ST. LOUIS – A cultural and generational clash within a St. Louis family resulted in a stunning murder that made international headlines.
Palestina “Tina” Isa was the youngest of seven children to Zein and Maria Isa. Tina’s father was born in the West Bank in Palenstine and raised in the Muslim faith. Maria, meanwhile, was born in Brazil and a Roman Catholic. Zein married Maria—his second wife—in February 1963 despite objections from her parents. Over the years, the couple bounced between Brazil, Puerto Rico, Palestine, and the United States, and started a family in the process.
The family moved to St. Louis in 1986 and Zein opened a grocery store at Shaw Boulevard and Klemm Street. Tina attended Roosevelt High School and was an honors student. By the fall of 1989, she was a senior at 16 and had dreams of becoming a pilot and wanted to study aeronautical engineering at Saint Louis University’s Parks College of Engineering, Aviation, and Technology.
Tina assimilated to life in the United States far better than her parents and siblings, who disapproved of Tina’s social life and interest in high school athletics. When Tina snuck out of the house to go to junior prom, members of her family went to the school and dragged her home.
Unbeknownst to the Isas, the FBI had bugged the family’s Dutchtown apartment due to Zein’s membership in the Abu Nidal Organization. The ANO was founded in 1974 (named after its leader) as an offshoot of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The group would go on to commit dozens of terrorist attacks in 20 countries over the next two decades, ranging from assassinations to hijackings and kidnappings.
The audio recordings from the apartment would later prove invaluable.
On Sunday, Nov. 5, 1989, Tina started a part-time job at a local Wendy’s against her parents’ wishes. She left them a note explaining she would return home late. Tina’s boyfriend agreed to walk her home that night after work. Tina got home just before midnight. She would be dead approximately 30 minutes later.
St. Louis Police arrived at the apartment in the 3700 block of Delor Street and found Tina had been stabbed to death. Zein and Maria claimed to have killed their daughter in self-defense. They said Tina came home and demanded $5,000 from them. When they refused, Tina allegedly attacked them with a boning knife. Zein said he took the knife from his daughter and fatally wounded her. An autopsy revealed she’d been stabbed in her torso six times, puncturing her heart, lungs, and liver.
Tina Isa was laid to rest days later in Sacred Heart Cemetery in Florissant. According to author Ellen Harris, Tina was buried in a bridal dress at her mother’s wishes. The family did not place a notice about the funeral in the paper and only invited close friends and relatives from Palestine and elsewhere in America.
The couple was arrested after their stories did not match the evidence collected by investigators, specifically, the presence of defensive wounds on Tina’s body. Meanwhile, federal agents turned over their recordings of the family’s apartment to local prosecutors. The FBI said its surveillance unit was not staffed at the time of Tina’s murder and thus unable to react in time to the killing.
When investigators and prosecutors reviewed the audio surveillance from the morning of November 6, they were stunned. Not only did they hear the killing on tape, they learned Zein had attacked Tina while Maria held her daughter down. Zein and Maria were charged with first-degree murder.
At trial, jurors listened to the seven-minute audio recording despite objections from the defense.
“Where have you been, b—-?” Maria says when Tina enters the apartment, touching off the confrontation.
Tina explained she’d been working, which only angered her parents further. Their children were forbidden from working anywhere other than the family’s grocery store. The subject then turned to Tina’s relationship with an 18-year-old Black man, which her parents also disapproved of. Zein had planned for Tina to marry a boy in Palestine and move back there. The argument then reached a horrific twist.
Zein Isa: “Here listen, my dear daughter, do you know that this is the last day? Tonight, you’re going to die?”
Zein Isa: “Do you know that you are going to die tonight?”
Seconds later, Tina is pleading with her mother for help as her father attacks.
Tina: “Mother, please help me!”
Maria Isa: “Huh! What do you mean!”
Tina: “Help! Help!”
Maria Isa: “What help?! … Are you going to listen? Are you going to listen?”
Amid Tina’s screams and muffled groans, the recording arrived at its tragic conclusion.
Zein Isa: “Die! Die quickly! Die quickly! … Quiet, little one! Die my daughter, die!”
Additional recordings of Zein’s phone calls further established his contempt for his youngest child; an opinion shared by some of his daughters.
The jury convicted Zein and Maria Isa on Oct. 25, 1991, and recommended the death penalty for both parents. Two months later, on Dec. 20, the judge agreed with the jury’s recommendation and sentenced them to death. Zein and Maria became only the second married couple in the country to be sentenced to die (the first—Ray and Faye Copeland—were also from Missouri).
Zein Isa was moved to death row at Potosi Correctional Center while Maria was sent to Renz Prison (which closed permanently after the Flood of ’93) in Jefferson City. In April 1993, a federal grand jury indicted Zein and three other men on RICO charges for their ties to the Abu Nidal Organization. However, the FBI eventually dropped the charges against Zein because he was already on death row.
Zein died on Feb. 17, 1997, due to complications from diabetes. Maria’s sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. She died from reported natural causes on April 30, 2014, at a women’s prison in Vandalia, Missouri.