History of violence

Husband’s murder trial paints a disturbing picture of Angelica Weems’ life and death

Cynthia Weems, Angelica’s eldest sister, is dedicated to speaking out against domestic violence. She created this card, memorializing Angelica.

Cynthia Weems, Angelica’s eldest sister, is dedicated to speaking out against domestic violence. She created this card, memorializing Angelica.

Know the signs:
Domestic abuse can take many forms, but it always comes from a desire for power and control in the relationship. “Intimate partner violence is a very specific kind of violence; it’s different from getting into barroom fights,” says Anastasia Snyder, executive director of Catalyst Domestic Violence Services in Chico, which offers counseling, shelter services and access to other support. Some key forms of domestic violence include:

• Verbal abuse (name calling, threats)
• Emotional abuse (humiliation, manipulation)
• Isolation
• Intimidation (stalking, suicide threats if you leave)
• Physical abuse
• Sexual abuse

If you or someone you know is in a situation that fits some of these criteria, call Catalyst’s 24-hour hotline for more information on how to help (800-895-8476).
<style type="text/css"> img.content-image {box-shadow: none;} </style>

Maria Del Rocio Silva, Rocio to those who know her, received a phone call on the evening of Sept. 14, 2014, alerting her that her son was being flown by helicopter from Willows to Enloe Medical Center. He had wounds on both inner forearms. Without hesitation, she got into her car and drove to the hospital. When she was finally allowed in to see him, her second youngest of 11 children, he was unconscious and covered in dirt and blood.

The next morning, Silva drove to Willows, having heard from family that her daughter-in-law was missing.

“I wanted to know where she was, to talk to her, to see her,” said Silva, a petite woman with curly white hair, as she fought back tears. “There were a lot of people looking for her, so I helped. I was in disbelief, but I wanted to find her. I went from door to door looking for her, asking people if they had seen her.”

No one had.

Later that day, Silva returned to Enloe. Her son was still unconscious. “I was wondering why he was still dirty. His face, there was dirt all over. I tried to clean him up and it wouldn’t come off.” She scrubbed him, avoiding his arms, where there were “big holes,” trying to remove the dirt from his face, his hands, even his fingernails. Eventually he stirred.

“He was hurting. He said something like, ‘She doesn’t want me anymore.’”

And so begins the story of Angelica Weems. At least, it provides a point in time from which to look backward at her life and forward at her death. In fact, while her husband, Zir Weems, was lying in that hospital bed, Angelica was already dead, strangled, buried in a shallow grave marked by a Dr. Pepper can a few dozen feet from the Sacramento River. Three weeks would pass before her body was discovered there.

Zir was found guilty of first-degree murder in Angelica’s death. He was sentenced last Friday (May 13), following a two-week trial in March. Those two weeks were particularly emotional for both families, as parents and siblings were called upon to share intimate and often painful memories on the stand. Complicating matters, those families are heavily intertwined—both of Angelica’s elder sisters are romantically linked to two of Zir’s brothers. In an unusual twist toward the end of the trial, Zir, against his attorney’s advice, waived his Fifth Amendment rights and took the witness stand.

The events of Sept. 14—the day Zir was taken to the hospital and Angelica was deemed missing—and the day before were heavily scrutinized during the investigation into Angelica’s disappearance and described at length during the trial. Those events are pieced together here based on testimony from numerous investigators, a few witnesses and Zir himself.

On Sept. 12, 2014, a Friday, Zir and Angelica drove with their four children in their blue Chevy Astro van to his grandmother’s house in Willows. She often stayed with her boyfriend in town and let the family have the house on weekends—it was a nice escape for them, as they were living out of their van.

Zir had plans to retile the kitchen floor that weekend and his father, Tom, came by on Saturday the 13th to help. Surveillance video at Ace Hardware showed Zir, Angelica and the kids buying supplies. Angelica was wearing a black tank top and black shorts.

That afternoon, Tom made two trips to Walmart—the first receipt is time-stamped 5:43 p.m., and the second 7:52. Sometime between those two trips, while Tom was working on the kitchen floor, Zir and Angelica stepped outside. When Zir came back in alone, he told his father that Angelica had gone for a walk.

After working all day, Tom, an older man with a long, white-tinged beard that matches his hair, decided to go pick up dinner for the family. He chose a roasted chicken and potato wedges from Walmart, came back, ate, and went to bed while Zir fed the kids. This is where Zir said his memory lapsed, sometime during the night. He doesn’t remember anything for a full week, until after he was released from Enloe.

When Tom awoke the next day, neither Angelica nor Zir were anywhere to be found. Tom took care of the kids and eventually called Angelica’s mother, Lorena Hernandez, to come pick them up. By the time she arrived a little after 5 p.m., police were there, as were paramedics. She had no idea what had happened.

Apparently, a neighbor had called 911 after seeing a man—Zir—on the ground bleeding. Behind his grandmother’s main house is a workshop. Zir was lying near the building, where a large, nearly floor-to- ceiling window appeared to have been broken from the inside. He had big gashes in both arms below the elbow crease. Inside the shop, investigators located multiple large pools of blood. Two utensils, a box cutter and a knife, were found with blood on them. The door to the workshop had been locked, via padlock, from the outside—Tom testified that he’d forgotten to put the padlock back after grabbing a shop vac the day before to clean up the kitchen floor. He remembered the next day and locked the workshop, not realizing Zir was inside.

Once on the scene, Hernandez began to ask officers about her daughter. It was the first they’d heard that Angelica was missing. A search of the property began and yielded nothing.

Angelica’s body was buried along the Sacramento River, near the Glenn and Butte county line.

Over the next few weeks, officers from the Willows Police Department, Glenn County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI mounted a massive search effort. They brought out K-9 units, had divers search the canal and flew overhead in helicopters. About two weeks into the search, Sgt. Troy McIntyre of the Willows PD received a phone call from Aev Weems, Zir’s brother. He suggested they search the area around Ord Bend Park. It was a favorite place for their family—it crossed his mind Angelica might be buried there. Meanwhile, both families, with the help of friends and community members, mounted their own search for Angelica.

Around 8 a.m. on Oct. 5, a group of family members, including Angelica’s mother and stepfather, grandmother and uncle, parked on the side of the road on a gravel pullout near Ord Bend Park, on the Butte County side of the Sacramento River. Aev was leading the group. He’d gone there with his family as a child, and they’d held parties there as adults. Sgt. McIntyre had searched the area but hadn’t made it this far south.

On this particular day, the larger group split into three teams. They took the long, somewhat difficult walk from the pullout to the shore of the Sacramento River and set out on their search.

“After 45 minutes, I saw a sign,” recalled Victor Miramontes, a relative of Angelica’s—her father’s cousin. “There was a can hanging from a branch. I moved to my left and there was a hole. Then I moved to my right about 12 feet, and there she was.”

Aev wasn’t far away when he heard Miramontes shout that he’d found Angelica. He ran to the group to investigate. “I had a stick or something and there was a small hill,” he said. “I moved the stick back and forth to move the sand and then I found a foot. I froze.”

From the outset of the trial, both prosecution and defense acknowledged that there was no physical evidence to convict Zir. In her opening statements, Deputy District Attorney Stacy Edwards laid out her plan to bring forth witnesses who would show that Angelica had long been abused by her husband, both emotionally and physically, which would prove he did it based on past behavior.

“This is a circumstantial evidence case,” she said. “There is no eyewitness. There is no smoking gun, so to speak; no weapon that can be tied to the defendant. There’s no confession. But at the end of this case, there is going to be proof beyond a reasonable doubt of a few things: 1. The defendant murdered his wife; 2. When the defendant murdered his wife, he intended to do so; and 3. It wouldn’t have been intended without premeditation and deliberation.”

Zir’s attorney, public defender Eric “Ric” Ortner, kept his statement brief—as defense attorney, it’s his job merely to prove reasonable doubt his client committed the crime. He did, however, foreshadow testimony by a doctor who would shed light on Zir’s mental state and history of mental health issues.

The scene at the river was rigorously documented. Photographs were taken of the Dr. Pepper can, the “hole” that Miramontes described—a large depression in the sand that investigators surmised was where the sand that covered the body was taken from—and of the body, which was clad in a black tank top and shorts. Personnel from the Human ID Lab at Chico State were called to assist in moving the body—an autopsy was scheduled for a few days later.

“I ultimately was able to do an internal examination of the body and I identified what I characterize as a fractured hyoid bone,” Thomas Resk, the pathologist who performed the autopsy, told the jury. “It’s a horseshoe-shaped bone that sits up high in your throat. It’s compressible.”

He determined Angelica’s cause of death to be asphyxiation due to manual strangulation. In order to fracture the hyoid bone in such a manner, Resk said, one would have to apply pressure for a matter of minutes; exactly how many he wasn’t sure. This was a contentious issue for Ortner, who questioned Resk at length on the time element. Resk stayed firm with his conclusion, however, that her death took minutes—not seconds.

That was the bulk of the physical evidence found. The only other item of interest was a Dr. Thunder can in the family van (Dr. Thunder is Walmart’s version of Dr. Pepper) indicating, in addition to testimony, that Zir’s favorite soft drink was Dr. Pepper. Investigators also obtained paperwork from April 2014, when Angelica went to Catalyst Domestic Violence Services. On her intake form, where it asks what types of abuse a victim is reporting, she checked almost every single box: emotional, physical, threat of physical, sexual, threat of sexual, stalking and strangulation. The only one left unmarked was “unknown/unspecified.”

In lieu of physical evidence, Edwards focused on bringing up witnesses who could attest to Zir’s general treatment of Angelica. Several TJ Maxx employees who worked with Angelica testified that they’d seen her with bruises. Many also remembered Zir sitting in the family van behind the store while Angelica worked. If he wasn’t there, he often called numerous times during her shift.

One co-worker testified that “She never introduced me to him [Zir], but I saw him waiting out behind the store for her—a lot, like I couldn’t even count how many times. Almost every shift.” Did she ever answer the phone while working at TJ Maxx, Edwards asked. “Yes. He would call—sometimes multiple times within a four-hour shift.”

Another said she’d noticed bruises around Angelica’s neck. “It looked similar to a handprint, purple bruising,” she said. “They looked like fingerprints.”

Zir denied many of these claims. “I never hit my wife,” he said when he took the stand as the case’s final witness. His dark brown hair was shoulder-length—short in comparison to his father and brothers—and his face clean-shaven. He mumbled when he spoke, possibly an indication of partial hearing loss.

While he admitted he may have left bruises on Angelica’s arms from grabbing her too hard, he said he never hit her. The lower back bruise a few people mentioned, which Angelica had told them was from Zir kicking her: It was a sledding accident, he insisted. The day in January 2014 that many of Angelica’s co-workers remembered because she arrived with two black eyes: A woman had punched her in the parking lot of the Optimo Club in Paradise, he claimed. The couple never pressed charges and Angelica did not seek medical attention.

Zir Weems was charged with his wife’s murder in late 2014.

By the end of summer 2014, Angelica was on the verge of being fired from TJ Maxx for showing up late or being absent from work too many times, her managers told the jury. Just a few weeks before she went missing, she quit her job. This, despite being the sole moneymaker for the family.

One night during the summer of 2014, a few months before Angelica’s disappearance, she went to the home of a friend, Vanessa Granados, a co-worker of hers at TJ Maxx. She had the four kids in tow and she was scared.

“She said she came because she was afraid for her life and her children’s lives,” recalled Esperanza Granados, who was living with her daughter, Vanessa, at the time. Vanessa had gone to bed, she said, and Angelica opened up to her. “She was crying. She said she was afraid of her husband because he was mistreating the children and her. She said very often he would hit her. He’d also try to choke her—he did that more than one time.”

Angelica described to Granados a recent incident when she and Zir were lying in bed and one of the children started to cry. “She told me that she tried to get up [to tend to the child] and her husband wouldn’t let her get up from the bed. He used a lot of pressure—she was very close to where she couldn’t breathe.”

That night, talking in whispers in the living room while the children slept, Angelica foreshadowed her own death. “She asked me that if anything ever happened to her, if I would take care of her children for her,” Granados said. “And I said, ‘Yes.’

“She said she feared for her life and she felt that death was very close to her.”

That was the last time she ever saw Angelica.

When it came to family, nothing was ever simple for Angelica and Zir, both of whom grew up in homes with abusive fathers. But, aside from a few instances in which Angelica reached out for help and admitted problems with Zir, she preferred not to speak up.

“Angelica always wanted peace,” Cynthia, Angelica’s eldest sister, said during an interview after the trial. “She never wanted to make ripples, even if there was a reason to. Peace was more valuable to her than arguing.”

She smiled, tears rolling down her cheeks, as she remembered her sister, whom she regretted not having a chance to get to know well as an adult. “She was really pretty,” she said. “And she was wickedly funny, although not a lot of people got to see that side of her. If you didn’t know her well, you saw a shy, quiet, pretty girl. She hated compliments—she’d get so red, she did not like that.”

Cynthia started dating Aev, who’s a year and a half older than Zir, when they were in high school. She was attracted to his unique name—all of the Weemses have unusual, hippie-type names, and most of the men wear their hair long, like their father. They had fun together, hiking in Bidwell Park, having picnics. Sometimes Cristina (the middle sister) and Angelica would come along, and so did some of Aev’s siblings. Cristina and Tov, the youngest Weems brother, hit it off. But from the beginning, Cynthia said, she noticed something “off” about Zir.

She recalled one incident, shortly after she met him, in which she mistook something Zir had said for a joke, returning his comment with a quip. “Zir pulled a kitchen knife out,” she said. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Who does that?’ But Aev really softly intervened. So, I realized something was way off with Zir just a few months in.”

Cynthia also didn’t like the way Zir seemed to objectify women. “He would say the nastiest things about women who’d shown him a good time.” So, when she first noticed Zir and Angelica getting close, she vehemently opposed the relationship. She admits she’s not the peacekeeper Angelica was, never afraid to speak her mind.

“I immediately said, ‘This is not OK. You cannot be with my sister,’” she said. Aside from his disturbing behavior, he was five years older than Angelica, who was just 14. Their mother also disapproved. “I saw that he was very—I don’t know the word—very dominant with her,” Hernandez said during testimony. “He did not want her to be around me.” Zir did not speak Spanish and he forbade Angelica from speaking it with her mother when he was around.

When Angelica was 16 and pregnant with her first child, she asked her mother 10 times to sign a document allowing her to marry Zir. Finally, about a month before the baby was due, Hernandez relented. After they married, she said—it was a quickie ceremony in Reno and she was not invited—he whispered in her ear one day, “Now she’s mine.”

Over the ensuing years, Angelica made several attempts to leave Zir, many with the help of her family and sometimes his. He always went out searching for her, driving as far as a family member’s house in Gerber to track her down. And she always went back. In 2011, after one of these incidents, Zir and Aev were talking while their families were at the park. Zir told Aev, “If she ever leaves me again, heads will roll, starting with Cynthia and Lorena.” After that, and other threats, Aev and Cynthia took a stand: They would no longer attend family events if Zir would be there. He was no longer welcome in their home. Because he rarely allowed Angelica to socialize without him, that put a wedge between the sisters. But it was also difficult for the whole family, which had to accommodate.

Zir acknowledged a rift among siblings, but denied ever threatening their lives.

As his father, at right in the photo, assists emergency medical personnel by holding up a saline solution bag, a bloody Zir Weems, then 29, is moved to a waiting ambulance early Sunday evening on Sept. 14, 2014.

Photo by Larry Judkins/sacramento Valley Mirror

The longest period of separation between Angelica and Zir occurred in April 2014. She first approached two of Zir’s sisters for help; other siblings brought her to Catalyst and then to Oroville so she could file paperwork for a restraining order. She even got help to move her things into storage.

“She told me [then] that she wanted to rent an apartment for her and her children and she wanted to go to college to be a nurse,” Hernandez told the court, in tears. “She wanted to get a divorce and have custody of her children.”

What some of Angelica’s family may not have known was that after launching an initial search for his wife and children, Zir checked himself into Butte County Behavioral Health with what he characterized as severe depression. He ultimately was sent to a mental health facility in Sacramento, where he stayed for about a week. He was put on medication, which he told the jury he didn’t like taking, but it helped.

Shortly thereafter, Angelica and Zir got back together again.

One night about a year before Angelica’s murder, Zir showed up at the home of Hernandez and her husband, Jaime. He banged on the door. Jaime answered, with Hernandez just behind him.

“He said to me that I should not go around my daughter or the children anymore,” Hernandez said in Spanish, which was translated for the court. “I asked, ‘Where is my daughter? I want to speak to my daughter!’ He said he did not want me to see her anymore.”

It turned out Angelica was in the couple’s truck—sometimes they drove a truck, other times the van—with the kids, who were sleeping. Hernandez ran to her, looked at her through the window.

“I said, ‘Angelica, say something to me so I can help you.’ He was at the window on the driver’s side, at the window looking at her. He told me to leave her alone and that she did not want to know anything about me.

“She only said to me, in English, ‘I don’t have nothing to say, Mom.’ That’s it. She had a face that showed a lot of fear and she could not say anything else.”

Hernandez and Angelica worked together at TJ Maxx, and they attended family functions together, but Zir was always pushing to keep them apart.

After the prosecution rested, Zir’s attorney, Ortner, called in Dr. Kevin Dugan, a forensic psychologist who had examined Zir while in Butte County Jail. In order to create a full psychological picture, he said, he looked at old medical records and records regarding the case.

He noted that Zir suffers from paranoia, shows a lack of impulse control, as well as an inability to learn from experiences, and displays difficulties in cognitive functioning. He has a history of mental health problems dating to childhood—his mother indicated early developmental mental health issues—and within the past several years, 2014 in particular, had been hospitalized and placed on psychotropic medications, possibly indicating paranoid schizophrenia or a general personality disorder.

Zir had two significant head injuries—the first was a shotgun blast that Zir reported as accidental but some say was a suicide attempt. It took off part of his ear and left him partially deaf. The second was a work-related injury during which a piece of machinery exploded nearby, leaving him permanently dizzy, requiring medication for balance and rendering him disabled. (Cynthia pointed to this injury—in 2011—as a significant time-marker. He was never the same afterward, she said; that’s when everything got worse.)

Dugan described Zir’s reactions during their visits as knee-jerk and paranoid. “He had poor self-control, emotionally and behaviorally,” he said. “Of all the criminal defendants I’ve evaluated over the years, I was very thankful I was behind the glass at times.”

Angelica’s life was short—she was just 23 when she died—and filled with little tragedies, but also great joys. First and most important, she had four children she adored. And while arguably the two most important men in her life, her father and husband, were abusive and negative forces, the women were sparks of light.

Based on Zir’s trial, it was clear that Angelica had a large and supportive group of family and friends. They were concerned for her and deeply saddened by her death. When she sought help, she found it. But, as many women in abusive relationships do, she continually returned to Zir, a man who hit her, belittled her in public, stalked her and isolated her from the people she loved. And eventually killed her.

The jury deliberated for less than a full day on the case. And in the end, they had three choices: not guilty, guilty of second-degree murder and guilty in the first degree. They chose the latter, meaning they’d determined that not only had Zir killed Angelica, but he’d done it intentionally. Edwards’ closing argument put that last part into particular focus. She set a timer for one minute and asked everyone to be silent. A minute is a very long time when put in the perspective of strangulation, an extremely intimate way to kill a person.

Zir was sentenced to 25 years in prison before possibility of parole. Many family members attended the hearing, most of them wearing purple—the color assigned to domestic violence awareness. Some of them, including Silva, Zir’s mother, cried. Some looked relieved; others just tired.

Zir will serve his time for his crime, but the repercussions will be felt forever, Cynthia said. Angelica’s four children lost not one but both parents. She and her siblings lost a loving sister; Hernandez a daughter. For her part, Cynthia said, she’s committed to not being silent and instead educating people—especially young people, starting with her own children—about domestic violence and when to speak up.

“I feel like it’s now my duty to share Angelica’s story,” she said. “Her life was robbed, and nobody can do anything about that. But I want to tell Angelica’s story so that other people can take from it our mistakes, our experiences, and change something in their lives.”