Local Businessman Accused of Murder, Arson

Bulos “Paul” Zumot entered the courtroom pounding his chest and nodding to his supporters. Mr. Zumot had been accused of the murder of his girlfriend Jennifer Schipsi, 29, and of arson for starting a fire that burned down the couple’s apartment on Addison Avenue with Ms. Schipsi’s body inside.

Despite expectations that Mr. Zumot would enter a plea on Friday, November 6, Judge Douglas Southard acceded to defense attorney Cameron Bowman’s request to postpone the trial. Bowman claimed that he needed the extra time to complete the discovery component of the pre-trial phase wherein the prosecution and the defense exchange documents, make requests for admissions, and take depositions.

Mr. Zumot, 36, owns Da Hookah Spot and Da Coffee Spot, located at the corner of University Ave. and Ramona St. in downtown Palo Alto. According to an October 18 San Francisco Chronicle article titled “Bay Area Hooked on Hookah,” which featured a picture of Mr. Zumot and Ms. Schipsi smoking hookah together, Mr. Zumot moved to the Bay Area after being laid off as a mechanical space engineer at Boeing in Seattle. Ms. Schipsi’s badly-burned body was discovered in the ruins of their shared Addison Ave. cottage on October 15—three days before the article’s publication. Mr. Zumot was arrested on October 19.

At the hearing, the bailiff twice warned Mr. Zumot to cease nonverbal communication with the dozen or so people who had come to support him. Mr. Zumot seemed to be trying to reassure his friends and family with nods and smiles, though he rocked nervously and fidgeted noticeably throughout the proceedings. Jennifer Schipsi’s mother Jamie took exception when Mr. Zumot continued his nonverbal communication, in particular singling out one woman who moved into Mr. Zumot’s line of vision when he entered the courtroom. “They’re laughing and communicating,” a visibly irate Schipsi protested. “This is the death of my daughter. I’d appreciate some respect.” After her protest, Mr. Zumot was transferred away from the gallery.

When the proceedings began, Judge Douglas Southard granted Deputy District Attorney Chuck Gillingham’s request for the probable-cause affidavit to be made public. The affidavit revealed the medical examiner’s conclusion that Ms. Schipsi was strangled to death before the fire at the Addison Avenue apartment. In interviews shortly after the discovery of Ms. Schipsi’s body, Mr. Zumot registered concern over her habit of smoking in bed and leaving the stove on.

Mr. Zumot also claimed that Ms. Schipsi had a stalker, presumably a reference to brothers Tony and Hisham Ghanma, against whom Ms. Schipsi had filed a civil harassment complaint in September. Mr. Zumot and the Ghanmas had been friends until a feud over an alleged kiss between Tony Ghanma and Ms. Schipsi. The Ghanmas have since been cleared of any involvement in Schipsi’s death.

After the trial, Deputy District Attorney Gillingham met outside the courtroom with some of Ms. Schipsi’s thirty or so supporters, which included senior representatives of the Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence resource center in San Jose. Ms. Schipsi had sought relationship counseling at the center in 2008. The group from Next Door Solutions and Ms. Schipsi’s family all wore purple ribbons, representing awareness of violence against women.

Mr. Gillingham spoke confidently to Ms. Schipsi’s supporters about the case against Mr. Zumot, indicating that he would not be prosecuting if he did not believe he could get a conviction. While Ms. Schipsi’s friends and family were disappointed to hear that Mr. Zumot would not be eligible for capital punishment, Mr. Gillingham reassured Ms. Schipsi’s supporters that if convicted, Mr. Zumot would face 33 years to life in prison. “He won’t last in prison,” said an approving Jamie Schipsi. “He’s a pretty boy.”

A murder in Palo Alto is rare; this is the first one recorded this year. In October 2007, Ms. Schipsi and Mr. Zumot began what would become a tumultuous relationship. The couple split in February 2008, but Mr. Zumot continued aggressively pursuing and harassing Schipsi. It was at this time that Ms. Schipsi sought and received advice from Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence, the San Jose-based resource center for women in abusive relationships.

On March 17, 2008, Ms. Schipsi filed for a restraining order against Mr. Zumot. On February 7, 2008, after having broken up with Mr. Zumot, Ms. Schipsi attempted to collect her belongings from his house. She recounts the ensuing ordeal in the restraining order application:

“[Mr. Zumot] grabbed my arm and would not allow me to leave, all the while screaming profanities in my ear. After about ten minutes he let me go, [and] as I got in my car, he came out and kicked in the front door…I did not file a police report because I was afraid he would retaliate.”

She reported that on March 14, Mr. Zumot followed her into a Starbucks in San Jose, then followed her to her car and spit in her face. On March 14, Ms. Schipsi received 88 text messages from Mr. Zumot. On the 15th she received over 200 calls and texts. Mr. Zumot would go from “one extreme to the next,” texting her, “I love you and will have you back at any cost,” “mark my word, you will be my wife someday,” and then, “I have to get you out of my life @ any price.” Ms. Schipsi ended her restraining order statement with: “I need this man to leave me alone… I am afraid for my safety and need help.” According to the Contra Costa Times, Ms. Schipsi’s mother said that, “her daughter had once placed a letter in a safe-deposit box stating that ‘if anything ever happened to her, Paul Zumot did it.’”

As is often typical in domestic abuse cases, Ms. Schipsi eventually became convinced that her abuser, Mr. Zumot, had changed and the couple got back together in October of 2008 and resumed living together again thereafter. On September 22, a since-deactivated account in Jennifer Schipsi’s name posted on Da Hookah Spot’s Facebook page, urging readers to visit the lounge for “the best tasting hookah experience available” and to “Smoke, relax, and lose yourself in the dim lighting.”

The couple was last seen together on October 14, at Mr. Zumot’s 36th birthday party. In an interview three days after Ms. Schipsi’s death—and one day before his arrest—Mr. Zumot told the Palo Alto Daily News that he had been planning to propose to Ms. Schipsi. On October 15, Mr. Zumot texted her mother, Jamie, with “Your daughter gave me the best birthday present I ever had,” implying that she had accepted his proposal. Ms. Schipsi was found dead that evening.

As of press time, Da Hookah Spot remains open, and it is unclear if the accusations have affected business. Stanford student Smita Mascharak ’11, who has frequented Da Hookah Spot and Da Coffee Spot in the past, said that she will probably continue to go there, especially as it is now under new management (according to a sign in the shop’s front window).

Mr. Zumot will return to court on November 24 to present his plea.

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