Burning Bed: Roller-Coaster Romance Ends in Flames

Did a fiery relationship lead to a fiery death?

March 25, 2011 — -- They were a young couple living the good life in Palo Alto, Calif.: Jennifer Schipsi, a beautiful, ambitious real estate agent and Paul Zumot, the fun-loving owner of a local hookah lounge.

Over the course of two years, Schipsi and Zumot had broken up and gotten back together several times, but by October 2009, Zumot was ready to get serious. Right around his 36th birthday, he was preparing to pop the question.

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Schipsi, 29, seemed optimistic about their relationship too. The couple had just moved into a cottage in Palo Alto and Schipsi told a friend that she had a good feeling about this, next phase of their life.

CLICK HERE to see photos of Schipsi and Zumot.

Little did Schipsi know how short that phase would be. The couple had been living in their cottage less than a month when a fire broke out in the house. Just before sunset on an October day, a passerby saw the flames and called 911. (Click here to listen to the 911 call.)

When firefighters arrived at the scene they found much smoke and limited visibility.

"We knew we had to get there and get in there and make a fast attack," said Palo Alto Fire Captain Carter French.

Once inside the home, firefighters crawled on the floor and made their way to the only room in the house that was actually on fire -- the bedroom. The center of the fire, French said, was a burning bed. On that bed, he was shocked to find a body.

At first, French believed that the person on the bed might have still been alive. Soon, he changed his mind.

"It was by far the worst-burnt body I had ever seen," he said later.

As he lifted the body, he smelled a strong gasoline odor. That, coupled with what he saw around him, suggested to French that the fire was no accident.

"The fact that the fire burned hot and fast told me that this could've been an accelerant fire," French said.

But accident or not, authorities at the time had a more pressing question: Whose body was it? Did it belong to Jennifer Schipsi, Paul Zumot or someone else entirely? The corpse was burned beyond recognition.

Racing Toward the Good Life

Soon, firefighters could eliminate at least one possibility -- after talking to the cottage's landlord, Paul Zumot arrived at the scene. Police video taken at the time shows Zumot standing at the yellow tape cordoning off the home, appearing distressed. Jennifer Schipsi was still nowhere to be found.

That evening, police delivered crushing news to Schipsi's mother, Jaime.

Jaime Schipsi said she knew her daughter was the victim even before police could make the official determination.

"I immediately dropped to the ground, started crying," she said. "Nobody had to tell me ... Every fiber in my body felt it. I knew it was my child. I already knew the answer. A mother knows."

Jennifer Schipsi wasn't always on the fast track. A high school dropout, she was once engaged to her first serious boyfriend, Jake Allen, who worked at an auto-body shop.

But not long after their engagement, Allen said he could see Schipsi racing out of his life.

Allen said the couple didn't have a lot of money. When Schipsi saw " all these people with really nice things," Allen said, "I think in her head that's what she really wanted."

"And then she would look at me, you know, covered in grease in the garage, going, 'Hey, you know, this guy doesn't really fit that persona,'" he said.

It was at a health club, in a high-end shopping mall known by some as the Rodeo Drive of Palo Alto, that Schipsi first met Zumot.

Schipsi's best friend, Roy Endemann, said Zumot swept her off her feet -- but he was far from the ideal boyfriend.

"He would put her on a pedestal, but then the next day he would knock, knock her off the pedestal, and throw the pedestal in the trash," Endemann said.

He said Zumot called her a bad real estate agent or would say she was getting fat. Jaime Schipsi also accused Zumot of criticizing her daughter's figure.

"My daughter weighed 105 pounds," she said, "And he said to her, you're not wearing a bikini. You're too fat."

Zumot's family maintains that Paul Zumot treated his girlfriend like a princess.

Whatever was going on in her relationship, the rest of Schipsi's life seemed to be spiraling downward: the real estate market had started crashing, she couldn't pay her property taxes and things were so bad, she even filled out an application to work at a Hooters restaurant. She was also stressed that her parents were divorcing.

Life on a Downward Spiral?

Jake Allen, who stayed close to Schipsi after their breakup, said he felt helpless as he saw the beautiful, smart woman he loved change dramatically before his eyes, surgically altering her appearance and falling into what appeared to be deep bouts of depression.

"She was a little insecure about a lot of things so she had some surgery done," Allen said. "You could see that that drive kind of got beaten down a little bit ...She wasn't really going out there and attacking the real estate world like she used to."

At some points in 2008, Allen said, it was hard to get Schipsi out of bed. At work, her boss, Drew Holderman, said he, too, saw a huge change. Schipsi even stopped coming to work for one month.

"The new Jennifer was, not only physically different, but, mentally, a different person. She was very unfocused," he said.

Despite Schipsi's troubles, the night of her boyfriend's 36th birthday party in October 2009 began as a happy night. Schipsi had invited more than a dozen of Zumot's closest friends to his favorite restaurant to celebrate.

After their meal, the couple rode in a friend's car to continue the celebration at Zumot's hookah lounge. But the revelry didn't last: a text message to Schipsi from a male friend seemed to provoke jealousy from Zumot.

The two began to argue and, when they arrived at a cafe, Schipsi refused to go inside, telling her friend through a text message that she was going home alone. It was the last time anyone other than Zumot would see her alive.

Four hours after the fire began, police began talking to Zumot. Police video shows Zumot apparently anguished while questions remained over whose body it was on that burning mattress. (CLICK HERE to watch the video.)

"It's not Jennifer, man. It's impossible," the video shows a teary Zumot telling police.

Inconsolable or not, Zumot's conversation with police soon turned into an interrogation, as police asked him about the night before. Zumot seemed quite willing to answer questions, volunteering that the couple had gotten into a fight.

Mounting a Defense

He said Schipsi later sent him angry text messages, demanding that he pay her money she said he owed her.

In her messages, some of them laced with expletives, Schipsi called Zumot a "scam artist liar" and told him to "vanish from my life."

But Zumot told police that such exchanges were nothing unusual. The two, he revealed, had a history of domestic violence and had once taken out restraining orders against each other.

The worst of it resulted in a domestic-violence conviction for Zumot on charges of sending Schipsi harassing messages -- fallout from an ugly dispute outside a Starbucks where he spat in her face and kicked in the grill of her Mercedes.

Zumot said the couple's fights were often quickly forgotten and, the night of his birthday and their latest fight, Zumot ignored Schipsi's messages to stay away from her. When he came home, he said, they made up and made love, a reconciliation Zumot recorded on Schipsi's cell phone camera.

But the make-up sex wasn't enough to convince police that Zumot had had nothing to do with Schipsi's death. An arson-sniffing dog had smelled accelerant on Zumot's clothing.

Meanwhile, a medical examiner concluded that Schipsi had died before she burned -- her throat had been crushed.

On Oct. 19, police arrested Zumot at gunpoint for the murder of Jennifer Schipsi.

Believing police had targeted Paul Zumot, Zumot's brother mortgaged several homes to hire one of California's most expensive, high-profile lawyers: Mark Geragos, who has represented Michael Jackson, Winona Ryder and Scott Peterson.

Geragos argued his client couldn't be guilty for several key reasons: among them, pictures taken by police of Zumot's body the night of the fire show no signs of a physical struggle.

"When you choke somebody, the first thing you're gonna do is grab their hands... or you're gonna scratch at the face. You're gonna do something to fight back," Geragos said. "She's got nails -- and there wasn't a single mark on him."

Perhaps even more damaging to the prosecution's case was that a crime lab determined that, despite the arson dog's alerts, there was no accelerant on Zumot's clothing. Only his shoes tested positive for gasoline and, according to the report, it is common for shoes to contain petroleum products.

Geragos also argued that Zumot simply didn't have time to start the fire. He was too busy, he said, running between a weekly domestic violence prevention class and his hookah lounge that evening.

But those points, in addition to the couple's apparent make-up on the night before the fire, weren't enough to convince jurors that Zumot was innocent. On Feb. 10, he was found guilty on charges of first-degree murder and arson.

CLICK HERE to watch the full story on the latest episode of "20/20."