Singer Mia Zapata will be forever young to loved ones and fans who saw her and her band The Gits perform — but it was never supposed to be that way.
In 2003, Zapata was supposed to be preparing to celebrate her 37th birthday, perhaps working on another album with The Gits or embarking on a solo career. Maybe she would have been enjoying recognition as a great rock musician and poet.
Instead, the 10th anniversary of Zapata's murder is approaching and her friends, family and fans are expecting the suspect recently arrested and accused in her killing to be extradited from Florida to Seattle sometime this month.
And though they take solace in the long-awaited break in the case, the arrest has opened old wounds. Zapata's friends — and the Seattle community that thought she and The Gits were on the cusp of stardom — cannot think about Zapata without wondering what could have been.
"You look around and you see friends of Mia, all of us, getting older, still doing our thing, making music, writing poetry. I think Mia still would have been doing her thing," said Cristien Storm, a Seattle poet and activist and friend of Zapata. "And that's part of the tragedy of it all. We will never see Mia grow as an artist, grow older. She was cut down as she was in the middle of something. Her life was shortened way before it was supposed to be."
DNA Heats Up Cold Trail
On July 7, 1993, Zapata was killed as she walked home from a bar. Investigators found her body in a crucifix position, discarded on a Seattle alley, beaten, raped and strangled with the drawstrings of a Gits sweatshirt she wore that night.
Zapata's slaying baffled police for years — there were no witnesses, no suspects. Police were not able to make an arrest in the case until this past January, when DNA linked Florida fisherman Jesus Mezquia to the slaying. Detectives from the King County cold case squad had submitted the DNA profile of evidence from saliva found on Zapata to the National DNA Index System in November.
Mezquia, a 48-year-old resident of Marathon, Fla., had submitted a DNA sample as part of a previous, unrelated arrest in Florida, and this led to the apparent match and arrest.
According to the criminal complaint against Mezquia, in July 1993, he lived within walking distance of the area where Zapata was killed. However, Mezquia has denied even knowing Zapata, much less killing her. He could not explain to investigators how his DNA wound up on her body.
A Heartbroken, Hopeful Community
News of Mezquia's arrest brought relief and subdued toasts to the Seattle bars that were once Zapata's stomping grounds and the fans who followed her and The Gits. Though surprised by the arrest, Zapata's friends never gave up hope that there would be a break in the case.
"You can't do something as horrible as that and ultimately not get caught," said Steve Moriarity, drummer of The Gits, who also led an independent investigation of Zapata's death. "I just believe in karma that way."
Zapata's slaying broke the heart of a music scene that had already been jaded by a media spotlight that had turned a philosophy and way of life into a cliché and catchphrase. The rise and mainstream breakthrough of Nirvana and the subsequent success of bands such as Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains were part of the so-called "grunge" movement. But their success — and the glut of media attention that followed — spawned endless imitators. Dedication to musicianship and integrity gave way to the grunge sound, grunge wear, grunge catalogs and the search for the next Nirvana.
"When Mia died, there was a sense that the scene was dying," said Moriarity. "It took the wind out of many people here. Kurt Cobain's death [less than one year later] was the nail in the coffin."
The Gits first came together in the mid-1980s at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where all the members — Zapata, Moriarity, guitarist Joe Spleen and bassist Matt Dresdner — were students. Originally called the Sniveling Little Rat Faced Gits, they gradually gained a following on campus and ultimately moved to Seattle to continue recording music, play live and hopefully gain a recording contract under a major label.
The Gits gained a following in the underground Seattle punk scene and increased their fan base during an international tour. They released their first album Frenching the Bully under an independent label in 1992. They were working on their second release, Enter: The Conquering Chicken when Zapata was killed.
Not many people outside Seattle had heard of The Gits when Zapata died, but several believed they were on the brink of a breakthrough. However, stardom — that breakthrough album, that hit song — was not all-important to Zapata.
"'Making it' is such a relative term," said Storm. "To Mia, doing her thing — performing her music, writing poetry — doing what she loved was 'making it.'"
"With us, it was about the music," said Moriarity. "With Mia and all of us, we didn't care about being famous. We just wanted to be able to make a living."
Empowerment From Tragedy
Zapata's death was more than just the loss of a rising star — it was the loss of a friend to her bandmates, fellow artists and others in the community. Immediately after her murder, Zapata's friends — including Storm, 7 Year Bitch drummer Valerie Agnew and artist Stacey Westcott — founded Home Alive, a self-defense education organization, to cope with their pain and help others defend themselves against those who would attempt to rape or mug them late at night.
With the help of the surviving members of The Gits, Joan Jett, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and others, Home Alive held benefit concerts and released a CD, The Art of Self Defense to fund self-defense classes and seminars. The classes, the concerts and the CD — which also featured recordings of The Gits — empowered a community while allowing it to grieve and keep Zapata's memory alive.
"It enabled people to look within themselves, deal with their own grief, while also enabling them to look outside themselves and see how they could help others," said Storm.
The surviving members of The Gits, led by Moriarity, also put on benefit concerts to help fund a private investigation of Zapata's slaying. Moriarity said that was the least they could do — they could not rest without knowing who killed their friend and why.
"I don't see how anyone in that situation — anyone who loses a loved one or a friend — could not do something," said Moriarity. "There's such a sense of helplessness … the kind of person that I am, I have to do something. I have to be proactive."
With the help of volunteers, Home Alive continues to conduct self-defense classes and seminars in Zapata's memory. The group stresses that it is not a typical self-defense organization and that it is not just about self-defense. It also tries to teach people ways to diffuse a violent situation in their community before it happens.
"Home Alive has become more than about Mia. It came about because of her but has grown to represent something that goes beyond her murder," said Lynn Stromski, executive director of Home Alive. "We just don't teach people how to kick butt. We are devoted to combating violence not just in our community, but around the world. We teach people techniques for defusing violent situations before they happen."
Moving People From the Grave
Since Jesus Mezquia's arrest, Stromski said, more people have been enrolling in Home Alive classes and seminars. The break in the case — and renewed media exposure for Home Alive — seemed to raise people's consciousness on violence, at least temporarily, Stromski said.
Home Alive is preparing commemorative events in memory of Zapata and the group's 10-year anniversary. In addition, the surviving Gits have been working on a documentary on Zapata and the group's life and times, and Moriarity hopes to have it circulating in film festivals by the fall.
Still, friends believe that even in death, Zapata would not want to be remembered primarily as a singer robbed of her stardom or even for Home Alive, despite its good intentions.
"To this day, people call up and say, 'We just heard The Gits for the first time, and we were so moved. How can we get ahold of more of their music?' " said Storm. "Mia really moved people."
And perhaps that's what was most important to Zapata. A senseless slaying has silenced her and made her forever young — but she continues to sing.