It’s summer in Seattle, Washington, and 27-year-old singer Mia Zapata is found slaughtered in the street. But as the city’s grunge scene mourns one of its brightest stars, police are unable to capture her killer. For ten years, the culprit will elude justice – until a man in Florida finds himself on the wrong side of the law.
By the time the ’90s rolled around, grunge music already had a tight grip on the youth of the Pacific Northwest. And in Seattle, Washington, the movement was at its most vibrant. While the term was mostly used to describe a brand of alternative rock, grunge was fast becoming a subculture in its own right.
Of course, some of the bands that came out of Seattle during this heady time need no introduction. But while the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam were finding their feet in Washington’s capital, there was another outfit that could have made it just as far. Known as The Gits, the group was an intrinsic part of the city’s music scene in the early 1990s.
At the time, there were few women performing on the grunge scene, despite Seattle’s active feminist community. And even though the group’s bassist, drummer and lead guitarist were all men, their charismatic vocalist Mia Zapata brought a welcome breath of female energy to a male-dominated world.
Born on August 25, 1965, in Louisville, Kentucky, Mia enjoyed a privileged upbringing in an affluent part of the city. And when she began showing artistic talent from a young age, her parents Richard and Donna encouraged her to fulfill her potential. Incredibly, she had become an accomplished piano and guitar player by the time she was just nine years old.
A bit of an introvert at school, Mia found herself drawn to vocalists like Billie Holiday and Ray Charles. And when she began her freshman year studying liberal arts at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, she soon got involved in the community’s live music scene.
By then it was the mid-1980s, and punk was still flourishing in Ohio. Finding an outlet for her creative talents, Mia began performing as lead singer with The Gits. And together with drummer Steve Moriarty, guitarist Andy Kessler and bassist Matt Dresdner, the foursome soon became popular on the local scene.
However, The Gits had bigger dreams. In 1989 the band upped sticks for Seattle, where they had heard rumors of an incredible music scene. There, they stumbled into the world of grunge, where their music rendered them an instant hit with the crowds.
At first, things went great for the band. Without the help of a record label, they embarked on a tour and eventually released their first album, Frenching the Bully, in 1992. Meanwhile, they continued to play shows in their adopted home city, receiving praise from fans and critics alike.
For Mia, however, success didn’t mean a return to her affluent roots. In fact, she continued to reject material wealth, choosing instead to live in an abandoned building. However, the industry was calling, and by the time that The Gits began recording their second album there were a number of labels interested in signing the band.
Sadly, though, the group would never get to fulfill their potential. In the early hours of July 7, 1993, Mia was hanging out at the Comet Tavern, a bar in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district. Just days before, The Gits had returned from a tour of the West Coast and were set to continue work on their second album.
At around 2:00 a.m., Mia left the Comet Tavern and went to call on a friend. After a brief visit, she headed out into the night. To this day, no one knows whether she intended to walk north, to another friend’s apartment, or south, to her own home. But wherever she decided to go, it was a choice that would ultimately lead to her death.
Around an hour after Mia left the bar, a witness a couple of blocks away heard a woman scream. Then, at 3:30 a.m., a passerby found a body lying in the street. And even though the victim carried no identification, a grunge-loving medical examiner subsequently recognized Mia.
Shockingly, the singer had been raped and beaten before being strangled to death with the cord from her sweatshirt. And according to the medical examiner, her internal injuries were so severe that they alone would have been enough to kill her. But who could have done something so horrific to a woman that everyone seemed to adore?
While Seattle’s music community mourned their loss, the police struggled to pin down any leads. And even when some of the biggest names on the scene joined forces to fund a private investigation, it seemed that little more could be discovered about the crime. In fact, five years after the murder, Dale Tallman from Seattle PD admitted the force was still no nearer catching Mia’s killer.
Then, in 2002, Jesus Mezquia, a fisherman originally from Cuba, was apprehended on suspicion of domestic abuse and burglary. Now living in Florida, Mezquia had a long history of violent behavior. And when his details were entered into the Combined DNA Index System after his arrest, a match was found.
Years before, investigators had managed to extract a sample of saliva from the scene of Mia’s murder. Initially, it was placed in cold storage while the means to analyze it was being developed. In 2001 that technology – STR analysis – was finally up and running, and just one year later the technique had linked Mezquia to Mia’s murder.
In January 2003, cops arrested Mezquia. And slowly, police were able to build up a picture of what they think happened that fateful night. They believe that the Cuban did not know Mia. In fact, they reckon he simply followed her out of the bar before launching a random attack. The following year, Mezquia was convicted and sentenced to 37 years behind bars.
Meanwhile, Mia’s death continued to send shockwaves through the Seattle music community. While previously some women in the scene had considered themselves almost invincible in the face of danger, Mia’s brutal murder was a stark reminder that they could become victims too.
But ultimately, Mia’s friends have managed to harness her death as a force for change, addressing issues of violence within their community. And with the support of stars like Joan Jett, they raised money for Home Alive, a project designed to teach knowledge of self-defense. Today, the project is still helping vulnerable people across Seattle – a legacy of which Mia can be proud.