The Life and Death of Singer Mia Zapata
Sometimes, true crime stories hit close to home. I not only lived in the same city as the victim in this week’s story, but I knew singer Mia Zapata.
Although I did not know Mia well, her tragic death had a huge impact on me and her too-short life continues to resonate for myself and many other women of her generation.
Mia’s rape and murder became a coalescing feminist movement, a raucous caterwaul for justice and autonomy that fueled many other artists.
If you had ever met Mia, you would never have suspected that she would be a victim of anything. Stoic in person, but powerful and expressive upon any stage where she stood, Mia Katherine Zapata was poised at the brink of a potentially rewarding career as a blues/rock singer when she was robbed of her life, and we of her immense talents.
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Mia was born August 25, 1965 in Chicago. Her parents, Richard and Donna, were both Midwesterners. By virtue of her father’s heritage (her paternal grandfather was Mexican — but no relation to the famous revolutionary, Emiliano ‘Viva’ Zapata) — Mia was Latina.
Mia and her family (including an older brother and sister) moved to Louisville, Kentucky when she was a child. Her parents divorced in 1981, and her father remarried. Both of her parents worked in media, and the Zapata family was considered wealthy. But wealth and prestige meant little to young Mia. She didn’t care about status symbols. She was interested in the authentic expression of the creative self.
In 1984, Mia enrolled at Antioch College, a liberal arts campus in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Antioch is the kind of higher education facility that encourages their students to craft their own education.
When you become an Antiochian, you don’t just attend a college that has been around since 1850. You participate in a movement rooted in a tradition of breaking boundaries to face the challenges of now.
We are grounded in experiential learning. This is a laboratory college where you learn by doing. From problem-based projects to makerspaces, cultural immersion to worked-based co-op education, you will have the freedom to experiment, try, fail and grow. (From Antioch College’s website)
At Antioch, Mia found her tribe — young iconoclasts willing to create new ambitions, challenge the status quo and poke fun at socially accepted norms. She even embraced an old nickname from her childhood — ‘Chicken’ (when schoolmates made fun of her lanky, widespread gait) — and tattooed a chicken on her leg.
But what really resonated for Mia at Antioch was the music community she found. She was influenced by Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, along with punk and alternative music. In 1986, she formed the band The Gits with three of her college friends, Andy, Matt and Steve. The Gits fused pop-rock with Mia’s deeply bluesy voice, a powerful combination. Three years later, the band relocated to Seattle and hit the scene on the cusp of the burgeoning ‘grunge’ movement.
The Gits weren’t exactly grunge, which was dominated by heavy guitars and dudes with long hair and plaid shirts, but they still fit into the scene seamlessly. Mia became close friends with a lot of women musicians in the area including members of Seven Year Bitch, a local all-female punk quartet.
I met Mia in the fall of 1992 when I moved to Seattle and took a hosting job at the Deluxe Bar and Grille, on Broadway. I was 24 years old and came from my own thriving music scene in the midwest, one that was ruled by a party ethic so heavy that I’d already been to seven funerals in seven years. I didn’t just leave my hometown — I fled for safer ground.
Seattle, with its’ persistent damp and drizzle, and its’ chill coffee shop vibe, seemed to provide that aura of security. Sure, I was aware of the plague of heroin deaths that had rattled the Pacific Northwest in recent years, but felt safely removed from it. My small circle included my gay best friend who worked for the airline industry, local actors and artists, and a social worker from New Jersey who became my roommate.
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Mia also worked at the Deluxe, as the dishwasher. Solely dedicated to her music, she wasn’t about to get a ‘straight job’. She needed the flexibility to take time off when the The Gits went on tour, and didn’t intend to support anything ‘establishment’ with her labor. She stood in the corner of the Deluxe’s small kitchen, sweating over the dish service, in ripped-off shorts and a stained t-shirt. Her dark blonde hair was in dreads, and I cannot think of Mia from this moment in time without immediately hearing, in my head, the song “Bruise Violet” by Babes in Toyland. Their CD Fontanelle blared from the kitchen, over and over, every time Mia was on shift.
As I mentioned, I didn’t know her well. She was supremely quiet in her dishwashing duties. She didn’t really smile. She sometimes ate french fries, standing, with one foot in a boot propped behind her against a wall.
Sometime in early ’93, Mia left the Deluxe when The Gits headed out of town for a short tour. When she returned weeks later, she stopped by the grille with two friends including her boyfriend, a much older man. The three had lunch together, she apparently checked in with the manager and got clearance to return to work, and she was back at the dishwasher within the week.
She wasn’t working the day I was fired from the Deluxe. The manager was forced to let people go after they got busted when an underage girl managed to make it to the bar and ordered a drink. I wound up getting one of those proverbial straight jobs, as a legal assistant downtown. The next time I saw Mia, her picture was all over the local news.
On the evening of July 6, 1993, Mia was out celebrating The Gits recent success in recording their second album, Enter: The Conquering Chicken. She and her friends were at The Comet, a Seattle tavern until after midnight.
Mia left the Comet and walked one block east on Pike Street, to a nearby rehearsal studio. She then went to visit a friend, who rented an apartment in the same building as the studio, staying until approximately 2am on Wednesday, July 7th. Mia told her friend she was going to hail a cab to ride home as she left.
Instead, her body was discovered two miles away on the sidewalk of a dead-end street. She was lying on her back with her arms outstretched to her side and her legs were crossed at the ankle — almost a Christlike pose. When found, Mia had no identification on her. She was dressed but there was evidence of sexual assault. Her bra and underpants were stuffed into her pockets.
When Mia’s body was taken to the coroner’s officer, it was there that somebody recognized her. Allegedly, the deputy coroner was a fan of The Gits and first identified Mia Zapata.
The autopsy report is particularly brutal in Mia’s case. She was violently raped, beaten and bit, and then strangled with the cords of her hooded sweatshirt. Reports showed that even without the strangulation, Mia would likely have died from blunt force trauma to the abdomen and a lacerated liver.
Investigators believed that someone came up behind Mia while she was listening to music through headphones and therefore, she was caught off guard. But there was no other evidence at the scene and no indication of who might have committed this vile crime.
Unbeknownst to the general public, there was a key piece of evidence however left on Mia’s body itself. We wouldn’t learn of that until a decade later when that evidence netted an arrest.
Initially, suspicion turned toward Mia’s friends within the music community. Everyone she knew was questioned and detectives confiscated Mia’s journals, looking for clues. Her former boyfriend was a key suspect, with the friend Mia visited that night telling detectives that Zapata was intoxicated and angry with him after the two broke up. He was able to provide a suitable alibi, although some among her friends remained suspicious. Employees from the Comet and the studio space were interviewed.
Angered by the lack of support and the scrutiny they felt was unjustified, Mia’s women friends decided that law enforcement was not pursuing her murder the way they should have. They got proactive and raised funds for a private investigator. Members of Nirvana and Pearl Jam both donated money toward this fund, as did the band Soundgarden.
But the biggest rallying cry came not from those necessarily trying to solve Mia’s murder, but from other women who learned of her brutal death and had enough. Enough of violence toward women, enough of dismissing our fears and concerns, enough of failing to protect us from domestic violence and other crimes. Journalist Inga Muscio of Seattle’s The Stranger magazine penned a manifesto for young women filled with rage and demanding of justice. As she later wrote:
“I clung to the fact that newspaper and word of mouth accounts did not mention the word rape. Strangled, murdered, killed. Those words were already quite unbearable. No sooner would the word rape flit through my mind that I’d remind myself none of the newscasters mentioned it.
I felt the world could still seem a halfway decent place so long as Mia Zapata wasn’t raped.” — Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio ©2002 Seal Press
Muscio didn’t know Mia and yet, like myself and many other women in Seattle, across North America and around the world, she was incensed at the trivialization of Zapata’s violent and inexplicable death, and demanded solutions. Those solutions came in the form of Home Alone.
“Violence occurs in childhood sexual abuse, date rape, intimate partner violence, and sexual harassment. The founders tried out other self-defense classes but they found them lacking due to prices, and they offered restrictive rules for women. These rules included how women should dress conservatively and to never walk alone, thus this was another decision to create Home Alive.” — Wikipedia’s Home Alive page
Home Alive is a self-defense program for women. Twenty-seven years after the brutal murder of singer Mia Zapata, this is perhaps her greatest legacy. We should honor Mia and the inspiration she gave those who founded this organization. We should also listen to her music.
Mia’s friends in Seven Year Bitch helped fund Home Alive, with proceeds from their 1994 album Viva Zapata inspired by their lost friend. Singers Joan Jett and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill also helped the organization, writing music together and independently to raise both money and awareness.
The carefree and chill vibe in Seattle hardened into something much more serious in the wake of Mia’s death. Months after she was murdered, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain took his life and bassist Kristen Pfaff of Love (Cobain’s wife’s band) died of a heroin overdose.
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I had come to Seattle in search of a place where I could explore my writing, enjoy my friendships without fear of what might befall them, and feel at home in a city where a woman should be safe going out to the bar to celebrate with friends, and walking on the streets to hail a cab. Seattle, I saw, was no longer that place and fifteen months after Mia was murdered, I left the Pacific Northwest. I have never returned.
In 2003, I woke one morning to my radio, set to an NPR station. The news was reporting the arrest of a man in Florida for the murder of Mia Zapata. I sat up suddenly in bed, listening intently.
The evidence left on Mia’s body was saliva, from a severe bite that her attacker left on her breast. In 1993, there was little that could be done with that evidence except to save it. But a few years later, technology existed that allowed DNA to be identified from the saliva, and then entered into CODIS(combined DNA index system), for a potential match. In 2002, CODIS found that match.
Jesus Mezquia, a fisherman originally from Haiti, was currently on probation in Florida on theft charges. He denied raping or killing Mia, and claimed he was nowhere near Seattle at the time. But traffic tickets and an indecent exposure arrest just two weeks before Zapata’s death proved otherwise. And after he was identified, another Seattle woman called police to report that this was the man who sexually assaulted her, just months after Mia was killed. That woman did not file a police report at the time of the assault, however.
Mezquia has a long history of violence toward women, and had served time for sexual assault and domestic battery. Every one of his prior girlfriends and his former wife acknowledged he had abused them.
He has never admitted his guilt in Mia Zapata’s rape and murder. He was convicted in 2004 of first degree felony murder and sentenced to 37 years in prison, where he remains today. The prosecution at his trial claimed that Mezquia saw Mia leave the studio, followed her without her knowledge (as she was listening to a Walkman through headphones), grabbed her from behind, threw her into the back seat of a nearby car, and assaulted then killed her. After she was dead, he dragged her body into the alley where he laid her, arms outstretched and feet crossed. He may also have taken her identification, to stall law enforcement while he escaped. But he left behind that DNA evidence. Deny all he wishes, Jesus Mezquia cannot fight science.
Like her icons Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, Mia Zapata has become a symbol of suffering and an early, undeserved death. But like I wrote, Mia was no victim and I think she’d rather be remembered for her voice and her lyrics and her life, not her death.
Additional sources for this article include:
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