Fabian guilty of murder in death of Sul Ross student Zuzu Verk

LOCKHART — It’s life in prison for Robert Fabian, jurors decided late Wednesday afternoon after deliberating about three hours.

Those same jurors on Tuesday found Fabian guilty of murder in the death of Sul Ross student Zuzu Verk, and tampering with evidence, in burying Verk’s body.

Two very different stories were told from the witness stand Wednesday morning when the sentencing phase began.

The jury of eight women and four men took about four hours to find Fabian guilty of strangling Verk, 21, hiding her body in his apartment from 24 to 48 hours and then burying her in a shallow grave in the Alpine subdivision of Sunny Glen.

Jurors could have sentenced him to either manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, but decided his conduct both “intentional” and “knowing.”

Neither the verdict nor the short time it took jurors to reach surprised Brewster County Sheriff Ronnie Dodson. “Not really,” he said when asked if he was surprised. “I was hoping they would (find him guilty) and after they came back to watch the video I knew, I had an idea.”

When asked to speculate on the sentence, Dodson said he “expects this jury to go for life.”

The testimony from Verk’s father Glenn was heart wrenching. He described his daughter as having many talents. “She touched a lot of people,” he testified.

In testimony last week, Verk may have been killed because she threatened to make public a bisexual relationship between her accused killer and his self-described best friend, jurors heard in the fifth day of testimony in the murder trial.

Fabian was accused of the October 2016 murder of his girlfriend Verk, a 21-year-old Sul Ross University student whose remains weren’t found for nearly four months. Prosecutors Geoff Barr and Jane Starnes of the Texas Attorney General’s Office allege that Fabian then enlisted the best friend, Chris Estrada, to help him bury her body in a shallow grave near the Sunny Glen subdivision about six miles from Fabian’s apartment at 405 Harrison in Alpine.

Fabian was arrested Feb. 4, 2017, one day after Verk’s remains were discovered.

The “bisexual relationship” revelation came from Roy Roman, a self-described career criminal who shared a cell with Fabian in the Brewster County Jail. He told the jury of eight women and five men (one an alternate) that Fabian told him the couple had argued over her threatening to reveal his relationship with Estrada, after which Verk turned to walk away and Fabian “grabbed her by the neck. He said he didn’t know if he broke her neck or choked her out — that he grabbed her from behind and she hit the floor … he pretty much snapped” out of anger. Then, Roman said, Fabian “began bawling,” something he did frequently at night, often while mumbling things like, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Roman stated after the initial revelation, he and Fabian prayed, something he saw a lot of during his times behind bars. “Everybody finds God their first day in jail,” he said.

Roman said he had suspected that Fabian was bisexual because of comments he had made about other jail inmates, including one to him that he “looked nice without a shirt.”

Before and after that testimony came a stream of law enforcement officers and forensics experts. Brewster County Sheriff Ronnie Dodson, who said he was soon on the scene after a Border Patrol agent discovered the shallow grave on Feb. 3 located about 45 feet off Wagon Road, testified he knew who the bones belonged to, in part because a retainer that had been placed inside her teeth was still there.

“Hello Zuzu. My name’s Ronnie Dodson and I’ve been looking for you,” he told jurors he said while bending down over the skull.

Dodson and others testified to the wide field over which Verk’s bones had been scattered by the elements and scavenger animals. There were so many pieces of remains to catalogue, Texas Ranger Jeffrey Vajdos testified on Friday, May 3, that they “ran out” of the bright orange markers usually used for such purposes. He said local authorities were assisted by state and federal agents in the recovery and documentation of all the remains.

Prosecutors maintain Verk was killed late on Tuesday, Oct. 11, after the couple, who had an on again, off again relationship, argued following a “romantic dinner” and massage at Fabian’s apartment. They believe he and Estrada disposed of the body late on the next day or early the day after using Estrada’s Mustang or the borrowed F-150 truck of Fabian’s brother-in-law James Carillo.

Vajdos also detailed a flurry of phone calls and text messages in the days after Verk’s disappearance between Fabian and Estrada, Fabian and his sister Jocelin Carillo, Verk’s mother and Fabian, and Fabian to Verk, whose Samsung phone was never found.

Vajdos interviewed Fabian on the Friday after Verk’s disappearance and testified that initial interviews in a missing persons case are intended to allow the interviewee to tell his or her story at their own pace with “maybe a little guidance.” Fabian needed “a lot of guidance,” he said. He also said Fabian referred to Verk in the past tense during the interview, something jurors had already heard from Alpine police. He said that statement “raised a red flag,” as did inconsistencies in his story such as saying he stayed home after that night Verk supposedly left in her vehicle, until a neighbor reported seeing him leave after that time and seeing Verk’s Mazda Miata still parked outside; and that Fabian didn’t display the emotion you would expect of someone whose girlfriend was missing. “It was more self-serving,” he testified.

On cross examination of multiple witnesses, the defense team headed by Harold Lanford repeatedly tried to point the blame at others. Vajdos allowed that others had initially been persons of interest but were cleared of all suspicion.

Subsequent testimony by forensics experts revealed that head hair belonging to Verk was found both in Estrada’s trunk and in a shop vac Carillo had used to clean up his truck after Fabian had borrowed it, and that there was nothing in an autopsy or toxicology to indicate she had been shot or stabbed or poisoned.

During his time on the stand, Estrada testified that he came over to Fabian’s apartment the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 12 and that he admitted he had “choked” Verk until she stopped breathing after the two argued. He then asked for Estrada’s assistance.

“He said she was too heavy for him to move by himself,” Estrada testified, adding that “there was no one else he could ask.”

Estrada — who had a smirking, smiling demeanor as he testified, said he called the plan “crazy” about a dozen times, surmising that Fabian asked him to help move the body that many times.

He said Fabian told him it was an accident and that he had attempted CPR to no avail, but didn’t want to call 911. “He told me he was going into survival mode and didn’t want to do any punishment,” and also that “she was still in the bedroom in the bed under the covers,” Estrada told the jury, something he couldn’t confirm because the bedroom door was closed.

He said the two later left Fabian’s apartment and he “never saw” Verk’s body.

Earlier in the evening, Estrada had driven Fabian to Alpine’s Dollar General and borrowed his credit cards to buy items that included cleaning supplies and thin plastic sheeting. Similar material was found at Fabian’s apartment and at the grave site.

After leaving Fabian’s apartment, Estrada testified that he went to the home of a friend who saw he was unnerved and asked him if the reason why was “newsworthy.”

During his testimony, Dr. Steven Lenfern of the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office explained to jurors how someone dies by strangulation and how long it takes for that to happen. It would take three to five minutes to cause death, he said, describing that as “hardly accidental.” He also said “abdominal breathing” that can occur as someone is asphyxiated, can resemble hyperventilating. Estrada had earlier said Fabian told him Zerk had “hyperventilated” after he choked her.

The case was moved to Lockhart in Caldwell County on a change of venue from Brewster County.