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Tuesday, January 14, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Zapata slaying suspect called 'predatory'

Seattle Times staff reporters

The man charged with killing Seattle singer Mia Zapata is a predator who likes to hurt women, according to investigators. He is a criminal with a long history of arrests but few felony convictions.

Jesus C. Mezquia, 48, was superstitious and placed garlic in corners to ward off evil spirits in a Seattle home where he lived, according to one former neighbor. But it was his own presence that struck some who have crossed his path.

"The room drops about 10 degrees when he's in it," said King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Tim Bradshaw, one of the members of the "Cold Case Squad" investigating the 1993 slaying. Before now, there was never anything linking the 48-year-old Mezquia — a Cuban native who lived only briefly in the Seattle area — and Zapata, then the 27-year-old lead singer for the up-and-coming punk band The Gits.

Her sexual assault and strangulation long perplexed investigators, yielding few clues and no real suspects.

But last month, DNA information on Mezquia was entered into the felon database in Florida, where he has lived on and off for two decades, and the profile matched saliva found on Zapata's body, according to King County charging papers unsealed yesterday.

Mezquia was being held in a Miami-area jail last night and has indicated he will fight extradition to face first-degree murder charges here. It could take about a month for King County authorities to take him into custody.

Investigators say that based on what they know of Zapata, a talented artist and fiercely independent feminist, it's unlikely she associated with Mezquia, who they say has a history of violent behavior toward women.

But charging papers link Mezquia to another crime that happened just five weeks after Zapata's July 7, 1993, slaying, and close to where her body was found on a then dead-end street in the Central Area.

In the second case, a young woman was walking in the 1300 block of 10th Avenue East when she realized a car was trailing her. She thought the driver was going to offer her a ride when he pulled up to her, but then she noticed he was masturbating, the papers say. She wrote down the license-plate number of the car, which was registered to Mezquia, police said.

The incident "was not your typical 'open up your overcoat' case," one investigator said. Most indecent exposures are very brief encounters, but in this case the driver tried to lure the woman into the car.

The woman's account, along with information collected in Florida, suggests Mezquia has "a predatory sensibility," one investigator said. "He's a hunter and (Zapata) just happened to fall in his field of vision," the investigator alleged.

The Leschi apartment where Mezquia lived was "a natural, direct drive" from the Comet Tavern, the Capital Hill bar where Zapata had been drinking before she was killed, according to Seattle Detective Richard Gagnon, another member of the Cold Case Squad, which also includes Detective Gregg Mixsell and Senior Deputy Prosecutor Steve Fogg.

Mezquia came to Seattle in 1992 to be with a woman who moved here for a job, according to people who had close association with the suspect. The woman, who still lives in the area, could not be reached for comment.

Her job never materialized, and the couple ended up living with her mother in Beacon Hill, according to one of her friends.

The neighbor described Mezquia as tall — he stands 6-foot-4 — and lanky, with a predilection for gold jewelry: chains, bracelets and rings. Others describe him as physically striking.

One investigator said Mezquia worked at a hardware store on Rainier Avenue, and he worked in the past as a painter, according to court documents.

He didn't work when he lived on Beacon Hill, the neighbor said, but rather hung around the house, watched TV and sometimes baby-sat the neighbor's infant child. He liked to fish.

Mezquia and his girlfriend eventually moved to an apartment in Leschi, and Mezquia went fishing more frequently.

"He always had his little tackle box with him," the neighbor said.

The neighbor said he had "an intensity" about him, and a certain kind of icy self-assuredness that some found attractive but that others, including the neighbor, found a little scary.

"We felt there was something shady about him," said the neighbor, explaining that Mezquia was vague about where he came from and lied about his age and other things.

Investigators speculate that Mezquia may have been part of the Mariel Boatlift of the early 1980s, in which Cuban leader Fidel Castro allowed tens of thousands of Cubans, including criminals, to escape to the U.S.

The earliest documentation of Mezquia's presence in the U.S. begins around the same time.

In the early '80s, he was arrested in Dade County for attempted solicitation, resisting arrest, kidnapping, attempted solicitation of a capital offense, false imprisonment, indecent exposure and carrying a concealed weapon, though investigators still are trying to get details on these and other arrests.

He later racked up a number of criminal charges in Riverside County, Calif., according to charging papers and California authorities.

There were battery and assault convictions in 1986 and a battery-of-a-spouse conviction in 1989.

He was charged with robbery in 1990, and a jury later convicted him of a lesser offense, according to Sue Steding, assistant district attorney for Riverside County. She said he was sentenced to four years in prison, but the sentence was suspended and he was put on probation, which he apparently violated in 1991 when he was accused there of exposing himself.

He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was fined and placed on misdemeanor probation, she said.

In Seattle, Mezquia and his girlfriend broke up sometime in the summer of 1993, the neighbor said, although the couple still lived together. The girlfriend, after catching glimpses of Mezquia's anger, told the neighbor that she didn't know what she'd gotten herself into and wanted to distance herself from him.

The neighbor said the girlfriend let Mezquia stay with her until she was able to acquire a car for him. Once he had a car, Mezquia eventually left Seattle for Southern California before heading back to the Miami area.

The case investigators believe landed him in the Florida felon databank was a conviction last year in Dade County for possession of burglary tools. Five years earlier, he was convicted of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman for punching his girlfriend, who was seven or eight months pregnant, in the face.

He is married now, and the father of at least one child, investigators say, and has spent much of his time fishing off the bridges in the Florida Keys, where he lived. His wife says that in their nearly four years of marriage there have been no problems.

"Nothing, nothing, nothing," Niurka Mezquia said yesterday from their home in Marathon, Fla.

"I do not believe that he did this. ... I don't believe it's possible," she said.

Niurka Mezquia describes her husband as a quiet, calm person and an excellent father to their nearly 2-year-old daughter. He also maintains a good relationship with a daughter from another relationship, she said.

He doesn't drink or take drugs, she said. Fishing is his passion, and he spends much of his time fishing or baby-sitting their daughter while she is away at work.

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