19 February 2008
The Capital Times and Wisconsin State Journal

On Oct. 11, 1976, Eugene Zapata hit his wife on the head with a rectangular paperweight, then strangled her until his hands hurt. He wrapped her body in a tent and buried it.

For more than 30 years, he maintained that Jeanette Zapata just disappeared. He kept the secret until earlier this month, when he confessed to Madison police.

Zapata's confession came Feb. 5. He gave a detailed account, as required under a plea agreement he reached with prosecutors to avoid another trial.

On Monday, Zapata, 69, pleaded guilty to homicide by reckless conduct and was sentenced to the maximum five years in prison, though it's likely he will serve less than that. Zapata's statement to police was described in court Monday by Assistant District Attorney Robert Kaiser.

Zapata was tried in the fall for first-degree murder, but after 30 hours of deliberation, the jury could not reach a verdict and Dane County Circuit Judge Patrick Fiedler declared a mistrial. A second trial was to start next month.

One of Zapata's daughters, Linda Zapata, who testified for the prosecution during his trial, said she forgave her father and expressed relief at knowing what happened to her mother.

"Although I don't condone what you did to Mom, I do forgive you and I love you," she said. "I hope you take this time now as a chance to come clean, ask for and accept forgiveness. You deserve that too."

But her father had nothing to say.

"At this time and at this phase I would have no comment," Zapata said when given the chance to speak.

Zapata, a retired state Department of Transportation worker, was taken from the courtroom in handcuffs and will be taken to Dodge Correctional Institution for assignment to a Wisconsin prison.


Kaiser said Zapata, with his lawyers present, gave a statement on Feb. 5 to Madison Police Detective Marianne Flynn Statz in which he talked about going on Oct. 11, 1976, to the home on Indian Trace on Madison's East Side where Jeanette Zapata lived with the couple's three children.

The Zapatas were getting divorced and Zapata wasn't to be at the home, except at times approved by a judge to pick up their children.

"A verbal argument ensued between the defendant and Jeanette Zapata," Kaiser said. The argument became heated but not violent. But after Jeanette Zapata went into the kitchen, Eugene Zapata told police, he picked up a rectangular draftsman's weight, an item used to hold down blueprints.

"He described himself to Detective Statz as 'snapping,'" Kaiser said. He approached Jeanette Zapata from behind and "struck her hard," Kaiser said, probably more than once on the top and back of her head.

"Jeanette Zapata did not see the attack coming," Kaiser said.

She fell to the floor and hit the dishwasher door on the way down, Kaiser said. Then Eugene Zapata strangled her "until his hands hurt," he said. Afterward, he wrapped a cord around her neck, Kaiser said, "to assure himself that she was dead."

Kaiser said Zapata wrapped Jeanette Zapata's body in a poplin tent and took it in his car to a farm field near Madison. In 1977, Zapata bought vacant land in Juneau County and moved her body there, where it stayed until 2005. Then, he and his current wife, Joan, decided to move to Nevada and sell the land.

Zapata dug up Jeanette Zapata's remains and moved them to a storage locker in Sun Prairie with some camping equipment. Later in 2005, he disposed of the remains in several Dumpsters at the Juneau County landfill. District Attorney Brian Blanchard said Monday that although police searched the landfill in 2006, no new search for remains was made after Zapata's statement to Statz.

Although the evidence was excluded from Zapata's first trial, police said corpse-sniffing dogs indicated the scent of human remains at the Indian Trace home and two other homes occupied by Zapata as well as a storage locker and a rental car. Based on Zapata's statement, the locker and car indications were correct.


Stephen Hurley, one of Zapata's attorneys, said after the hearing that he couldn't disclose much about how the plea agreement was reached, citing attorney-client privilege. But he said it came about "because everyone wanted to give closure to it."

"Both sides faced a risk were the matter to be retried," Hurley said, "which is generally what occurs with kind of an all-or- nothing proposition such as a first-degree homicide trial. So it was simply, I believe, both sides wanting to give closure to it."

Those sentiments were echoed by Blanchard.

"Part of what happened after the Madison Police Department took a cold case from nowhere to today is the ability now to have the family and friends of Jeanette Zapata know exactly what happened to her," Blanchard said. "That is a huge achievement for justice and closure for the family."

Kaiser said during the hearing that if Zapata had been convicted of first-degree murder during a trial, he could have gone to the grave never telling his family what had happened to Jeanette Zapata.


Linda Zapata said during her statement in court that her father's interview with police gave herself and others "a precious gift," the chance to grieve and heal.

"Mom deserved the truth about what really happened that morning and I thank you for finally giving her that," she said to her father. "My mom didn't abandon me or my family. You told Detective Statz that mom was a good mother, that she never deserved to die and that you were very sorry. Those words hang with me and give me comfort."

But her brother, Steven, who has defended his father throughout the case, said he is still convinced his father is innocent and pleaded guilty "just for simplicity," and for the sake of his older sister, Christine.

"I guess I want to say I still think he's innocent," Steven Zapata said. "I still love him and support him."


Eugene Zapata committed his crime in 1976, before Wisconsin enacted its "truth in sentencing" law. Under the old law, Zapata must serve at least one-quarter of his five-year sentence before he is eligible for parole and must be released after serving two- thirds of his sentence. That means he will be free after serving about three years of the five-year sentence.


Some key dates surrounding the disappearance and murder of Jeanette Zapata: Dec. 26, 1959: Eugene Zapata and Jeanette Herrling marry. Their first child, Christine, is born in 1960. Two more children, Steven and Linda, follow.

May 12, 1976: Jeanette Zapata serves Eugene Zapata with divorce papers.

May 12-Oct. 11, 1976: Eugene Zapata maintains what prosecutors now label a "stalking diary," following his estranged wife's movements, a romantic relationship she was having, her relationship with their children and even the contents of the trash cans in her home. He also hires a private detective.

Sept. 21, 1976: Court commissioner bars Eugene Zapata from the family home on Indian Trace except for two hours of child visitation on Saturdays.

Oct. 11, 1976: Jeanette Zapata vanishes.

Feb. 27, 1977: Divorce granted with Jeanette Zapata absent. A few days later, Eugene Zapata marries his current wife, Joan.

Nov. 30, 2004: High school friend Peg Weekley, of Oklahoma City, writes to Madison police to ask if they have any news on Jeanette Zapata's disappearance.

Dec. 3, 2004: Madison police restart investigation.

Jan. 12, 2005: Madison police use cadaver dogs to check the basement of Zapata's former home on Indian Trace in Madison. Other cadaver dog searches of that property and other locations take place throughout 2005 and into 2006. The dogs alert to the scent of human remains, but none are found.

April 7-14, 2005: Zapata comes to Wisconsin from his home in Henderson, Nev., cleans out a storage locker and visits the Juneau County Landfill near Mauston.

Aug. 28, 2006: Zapata is charged with first-degree murder in Dane County and is arrested in Nevada.

Sept. 4-17, 2007: Trial is heard, ends in mistrial after jury is deadlocked.

Oct. 2, 2007: Prosecutors say they will retry Zapata.

Monday: Zapata pleads guilty to homicide by reckless conduct and is sentenced to five years in prison.

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