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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Convicted rapist
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: July 18, 2002
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: 1961
Victim profile: Alexandra Zapp, 30
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Plymouth County, Massachusetts, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison without parole on September 24, 2003

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 organization.

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 already dead.

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.

Sordid Past

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 professional.

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 to jurors.

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 believe her.

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 jury.

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 herself.

The Verdict

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 she did."

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.


Man guilty of first-degree murder of Alexandra Zapp

Thursday, September 25, 2003

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 parole.

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 sentencing.

It said, in part, "Alexandra, your brilliance will always be with me. I love you completely, truly and unconditionally always."

Casanova also urged stronger laws protecting the public from criminal sex offenders, for which she has lobbied since her daughter's death.

"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," she concluded.

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 find out."

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 the stabbing.

"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.

East Bay Newspapers



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