Man says he would have admitted killing wife _ after his death

11 March 2008
Associated Press Newswires

(See: McCanns consult American lawyers over 'cadaver dog' evidence)

A former state employee convicted of killing his wife in 1976 and hiding her body for three decades told investigators he had planned to confess after his death.

Eugene Zapata, 69, told Madison police last month that he would have left a letter for his three children to be opened only after his death. But he would not have confessed to killing their mother while he was alive.

"I guess I'm not man enough to come out and tell (the children) when I'm alive," Zapata told detective Marianne Flynn Statz in a police report obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal. "I would have put it in the letter, put in the note to be opened upon my death. I don't think I have the guts to, because they love me."

Zapata pleaded guilty last month to reckless homicide in the death of Jeanette Zapata, a 37-year-old flight instructor. He told police that he clubbed and strangled his estranged wife and then hid her body in several locations, including a storage locker.

He was sentenced Feb. 18 to five years in prison and is being held at Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun. Zapata struck a plea deal with prosecutors as they were about to retry him for his wife's death. A first trial last year ended with a hung jury.

Statz interviewed Zapata for more than two hours on Feb. 5 at his attorney's office. The 22-page report covered events from the Zapatas' marriage in 1959 to his final disposal of his wife's remains in the Juneau County Landfill in April 2005.

Zapata said he never told his current wife, Joan, or anyone else, what happened but just "put it away."

"I just, I have to, because if I try to draw up that picture of what, you know, what must have gone on, it's too, too much," he said.

Zapata told Statz he went to Jeanette Zapata's Madison home on Oct. 11, 1976, to talk about a school conference for one of their children. The couple were in the midst of a divorce and custody fight. They argued, and Zapata said he hit his wife on the head with a paperweight.

He said he probably strangled her as well but couldn't recall details, other than that his hands and arms hurt afterward.

Zapata wrapped his wife's body in a tent, cleaned up her blood and loaded her body in his truck. He said he was scared: "I must have been just, my head must have been exploding."

The next day, he drove around for a long time looking for a place to hide the body. He eventually dumped it in some bushes in an isolated farm field, he said. Then, two months later, he bought land in the town of Fountain in Juneau County and moved the body there.

Zapata had a load of dirt delivered to the property, put the body next to the mound and shoveled the dirt over it, he said. A truck dumped a second load of dirt over the first.

He said he visited the burial site over the years, but never brought anyone with him.

"I don't remember how often," he said. "I know I was up there quite a few times."

Zapata moved the body again in 2001 when retired from his job at the state Department of Transportation. He and his wife Joan were preparing to move to Nevada, and he decided to sell the Juneau County property, he said.

Zapata rented a skid loader to uncover the remains and then put them in a storage locker near Sun Prairie. He said he remembered the date was Sept. 11, 2001, because he heard about the terrorist attacks on the radio while driving back to Madison.

He cut Jeanette Zapata's body in two with a rented hand-held power saw and put the pieces in plastic storage containers. He had planned to cut the remains into smaller pieces but couldn't do it.

"I just, I couldn't," Zapata said. "I knew she was there. I couldn't do it, but I knew I had to do something, because I had thought, you know, looking out, where could you bury her?"

In 2005, he cut the body up after learning police were reopening their investigation into Jeanette Zapata's disappearance. He took the pieces to a landfill.

Zapata said he remembers few details about that.

"It's pretty hazy because it was such a numbing experience," he said.

Near the end of the interview, Statz asked Zapata what he would say to his former wife now.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he said. "I see her picture in my mind, and it makes me sad that I did that. She was, I mean, she was a good woman. We started out life great and we changed. We evolved. We got into family. I didn't, I didn't review this every day, but over the years it's come up often."

But he couldn't describe what he carried around in his mind for decades as a "burden," he said: "It's something that doesn't make me feel good."

His younger daughter, Linda Zapata, who saw a videotape of the confession, said she didn't doubt her father when he said he was sorry for what he did. She still loves him and seeing him confess to killing her mother was "so surreal," she said.

"I think my mind just goes numb, especially when you hear the gruesome details," she said. "And then once in a while, it'll hit me. It's like, I cannot believe this happened or that this is happening."

Linda Zapata helped detectives by trying to get her father to confess during taped phone conversations in 2005. She has not heard from him since he went to prison but said it's possible he will make a private statement to her at some point.

"I hope that this has given my dad a chance to, finally be able to after all these years, to just come clean and just be free himself," she said. "I can't imagine living with this, even though he did, to have to live with this for so many years."

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