Holding On To Mia's Magic -- Singer's Killing Leaves Grief In The 2 Worlds She Lived In

It could have just been a regular birthday party last night in the back room at Piecora's pizzeria on Seattle's First Hill. Except when it came time to blow out the candles on the chocolate cake, Mia Zapata wasn't there.

Zapata, the slain singer of the Seattle-based band The Gits, would have turned 28 yesterday. But on July 7, sometime between 2 a.m. and 3:20 a.m., she was strangled with the cord from her hooded sweatshirt. Seattle police have made no arrests and say they have no suspects.

Zapata wasn't famous. She and her band did perform frequently, locally and nationally. But they weren't part of Seattle's heavily hyped grunge scene. The Gits were an underground band, more interested in playing progressive punk music than in counting revenues. They'd released one album and were working on a second when Zapata died.

But her murder made it to the pages of Rolling Stone magazine, even though stories about her music never did. MTV ran a story about her death, although The Gits never had a video on the music station. And Nirvana, this area's best-known band, played at a benefit concert to raise a reward fund.

Images of Zapata performing are being sought frantically by friends and TV stations in attempts to explain her magic, for something to hold onto. But all that remains are a few fuzzy, dimly lit tapes of her and the band, her Levi-clad knee bouncing against the music's fast rhythm.

Even people who never knew Zapata are having a hard time forgetting her.

And those who did know and love her haven't been able yet to accept her death. Her sister still talks about her in the present tense. The Gits' guitarist, Joe Spleen, gamely tries to talk about the band's efforts to find her killer, then stops himself.

"There is a part of me that doesn't even register that I'm talking about Mia being dead," he says. "I still can't even think that I'll never see her again."

The only details available about Zapata's death are that she was last seen at 11th and Pike, headed towards a Texaco station two blocks away to get a cab. She'd been out celebrating with friends, having just returned from a tour. A little more than an hour later, she was found dead in an alley in the Central Area.

At the Comet Tavern on Capitol Hill, where Zapata had been the night of her death, the talk is that she was sexually assaulted. Police would not confirm this, saying they need to protect the investigation.

Several women at the birthday celebration said they've altered their lifestyles since the killing.

"I haven't been alone at all since it happened," said Selene Vigil, a member of the band Seven Year Bitch.

Maria Mabra, Zapata's best friend from college, echoes those fears. Zapata would never have climbed into the car of a stranger, she says. She was too smart. Mabra worries that the killer was someone Zapata knew - not a close friend, but maybe somebody who wanted to be close to her, an obsessed follower.

"They need to catch this person," Mabra said. "We don't know enough about them to know what to look out for.

"I want the person who did this to face it every single day and see that people are not giving up."

Zapata had two devoted families. The first was her most immediate - her mother, father and stepmother, and an older brother and sister.

They've anticipated every one of her homecomings in the last decade with the certainty that Zapata's haircut or color would be shocking, that she would probably require a quick trip to a department store to be made presentable for any family gathering, and that she would be funny, independent and forthright, but never boring.

The second family was one she started at Antioch College, a small liberal-arts school in Ohio. She and the other members of The Gits, Steve Moriarity, Spleen and Matt Dresdner, moved to Seattle in 1989, and Mabra followed. The circle grew to other bands, and friends from restaurants where Zapata worked.

They are fiercely protective of Zapata's privacy, something she had guarded carefully herself. After her death, they closed their tight circle, wary that Zapata's death would be written off as just another rock 'n' roll, drug-related death.

They've organized musical benefits in Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, raising more than $5,000 - first for a reward, then to pay for a fulltime private detective.

While Seattle police detectives at work on the case say they are still optimistic it can be solved, they are back-logged with work as a result of an unusually high number of homicides this summer.

The family of friends and the real family present a startling set of contrasts. Zapata's mother, Donna, is an executive at a New York television station. Her father, Richard, is a retired media executive. He is divorced from Zapata's mother, remarried and now lives in Yakima.

They're smart, polished, sophisticated.

Their daughter's friends are sophisticated in a less traditional sense. For the most part, they are musicians, with inventive hair styles, tattered clothing, tattoos and some body piercing. They stomp around wearing clunky Doc Martens boots. Most parents might be afraid of them, but the Zapatas are not. Their deep belief in their daughter's integrity has given them a fresh perspective.

"Mia lived in two different worlds," says Richard Zapata. "She lived on two different sides of the street - the straight side on one, parochial schools, affluent family and tennis clubs. But when she crossed the street, material things didn't mean anything to her."

But when she did cross the street, she took parts from each side with her. When she was a child, her family called her chicken legs because of her double-jointed, rubber-legged walk. As an adult, she had a chicken tattooed on her leg.

Richard Zapata said he learned many things from his daughter, not the least of which was a better understanding of her peer group.

"Their road is not easy. Society in general is quick to judge young people on appearance first and quality of character second. Mia was different. She never judged anybody."

Like many of her friends, and even her generation, Zapata came to the West Coast from another place. She spent most of her formative years in Louisville, Ky., living in the comfortable upper-middle-class suburb of Douglass Hills, with its neat brick houses and trim green lawns.

But Zapata never shunned her background. She loved to go on vacation with her mother and sister. When her mother came to see The Gits perform, Zapata pointed her out to the thrashing audience.

Two years ago, Zapata returned to her hometown ready and willing - if not exactly excited - to put on a long, white Laura Ashley dress to be the maid of honor at her sister Kristen's wedding.

Kristen knew the dress wasn't her sister's style.

But what worried her far more than how Zapata would like the dress was what to do about her matted blond dreadlocks, anchored at the bottom by metal bolts.

At the hair salon, Kristen overheard the hairdresser suggest to Zapata that maybe she should even out the color, which had ranged over the years from a natural blond to a peculiar black and even purple.

"She looked over at me, and I heard this little, `Oh, sure,' " says Kristen. "I knew she was just like, `Oh, no.' "

As Zapata sat in the chair awaiting the results of the dye job, the hairdresser came over to her sister.

"She whispered, `Your sister's hair is rusting!' " remembers Kristen. "And I told her, `Don't worry, she'll probably like that.' "

Zapata walked down the aisle the next day, dreadlocks and metal bolts concealed under a few artfully arranged curls and as many flowers as her sister could pin onto her head.

When Zapata packed to return to Seattle, Kristen was surprised to see her roll up the dress and stuff it into the bottom of her knapsack.

"I expected that dress to end up hanging up in my closet. I never thought she would want it. But she took the bouquet too, carried it onto the plane. And the first thing, when I walked into her room in Seattle, after she had been killed, one of her friends took this dried-up bunch of flowers off the wall and gave it to me."

That unexpectedly sentimental side was part of what made Zapata such a complicated person, her sister says. "There is a side of Mia . . . a quality about Mia, that nobody could ever touch or know," says Kristen.

As a child, Zapata was always singing, with her brother, Eric, providing air-guitar accompaniment and her sister makeshift strobe lights from two flashlights.

No one quite remembers when Zapata first started keeping a journal. But her sister says Zapata was always writing down poems and ruminations - a habit that stayed with her all her life. The police have those journals now, searching for any clues that might lead to her killer.

Zapata is buried in Louisville, in a stately old cemetery filled with impressive tombstones inscribed with Southern-sounding names, such as Savannah Osbourne.

The grave is still raw, the sod brown. It's a reminder that only seven weeks ago, Mia Zapata was alive, ambling Seattle's streets, probably with her journal tucked under her arm - just in case there was something she had to say in a hurry.

Anyone with any information about Zapata's death should contact Crimestoppers at 343-2020. Callers are not required to give their names.