Details of Disappearance
Jeanette was last seen at her home in the 5700 block of Indian Trace in east Madison, Wisconsin on October 11, 1976. She saw her three children off to school that day, and vanished later that morning.
A coworker reported her missing two days later. She left behind her purse, money, new car, coat and other clothing, and two paychecks; only a .30-06 rifle was missing from the home. Jeanette's loved ones stated it is uncharacteristic of her to leave without warning or to abandon her children.
Jeanette was in the process of a divorce from her husband, Eugene J. "Gene" Zapata, at the time of her disappearance. He had moved out, and she was seeing another man. She told one friend she had decided to file for divorce after she found out Eugene had published semi-nude photos of her in swinger magazines without her knowledge. Photos of Eugene are posted with this case summary.
The divorce was bitter, and Jeanette filed for a restraining order. Eugene was only allowed in the house during his court-ordered visitation times with his children, between 9:00 and 11:00 a.m. on Saturdays. Jeanette called her attorney at 8:15 a.m. on the day of her disappearance and left a message.
When her lawyer called back an hour later, Eugene answered the phone. He wasn't supposed to be in the house at that time. He told her lawyer he didn't know where Jeanette was, but that her car and her purse were there.
Eugene had hired a private detective to follow his wife a month before she disappeared. He admitted to arguing with Jeanette about visitations with the children, he did not work for two days after Jeanette vanished and he gave conflicting statements as to where he was during that time.
He took a polygraph test that was inconclusive, then refused to answer any more questions from the police. He told their children that Jeanette had abandoned the family. Jeanette's boyfriend took a polygraph in her case and passed.
At the urging of one of Jeanette's friends, police reopened the investigation into her disappearance in 2004. They determined Jeanette hadn't used her Social Security number, obtained a passport or renewed her pilot's license since 1976, and concluded she was probably dead. Investigators searched the home Eugene and Jeanette had shared. Cadaver dogs detected the scent of human remains in the crawl space, some human hair was found, but no other evidence was located.
In 2005, investigators called Eugene, who had remarried and moved to Nevada in 1997, and questioned him. The following day, Eugene cleared out a storage locker which he had rented in 2001. Police searched the locker with cadaver dogs a short time later. The dogs again detected the scent of human remains, and they also indicated the presence of human remains in a vehicle Eugene rented during a visit to Wisconsin in 2004.
During his trip to Wisconsin, he purchased trash bags, some large containers and cleaning supplies and visited the Juneau County Solid Waste Landfill; records indicate he dropped off items weighing 60 pounds. A search of the landfill turned up no clues, but the cadaver dogs again indicated the odor of human decomposition.
In August 2006, Eugene was charged with first-degree murder in connection with Jeanette's presumed death. He was tried for her murder in September 2007. The jury deliberated for 30 hours, but was unable to reach a verdict, and a mistrial was declared.
In February 2008, Eugene made a plea arrangement with prosecutors. He pleaded guilty to reckless homicide in Jeanette's death and admitted he had "snapped" during an argument about their divorce. He stated he hit her on the head with a paperweight and strangled her to death, then dumped her body in a rural area east of Madison.
Eugene explained that later he had purchased land in Juneau County, Wisconsin, moved Jeanette's remains there, and buried them. The body stayed there until 2001, when Eugene moved to Nevada. He placed the body in his storage locker at that time, only retrieving it when the police questioned him in 2005. Then he dismembered Jeanette's body, wrapped the pieces in plastic bags and put them in a dumpster at the Juneau County Landfill.
Eugene was sentenced to the maximum of five years in prison for reckless homicide. He had to be sentenced according to the laws in 1976. He also agreed to pay his daughter Linda $5,000 in restitution for the expenses related to Jeanette's death. In spite of his confession, Eugene later stated he only pleaded guilty to avoid a second trial.
His second wife and two of his three children with Jeanette still believe he is innocent. Linda, who was ten years old in 1976 and came to believe her father is guilty, is no longer on speaking terms with the rest of the family.
Jeanette was employed as a flight instructor at the Frickelton School of Aeronautics in Truax Field, Wisconsin in 1976. She got her pilot's license in 1954 at age sixteen; she was the youngest person in the state to get a pilot's license and was possibly the only female flight instructor in the area in 1976. Foul play is suspected in her case due to the circumstances involved.