Even 30 years later, her murder remains a shock to the system
More famous musicians have been killed – John Lennon, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and my friend Felix Pappalardi come to mind – but Mia Zapata’s brutal death, and the long mystery surrounding it, shook the punk, grunge and emerging Riot Grrrl worlds to their core back in the mid ‘90s. It has reverberations still.
Zapata, lead singer for The Gits, was beaten, raped and strangled, her body discarded on a street in Seattle’s Central Section, 30 years ago on July 7, 1993. She was not immediately identified as she had no ID on her.
And after she was identified – the medical examiner had apparently been a Gits fan – it became one of the great unsolved mysteries of rock ‘n’ roll crime.
I lived on the opposite coast and wasn’t as plugged into the Northwest’s scenes – its genres and sub-genres – as others might’ve in the early ‘90s. I was aware of the Gits, but really learned about the band and Zapata secondhand, after the fact, so to speak. It came from Joan Jett, someone I’d known since the late ‘70s, and Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna.
I was talking with Jett in 1995. She and the Blackhearts had a new album, Pure and Simple. “I’ve always basically written songs about relationships: good, bad or indifferent,” she said. This one was a bit different and the most telling song of this type was the first track and first single “Go Home,” co-written with Hanna. It was a snarling, bluesy, catchy pop-rocker about confronting a stalker. The stark black-and-white video, directed by Julien Temple, was dedicated to Zapata.
“The song is about being attacked and fighting,” said Jett. She heard about Zapata’s fate from Zapata’s friend Hanna.
“They teach you boundary-setting,” Jett continued. “You say, ‘Get the fuck away from here!’ If that doesn’t stop the person, you learn how to get away, whether that means walking around with pepper spray or a really loud siren or stepping down on their instep or gouging their eyes, or hitting their chin with your palm and kneeing them in the balls. Just to give yourself time to get away, so you can get home alive.”
The song’s climax comes when Jett yells “No!” eight times. She didn’t learn until after she recorded the song that’s what a victim is supposed to shout upon striking her attacker. “Pure synchronicity,” says Jett. “I felt compelled to make a video that showed that that woman was everyone. It wasn’t me playing myself.” Jett, usually dressed in punky black leather, appears in a blonde pixie wig and looks like an office worker.
VIDEO: Evil Stig feat. Joan Jett “Go Home”
Jett met Hanna at a Bikini Kill concert, which served as Jett’s introduction to the Riot Grrrl scene. “My first impression was that it seemed to be a collection of young women from across the country, not just the bands, but regular girls, people who write fanzines and can talk about all sorts of things they can’t talk about with their parents or friends. Serious stuff — drug abuse, incest, rape, domestic violence. I look at this as very positive; these women were trying to take control of their lives, trying not to let these negative things ruin them.”
Hanna and her pals formed a collective called Home Alive, which taught self-defense to women. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Heart and Presidents of the United States of America played benefits. It lasted through 2010.
After we spoke, I saw the band Jett put together called Evil Stig, which is Gits Live spelled backwards. The band was comprised of the former Gits: guitarist Joe Spleen, bassist Matt Dresdner and drummer Steve Moriarty. (The band called the whole thing off after Zapata’s murder; they continued on under the name, Dancing French Liberals of ’48.)
Evil Stig made an eponymous album. Nine Gits songs, all of which were complete band co-writes, a song the surviving guys co-wrote with Jett producer/manager Kenny Laguna, one song by Jett and yet another cover of “Crimson and Clover.”
They played a set at tiny and packed T.T. the Bear’s Place in Cambridge, Mass., and it certainly was a grand night out, a party, a celebration of rock ‘n’ roll liberation, with Jett leading the parade. But it was meant to be more than that, too — something more emotionally resonant, more politically charged — and, in that, Evil Stig met or surpassed its goal.
AUDIO: Evil Stig “Sign of the Crab”
Evil Stig’s show, the first gig of a three-week US club tour, had an undertone of peace, love and understanding, and a main-train roar of reckoning, retribution and rocking out. They ripped through angry Gits punk thrashers like “Sign of the Crab” and “Spear & Magic Helmet” that were unambiguous and tough. Jett sang Zapata’s lines of betrayal and revenge with a raspy passion. “You’re fucking with my friends/Now I’m out to ruin you!” Jett sang in the latter, kissing off an ex. Why? “Cause I’m full, full of rage!” They scorched through “Go Home.”
It was hard-core punk fury coupled to, or juxtaposed with, comfort-zone rock. It was raw and it was refined. It was bonding. And it was no Joan Jett show, even if nearly half of the 13 songs came from her songbook. It was Jett possessed, Jett lending her star stature to the proceedings and spitting out Zapata’s words. And, yeah, it was done to raise money to fund an investigation into Zapata’s murder.
Said Moriarty of Jett, post-show: “I think she digs it and it’s refreshing for us, too. We were a band for five or six years, but now we would have been absolutely nowhere without her.”
“I had a great time,” said Jett backstage after it was over, although running through a few flaws. “It’ll take a few nights to get right.” Perhaps. But this was no night to sniff at. Evil Stig ruled – it was one of my most memorable nights in clubland that decade – and it took me right back to the Gits, a band I’d missed on the first go-round.
I went back again. Damn. Such fury. So many sharp jolts, twists, turns and hooks. Reminded me of San Francisco’s Avengers.
It’s a cliché I know, but Zapata looks so alive in this video clip, “Here’s to Your Fuck” and “Second Skin,” shot less than half a year before her murder.
VIDEO: The Gits “Here’s To Your Fuck”
Riot Grrrl was about grrrl power, strength and DIY and even the Gits formed prior to Riot Grrrl becoming a thing, they were adopted. And one of their own was taken from them.
How much do you want to know about that murder or that killer? The case was highlighted on 48 Hours and America’s Most Wanted, among other true crime TV shows.
The bare bones of it: The Gits had just finished their second album, Enter: The Conquering Chicken. Zapata, 27, had been at a Seattle club, the Comet, hanging with friends in the band 7 Year Bitch. She’d been wearing a black Gits hoodie, cut-off jeans and black boots. After she left the club, she visited a friend and was probably attacked while walking home, quite possibly while she was plugged into her Walkman. She was discovered by a prostitute at 3:20. Among the damage done: The killer bit into Zapata’s breast, left saliva. That meant DNA. A Cuban-born fisherman, Jesus Mezquia, had a lengthy criminal record – kidnapping, false imprisonment, aggravated battery – been arrested for burglary in Florida in 2002. The case, cold for so long, suddenly had heat. The DNA matched Mezquia’s.
On March 25, 2004, Mezquia was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 36 years in prison, for some reason the maximum allowed under Washington state law. No matter. He died in prison – well a hospital no doubt affiliated with the prison – on January 21, 2021. He was 66. No cause of death listed. Unlike Mia Zapata.