You weren't the one who stabbed her, but your involvement was substantial. —3rd District Judge Terry Christiansen to Jose Neri
WEST JORDAN — Heather Quast was a kind, popular teenager who "strongly believed in the peace sign" as a symbol of peace, love, unity and respect, her family said.
She had gotten mixed up in some small-scale marijuana dealing, but was looking to make a change.
"She was getting to a point where she didn't want to sell pot anymore," her mother, Rashell, told 3rd District Judge Terry Christiansen during the sentencing Wednesday of the man who played a role in her death. "She didn't think it was worth it, but she was friends with Jose."
Prosecutors said it was the girl's friendship with Jose Jesus Neri, 21, that led to her death. They said he arranged the robbery that would ultimately leave the 18-year-old dead and asked that Neri receive consecutive sentences.
Christiansen sentenced the man to just that, ordering Neri to spend five years to life in prison for aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony, and another one to 15 years for manslaughter, a second-degree felony.
"You weren't the one who stabbed her, but your involvement was substantial," the judge said. "You set up the aggravated robbery. … Had you not done that, she would still be here."
On May 26, 2010, Quast and a friend, Aric Russom, were in a field next to the Jordan River Parkway Trail, near 1100 West and 3900 South, waiting to make a drug deal when they were both stabbed, police said. Russom was stabbed in the face, near his eye. Quast was struck in the stomach and taken to the hospital, where she was later pronounced dead.
Neri arranged the meeting and brought Cristian Alzaga, 22. Police documents state that when the men arrived to make the exchange, Alzaga asked for all of their drugs and stabbed Quast and Russom. Alzaga was sentenced to concurrent terms of 15 years to life in prison for murder and five years to life for aggravated robbery, both first-degree felonies, in March.
Neri's defense attorney, Paul Quinlan, pointed out that Neri had accepted responsibility for his involvement by pleading guilty to the crimes. He also asked the judge to consider the man's relatively minor criminal history.
"This is, by far, the most serious criminal episode in his life," Quinlan said. "Over the last year, he has come to some important realizations about the direction his life was heading in."
He added that his client gave investigators the "clearest picture" of what happened the night Quast died and was anxious to move forward. Neri reiterated this when he spoke to the judge.
"I feel remorseful for my actions and I will make the most of my time in prison," Neri said. "I made a mistake I will not be able to change."
Rashell Quast, a peace sign tattooed on her arm next to Heather's name, said she still doesn’t understand why Neri picked her daughter as the target in the robbery. She said he knew how terribly wrong robberies could go.
"I don't know if I'll ever forgive you for what you did," she said. "I'll never get my daughter back."
Prosecutor Peter Leavitt said he felt that reducing the original murder charge to manslaughter was sufficient acknowledgement of Neri's role and that while he may not have killed Quast, Neri put her in danger's path by involving Alzaga in the robbery. Quast may have been headed in a worrisome direction, but her death was far from inevitabile.
"It wasn't a fatal path," he said of Quast's trajectory. "It wasn't a path that would lead to untimely death. … She never would have crossed paths with Cristian Alzaga if it hadn't been for Jose Neri."
The girl's family is holding out hope that a third man charged in the slaying will be found. Meantime, Neri's sentence was the "best we could hope for under the circumstances."
"This does give some sense of closure," he father, Jerry, said after the hearing. "It gets easier in the sense of you're getting used to it."