Murder trial of Sul Ross student begins with conflicting opening arguments

LOCKHART, Caldwell County, Texas – She was named for a character in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and her family and friends had every reason to believe she would have just that.

Instead, 21-year-old Zuzu Verk’s life came to a sudden end in Alpine, and by the time her skeletal remains were found months later, they had been gnawed by animals. The day after her remains were discovered, her boyfriend, Robert Fabian, was under arrest and charged with murder. He has pleaded not guilty.

The case was moved from Alpine in Brewster County to Lockhart in Caldwell County on a change of venue. District Judge W. C. Kirkendall is presiding.

Attorneys giving opening statements on Tuesday painted two very different pictures of what happened to the outgoing Sul Ross State University student who was last seen on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. Her remains were found by a Border Patrol agent on Feb. 3, 2017 in a “disturbed” grave.

Unraveling what happened to her will be like putting together a puzzle from a series of clues, prosecutor Geoff Barr told the jury of eight women and five men (one an alternate). It would be, he said, “Like Sherlock Holmes.” It’s “an old-fashioned murder case,” Barr said. “It’s about clues, it’s about the puzzle pieces. We’re going to bring in a whole list of witnesses and everyone is going to bring you a clue. Together we’re going to build the puzzle … at the end of the day I’m convinced you will have no doubt that all the clues point to Robert Fabian.”

Barr talked jurors through the week beginning Oct. 10, 2016. Though the couple’s romance had been on and off, he said Fabian had prepared a “romantic dinner’ for Tuesday, Oct. 11 and that the couple enjoyed pork tenderloin and champagne. Fabian told investigators Verk had left around 2am, but noted that the downstairs neighbor in their thin-walled apartments heard an argument, then saw Fabian leave in his Jeep around 4am, also noticing that Verk’s black Mazda Miata was still where she usually parked it when she came to visit. Verk didn’t show up for work the next day, and “in the days that followed, massive teams of community and professional search teams were out, but no one could find her.” The case was so much at the forefront of the community’s conscience, Barr said, that when the Border Patrol agent found bones and then thin plastic sheeting and then a skull under cedar brush in a country subdivision seven miles from downtown Alpine called Sunny Glen, it didn’t take long until he knew “exactly who he had found.”

Barr claimed that two people — one was Chris Estrada, a friend of Fabian’s, and the other a cell mate after Fabian was arrested— said Fabian told them he and Verk argued, after which he choked her.

He also said the jury would not see any physical evidence like fingerprints or video, something that defense attorney Harold Danford seized on in his opening remarks.

“I think the evidence will show he (Barr) just put on a great theory, but that’s all it is, a theory.” He referred to the prosecution’s “parade of witnesses” (more than a dozen were sworn in before the jury entered the courtroom).

“It doesn’t matter if the state calls 400 witnesses,” Danford told jurors. “If they didn’t witness anything the state can’t prove anything.”

Regarding physical evidence, Danford said “the government tested everything once, twice, three times. Nothing of the real evidence points to Robert.” He postulated that Fabian, who Barr described as “consumed” with Verk, might not be the only person “infatuated with this girl … If the state had real evidence they wouldn’t have to have the parade of witnesses.”

Both spoke about Estrada, who was charged and has pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence in the case. Barr said contacts of Estrada and Fabian described both men as changed in the days after Verk went missing.

Danford noted that Estrada has entered a plea but has not yet been sentenced, suggesting that his testimony might be given in an attempt to get a reduced sentence.

Fabian had asked Estrada to help him dispose of Verk’s body, Barr said, telling jurors Estrada would testify that Fabian told him he “choked her and I panicked. She’s dead in my bedroom. I panicked and don’t know what to do, I need your help to get rid of her.”

Following opening arguments, Verk’s mother Lauri Verk took the stand, at times choking back tears.

She described her daughter as “funny, loving and a loyal friend” who was extremely motivated. “When she set her mind on a goal she would always accomplish it.” She said the two talked or texted almost every day, and she last saw her daughter during a weekend they spent together in Fredericksburg in late September 2016.

She also spoke of her daughter’s intent to try to transfer from Sul Ross to Texas A&M because it would further her study of wildlife conservation; but said she was hesitant for her daughter to share that piece of information with Fabian. “I was in a disagreement with her,” she testified.

She also said she found Fabian, who her daughter brought home to meet her parents on her 21st birthday, “arrogant and manipulative,” and that “if it wasn’t all about Robert, if he wasn’t the center of attention, he’s gonna pout.”

In the days after her daughter was last seen, Verk said, “I was sending texts, Facebook messages reaching out to her,” which progressed to sending texts in all capitals. “Let me know you are OK, you’ve gotten all of us worried.” When pressed by Barr, she said she had texted “let us know you are alive” more than once.

She was also in conversation with Fabian, who reportedly said he hadn’t seen her either but “thought I was giving her her space.”

On Lauri Verk’s urging, Fabian filed a missing person report with Alpine police on Friday, Oct. 14. Police Sergeant Aaron James Villanueva, who was next on the stand, said he searched Verk’s house, which was uncharacteristically found with doors and windows locked and shades drawn. “People don’t lock doors in Alpine,” Villanueva testified.

He also said he found some of the clothing Verk is believed to have been wearing before she disappeared still damp in a washing machine.

In his opening remarks, Barr noted that police also searched Fabian’s apartment on Friday, Oct. 14. “The kitchen was a mess. There’s eaten portions of dinner everywhere and the cabinets open, but the rest of the house is spic and span.”

Barr also said police found a Dollar General drop cloth that receipts will prove were purchased by Fabian, along with a bucket, “Police had no idea it was connected,” he said.

Likewise, Villanueva testified that after the missing person report was filed, “I didn’t believe Robert was a suspect, just one of our key witnesses … I had no reason to believe him a suspect at that time.”

Villanueva testified that Verk’s keys and Samsung phone were never found.

The trial is expected to last two weeks, and the jury will determine punishment, should Fabian be found guilty.

The trial is expected to last two weeks.

Anita Miller Byley is a longtime, award-winning Central Texas journalist who spent almost 39 years at the San Marcos Daily Record where she was managing editor. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 1975, and is a fifth-generation Texan from Port Lavaca.