Conquering Chicken" at the time Mia was killed. Then came "Kings and Queens," a collection of never-released songs originally recorded at Antioch College. And their last, "Evil Stig," was a compilation of live performances with Joan Jett, with proceeds of the album going to the investigative fund.

The surviving Gits eventually formed a new band, the Dancing French Liberals of '48. It lasted a couple of years. Steve Moriarty, the drummer, works at the Elysian Brew Pub, a few blocks east of the Comet. Andy Kessler, the guitarist, plays music once in a while but mostly is "happy not having a job."

The rock scene in Seattle would have changed with or without Mia, but her life and death had their effects. The grunge phenomenon, already fading, died with Kurt Cobain. The spotlight moved somewhere else on the planet. Small bands disappeared. Famous bands moved away.

Where Mia Zapata would be if she were alive today is anyone's guess.

Richard Zapata, on this day, keeps eyeing the spot on the ground, still seeing the chalky outline that is no longer there. Maybe a different angle might shed a new light on what happened. His whole bearing, silhouetted by a hot afternoon sun, is a question mark. The killer, Mia and Jesus Christ. So far, they are the only ones who know.

Alex Tizon's phone message number is 206-464-2216. His e-mail address is: atizon@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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