Preston County man and girlfriend charged with 1st degree murder in death of man’s stepfather

Crime

KINGWOOD, W.Va. — Two Preson County residents have been charged with first-degree murder.

On March 1, Zachary Saunders, 34, of Albright, went into the Preston County Sheriff’s Office and reported that multiple people “were trying to kill him by poisoning,” but deputies found his claims to be “fantastical,” according to a criminal complaint.

Offender Picture
Zachary Saunders

During the visit, deputies also noted that Saunders’ hands “were swollen and puffy, which is consistent with intravenous drug use” and that his actions were consistent with “someone suffering from a break in reality” and that drug use “is a common cause of hallucinations,” deputies said.

On March 7, deputies responded to Saunders’ residence for a reported burglary in progress after Saunders “reported seeing someone with flashlights in his house,” but deputies “cleared the residence and found no one inside,” according to the complaint.

On March 8, deputies going into the sheriff’s office saw Saunders sitting outside the department in his truck; Saunders then told deputies that his mother and stepfather were trying to kill him, deputies said.

Saunders told deputies that he saw his stepfather running to Saunders’ bedroom with a garden hose attached to his truck’s exhaust; Saunders then said that “things would be coming to a head and he was going to end up killing [his step-father],” according to the complaint.

Deputies came to the conclusion that Saunders “was suffering from a break from reality” and decided that the “family should begin the mental health evaluation process,” asking Saunders to have his live-in girlfriend, Stephanie Heath, call them.

On March 9, deputies received a call of “an unresponsive person person lying in a pool of their own blood.” When first-responders arrived, they pronounced John Uphold, 63, of Albright; Saunders’ stepfather, dead on scene, according to the complaint.

Deputies said they “observed 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 trail.” Uphold “received severe wounds about his head and face.”

Offender Picture
Stephanie Heath

Later, deputies made contact with Saunders and Heath, 34, of Albright, both of whom stated that they “heard something about a body being down at his [Saunders’] mom’s residence” but hadn’t spoken with her, according to the complaint.

The two, located at Park Avenue Apartments in Albright, “reported they had been awake working on their house most of the night,” and that at about 2 a.m., they saw “Uphold through his kitchen window making his morning coffee,” but they both “denied that they’ve had any contact with him in the last few days,” deputies said.

At that time, Saunders and Heath allowed deputies “to take possession of their video surveillance system, [Saunders’] boots, his pants, and his thermal pants that he had been wearing the night before,” according to the complaint. Further, Saunders’ and Heath’s “actions and behavior were not consistent with a person just having been informed of a loved one’s death,” according to the complaint.

During that time, deputies noted that Heath’s “hair had multiple colors, such as blond and brown. and was longer as it was pulled up and held in place with a hair clip,” deputies said.

In a press release sent out by the Preston County Sheriff’s Department, deputies stated that Uphold “died of wounds he suffered from an attack while he was walking out of his house on his way to work.”

On March 10, the W.Va. State Office of the Medical Examiner conducted an autopsy of Uphold’s body and “determined his death was the result of repeated severe blows to his head with some type of blunt object,” according to the complaint.

In the autopsy, examiners “found multiple hairs that were clutched in Uphold’s hand and a longer hair on his harm,” which “were not consistent with his own hair,” but did “appear generally consistent with Heath’s hair,” deputies said.

On March 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 and fingerprints, as well as photographs, according to the complaint.

Deputies then compared Saunders’ and Heath’s statements with other witness testimony and “noted a number of inconsistencies,” including “what they [Saunders and Heath] were doing”; “where they were when a neighbor tried to notify them of the situation”; “that [Saunders] had attempted to call out to a neighbor after he knocked on the door”; “and that they had not heard about the situation until law enforcement notified them,” deputies said.

During that time, deputies noticed that Heath’s hands “were swollen and puffy,” and that Saunders’ and Heath’s “behavior during their statements to be consistent with persons that are not provid[ing] truthful information,” according to the complaint.

As Saunders and Heath left the sheriff’s office, deputies continued speaking with them, during which time Saunders said Uphold’s “blood ain’t on my pants,” to which Heath responded, “Yeah, not that much,” deputies said.

Deputies noted the comments because they “infer that there had been some amount of [Uphold’s] blood on [Saunders’] jeans,” according to the complaint.

On March 13, deputies obtained a statement from a witness saying that Heath had been “informed of the situation at Uphold’s residence the morning of the incident,” which contradicted Heath’s and Saunders’ previous statement that “the first they heard about anything was when law enforcement told them,” deputies said.

On March 15, deputies received another statement from a witness who reported that “a club style bat” was on a shelf in Saunders’ house, and that Saunders had told the witness “it was for his protection.” On body camera footage from the date of the incident, deputies noted that “the bat, including location and description, were exactly as the witness described,” according to the complaint.

The witness also told deputies that Saunders “had previously talked about ‘dead spots’ in his video surveillance system,” and that “less than thirty-three hours had passed since the bat had been seen and was now gone,” deputies said.

On March 22, deputies completed a timeline of events based on Saunders’ and Heath’s “known activities for the night,” and “believed his [Uphold’s] murder occurred at about 0230.” Prior to that time, “the longest timespan of [Saunders’ and Heath’s] activities are not accounted for was 1 hour and 1 minute,” according to the complaint.

However, “[d]uring the time period of the murder,” their activities and whereabouts were not accounted for over a period of more than two hours, “including [Saunders] having not been seen for four hours despite his claim he was working on laying flooring in the house,” deputies said.

On March 23, deputies received a report that “a blood stain had been located on near the pocket area of [Saunders’] jeans and further testing would be required,” according to the complaint.

On March 24, deputies executed a search warrant on Saunders’ and Heath’s residence and found the bat “located hidden in the wall behind drywall,” and during a Miranda interview, Saunders and Heath “had different versions of when the bat was placed there and the reason for it being hidden in the wall,” deputies said.

While reviewing footage, deputies also noticed that cement blocks marked the edge of Saunders’ and Heath’s 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 bail.

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