Mass. v. Leahy: Rest stop murder
Nov. 29, 2004
(Court TV) - She was a sailing enthusiast who
had a passion for charity and yachting. He was a convicted rapist and
ex-con who worked as a fast food cook.
It was unlikely that Alexandra Zapp and Paul Leahy
would ever cross paths, but their worlds collided, leaving Zapp, 30,
fatally stabbed in a Massachusetts rest stop bathroom.
He faced life in prison without parole if convicted
of murder, but claimed he never meant to kill Zapp, even though he
admits he stabbed her.
It was left to a Plymouth County jury to decide
Leahy's fate in a trial that began in September 2003.
Rest Stop Violence
Zapp, who worked as a trainer for U.S. Sailing, had
more time to dedicate to her charity work since quitting her job with
plans to move to New Zealand and work with the America's Cup
On July 17, 2002, she was only too eager to attend a
charity cruise in Boston with a friend who worked for Boston Magazine.
After the cruise, the two attended a concert, and called it a night at
about 11 p.m., when he dropped her off at her car. He apologized for the
fact that they had not had a chance to eat very much, but she laughed
off the apology, telling him she could always stop at the Burger King on
the way to her Newport, R.I., home.
Around midnight, she pulled off at a rest stop that
housed a Burger King and restrooms. After ordering a cheeseburger,
according to investigators, Zapp returned to her car to sleep for a few
hours before resuming her drive.
Meanwhile, Paul Leahy was working as a Burger King
employee, responsible for cleaning and preparing the next day's meals.
According to company records, Leahy finished taking a 30-minute break a
little after 4 a.m. Police say that's around the time Zapp woke up and
went inside to use the restroom. Videotape from a surveillance camera
shows a figure hanging around the restrooms at that time.
About 10 minutes later, a state trooper using the
men's restroom heard screams drowned out by loud music coming from the
women's restroom. He went to investigate and saw drops of blood near the
door of the restroom. He drew his gun and entered.
He saw Paul Leahy washing his hands of blood and Zapp
slumped over a toilet with stab wounds to her neck and chest. She was
At the time of his arrest, police found the key to
Zapp's car in Leahy's pocket.
Leahy, 40, was charged with first-degree murder,
kidnapping, armed robbery and armed assault with intent to rob.
Leahy's criminal history dates back to 1981, with a
history of sexual offenses beginning in 1984. Some of his victims were
as young as 13 years old. He served 13 years of an 8-to-15-year term for
the aggravated rape at knifepoint of a 21-year-old woman who worked in a
pizza restaurant. As he tried to strangle her, a customer walked in,
allowing the victim to escape.
A few years after he was released from prison, Leahy
was charged with lewd and lascivious behavior and accosting a person of
the opposite sex after he allegedly demanded oral sex from an underage
girl. He was on probation for DUI at the time, and was ordered to serve
six months behind bars on a probation violation.
Before Zapp's murder, the Plymouth County District
Attorney's Office sought to have Leahy civilly committed in a petition
filed in October 2001. A judge dismissed it, however, criticizing
prosecutors for failing to include an opinion by a mental health
Prosecutors responded by filing an amended petition,
this time including a report from a psychologist who agreed with the
assessment that Leahy would be at great risk of committing another
offense if he was released into the community.
Despite the report, the judge denied the petition.
The statute provides for civil commitment of defendants if they are
serving a sentence for sexual assault. At the time, Leahy was
incarcerated for accosting or annoying a person of the opposite sex in
conjunction with a sentence for drunk driving. This fell short of the
requirement for a statutory offense.
The Prosecution's Case
Prosecutor Frank Middleton boasted a "slam-dunk" case
against Paul Leahy. Middleton says the evidence is overwhelming, thanks
mostly to the testimony of Lt. Stephen O'Reilly, the trooper who caught
Leahy in the act of cleaning up after the alleged murder.
Among the evidence were grisly crime scene photos,
telling a story of a bloody and violent struggle the petite victim
endured before she died. Her white blouse and pants, almost completely
brown from being soaked in blood, were framed in Plexiglas and presented
According to the medical examiner, Zapp suffered 27
knife wounds, including five that severed her aorta and jugular vein.
Also key to the prosecution's case was a statement
Leahy made to police, in which he confessed that he intentionally
stabbed the young woman. After initially conceding that he had only
stabbed Zapp twice in the arm, he admitted to stabbing her in the chest
when he was confronted with autopsy results.
He also admitted that Zapp fought hard, at one point
head-butting him, biting him and escaping from him twice toward the door,
only to be dragged back inside. Leahy said that during a lull in the
fight, Zapp even tried to reason with him, telling him that she would
tell people that he had saved her from an attacker if he agreed to let
her go. But Leahy said he refused because he did not think anyone would
Leahy's criminal record for rape, however, was not
admissible in court. While everyone from the investigators to Zapp's
family believed Leahy's intent was to rape Zapp, these suspicions were
kept out of the trial, fearing that such speculations would sidetrack
The Defense's Case
With a mountain of evidence facing his client,
defense lawyer Frank Spillane did not make a case to get his client
acquitted of all charges, but instead concentrated his efforts on
proving Zapp's death was not an intentional act of murder.
Spillane argued that his client's actions were in
response to the circumstances confronting him. He said that his client
did not plan, plot or lie in wait for Alexandra Zapp.
When Leahy was waiting for Zapp to come out of the
restroom, Spillane said, he was deciding whether or not to rob her. When
she came out and saw him with the knife and started screaming, he
reacted by waving the knife to calm her down. Spillane said his client
did not intend to hurt Zapp, and that the battle in the bathroom erupted
spontaneously. The defendant was simply reacting to a situation that had
spiraled out of control.
Spillane elicited testimony from state witnesses that
reinforced the confrontation between Alexandra and the defendant, even
saying that some of her serious wounds were caused by Zapp defending
A jury of seven men and five women announced they had
reached a verdict after two hours and 15 minutes of deliberations. They
found Leahy guilty of all charges.
Before sentencing, Judge Richard Chin heard victim
impact statements from Alexandra Zapp's mother, Andrea Casanova, and
stepfather, Steven Stiles.
Stiles told a chilling story of what he suspected
took place. But before he began, he challenged Leahy to "be a man and
look at him." Stiles and Casanova explained that they believed Leahy
intended to rape Zapp when he attacked her. Stiles told Leahy he knew
his stepdaughter would "sooner die than have sex with likes of you. And
Chin sentenced Leahy to life in prison without parole.
Zapp's relatives have become vocal activists,
advocating changes that would make rest stops safer. They also have been
vigorously lobbying the Massachusetts legislature to close the legal
loopholes prosecutors encountered when they petitioned for Leahy's civil
commitment. They feel strongly that had Leahy been civilly committed in
October 2001, Alexandra Zapp would still be alive.
BROCKTON, MA - A fast-food cook and convicted
rapist who stabbed a woman to death at a highway rest stop last year
was found guilty on Wednesday of first-degree murder.
Prosecutors said Paul Leahy lay in wait for Alexandra
Zapp outside a restroom, holding a knife and planning his attack, before
stabbing her in a bloody predawn rampage. Leahy's defense attorney said
the killing was an unplanned episode that got out of control.
Leahy, 40, was sentenced to life in prison without
Zapp, 30, a sailing instructor and charity fundraiser,
was on her way home to Newport, R.I., after an evening cruise in Boston
Harbor when she stopped at the rest area on Route 24 in Bridgewater
early on July 18, 2002.
Leahy was red-faced and watery-eyed as he entered the
court room, but was impassive as the verdict was read.
Zapp's mother, Andrea Casanova, wept as she read a
poem written in remembrance by Zapp's younger sister, Caroline, before
It said, in part, "Alexandra, your brilliance will
always be with me. I love you completely, truly and unconditionally
Casanova also urged stronger laws protecting the
public from criminal sex offenders, for which she has lobbied since her
"She was one of the greatest people I've ever met,"
she said. "She did not deserve to be tortured and executed, she did not
deserve to die by a disconnect in the law."
"In our family we close each telephone call with 'I
love you.' Alexandra we love you and we will never ever ever forget you,"
Zapp's stepfather, Steven Stiles, addressed Leahy
directly, calling him a "mean, evil person," and telling him to "be a
man" and look him in the eye as he spoke.
Leahy turned his head toward Stiles, who then accused
Leahy of lying about what happened in the restroom, saying he believed
Leahy had asked for a sexual favor and killed Zapp when she refused.
"You are a coward and you know it," Stiles said. "I
don't know what happens to evil people like you, but one day we'll all
Jurors, who began deliberations in the case at midday
Wednesday, considered first-degree and second-degree murder charges in
the case. They also convicted Leahy of kidnapping, armed robbery and
armed assault with intent to rob.
As the courtroom emptied, a sobbing Casanova hugged
prosecutors and police officers, including Lt. Stephen O'Reilly, the off-duty
state police trooper who found Leahy with Zapp's body immediately after
"Throw away the key," O'Reilly said softly as Leahy
was taken from the court.
Later, O'Reilly said Zapp's killing affected him more
than most he had seen in his 25 years as state trooper. He said he
thought of his own 18-year-old daughter when he saw Zapp lying bleeding
in a restroom stall.
"Here's a girl who just stopped to use a restroom.
She did nothing wrong ... that's all she did," he said.
In closing arguments, Plymouth County prosecutor
Frank Middleton said Leahy lied when he claimed he was mulling whether
to rob Zapp, then killed her only after she saw the knife and began
screaming and clawing at him.
"He attacked her and she did the only thing she could
do -- she fought," Middleton said.
Defense attorney Frank Spillane said his client, a
cook at the rest stop's Burger King, didn't plan to kill Zapp, and the
fact that he was wearing his Burger King uniform and hat during the
eight minute attack proves it.
"This was an unplanned incident that got completely
out of control," said Spillane, who did not present any defense
witnesses. "It was started by Mr. Leahy, but it wasn't planned by him."
O'Reilly testified he heard Zapp's muffled scream and
at least two thuds against the wall from an adjacent men's room. He
found Leahy with blood on his hands and arms and holding Zapp's wallet,
which contained $25.
Middleton said that the blood splattered across the
restroom, and found on the door handle, showed that Leahy mercilessly
drove Zapp around the room, even as she desperately tried to escape.
He added that Leahy's claim he didn't premeditate the
killing is contradicted by the location of her stab wounds, six of which
were directed at Zapp's heart and four at her neck.
Zapp's killing prompted a call for changes in the
state's laws on sex offenders.
Leahy served a 13-year prison sentence for rape in
the 1980s. At the time of Zapp's death, prosecutors were trying to have
Leahy committed as a habitual sex offender, but were thwarted by a
loophole in state law.
The state Legislature is now considering a bill that
would allow them to try to commit sex offenders to a treatment facility
after they serve their prison time even if their most recent sentence
was for a non-sexual crime.
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