‘20/20’ Recap: California Romance Ends In Death

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This edition of 20/20 focuses on the fiery relationship of Jennifer Schipsi and Paul Zumot.

Schipsi and Zumot had broken up and gotten back together several times over the course of two years. However, by October 2009, Zumot was ready to get serious. He was prepared to pop the question by the time of his 36th birthday.

Schipsi seemed optimistic about their relationship, and she told a friend that she had a good feeling about the next phase of their life. Little did Schipsi know how short that phase would be, as a fire broke out in the couple’s Palo Alto cottage less than a month after they moved in.

Just before sunset on an October day, a passerby witnessed the flames and called 911. Firefighters found much smoke and limited visibility when they arrived at the scene. Once inside the home, firefighters crawled on the floor and approached the bedroom, the one portion of the house that was actually on fire.

Palo Alto Fire Captain Carter French was shocked to find a body in the center of the fire. At first, French thought the person on the bed might have survived. Soon, he changed his opinion. He says: “It was by far the worst-burnt body I had ever seen.” As French lifted the body, he smelled a strong gasoline odor, and that suggested to him that the fire was no accident.

Accident or not, authorities had to determine whose body it was. The corpse was burned beyond recognition, so it was unknown whether the body belonged to Jennifer Schipsi, Paul Zumot or someone else entirely.

Eventually, firefighters eliminated Paul Zumot from the list. Police video showed Zumot arriving at the scene, standing at the yellow tape cordoning off the home and appearing distressed. However, Jennifer was nowhere to be found.

That evening, police delivered the crushing news to Jaime Schipsi, Jennifer’s mother. Jamie immediately knew her daughter was the victim, and she stated: “I immediately dropped to the ground, started crying…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 wasn’t always on the fast track; she was a high school dropout who was previously engaged to Jake Allen, who worked at an auto-body shop. But not long after their engagement, Allen said he could see Jennifer racing out of his life. Allen said that the couple didn’t have a lot of money, and he thought that Jennifer wanted “really nice things.”

Thus, 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 encountered Zumot.

Roy Endemann, Schipsi’s best friend, said Zumot was far from the ideal boyfriend, but he still managed to sweep Schipsi off her feet. Endemann proclaims: “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.”

According to Jaime Schipsi, Zumot often criticized her daughter’s figure. The mother announced: “My daughter weighed 105 pounds…And he said to her, you’re not wearing a bikini. You’re too fat.”

Amidst, these accusations, Zumot’s family maintains that Paul treated Jennifer like a princess. Whatever was going on in her relationship, the rest of Schipsi’s life appeared to be spiraling downward: the real estate market 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. The fact that her parents were divorcing caused her additional stress.

Jake Allen stayed close to Schipsi after their breakup, and he felt helpless as he saw the beautiful, smart woman he loved transform into an individual that appeared to be suffering deep bouts of depression. He said: “She was a little insecure about a lot of things so she had some surgery done…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.”

Despite Schipsi’s troubles, the evening of her boyfriend’s 36th birthday party in October 2009 began as a happy night. She even invited more than a dozen of Zumot’s closest friends to his favorite restaurant to celebrate. After their meal, the couple drove in a friend’s car to continue the celebration at Zumot’s hookah lounge. However, the revelry stopped once a text message to Schipsi from a male friend provoked jealousy from Zumot.

The two started arguing, and when they arrived at a café, Schipsi refused to go inside. She told her friend through a text message that she was going home alone. It was the last time anyone other than her boyfriend would see her alive.

Four hours after the fire began, police began speaking to Zumot. A teary-eyed Zumot told the police: “It’s not Jennifer, man. It’s impossible.”

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

He said Schipsi sent him angry text messages and called him a “scam artist liar.” But Zumot mentioned that such exchanges were not unusual. The two had a history of domestic violence and had once taken out restraining orders against each other.

Zumot argued that 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. He said he made love with his girlfriend when he came home, and he recorded it on his cell phone camera.

But the make-up sex wasn’t enough to convince police of Zumot’s innocence. An arson-sniffing dog smelled accelerant on Zumot’s clothing. Meanwhile, a medical examiner concluded that Schipsi died before she was burned.

On October 19, 2009, police arrested Zumot for the murder of Jennifer Schipsi. Believing police targeted Paul Zumot, Zumot’s brother mortgaged several homes and hired one of California’s most expensive, high-profile lawyers, Mark Geragos.

Geragos argued that his client couldn’t be guilty for several reasons. For instance, pictures taken by police of Zumot’s body the night of the fire show no signs of a physical struggle. He says: “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…She’s got nails—and there wasn’t a single mark on him.”

Geragos also argued that Zumot simply didn’t have the time to instigate a fire. He was too busy running between a weekly domestic violence prevention class and his hookah lounge that night.

But these points weren’t enough to convince jurors of Zumot’s innocence, and on February 10, he was found guilty on charges of first-degree murder and arson.

20/20 airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.

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