Murder suspect with 7 felony bonds cuts off ankle monitor while on the run, officials say

HOUSTON – The felon currently out on bond with multiple violent charges on his record has been charged with murder as a warrant has been issued for his arrest.

Zacchaeus Gaston has two more charges on his already lengthy criminal history. The 27-year-old has been charged with murder and aggravated assault. A warrant issued for his arrest states he fatally shot his child’s mother, Layla Steele, 24, on July 1 as she held their son.

Steele’s sister, Jazmen, told KPRC 2 that Harris County, the judge, and bails bondsmen failed her sister by repeatedly granting Gaston bonds.

“Seven charges wasn’t nothing,” Jazmen said. “Maybe two more won’t be anything either. So, we just have to hold somebody accountable.”

Steele died protecting her son Zeus, who turned one the day of the shooting. Zeus was struck in the leg by a bullet but is expected to recover with the help of a leg cast. Sunday’s birthday celebration for the child was bittersweet as the family celebrated his birthday without his mother.

“Maybe this will change them from just letting convicted felons out over and over again,” said Shirley Steele, Layla’s mother. “Seven times? No, unacceptable.”

Court documents state Layla and her mother were on the phone moments before the shooting.

Shirley told investigators she heard Gaston tell Layla to “get the f-word in the house.” Then Layla yelled “ma, ma, ma” before the call disconnected. According to the court document, Shirley phoned for police when she kept calling Layla’s phone but got no answer.

Two witnesses at the apartment complex off Westpark Drive in west Houston told investigators they heard arguing and saw the couple fighting over a backpack. One witness said they heard Gaston say “see what you finna make me do” before pulling a black pistol on Layla as she held their child.

Another witness told investigators they saw Gaston shoot Layla in the torso once, in which she fell to the ground covering her son. That witness says Gaston stood over Layla and fired four to five more times. The witness said they saw Gaston hitting the victim in the head and yelled for him to stop. That’s when the witness said Gaston ran off, leaving the backpack and his ID behind.

Gaston was wearing an ankle monitor the day of the shooting but cut the device off, according to Spurgeon Kennedy, Co-Interim Director of Harris County Pretrial Services.

“Because he’s no longer wearing the device, we can’t locate the defendant,” Kennedy said.

Harris County Pretrial Services is the agency that monitored Gaston’s GPS device up until last week. Gaston was ordered to wear an ankle monitor on Dec. 5, 2020, as a condition of his bond related to an aggravated assault charge.

Court documents show Natalia “Nata” Cornelio is the current presiding judge of Harris County’s 351st district court. Gaston was given several bonds out of that courtroom, a majority of them were granted prior to Cornelio serving as judge seven months ago.

Kennedy said Gaston had been compliant with his GPS-tracking device up until recently when he failed to charge the battery on one occasion. Kennedy said the batteries are required to be charged at least twice a week and can hold a charge for up to three days.

Kennedy said his agency alerted Judge Cornelio on June 23 about the battery issue but on June 28 the case was dismissed. He said his agency was no longer responsible for monitoring Gaston.

“Unfortunately, we did not retrieve the device from Mr. Gaston. We still have not retrieved it,” Kennedy said. “Last notice that we had from the contractor is that the device has been tampered with or removed.

Kennedy said the contractor was able to ping Gaston’s ankle monitor to a Home Depot in west Houston at 5:58 p.m. the day Steele was killed. Kennedy said the ankle monitor was cut off and left behind.

Gaston remains at large. Layla’s family wants the career criminal caught and prevented from being granted any more bonds.

Prosecutors also filed motions requesting Gaston be denied an ankle monitor in the future, be prohibited from contacting Layla’s family, and not be allowed to own or be around a firearm.

KPRC 2 reached out to Judge Cornelio for comment but she declined.