It was Za’Zell Preston’s first Christmas with her seven-week-old son and she was looking forward to making it a festive family celebration.
Along with having a newborn with her husband, William Wallace, Za’Zell also had two daughters from a previous relationship, ages three and eight.
Za’Zell, 26, had wrapped gifts ready for Christmas morning and sorted out all the little touches that make it such a magical time for children.
She wanted the day to be perfect, but she was in a toxic relationship. Her smiles for the children waiting for Santa Claus hid years of struggles.
It was 2011 and Za’Zell and Wallace, 30, had been together for three years. Their relationship was rife with violence, but Wallace had a way of persuading Za’Zell to give him another chance whenever he hurt her. And those close to him could see that Wallace was bossy and violent.
She told them that her husband had threatened her with death several times.
In 2008, Wallace served time in prison after being found guilty of assaulting Za’Zell. He was sentenced to 45 days behind bars, probation and had to go through a treatment program.
Soon after, Za’Zell obtained a restraining order against Wallace and when he violated that order, he was sent back to prison.
Za’Zell visited her in prison and he managed to persuade her to forgive him. She found out she was pregnant with his child and Wallace told her he had changed.
He told her that he had “found Jesus” and that he wanted to change his ways.
So when he was released in the summer of 2011, Wallace moved into Za’Zell’s apartment in Anaheim, Southern California, with his daughters and they tried to start over.
In July 2011, she even posted a photo on social media of herself kissing Wallace and wrote the caption, “Lovers for life.”
Despite outward appearances, Za’Zell seemed well aware of the dire situation she found herself in. In fact, she had even enrolled in college classes in hopes of being able to train to become a domestic violence counselor.
As Christmas approached, she was weeks away from graduating. Maybe Za’Zell believed she could change Wallace, but she had no idea what he was capable of.
On Christmas Day morning at 9:30 a.m., Wallace called 911 and said Za’Zell needed medical attention. When paramedics arrived, they found her slumped on the couch.
His three children were still on the property, surrounded by the wrapping paper of their Christmas presents. But there were also bloodstains all over the apartment – and holes drilled in the walls. A door was off its hinges and a glass table was shattered into pieces.
Za’Zell was rushed to hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Wallace was arrested and investigators attempted to piece together the horror that had occurred.
Wallace and Za’Zell had attended a party at a neighbor’s on Christmas Eve. On the way home, they started arguing and the fight, overheard by the neighbors, escalated. Wallace began to violently beat his wife around the head.
She tried to run out of the apartment but he pulled her back inside.
Za’Zell’s eldest daughter said she saw Wallace push her mother against the glass table and it shattered, sending shards of glass into her mother’s skin. Wallace would later claim that he was “defending” himself from Za’Zell after she attacked him, and fell.
With the history of his abuse, this was quickly dismissed. Wallace then carried Za’Zell into the bathroom where he dropped her, hitting her head. The attack had killed her.
But instead of calling the police, he did something shocking.
On Christmas morning, Wallace dragged Za’Zell’s body into the living room and propped her up on the couch and put sunglasses over her eyes to try and pretend she was still alive.
He told the kids, “Mom got drunk and ruined Christmas.”
Wallace then encouraged them to open their gifts, next to their mother’s corpse. He even filmed the kids like thousands of other families across California did – only it was the most twisted family scene imaginable.
Wallace was charged with murder, but it would be nine years before he faced a jury. At this year’s trial, the prosecution described the couple’s abusive relationship for the court.
“He had been threatening to kill her for three years,” they said. “And on Christmas, he carried out those threats.”
Za’Zell’s grandmother testified that she once found her granddaughter cowering in the street after being beaten by Wallace. Another time, Za’Zell had called her from a store bathroom while she was hiding from him.
Wallace had called the same grandmother on Christmas morning and told her that he and Za’Zell had had a fight and that he had “kinda shook her up”.
The prosecution said Za’Zell’s death marked the end of a tragic period of escalating violence.
“This Christmas story doesn’t have a happy ending and unfortunately it’s not just a story – it’s real life,” they told jurors.
Instead of calling 911 when Za’Zell was fatally injured, Wallace left her to die. The defense said his death was ‘heartbreaking’
but not his fault.
“They were both drunk and the injuries that ultimately caused his death were not caused by Mr. Wallace,” they said. “There are no facts in this case that show Mr. Wallace intended to kill.” They said that while the relationship was full of “arguing and screaming”, it was also full of love.
But the testimony of Za’Zell’s 17-year-old daughter was heartbreaking and told a very different version of events. She opened up about the violent argument on Christmas Eve and told the court how she helped remove pieces of glass from her mother’s body.
Then she watched as Wallace carried Za’Zell into the bathroom, where he dropped her, banging her head against the toilet seat. The teenager pondered what that meant.
“After she went to the bathroom, and I think she died, he just took her to the bedroom and put her to sleep when she was dead,” she said. “That’s what I remember because she was cold.”
Za’Zell’s daughter described getting up the next day with her younger sister and going to unwrap their presents.
Wallace dragged their mother into the living room and settled her on the couch. “I remember trying to touch my mom and she was just harsh, cold, and I said ‘mom’ and she didn’t respond,” she said.
The defense said the girl’s testimony changed from comments she made to police at the time of her mother’s death.
She had said her mother had tripped – but the prosecution said she was afraid of Wallace and he had coached her on what to say.
Courtesy of Orange County District)
The prosecution said Za’Zell received repeated blows to the head during the attack. “That’s why she died,” they said. “He hit her on the head again and again.”
They said the Christmas murder was a “night of terror” for Za’Zell, and that the family apartment “looked like a scene of the brilliant when the police arrived.
In April this year, the jury found Wallace, now 39, guilty of second degree murder.
After the verdict, the prosecution issued a statement. “A young mother who ends up losing her life after years of abuse at the hands of her husband is a heartbreaking tragedy,” they said. “This grief is only exacerbated by the fact that her children witnessed much of the violence and were forced to celebrate Christmas in the presence of their deceased mother. This is not a Christmas keepsake a child should be forced to have.
In June, Wallace was sentenced. Za’Zell’s mother Saidell Preston – now guardian of her daughter’s three children – described Wallace as a “selfish psychopath” with a quick temper.
“He beat and tortured my daughter and at the same time mentally murdered his children,” she said. “He showed her no mercy. Show him no mercy.
Za’Zell’s oldest daughter also made an emotional statement. “I grew up with a life of hell since he murdered my mother”,
she said. “There is no childhood for me. My life has been a downward spiral, nothing but a downward spiral since I was eight years old.
Wallace did not make a statement. The judge sentenced him to 15 years of life imprisonment and recognized the nine years he had already served since his arrest.
Za’Zell’s last Christmas was more than tragic and his family will live with the trauma of what happened to him for a long time to come.