After gaining praise in the nascent grunge rock scene, Zapata was murdered in 1993 while on her way home from a music venue. The crime went unsolved for a decade before her killer, Jesus Mezquia, was tried, convicted and sentenced to 37 years in prison.
Zapata was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. Zapata learned how to play the guitar and the piano by age nine, and was influenced by punk rock as well as jazz, blues, and R&B singers such as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, Hank Williams, and Sam Cooke.
In 1984, Zapata enrolled at Antioch College located in Yellow Springs, Ohio as a liberal arts student. In September 1986, she and three friends formed the punk rock band The Gits. In 1989, the band relocated to Seattle, Washington. Mia found a job at a local bar and the four bandmembers moved into an abandoned house they called "The Rathouse." The band released a series of well-received singles on local independent record labels from 1990 to 1991. As the Gits were making a name for themselves in the local music scene, they often played shows with their friends' band, 7 Year Bitch. In 1992, the band released its debut album Frenching the Bully. Their reputation progressively increased within the grunge scene in Seattle, before the band began work on their second and final album Enter: The Conquering Chicken, released in 1993.
Zapata came from an affluent family but often lived without material comforts. As her father described it: "Mia [lived] in two different worlds. She lived on two different sides of the street—the straight side on one, with parochial schools, an affluent family, and tennis clubs. But when she crossed the street, material things didn't mean anything to her." Her music often led to a rejection of financial comfort, but regardless of status, Valerie Agnew describes Mia as "commanding respect and interest immediately".
Zapata was well connected to her community. Peter Sheehy recalls: "Mia [was] the hub of several social circles; a magnetic personality who drew all sorts of people together who otherwise might never have met." On his way to her funeral, Zapata's father became lost and recalls many people carrying yellow roses: the admission ticket to her service. Even Judge Sharon Armstrong, the judge during her killer's trial, highlighted Zapata as an "extraordinarily vibrant" girl, who was "obviously talented"; she was "struck by how closely Zapata had connected to so many people".
The remaining members of the Gits collaborated with Joan Jett in 1995 to make an album and tour to benefit the private investigation of Mia Zapata's murder. The band was named "Evil Stig" which spells "Gits Live" backwards.
In February 2013, a play called "These Streets" inspired by Mia Zapata and the stories of other female musicians in Seattle debuted at ACT Theatre in Seattle.
The band, who included guitarist Joe Spleen, drummer Steve Moriarty, and bassist Matt Dresdner, met in Ohio 1986. A few years later the band decided to move to Seattle to indulge in the city's burgeoning music scene. Within no time the band had developed quite a following amidst the city's underground punk scene. Many would group them together with bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but Mia brought a voice of femininity to the grunge scene that had not been seen yet. Although the group was 75% men, the band as a whole and Mia Zapata in particular gained quite a following amongst the feminist community of Seattle at the time.
In 1990, after the move to Seattle, the Gits went on a very successful international tour, spreading the word about the band, all without the support of a record label. In 1992, their first independent album was released- Frenching the Bully. The album had hits such as "Another Shot of Whiskey", "Second Skin", and "Here's to Your Fuck", receiving positive reviews. Throughout the recording of the second album, the band had planned a large US and European tour as well as many local shows, all the while being courted by various recording labels. Unfortunately, before the group could finish and release their second album, "Enter: The Conquering Chicken," the band was shocked by the murder of their iconic lead singer. The band did continue making music, and found success in that second album with singles such as, "Seaweed," and "Precious Blood".
At around 2:00 a.m. on July 7, 1993, Zapata left the Comet Tavern in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle. She stayed at a studio space in the basement of an apartment building located a block away, and briefly visited a friend who lived on the second floor. This was the last time she was seen alive. She may have walked a few blocks west, or north to a friend's apartment, or may have decided to take the long walk south to her home.
She was beaten, strangled, and raped in the Central District of Seattle. It is believed she encountered her attacker shortly after 2:15 a.m. Her body was not initially identified as she had no identification on her when she was found. An episode of the cable television show Forensic Files revealed that she was identified after the medical examiner, who was a fan of the Gits and had been to their concerts, recognized her.
According to the Forensic Files episode, a man two blocks from the Comet Tavern heard a scream around 3:00 a.m. A woman discovered her body in the street at around 3:30 a.m., near the intersection of 24th Avenue South and South Washington Street in the Central District. According to the medical examiner, if she had not been strangled, she would have died from the internal injuries suffered from the beating. According to court documents, an autopsy found evidence of a struggle in which Zapata suffered blunt impact to her abdomen and a lacerated liver.
Zapata is interred at Cave Hill Cemetery in her hometown of Louisville. The Seattle music community, including its most famous bands - Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden - helped raise $70,000 to hire a private investigator for three years. The funds dried up without any major breaks in the case, but the investigator, Leigh Hearon, continued to investigate on her own time. In 1998, after five years of investigation, Seattle police Detective Dale Tallman said: "We're no closer to solving the case than we were right after the murder."
In 2003, Florida fisherman Jesus Mezquia, who had come from Cuba in 1980 in the Mariel boatlift, was arrested in connection with Zapata's murder. DNA evidence was used to tie him to the murder and charges were brought against him. A DNA profile was extracted from saliva found on Zapata's body and kept in cold storage until the STR technology was developed for full extraction. An original entry in 2001 failed to generate a positive result, but Mezquia's DNA entered the national CODIS database after he was arrested in Florida for burglary and domestic abuse in 2002. He had a history of violence toward women including domestic abuse, burglary, assault, and battery. All of his ex-girlfriends, and his wife, had filed reports against him. There was also a report of indecent exposure on file against him in Seattle within two weeks of Zapata's murder. However, there was no known prior link between Mezquia and Zapata.
Mezquia never testified in his own defense, and still maintains his innocence. The theory is that he saw her leave the bar and followed her a short distance before he attacked. Her headset covered her ears so she would have been unaware of any danger until he grabbed her and dragged her to his car where he assaulted her in the back seat. Mezquia was convicted in 2004 and initially sentenced to 37 years, which he appealed. He was then sentenced to 36 years. Mezquia has been in prison since January 2003.
In the aftermath of her murder, friends created a self-defense group called Home Alive, which disbanded in 2010. Home Alive organized benefit concerts and released albums with the participation of many of Seattle's music elite; such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Heart, and the Presidents of the United States of America. Joan Jett also recorded an album with the surviving members of the Gits called Evil Stig ("Gits Live" backwards). The Home Alive group's instructors offered a range of courses, from anger management and use of pepper spray to the martial arts.
In 2005 a documentary, The Gits Movie, was produced about Mia Zapata's life, the Gits, and the Seattle music scene. Its first showing occurred at the Seattle International Film Festival in May of that same year. Another version of the film appeared two years later at the 2007 SXSW (South By Southwest) Film Festival. The final cut of the film was released theatrically in over 20 North American cities on July 7, 2008, the 15th memorial anniversary of Zapata's death. The following day the film was released on DVD along with a Best of the Gits CD (both from Liberation Entertainment).
¡Viva Zapata!, by punk band 7 Year Bitch, was released in June 1994, on C/Z Records in Seattle, as a tribute to Zapata. Some of the songs on the album address the issue of Zapata's murder directly.
Following Zapata's death, Joan Jett and Kathleen Hanna wrote a song called "Go Home" that was later released on Jett's 1994 album, Pure and Simple. Later, a video for "Go Home" was released which depicts a woman who is being stalked and attacked but is then able to defend herself against the assailant.
In February 2013, a play called "These Streets", inspired by the stories of and featuring music by Mia Zapata and other female musicians in Seattle, debuted at ACT theatre in Seattle.
Zapata's death caused a sense of defeat and fear within the Seattle community. The Seattle Times marked Zapata's murder as the moment "the Seattle scene lost its sense of invincibility." Cristen Storm recalls Zapata's death as a reality check, stating: "[They were] all very tough people and as a group of women, [they] are all really strong, outspoken, and hard-hitting, very opinionated women and that perception of, 'We're not victims at all in any way and this can't happen to women that aren't victims,' and I think [Zapata's death] shattered that myth for us, [and showed] that it happens to all types of women."
Mia Zapata is often cast as a symbol for feminist activism, a martyr, and an angel. Dresdner said "[Mia] was sainted, and that was very peculiar... she became this icon for feminism and all kinds of things that she had very little to do with in her actual life." Margaret O'Neil Girouard, who wrote her thesis on Zapata, believes Zapata is an example of women artists being classified based on the perceived motivations behind their art. Moriarty believed "[Mia wanted] to relate to people on a personal level in her lyrics [rather] than on a political level.".</ref>
Andrew Kessler (the Gits' guitarist, known as Joe Spleen) believed "[Mia] had no social or political agenda and no real interest in that stuff. Also, after her death, she quickly acquired a symbolic status as a feminist icon, martyr, and poster child for rape and violence toward women in the eyes of many folks—which had nothing to do with who she was as an actual person. In fact Mia would be mortified that she has been remembered and portrayed in such a way."
Mia is often associated with riot grrrl, though bandmates such as Kessler claim she had no involvement and "little interest" in the movement. It has been speculated that this association may be due to her presence as a "charismatic female musician" in the Northwest, who was performing throughout the emergence of riot grrrl.