A decade ago, Steven Zinda suffered a traumatic brain injury after a drunken driver plowed into his Volkswagen Beetle, nearly killing him, his family and his attorney said last week.
After a long and difficult recovery, they said, Zinda used his "second chance at life" and money from a settlement to buy a house and, later, to raise his son and carve his small niche in this world.
They said his physical struggles, and the pride he felt in the home he had created for himself and his son, might offer some context for Zinda's alleged act of violence last month: the killing of 20-year-old David Valdez, who detectives say Zinda mistakenly assumed had burglarized his Rio Linda home.
"His whole life was that home and his child. So when that was violated, Mr. Zinda became very distraught," said Tom Johnson, Zinda's defense attorney. "From this side, it's a story of a person who was doing everything he could to protect his child and his home, and it's tragic in that sense."
According to Sacramento County sheriff's detectives, the 29-year-old Zinda came home in the early morning hours of March 20 to find his Second Street home ransacked. Outside, he saw Valdez, who was stranded and awaiting help for car trouble.
Detectives allege Zinda grabbed an ax and chased Valdez a quarter-mile before killing him in a field. They arrested Zinda on suspicion of murder later that day.
Johnson called the death of Valdez, a Rio Linda High graduate, a "terrible tragedy."
Johnson said it's unclear whether Zinda's bizarre outburst can be attributed to his earlier brain injury.
Zinda's mother, Debbie Ray, said her son was at a stop sign in 2000 when a drunken driver barreled into him at 95 miles an hour. He was in a coma for two months, she said, and had to relearn how to walk and talk.
Effects of the collision still linger, both mentally and physically, Ray said.
"After the accident, Steven's life totally changed," she said. "He's a totally different person from when he had the accident."
Still, Zinda found work and bought his home in Rio Linda, Ray said. His son was born in 2008 and "has been his life ever since," she said. "He would do anything for (his son)."
Family court records show Zinda filed for divorce from his wife in 2009 and fought for custody of his son, an apparently messy battle that landed him in domestic violence counseling. Days after he started classes, he was arrested for misdemeanor battery on his ex-wife, a charge to which he later pleaded no contest. Several weeks after Zinda's arrest, a judge granted him primary physical custody of the boy.
Johnson said Zinda was working two jobs at the time of the Valdez killing, one at an RV lot, the other preparing food. Since Zinda's arrest, his ex-wife has been caring for their son.
Weeping, Ray said the news has devastated her family. She also expressed sympathy for Valdez's family.
"We really feel sorry for that other mother. I know what it's like to lose somebody," she said. "I lost Steven in 2000 and we basically lost him again."
"It's a sad story all around," she added.
Valdez's family and friends have described him as thoughtful, social and respectful. He was skilled as a handyman, often helping his mother with projects around the house, and had plans of going back to school to become an electrician.
Detectives say he had nothing to do with the burglary at Zinda's house.
Zinda is scheduled to appear in court again May 6.