The 13th Floor

The Time Rocker Joan Jett Helped Apprehend a Killer

Any ’90s punk kid worth their weight in black leather likely knows all about the short-lived punk band The Gits. To offer a brief introduction for the unfamiliar, The Gits were formed in Ohio in the mid-1980s, and eventually relocated to Seattle to take advantage of the then-burgeoning early-’90s music scene.

Frenching the Bully

This was a time when ultra-produced ’80s pop and idiotic hair metal was giving way to dark, introspective, messier punk-inspired grunge. Spandex was burning and flannel was rising. The Gits never became huge — they only released two proper albums in their career — but they were often seen performing alongside then-emerging grunge acts like Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

The Gits’ lead singer, Mia Zapata, was an anomaly in the ’90s grunge scene by dint of her gender alone. Most grunge acts consisted of moody white males writing about heartbreak, depression, and inner violence. Zapata, backed by a talented band of men, was more spirited, bringing a puckish Riot Grrrl attitude to the scene.

Zapata is often compared to other giants of the genre like Joan Jett, Kathleen Hanna, Lydia Lunch, and Poly Styrene. Zapata differed from a lot of her peers and admirers, however, in that she was a woman in a male-dominated art who refused to be seen as a political object. Kathleen Hanna made a feminist point with Bikini Kill. Zapata wanted to just be heard as a musician.

Zapata was also, it is well-known, horribly murdered in the streets of Seattle in in the wee hours of July 7, 1993. Zapata was walking home from a bar after last call, and was found a few hours later beaten and strangled by an unknown assailant. There was no known motivation for the murder. Zapata, it seemed, just ran into someone with too much darkness in their soul. Zapata’s body was discovered at 3:30 a.m., and no evidence as to the identity of the killer was immediately available. She likely didn’t see her attacker coming, as she was wearing headphones. Enjoying music to the end.

The Gits weren’t the only ones crushed by Zapata’s death. The whole Seattle music scene had already latched onto Zapata as an important voice emerging into the mainstream punk universe, and she had attracted fans from other local bands — many of which had already “made it big,” as it were. Police began investigating, but they could find no clues. It was a sad and frustrating case for everyone, as it looked like the killer was going to get away with it. Eventually, the police had to stop investigating, as the trail was too cold. Zapata’s killer was gone.

Of course, this didn’t sit well with the angry scene of punkers and grunge musicians. Among Zapata’s fans were members of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Heart, Bikini Kill, The Presidents of the United States of America, and punk goddess herself, Joan Jett. These people weren’t going to let Zapata’s murderer go free, and rallied to hold several benefit concerts to raise money for a continued investigation. A woman named Leigh Hearon was hired as a private investigator, and was paid out of the earnings from these concerts.

The most notable and lucrative project into the investigation of Zapata’s murder was released in 1995 through Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records label. Jett, wanting to give Zapata a proper tribute as well as a financial heft, gathered the members of The Gits together, and offered to record known Gits songs with Jett on vocals. The resulting album was called EVIL STIG (an inversion of “Gits Live”), and can still be found in record stores to this day.

The record is nothing short of awesome. Zapata’s vocals are missed, but Jett — with her energetic growl — gives the music a needed hard edge. It’s a record that plays as a simultaneous bout of outrage against the injustice of Zapata’s death, and a loving and awesome tribute to everything she was bringing to music. Joan Jett wanted the killer caught. Joan Jett knows music. EVIL STIG was an opportunity to use punk rage for a beneficial cause. This was no powerless cry of hate into a void. This was a Whitmanesque barbaric yawp over the rooftops. You can listen to the album in its entirety below.

Additionally, Jett, teaming up with Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, wrote a song about Zapata’s death, highlighting ongoing violence toward women by random male assailants. The song, “Go Home,” was featured on Jett’s 1994 album PURE AND SIMPLE.

The proceeds from EVIL STIG, as well as the myriad benefit concerts, allowed Leigh Hearon to investigate doggedly for five straight years. The police had long given up. Then, as late as 2002, a Cuban emigre named Jesus Mezquia was arrested for assault and robbery. A vial of saliva DNA had been kept from Zapata’s murder, and, thanks to updated DNA technology, was linked to Mezquia.

Mezquia was a convicted felon who had fled Cuba during a mass criminal emigration (in 1980, Castro released a lot of dangerous criminals into the wild), and who had made a career of assaulting women. He had selected Zapata at random, drugged her, assaulted her, and left her for dead a decade previous. Thanks to the ongoing investigation, he was finally apprehended.

Mezquia was sentenced to 36 years in prison, where he remains to this day. Zapata, meanwhile, has been canonized by the music community. Zapata has also been seen as a feminist icon and a symbol for violence against women. This is, however, ironic: Zapata only ever wanted to be a musician, and the over-politicization of her death would have been a turn-off. The best way to honor Zapata is to do what Joan Jett did: Listen to her music and enjoy it. Not as coming from a woman, or from a political climate, but from a human with a voice.

Zapata was a pure musician; she attracted the eye of so many thanks to this purity. Joan Jett wanted nothing more than to right a grievous wrong. Thanks largely to her efforts, justice was served.