Crime • Family says years of mental illness preceded homicide.
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Zachary Cole Weston's arrest in his grandmother's murder is just the latest chapter in what his family describes as "a tragedy in slow motion."
The 21-year-old man's aunt and uncle say years of mental illness and patchy care preceded the grisly death of his grandmother, Joyce "Honey" Dexter, who on Wednesday was found stabbed and mutilated in her Avenues home. When police arrived, Weston allegedly was inside the 84-year-old woman's house, holding a knife and spattered with blood.
"Joyce was a martyr by any definition," said Weston's uncle, Charles Kulander. "If anybody was closer and loved Zach more than her, I don't know how. She was always there for him. The rest of us had just had it up to here [with Weston], but Honey always kept her door open."
Family trouble had kept Weston moving in and out of relatives' homes since he was a teenager, Kulander said. When he was 16, Weston and his younger sister moved to Kulander's home in Moab.
"Zach was always a sweetheart, but he started receding into his mental illness to where he was almost catatonic," Kulander said. "He was withdrawn, lethargic."
After a school semester with the Kulanders, Weston moved in with his grandmother. Over time, belligerent episodes peppered his unresponsive spells, said Weston's aunt, Jill Kulander.
"It was just too much," she said. "We said, 'No more.' Zach wasn't allowed to stay [with Dexter]."
In October 2010, Weston was charged with four misdemeanors after he allegedly shoved his mother and punched two police officers in the face when they tried to remove him from a Millcreek area 7-Eleven, where he had been loitering for several hours. As part of a plea deal, a judge ordered a mental health evaluation and treatment.
Weston ultimately was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Jill Kulander said. He remained relatively stable until about six months ago, when he told his mother he had started to hear voices, Jill Kulander said.
A series of violent episodes began this summer. Weston was at the University of Utah's Neuropsychiatric Institute for an assessment Aug. 7, when he slapped and punched one employee in the face, and punched another employee in the ears when he came to the aid of the first employee, according to a University Police report. Weston's aunt and uncle said Weston was trying to check himself in; instead he went to jail and was charged with two counts of assault and one count of interfering with police, all misdemeanors.
In September, an ambulance picked up Weston after he swallowed a rock and poured scalding water down his throat, the Kulanders said. He was admitted as a "psych patient" at LDS Hospital, where he jumped through a small window into a nurses station and injured two employees who tried to restrain him, according to court documents. Weston broke free and pulled the fire alarm, police wrote.
The supervisor of the unit told officers Weston was "too dangerous and needed to be removed," the report states. Weston was taken to jail and charged with two counts of battery and one count of making a false alarm.
On Sept. 27, Weston was arrested again after he allegedly hit his father during an argument in their Millcreek home.
According to charges filed Thursday, Weston also bit a woman who was in the home when she tried to help his father. Weston was charged with one count each of class A and class B misdemeanor assault.
Weston's father, Walter Weston, said his son's violent episodes began only recently. Walter Weston noticed his son was acting strange after he started living at his house about four months ago. Walter said the son he remembered as a gentle soul who enjoyed fishing but would let his dad gut the fish seemed to have disappeared.
"I know Zach," Walter Weston said Thursday. "He never was like that. He's not like that, and I'm not saying this just because I'm his father. I'm saying it as a human being. He's not like that."
A retired plumber, Walter Weston said it would break his heart to tell his son that he couldn't "fix" him like he could a leaky faucet or a backed up drain.
"I'm not a doctor or a psychologist," he said. "I'm his dad, and it hurts me to see him like this."
Weston's father said some of the blame for Zach's declining behavior should rest on the mental health system, which he said was content on giving him medication and sending him on his way rather than giving him the long-term inpatient care he needed. Walter Weston said that Zach's violent episode at University Hospital should have been a sign that he needed more supervision and treatment and not a reason for him to be kicked out.
"It would have never come about if he would have been taken care of," he said. "This is the result of not getting no damn help."
Walter Weston said his son was put on a new medication at about the same time his violent episodes started occurring. A package of pills were still sitting in Walter Weston's home Thursday that showed his son had been prescribed the drugs Abilify and olanzapine, both used to treat schizophrenia.
Zachary Weston was released from jail late Tuesday night, jail documents indicate. His father said he went to stay with his grandmother in the Avenues after Weston's mother bailed him out.
"What do you do with a kid who needs help but he's over the age, but you know he's so mentally ill he's a threat?" Charles Kulander asked. "The one place he ever felt safe was Honey's house. That's where he went to find refuge, and something snapped. God only knows what went through his head."
About 2 p.m. Wednesday, neighbors heard a woman screaming for help, according to jail documents. Police arrived to find Dexter stabbed to death; Weston was with her. Neighbor Paymon Saebi said he recognized Weston as the person in police custody.
"He looked rough," Saebi said. "He was looking around, dazed, with a kind of dead look on his face." Saebi said he could see that Weston's cuffed hands were bloody.
In interviews after his arrest, Weston admitted to stabbing her numerous times and to slicing her abdomen open, police wrote.
Dexter was known to her neighbors as "a sweet, sweet person," Saebi said.
"She was one of those people who takes the effort to smile," Saebi said.
Dexter hails from Los Angeles, where she was "an old beach girl," Charles Kulander said. She moved to Salt Lake City to be closer to her adult children, who had moved to Utah, Kulander said.
She aged into a "delicate, quiet" woman, Saebi said.
"The thing that hurts the most is that you should not have to go through this kind of stuff in your final years," Saebi said.
Tribune reporter Kimball Bennion contributed to this story.