A Singer Dies in Seattle, But Not in Vain
(‘The Day the Music Died,’ Forensic Files)
Mia Zapata might have joined the 27 Club, but her death at age 27 was different from those of Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and the rest: It had nothing to do with drug or alcohol abuse.
The lead vocalist and songwriter for the Gits — a band variously described as grunge, punk, or rock — Mia died in 1993 when an ex-convict randomly spotted her walking alone late at night in Seattle.
Awful discovery. But the tragedy of Mia’s demise gave rise to purpose. It brought out the best in her family, friends, and members of the community who were frustrated by a lack of evidence that made the case difficult to solve. They worked together to search for clues to the killer’s identity and also to safeguard other local women from crimes of opportunity.
For this week’s post, I looked for more details on Mia’s biography and the case. So let’s get going on the recap of “The Day the Music Died”:
Just before 3:30 a.m. on July 7, 1993, a sex worker stumbled upon a brutalized woman lying in the streets of Capitol Hill, a lively but rough section of Seattle popular with aspiring musicians. The victim’s body was still warm, but paramedics couldn’t revive her.
Up and coming. An attacker had raped, bitten, and choked her with a cord from her sweatshirt, and beaten her to death.
The medical examiner recognized the deceased woman as Mia Zapata, the front woman for the Gits.
Amid the city’s music scene, which had recently given rise to Nirvana and Soundgarden, Mia and her band had a large following and were on the verge of winning a contract with one of the Top 10 record labels in the world.
Classmates click. The Gits — consisting of Mia, drummer Steve Moriarty, bass player Matt Dresdner, and guitar player Andy “Joe Spleen” Kessler — had already enjoyed successful tours up and down the West Coast and in Europe and had played on the same bill as Green Day and Nirvana.
The four had originally met and formed the band as students at Antioch College. After graduation, they relocated to Seattle and moved into an abandoned house in Capitol Hill.
It was a departure from the singer’s comfortable upbringing.
Mia Katherine Zapata was born on August 25, 1965 and spent her childhood in an upscale suburb of Louisville, Kentucky.
Trio of tikes. Her mother, Donna Zapata, was a station manager for WHAS radio and TV, and her father, Richard, worked as a media executive as well.
Both of Mia’s parents earned six-figure incomes.
They had three children. Kristen was preppy, Eric was cool, and Mia was arty, according to Kristen.
Demure girl. Despite showing signs of dyslexia, Mia liked to write poetry. She learned to play guitar and piano and enjoyed painting and listening to Janis Joplin records.
“Mia was the best of our family,” Richard Zapata told the Seattle Times. “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.”
Still, she was shy and didn’t call attention to herself, her father said in an interview found on YouTube.
Off to university. Although she grew to 5 feet 8 inches in height, people described Mia as petite or slight.
As a high school senior, Mia toured Antioch College, where a school director assured her that learning disabilities could be overcome, according to an interview with Donna Zapata in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Mia enrolled at the school, located in Yellow Springs, Ohio and known for encouraging students to explore their own improvised paths.
No inhibitions. She impressed other students with her vocal skills.
“I was transfixed and overcome,” Matt Dresdner told Rolling Stone about hearing Mia sing for the first time, at an open mic event in 1986. “I cried. It was raw, honest, to the bone, and from the heart. No music or musician had ever affected me like she did that night.”
LA Weekly would later say that Mia could “belt not unlike Bette Midler gone bananas.”
Dresdner told Unsolved Mysteries that once he, Mia, and the other two formed the Gits in college, people didn’t even notice him on stage because everyone was watching Mia.
“She couldn’t spell worth a darn,” Andy Kessler told the Plain Dealer. “But she could rock brilliantly.”
On the cusp. Still, the band didn’t make enough cash to pay expenses, so Mia, whose style of dress was grunge-utilitarian — tank tops, T-shirts, shorts, mini-skirts, combat boots — did restaurant work as a waitress or dishwasher.
Just before her death, everything seemed to be falling into place for the Gits. The band’s first album, Frenching the Bully, got good reviews, and a representative from Atlantic Records had taken the band out to lunch in Los Angeles. MCA (today part of Universal Music Group) was reportedly interested in signing the group as well.
On July 6, 1993, Mia’s father drove two hours from his home in Yakima to Seattle to take Mia out to lunch. They had Thai food and went to a museum. That night, Mia had drinks at a popular bar, the Comet, and visited a friend. Mia was wearing headphones and listening to music when she headed home.
Meh prophesy. It was during 80 minutes of unaccounted time after her departure from her friend’s place that the murder took place.
News of her death horrified and shocked the community, although some would say that she already had a fatal vision — expressed in an original song called Sign of the Crab. Her lyrics included, “Go ahead and slash me up and throw me all across town because you know you are the one that can’t be found.”
Of course, it seems as though when any notable person dies young, journalists dig up something foreboding the person said about death. Mia said she wrote the song in response to the violent crime happening everywhere. Her own murder was only one of 33 that had taken place in town in roughly the first half of 1993, according to the Seattle Times.
Outpouring of grief. But it was also the highest-profile crime Capitol Hill had suffered.
“A thousand people attended her dusk-to-dawn wake in Seattle — a thousand tattooed, pierced, wailing, fringe-dwelling, guitar-banging friends,” the Seattle Times reported. “Her father paid for the beer.”
Police kicked into high gear, following hundreds of leads and tips and interviewing dozens of prospective suspects. They included Mia’s on-and-off boyfriend, a Vietnam vet who played with a band called Hell’s Smells. But he had a solid alibi.
TV comes knocking. Because Mia’s body was reportedly in a crucifix-like pose, with her ankles crossed and arms outstretched to the sides, some theorized that an unknown religious zealot committed the murder. That idea went nowhere and, according to one report, rescue workers had placed her arms in that position while trying to save her.
America’s Most Wanted threw its hat into the investigative ring, traveling to Capitol Hill to produce a segment on the case.
“Host John Walsh paced on the sidewalk outside the Comet while cameras recorded his earnest narration,” according to the News Tribune of Tacoma.
No fading. Robert Stack also got in on the act, when his show, Unsolved Mysteries, included a vignette about the murder.
Still, no one could find a viable suspect. The chalk outline drawn around Mia’s body remained visible for years, but the case went cold.
Here’s where the best of human nature took over.
Hired help. The Gits’ drummer Steve Moriarty spearheaded fundraising efforts to hire a private detective to investigate the case. The band held benefit concerts, joined by the likes of Courtney Love, Joan Jett & the Black Hearts, and Nirvana.
Joan Jett — already a huge star thanks to MTV and the hit “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” — even recorded some of her own versions of songs written by the Gits for an album called Evil Stig produced to benefit the investigation.
After raising $80,000, the band engaged private investigator Leigh Hearon, a former journalist. When the money ran out, she continued to work on the case pro bono.
Personal safety. In the meantime, Richard Zapata had rented an apartment in Seattle so that he could retrace Mia’s steps and look for clues.
Mia’s death spurred the creation of Home Alive, an effort to protect women against predators. It offered self-defense classes priced at a sliding scale depending on what participants could afford to pay, according to All Things Considered.
“I lived in downtown Seattle a few years after her murder and Home Alive was a blessing!” said a YouTube reader comment left at Murder in Seattle: The Mia Zapata Story. “They would come and walk you home if you didn’t want to walk home alone.”
CODIS ‘winner.’ As the murder case wore on, something significant happened in the field of forensics. A Nobel prize-winning breakthrough from U.S. chemist Kary Mullis, enabled forensic scientists to identify the DNA in amounts of genetic material normally too small to test — including the foreign saliva found on Mia Zapata’s body. A specimen had been saved and kept refrigerated since 1993.
In 2003, the Combined DNA Index System, commonly known as CODIS, matched the specimen to Jesus Mezquia, a 48-year-old ex-con working as a fisherman in Marathon, Florida.
He was a tall, large-handed Cuban exile who was living in the Seattle area at the time of Mia’s murder.
Justice and joy. Investigators believed Mezquia caught sight of Mia walking home, stopped his car, abducted her, raped and murdered her, and then dumped her body.
On March 24, 2004, a jury convicted Mezquia of murder. The verdict elicited cries of “Via Zapata” in the courtroom. Some of the jurors shook hands and hugged Mia’s loved ones in court, the Seattle Times reported.
Mia’s sister, Kristen Vittitow, was so excited about the verdict that she did handstands, according to Donna Zapata. Mia’s mother told the Seattle Times that she didn’t attend the trial of her daughter’s killer because “I never wanted to lay eyes on the person.”
Gone guy. Mezquia received a sentence of 36 years.
Steve Moriarty told the Courier-Journal of Louisville that he was glad Mezquia would rot in jail and that people could live more freely. (Mezquia died in a prison hospital in 2021 at the age of 66.)
The surviving Gits went on performing under the name the Dancing French Liberals of ’48, but eventually broke up and went their separate ways. “We lost our sister together, said Moriarty. “We always will be brothers even if we’re in different parts of the country.”
‘Concerted’ effort. Mia Zapata’s memory has never flickered out. You can watch the The Gits documentary on Daily Motion. A 2023 Phoenix New Times article quoted singer Kayla Long as citing the way Mia de-evolved on stage as an influence.
On July 7, 2023, the 30-year anniversary of the murder, a Mia Zapata tribute concert called Viva Zapata was held at The Skylark in Seattle.
As for Mia’s father — who didn’t appear on Forensic Files but gave interviews to other media outlets — he is still heartbroken but says he tries to use humor to cope with the loss of his youngest child.
“She was on loan to me,” Richard Zapata said, “and she now belongs to all of you.”
That’s all for this post. Until next time, cheers. — RR
Watch the Forensic Files episode on YouTube