|A MURDER SAGA - Two Preston County residents have been charged with first-degree murder.|
On Mar. 1, Zachary Saunders, 34, of Albright came into the Preston County Sheriffâs Office and reported that multiple people âwere trying to kill him by poisoning,â but deputies found his claims to be âfantastical,â according to a criminal complaint.
During the visit, deputies also noted that Saundersâ hands âwere swollen and puffy, which is consistent with intravenous drug useâ and that his actions were consistent with âsomeone suffering from a break in realityâ and that drug use âis a common cause of hallucinations,â deputies said.
On Mar. 7, deputies responded to Saundersâ residence for a reported burglary in progress after Saunders âreported seeing someone with flashlights in his house,â but deputies âcleared the residence and found no one inside,â according to the complaint.
On Mar. 8, deputies going into the sheriffâs office saw Saunders sitting outside the department in his truck; Saunders then told deputies that his mother and step-father were trying to kill him, deputies said.
Saunders told deputies that he saw his step-father running to Saundersâ bedroom with a garden hose attached to his truckâs exhaust; Saunders then said that âthings would be coming to a head and he was going to end up killing [his step-father],â according to the complaint.
Deputies came to the conclusion that Saunders âwas suffering from a break from realityâ and decided that the âfamily should begin the mental health evaluation process,â asking Saunders to have his live-in girlfriend, Stephanie Heath, call them.
On Mar. 9, deputies received a call of âan unresponsive person person lying in a pool of their own bloodâ; when first-responders arrived, they pronounced John Uphold, Saundersâ step-father, dead on scene, according to the complaint.
Deputies said they âobserved Uphold lying in a large pool of blood, there was a blood trail leading from where his truck was parked, and there were multiple blood pools along the trailâ; Uphold âreceived severe wounds about his head and face.â
Later, deputies made contact with Saunders and Heath, 34, of Albright, both of whom stated that they âheard something about a body being down at his[Saunders]â momâs residenceâ but hadnât spoken with her, according to the complaint.
The two âreported they had been awake working on their house most of the night,â and that around 2 a.m., they saw âUphold through his kitchen window making his morning coffee,â but they both âdenied that theyâve had any contact with him in the last few days,â deputies said.
At that time, Saunders and Heath allowed deputies âto take possession of their video surveillance system, [Saundersâ] boots, his pants, and his thermal pants that he had been wearing the night before,â according to the complaint, and that Saundersâ and Heathâs âactions and behavior were not consistent with a person just having been informed of a loved oneâs death,â according to the complaint.
During that time, deputies noted that Heathâs âhair had multiple colors, such as blond and brown. and was longer as it was pulled up and held in place with a hair clip,â deputies said.
On Mar. 10, the W.Va. State Office of the Medical Examiner conducted an autopsy of Upholdâs body and âdetermined his death was the result of repeated severe blows to his head with some type of blunt object,â according to the complaint.
In the autopsy, examiners âfound multiple hairs that were clutched in Upholdâs hand and a longer hair on his harm,â which âwere not consistent with his own hair,â but did âappear generally consistent with Heathâs hair,â deputies said.
On Mar. 11, deputies obtained statements from Saunders and Heath and served a search warrant which included the ability for deputies to obtain samples of their DNA, fingerprints, as well as photographs, according to the complaint.
Deputies then compared Saunders and Heathâs statements with other witness testimony and ânoted a number of inconsistenciesâ including âwhat they[Saunders and Heath] were doingâ; âwhere they were when a neighbor tried to notify them of the situationâ; âthat [Saunders] had attempted to call out to s neighbor after he knocked on the doorâ; âand that they had not heard about the situation until law enforcement notified them,â deputies said.
During that time, deputies noticed that Heathâs hand âwere swollen and puffy,â and that Saundersâ and Heathâs âbehavior during their statements to be consistent with persons that are not provid[ing] truthful information,â according to the complaint.
As Saunders and Heath left the sheriffâs department, deputies continued speaking with them, during which time Sauders said Upholdâs âblood ainât on my pants,â to which Heath responded, âYeah, not that much,â deputies said.
Deputies noted the comments because they âinfer that there had been some amount of [Upholdâs] blood on [Saunders]â jeans,â according to the complaint.
On Mar. 13, deputies obtained a statement from a witness saying that Heath had been âinformed of the situation at Upholdâs residence the morning of the incident,â which contradicted Heathâs and Saundersâ previous statement that âthe first they heard about anything was when law enforcement told them,â deputies said.
On Mar. 15, deputies received another statement from a witness which reported that âa club style batâ was on a shelf in Saundersâ house, and that Saunders had told the witness âit was for his protectionâ; on body camera footage from the date of the incident, deputies noted that âthe bat, including location and description, were exactly as the witness described,â according to the complaint.
The witness also told deputies that Saunders âhad previously talked about âdead spotsâ in his video surveillance system,â and that âless than thirty-three hours had passed since the bat had been seen and was now gone,â deputies said.
On Mar. 22, deputies completed a timeline of events based on Saundersâ and Heathâs âknown activities for the night,â and âbelieved his[Upholdâs] murder occurred at about 0230â; prior to that time, âthe longest timespan of [Saundersâ and Heathâs] activities are not accounted for was 1 hour and 1 minute,â according to the complaint.
However, â[d]uring the time period of the murder,â their activities and whereabouts were not accounted for over a period of more than two hours, âincluding [Saunders] having not been seen for four hours despite his claim he was working on laying flooring in the house,â deputies said.
On Mar. 23, deputies received a report that âa blood stain had been located on near the pocket area of [Saunderâs] jeans and further testing would be required,â according to the complaint.
On Mar. 24, deputies executed a search warrant on Saundersâ and Heathâs residence and found the bat âlocated hidden in the wall behind drywall,â and during a Miranda interview, Saunders and Heath âhad different versions of when the bat was placed there and the reason for it being hidden in the wall,â deputies said.
While reviewing footage, deputies also noticed that cement blocks marked the edge of Saundersâ and Heathâs surveillance camera footage, but that a review of body camera footage from the date of the incident did not show the blocks present, according to the complaint.
Saunders and Heath have been charged with first-degree murder. They are being held in Tygart Valley Regional Jail without bond.