Verk family members have their say in Fabian trial

LOCKHART, Caldwell County, Texas – Miles Verk didn’t mince words when he got the chance to face the man just sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his younger sister, but he needed something first.

“I’d like to see your eyes,” he began, directing his comments at Robert Fabian, whose head was slightly bowed.

“You said you were going to care for and protect my sister, but the only thing she needed protection from was you,” Verk told Fabian just moments after a Caldwell County jury handed down their sentence for the murder of Zuzu Verk. “You took her life. You took her from me — you took her from her family. You took her from the world. God will not forgive you.”

Verk told Fabian he “would forget the faces of everyone you know,” that the only faces he would see would be those of other prisoners and the guards. “The only face I want you to remember is my little sister’s as you strangled her … I want you to remember that every waking and sleeping moment of your life.”

were found in Estrada’s Mustang and in a shop vac used to clean out a pickup belonging to Fabian’s brother-in-law, which Fabian borrowed in the middle of the night the night after she was killed. Witnesses also saw videos of Fabian buying thin drop cloths like the body was wrapped in, of his interviews with police and of a walk through his apartment.

Opening arguments by both sides turned out to be prophetic. Defense team lead attorney Harold Danford predicted the physical evidence would come down “to hairs.” Prosecutor Geoff Barr said from the outset that the string of witnesses would each bring a “clue” that would help them to assemble the puzzle of what really happened. “It’s an old fashioned murder case,” he argued.

Some of the most heart-wrenching testimony during the 10-day trial came from Zuzu’s father Glenn Verk during the sentencing phase.

Zuzu moved to Alpine for college after growing up in Fort Worth and fell in love with Big Bend — part of her decision to transfer to A&M, where she could better pursue a career in wildlife conservation.

Her father testified that same desert she loved had bedeviled him.

On his long drives from Fort Worth to Alpine over the many weeks between his daughter’s disappearance and discovery, he would look out at “the vastness of the desert, the bushes and the trees,” and would realize “she could be anywhere.”

When her bones were found, her parents were made aware that animals had gotten to her corpse, and throughout the trial they saw the images of scattered bones, with so many little flag markers scattered about the half-acre perimeter that authorities ran out of the orange ones they usually use.

“She was a naturalist, an activist, an environmentalist,” Verk said of his artistically-inclined youngest child, the one named for a character in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He’s come to terms with the fact wild animals were involved. “Wild animals pulled her out,” of the shallow grave, he reasoned, so that she could more easily be found. “It’s as if nature wanted to give her back to us.”

Moreover, he said the family practices Judaism, which instructs that bodies be buried whole, not an option in Zuzu’s case. Otherwise, he said, the spirit remains in turmoil. “Everything was broken,” he testified. The offense could have been reduced to a second-degree felony had the jury found that “sudden passion” was involved. But they did not.

“Sudden passion, Prosecutor Jane Starnes argued, is a father killing a neighbor after finding out he’d raped his daughter. “It’s not when some girl breaks up with you.” The state also drove home that it would have taken Fabian 3 to 5 minutes with his hands around her neck to cause death. “That’s not an accident.” The state laid out phone and text records, Facebook GPS data and simple human recollection in making their case.

A little way into the jury’s sentencing deliberations, while making small talk with reporters outside, Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson was asked what he expected.

“With this jury, I think life.” It was the second time he’d been on target. During his time on the stand, Dodson testified that when he reached the graveside, he knelt over the skull and introduced himself. “I’ve been looking for you.”

Like other witnesses, Dodson was not allowed back into the courtroom until testimony had ended. The room was nearly full when the jury returned with their sentence.

At the instant District Judge W. C. Kuykendall remanded Fabian into the custody of Brewster County, Dodson stood up, retrieved his tan cowboy hat from the wooden bench, strode over to Fabian and placed him in handcuffs for a trip back to Alpine, where he awaits his Texas prison assignment.

It’s a seven-hour drive between Lockhart to Alpine. Exactly the amount of time Caldwell County jurors took to deliver justice in the case.

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.

Verk, 21, and a student at Sul Ross State University, was killed late on October 11 or early on October 12, 2016 in the Alpine apartment of Fabian, her on-again, off-again boyfriend. Witnesses said he had prepared a “romantic dinner” for her in hopes of getting her back, but she had plans to transfer to Texas A&M University, leaving Fabian behind. The couple argued, and prosecutors believe she was strangled — two people said on the stand Fabian had confessed to choking her until she stopped breathing. The jury charge specified that her death was caused by strangulation or “unknown” means.

Sometime in the next 24 to 48 hours, Fabian hid her body in his bedroom before wrapping it in thin plastic and leaving it in a shallow grave in a brushy area about six miles away in an area just outside Alpine called Sunny Glen. By the time the gravesite was found by a Border Patrol agent on February 3, 2017, it had been scavenged by animals. The case was moved to Caldwell County on a change of venue from Brewster County and was prosecuted by the State Attorney General’s Office. Brewster County District attorney Sandy Wilson, who came into office in January 2017, said the prior DA was already working with the AG’s office. “I felt that in the interest of justice and the benefit of the Verk family that the AG should continue the case,” Wilson said, adding that the Verk family had “already bonded” with Barr. “I felt it was unfair to burden them with the additional stress and delay it would take for me to get updated and move forward.” The jury of 8 women and 4 men deliberated about four hours on Tuesday, May 7 before returning a guilty verdict based on six days of testimony from more than two dozen witnesses.

Key among them was Chris Estrada, a friend of Fabian’s who said he was at Fabian’s apartment the night of Oct. 12 and that Fabian begged him to help him dispose of Zuzu Verk’s body. Estrada claimed he turned Fabian down. However, Estrada has pled to one count of tampering with evidence in the case. Wilson said Estrada will likely be sentenced in June or July.

Strands of Zuzu Verk’s hair