Born in Brooklyn, Zappalorti moved to Staten Island in 1950, his family settling in the latter borough's Charleston neighborhood. The family runs a stained-glass business whose clients include approximately 30 churches on the island and also some others as far away as the West Coast and Canada.
After attending Our Lady Help of Christians School in Tottenville, Zappalorti attended Tottenville High School, but dropped out before graduating in order to enlist in the United States Navy, which he entered on November 27, 1962; his mother signed the parental consent form (necessary because he was not yet 18 years old) after his father refused to do so. Serving aboard the U.S.S. Henrico, which saw action in the Vietnam War, Zappalorti was placed on disabled status on April 5, 1965 after suffering what has been characterized as a nervous breakdown. He held the rank of seaman (in pay grade E-3) at the time of his discharge.
Upon his return to Staten Island, Zappalorti did not hold down a formal job but was frequently seen in the neighborhood planting trees and clearing away debris. All of this came to an abrupt end on the evening of January 22, 1990, after Zappalorti invited a neighborhood resident and his companion to a small hut he had built on the edge of the property of his family's home. Once there, the duo demanded Zappalorti's wallet, and, after he tossed the wallet into the yard, the neighbor, Michael Taylor, 20 years old, pulled out a hunting knife and stabbed him three times in the chest and abdomen, causing his death; Zappalorti's brother, Michael Zappalorti Jr., discovered the body at 11:30 A.M. the following morning. A subsequent autopsy showed four stab wounds, and authorities speculate that the fourth wound was inflicted by Taylor's accomplice, identified as 26-year-old Phillip Sarlo.
Taylor was taken into custody at 2:30 A.M. on January 24 as he stepped outside a bar in the South Beach section of Staten Island, but Sarlo fled the area and was not apprehended until February 18, after he was found to be in Ocala, Florida. Gay rights activists asked New York State Governor Mario Cuomo to appoint a special prosecutor to the case, citing the fact that Staten Island District Attorney William Murphy had been the only one of the city's five district attorneys to go on record as opposing the city's anti-gay-discrimination law when it was passed in 1986; and that also, in that same year, Murphy had prosecuted a carjacking case involving Taylor, Sarlo and two others that resulted in Taylor, then 16 years old, being adjudicated a juvenile offender when he could have been tried as an adult, and Sarlo receiving the minimum sentence — 1½ to 4½ years — then possible on the charges under which he had been indicted. In both the 1986 carjacking case and the Zappalorti murder, Taylor, in statements he made to the police, cited animosity toward homosexuals as a motive for the crime (the victim in the 1986 case was attacked near a boardwalk in the South Beach area reportedly frequented by homosexuals, and Zappalorti's sexual orientation was common knowledge in the neighborhood where both he and Taylor resided). Sarlo, however, denied harboring such sentiments.
The Zappalorti case never went to trial, because on December 5, 1990, after extensive "plea bargaining" negotiations, both Taylor and Sarlo pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree murder (in New York State at the time, first-degree murder applied only if the victim was a law-enforcement officer or the killer was already serving a life sentence for a previous murder). It is reported that the district attorney's office was reluctant to go to trial because of fears the defendants might have attempted to use the gay panic defense, and may have garnered considerable sympathy from a potential jury in culturally-conservative, heavily Roman Catholic Staten Island.
Pursuant to the plea agreement, Taylor received a prison sentence of 23 years to life while Sarlo was sentenced to 18 years to life (the minimum sentence for second-degree murder in New York State is 15 years to life and the maximum is 25 years to life). On May 30, 1997, Sarlo died at the maximum-security Wende Correctional Facility outside Buffalo. Taylor is presently incarcerated at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, also a maximum-security institution. He will be eligible for parole on February 18, 2013.