Vol 12 No. 19, Jan 23 - Jan 29 2003
-CITY-
FINDING JESUS
Florida Private Investigator Describes the Hunt for Alleged Mia Zapata Killer Jesus Mezquia
by Amy Jenniges

Tony Liuzzi runs a bustling private-investigation firm in Hollywood, Florida. He and his 95 or so employees keep busy running security at private events, detaining and deporting illegal aliens, and catching fugitives. "We do just about anything you think of that PIs would be involved in," says 50-year-old Liuzzi.

Two weeks ago, "everything" included helping catch Jesus C. Mezquia, the man accused of killing Mia Zapata in 1993. Liuzzi--who assisted a team that included Seattle detectives, the Miami U.S. Marshals office, and officers from local Florida jurisdictions--did surveillance on addresses related to Mezquia, looked for the guy's vehicle, and ultimately helped catch him. "When you get involved in these things, you hardly sleep. You get three hours of sleep and you go out again," Liuzzi says. "There's an emotional aspect to it."

Over dinner one night in Florida, the Seattle detectives and prosecutors explained to their Florida counterparts how important the Zapata case is. "They said in Seattle this was the biggest story," Liuzzi recalls. "They told us, 'Everybody in Seattle knows this case, it will hit every paper.' I was caught up by the fact that [Seattle's team] was so dedicated. We [in Florida] just wanted to catch him because he's just not a nice person. As we heard more about what [Mezquia allegedly] did, we just had to find him. Nobody gave up."

The search was sparked by a DNA sample from Zapata's body that matched Mezquia's DNA in Florida's felon database. When the Seattle team got the match, it called the field office of the U.S. Marshals in Miami to assist, and the Marshals, in turn, called Liuzzi. "They told me they were looking for this guy," Liuzzi says. "So I went down [to Marathon, Florida] to help."

The team located Mezquia's residence in Marathon. "That's in the middle of the Keys. The thing about Marathon is there's one way in and one way out--the Overseas Highway." But by the time the team got to Marathon, Mezquia's van was gone (and, they assumed, so was he). "The van had been there the previous week," says Najala Mayo-Lowther, the public information officer for the Miami U.S. Marshals. So the multi-jurisdictional team set up surveillance at the house--which belongs to Mezquia's ex-wife--and started looking into other leads.

"The surveillance went on for days," Liuzzi explains. "We started doing some investigative work, and developing more information on him [to] see if there were any reports in the system that related to this person. We got several addresses in the Miami and Miami Beach area, and we placed surveillance on those too."

The team also set up surveillance on the Overseas Highway to keep a lookout for Mezquia's van in case he drove in or out of Marathon and the rest of the Florida Keys. Liuzzi jokes that he watched that road so much he probably knows half the people who live in Marathon. "I can recognize them from driving through."

Beyond surveillance, Liuzzi says the team also checked with the local sheriffs for information, and was able to identify Mezquia's fishing spot. "We knew exactly where he fished, where he parked, and everything," Liuzzi says. "I don't know how to describe him, but he isn't your average person in society."

Mayo-Lowther, with the U.S. Marshals, says the break came when the team contacted the Monroe County Sheriff's Office (Monroe County covers the Keys). "They had interviewed [Mezquia] previously, and they provided another address in the Kendall area, which is kind of in Miami. The deputies went over to that address to see what they could see, and they found his vehicle there."

The search now focused on the house near Miami. "The team set up surveillance on the van," Liuzzi says. "At that point you had surveillance set up from Miami to Marathon. It had turned into a major manhunt."

And the hunt was almost over. Surveillance was set up on the Kendall house on Friday, January 10. That evening, Mezquia was spotted as he headed out to a convenience store down the street. "When he went to the store he was placed under arrest," says Mayo-Lowther. While the "chase," as Liuzzi calls it, involved long days (up to 18 hours of surveillance at a time), and was complicated by the fact that Mezquia had several possible addresses, the capture itself was anticlimactic. The arrest was quite simple--Mezquia was unarmed and did not resist arrest.

Even though Mezquia's in jail, Liuzzi hasn't stopped thinking about the case. He wanted to know more about Zapata so he did some research, looking up websites about the Gits, the Seattle band Zapata sang in, and stories about her death.

"I'm glad it came to a successful conclusion," Liuzzi says. "Our big fear was we weren't going to get him."

amy@thestranger.com