SAN JOSE -- Less than a week after his arrest, the estranged husband of a woman whose strangled body was found wrapped in a quilt 25 years ago took the unusual step Monday of pleading not guilty to her murder, slashing the amount of time prosecutors have to prepare the case in hopes that a judge will dismiss it for lack of evidence.

The prosecution now has 60 days to bring murder suspect David Zimmer to a preliminary hearing, in which a judge will decide whether there is probable cause to hold him over for trial in the killing of his wife, Cathy Zimmer. Typically, murder cases -- especially cold-case ones such as this one -- can take a year or more to get to that stage.

Cathy Zimmer was strangled to death and her body was left in her Chrysler New Yorker at the San Jose Airport on March 10, 1989. Courtesy of the Santa Clara
Cathy Zimmer was strangled to death and her body was left in her Chrysler New Yorker at the San Jose Airport on March 10, 1989. Courtesy of the Santa Clara District Attorney's office ( Courtesy of the Santa Clara Dist )

"We'll put the DA's feet to the fire," defense attorney Michael Cardoza said, noting that his client still has the option of going along with the usual, longer timetable. "I'm anxious to find out what if any evidence they have in this case."

Citing an ongoing investigation, prosecutor Ted Kajani remained closemouthed Monday about what evidence the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office has against David Zimmer, 66, of Half Moon Bay, other than that he had a financial motive and that his brother is also allegedly involved. Cathy Zimmer's body was found March 10, 1989, in the back seat of her car at the San Jose airport. David's brother, Robert Zimmer, 69, was arrested last week after his DNA was found on an "intimate area" of Cathy Zimmer's clothing.


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In another unusual development Monday, the public learned for the first time from Cardoza that the prosecution had taken the case to a secret criminal grand jury without obtaining the usual result -- an indictment. Instead, prosecutors wound up getting a judge to sign an affidavit for the arrest on murder charges of both brothers. Cardoza said both men had been subpoenaed and testified before the grand jury.

Cardoza, a former Alameda County prosecutor, suggested that the reason Kajani didn't get an indictment was the grand jury found the evidence insufficient.

But it was unclear whether the panel actually voted against indicting David Zimmer, or if it was not given a chance to vote -- perhaps because investigators wanted to move quickly to an arrest. It's also possible that the case was brought to a grand jury to try to force someone who doesn't want to cooperate to testify. Kajani declined to comment, noting that prosecutors are barred by law from discussing anything having to do with the secret process. Defense attorneys aren't bound under these circumstances by the same rule.

However, Kajani expressed confidence in his case.

"We believe the evidence will show they (the brothers) acted in concert," he said, adding that the financial motive is "part of the evidence but certainly not all of it."

Within a month of her slaying, he had sold the house for more than $225,000 and collected proceeds from two life insurance policies worth $183,000, according to prosecutors.

Cathy Zimmer's daughter, Debi Lawrence, said she and her brother are both shocked and relieved by the charges against her stepfather and his brother. She was 14 when her mom was killed.

David Zimmer married her mother when she was a toddler. But she went to live with her biological father after the tragedy and eventually lost touch with her stepfather.

"This was my day to digest that it was my father figure growing up that got arrested," she said. "It's a little hard to adapt."

Cardoza's chances of winning a dismissal are slim. Murder cases in Santa Clara County are rarely dismissed at any stage. However, at least one case in the past five years did fall apart -- but under fairly rare circumstances.

Maurice Nasmeh was arrested in December 2004 and spent more than two years in jail for allegedly killing Jeanine Harms, a 42-year-old Los Gatos woman who disappeared without a trace. That case fell apart after it turned out criminalist Mark Moriyama had failed some certification tests required for his job. In mid-2007, prosecutors asked the judge to dismiss the case after Nasmeh invoked his legal right to a trial within 60 days, saying they needed more time to retest the evidence, but the case never returned to court. Harms' brother fatally shot Nasmeh and killed himself in 2011.

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.