DNA leads to arrest in '93 death of local singer

The man sitting in the Miami-Dade County jail, suspected in the 1993 rape and slaying of Seattle singer Mia Zapata, is a 48-year-old fisherman and laborer with a history of assaults on women and only a passing connection to Seattle.

Jesus C. Mezquia was arrested late Friday night at his home in Marathon, Fla., in the heart of the Florida Keys, more than 3,000 miles from the spot — on a dead-end street in Seattle's Central Area — where Zapata's body was found nearly 10 years ago.

The arrest, based on DNA evidence, could mean the end of a decadelong investigation that yielded few clues, no real suspects and scant hope of a final resolution to a slaying that shook Seattle's then-booming music scene.

Zapata was 27 when she died, the fiery lead singer and lyricist for an up-and-coming punk band, The Gits, a local favorite with a cult following in Seattle during a time when the city's "grunge" scene was all the vogue in the rock-music industry.

Her slaying was felt by some local musicians as the pop of a balloon, the end of a delusional period of optimism. That the investigation stalled frustrated many in her circle.

The possible and sudden conclusion to the case vouches for the crime-solving prowess of new DNA technology but seemed to give only empty solace to those close to Zapata.

"No, it doesn't bring closure. It brings something, but nothing like closure," said a stunned Robert Jenkins, a fellow musician and Zapata's boyfriend at the time of her death.

Jenkins said he has gone over a list of possible suspects in his head countless times since Zapata's body was found in the pre-dawn hours of July 7, 1993. The mystery of her death, he said, has been "a weight" on him the past decade.

In Seattle only briefly

Absent from his speculative list is Mezquia, someone who apparently had little more than a passing connection to Seattle. Police said Mezquia lived in Seattle for about a year and a half in the 1990s and was in the city at the time of Zapata's slaying.

Jenkins and other of Zapata's friends said they do not recognize Mezquia's name or picture. Investigators say that to the best of their knowledge, Zapata did not know Mezquia.

Police and prosecutors are not officially disclosing details about the suspect or the slaying until charging papers, filed Thursday and sealed in King County Superior Court, are re-opened tomorrow.

One investigator, who asked not to be named, said Mezquia is a legal resident who came to the United States from Cuba in the early 1980s. He has drifted from the East to West coasts, living primarily in south Florida and Southern California. His income appeared to come from construction work and, in Florida, fishing. He is married and has at least one child.

The investigator would not divulge specifics but said Mezquia has a history of violence and sexual assault in Florida and possibly in California. It was a recent felony conviction in Florida that finally led Seattle investigators to Mezquia's home in the Florida Keys.

DNA match

Seattle's "Cold Case Squad" — made up of Seattle Detectives Greg Mixsell and Richard Gagnon and King County prosecutors Tim Bradshaw and Steve Fogg — has been methodically working through a backlog of unsolved cases using newly developed DNA testing. About a year ago, they submitted trace DNA evidence in the Zapata case to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, but no matches were found.

Then, in December, a new entry was made in the Florida felon database. For the first time, DNA information on Mezquia entered into what is becoming a national data bank for investigators. Mezquia's DNA matched a sample found on Zapata.

After that, investigators said it took only a few weeks to follow Mezquia's tracks across the country to the tropical islet of Vaca Key, the midpoint of the Keys island chain. Mezquia lived in a fishing village called Marathon, which is, like other spots on the chain, a patch of poverty surrounded by resorts.

It's unclear why Mezquia was in Seattle or what he did while here. It's also unknown if he had any knowledge of Zapata through the music or street scene.

Zapata had spent the night before her death drinking. She was seen alive for the last time between 2 and 2:30 the morning of July 7, 1993, as she said goodbye to a friend she had briefly visited on Capitol Hill. She said she was going to catch a cab home.

Her body was found less than two hours later by a streetwalker in what was then a dead-end street in a part of the Central Area that was busy with drug buys and prostitution. The streetwalker, who went by the name of "Charity," told police that Zapata's body had been positioned in the form of a cross, with her ankles crossed and her arms stretched outward, perpendicular to her body.

She had been strangled with the drawstrings of her sweat shirt.

Police and crime analysts speculated on a gamut of scenarios — that it was a crime of passion committed by a boyfriend, that she was a random victim of a serial killer — but none of the theories could be backed by any evidence.

It would be years before police disclosed the fact that she was raped, and police at the time denied that DNA evidence existed.

'Total social conscience'

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

"Mia was the best of our family," Richard Zapata, her father, told The Seattle Times in a 1998 interview. "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."

Richard Zapata, who reportedly still lives in Seattle, could not be reached for comment yesterday; nor could his ex-wife, who lives on the East Coast.

In the summer of 1993, a near-record year for killings in Seattle, Zapata was homicide victim No. 33. Her death stood out because she was an underground celebrity of sorts, pegged by some as a future star.

Unknown nationally, she was popular locally, a musician's musician. If Kurt Cobain was the international icon of the Seattle music scene at the time, Zapata was an in-house friend. A thousand people attended her dusk-to-dawn wake.

Seattle's 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 eventually dried up.

Zapata had tried to distance herself from the hype of Seattle's so-called "grunge scene." The Gits considered themselves progressive punk rockers, more interested in art than fame.

Zapata, the main lyricist, spoke for the rest of the band — Matt 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 all she wanted in life was a cabin to live in, an old Jeep to drive and a sheep dog to ride shotgun — a serene vision so opposite of how her life ended. Police said the violence inflicted on her was surpassingly brutal.

Former Seattle police Detective Bob Gebo, an FBI-trained profiler who consulted on the Zapata case, had speculated in 1998 that Zapata's killer was someone with a history.

Based on the nature of the assault, Gebo said, 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."

Alex Tizon: 206-464-2216, or atizon@seattletimes.com.