By Courtney Jerk
In the summer of 1993, at a time when Seattle was the focus of the music world, Mia Zapata was fronting the up-and-coming punk band The Gits. Fiery, passionate, and outspoken, Mia was pegged a rising star by many people. She was known locally, unknown nationally, and in the gritty underground world that she inhabited, she was already a star.
But like so many others before her, Mia Zapata’s life was tragically cut short before she could realize her full potential. On July 7, 1993, Mia’s body was discovered by a streetwalker on a dead end street in the Central Area of Seattle.
She was lying face up only partially clothed, her legs were crossed at the ankles, and her arms were stretched out so that they were perpendicular to her body, resembling a cross. She had been severely beaten, raped (a fact that police did not disclose for years), strangled with the drawstrings of her own Gits sweatshirt, and left dead in the street.
At about 8:30pm that evening, Mia had sauntered into the Comet Tavern, a watering hole about a block from the makeshift rehearsal studio where her boyfriend’s band, Hells Smells, rehearsed. At a back booth in the tavern, Mia’s name is still inscribed in the wood. She was wearing the same clothes she’d worn all day: rolled up blue jeans, boots, and a black Gits sweatshirt. She was carrying a Walkman. A chicken tattoo, in honor of her childhood nickname “chicken legs,” could be seen on one of her calves. Mia was fond of drinking. In fact, she was so fond of drinking that her fellow Gits warned her that if she didn’t control it, she was out of the band. But the last night she was alive, Mia drank. She had been on the wagon for two weeks until that night. She left the tavern at about midnight and walked to the studio, found in the basement of the drab Winston apartment building. She was looking for her boyfriend, but he was not there. She then decided to visit a friend that lived on the second floor, Tracy Victoria Kenly, or “TV.” Mia and TV talked. Mia was agitated and distracted, and even though TV urged her to stay the night there, Mia said she would take a cab home. She had no driver’s license and often took taxis, even though she told everyone she hated cab drivers.
Mia left at 2 am, just as a rerun of “Get Smart” was starting on Nickelodeon. At 3:20 a prostitute that called herself Charity was walking the street behind Catholic Community Services in the Central Area, a dead end at the time. East of the street was an open field well known as an area for drug deals and prostitution. Charity saw something by the curb that she thought was a bag of garbage; when she got closer, the light of the street lamp revealed a woman lying face up in the form of a cross. Charity went to a fire station for help and paramedics tried to revive her even though she showed no signs of life. Mia was declared dead at about 3:35 am.
Police initially suspected that the death was related to drugs or prostitution. When they realized who the victim was, the focus shifted to Mia’s boyfriend, the only person ever seriously questioned as a suspect. He was a Vietnam vet 20 years older than Mia and was described by people (even his friends) as “scary.” At the time of her murder, the two were in the process of breaking up. However, Mia’s boyfriend passed two lie detector tests, gave hair and blood samples, and showed up for every appointment with investigators. More importantly, he had a solid alibi; he was with a group of people, and then another woman. After he was cleared, the police had no suspects to question and no witnesses after 2 am. They also had no crime scene; it was believed that Mia was killed somewhere else and then dumped where she was found. As many as 200 people with violent criminal records lived or hung out within a two mile radius of where Mia’s body was found, but the evidence pointed to no one in particular.
After her murder, Seattle’s music community, including such acts as Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden helped raise $70,000 to hire a private investigator for three years. Joan Jett also performed three benefit shows in early 1995, fronting a band that consisted of the former Gits (now called the Dancing French Liberals of ’48). They released a semi-live album called Evil Stig, or “Gits Live” backwards, and the proceeds were marked for a fund to find Mia’s killer. The album consisted mostly of Gits songs, but also contained some other covers and an Evil Stig original, “Last to Know.” It was also around this same time that Valerie Agnew, drummer for the band 7 Year Bitch, and fellow musician Gretta Harley founded the organization Home Alive, which works to publicize and subsidize self defense.
In the years following her death, friends and family were plagued with the lingering question of who killed Mia. It could have been anyone, yet at the same time, it couldn’t. Mia had no known enemies, and people she knew were baffled and saddened by her death. She was described by friends as being alternately “In your face” and soft and withdrawn. She was five foot eight, with a tomboy haircut framing a thoughtful face. Not keen on the idea of becoming famous, Mia said that all she really wanted was a cabin in the woods, an old Jeep, and a sheepdog to ride shotgun. At her wake, person after person testified to her good deeds and how she had touched them. She helped friends recover from drug addictions, took in homeless acquaintances, and helped others through various crises. And then, of course, there was her voice. Matt Dresder, the bassist of the Gits, said that the first time he heard her sing, “her voice literally made me cry.”
The Gits stopped being the Gits after Mia was killed. They had recorded one album, Frenching the Bully, and were working on a second, Enter the Conquering Chicken, when Mia was killed. The band later released it, as well as a collection of previously unreleased tracks recorded at Antioch College in Ohio, called Kings and Queens. There is also a collection of remastered singles, unreleased tracks, and live songs that were recorded during the filming of a documentary on the Seattle music, Hype!, titled Seafish Louisville.
It seemed as though her murder would just be another unsolved case in Seattle’s crime files. But in January of this year, a 48 year old man named Jesus Mezquia was arrested in connection with Mia’s murder. Mezquia, a Cuban immigrant, was arrested at his home in Marathon, Florida–over 3,000 miles from the spot where Mia’s body was discovered 10 years ago. Police said Mezquia had only a passing connection to Seattle; he lived there for a year and a half in the early 1990s and was in the city at the time Mia was killed. When shown his picture, friends and people associated with Mia did not recognize him, and investigators think it is likely that Mia did not know him at all. Mezquia has a history of violence and sexual assault against women in Florida and possibly in California as well. It was a recent felony conviction that finally led Seattle investigators to his home in the Florida Keys. In December, Mezquia was entered into the Florida felon database. DNA information on Mezquia entered into what is becoming a national bank for investigators.
Mezquia’s DNA matched a sample found on Mia’s body. Within weeks, investigators had tracked Mezquia to the small fishing village of Marathon, where he was arrested. At this point, it is still unknown why he was in Seattle, or if he knew of Mia or the music scene in Seattle. It wasn’t until years after Mia was killed that police even disclosed the fact that she was raped, and at the time of her death they denied that DNA evidence even existed.
The chalk outline of Mia’s body remained on the ground for three years until it finally faded away. Sometimes, Mia’s father Robert will find wildflowers, or rosaries at the site. In Louisville, Kentucky, where Mia is buried, yellow roses–her favorite–arrive on her grave every year on her birthday from her boyfriend. The attached card reads “You are always with me.” There is no signature. Another set of roses also arrives: one red rose and one yellow rose for every year since her death. These are from her father.
Robert Zapata still visits the spot near the curb in Seattle where Mia’s body was found, and gazes down at the non-existent chalk outline.
“You don’t realize what forever is. 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.”
Related sites: www.thegits.com