The Christmas Murders
When the following story first broke, I immediately thought of Truman Capote's book In Cold Blood, which detailed the 1959 murder of the Clutter Family in Holcomb, Kansas. But the Christmas Day murders here in Fairfax County occurred much closer to home, less than ten miles from my house:
"Police yesterday described a harrowing scene at the Great Falls home where a triple slaying occurred Christmas morning, with the 27-year-old gunman rampaging through the spacious residence, shooting two victims at bedside and one cowering in a closet.According to a follow-up article,
"Shocked neighbors, friends and law enforcement officials struggled to make sense of the killings, which occurred less than an hour after the gunman, identified as Nathan Cheatham, allegedly killed his mother, Sheila Cheatham, at her McLean home eight miles away. The bloodbath ended when Cheatham shot himself in the head with the 9mm handgun, bringing the day's death toll to five, authorities said.
"The lone survivor, a 20-year-old man who called police, had sought refuge in the basement of the Great Falls home....
"Police identified the victims in the Great Falls home as Adam Sebastian Price, 19, a friend of Cheatham's, and his mother, Janina C. Price, 50. They had moved from their longtime home in another part of Great Falls a few weeks ago and appeared to be renting the Sycamore Springs Lane house, which is owned by a retired U.S. diplomat, neighbors said. Also slain was Christopher James Buro, 20, a friend of the Price family whom Cheatham apparently did not know, police said....
"Cheatham had moved back to his mother's home in the past few weeks after living for a while with two brothers elsewhere in Fairfax County, police said. Sheila Cheatham, 53, ran a day-care center, Mother Nurture, on her property. Acquaintances described her as enthusiastic about her business and delighted with a new beachfront condo in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., one of several properties she owned. They said she was divorced from Nathan's father, who was described by one of his co-workers as a former Navy SEAL....
"Police said a witness saw Sheila and Nathan Cheatham in a car together at their home about 9:30 a.m. Gunshots rang out a short time later but were not reported to police, they said. After killing his mother, investigators said, Nathan Cheatham went to Great Falls.
"Sometime that morning, Cheatham had called the Price family to see whether he could come over, police said. They turned him down, according to police. But he headed to the quiet, wooded neighborhood anyway.
"Police said Cheatham, driving his Ford Ranger pickup, drove up to the Price home, a two-story, 3,600-square-foot residence on a hill. He started firing even before he entered the house. 'He was not trying to hide that he was coming,' said Maj. Bob Callahan, commander of the Fairfax police criminal investigations bureau.
"Police believe Cheatham broke into the house and methodically went from room to room, looking for his victims. He fired more than 50 shots in all, reloading as he hunted down the victims while they scrambled for their lives, police said.
"One victim was found slain inside a bedroom closest, where the person apparently was trying to evade the gunman. The other two were found dead next to beds. Authorities said all the victims had been shot multiple times in the upper body.
"'Once he started shooting, it did not take long,' Callahan said.
"Buro was found in a first-floor bedroom. He had been staying at the Prices' home for about a week, police said. Buro, of Vienna, had been doing odd jobs since graduating from Langley High School, said his stepfather, Ralph Hendry. Buro had also had a recent scrape with the law, having appeared in court two weeks ago in connection with a minor theft charge, according to public records.
"Janina Price was found in the master bedroom, and her son Adam was discovered in a second-floor bedroom.
"'It appeared that they probably were still asleep or in their rooms when everything started,' Callahan said. 'It certainly appears that people in the house heard gunshots and tried to take cover in their rooms....'"
"On the night before she died, Sheila Cheatham was desperately worried about her son Nathan, saying he hadn't slept in 48 hours and was suicidal because he believed he was in trouble with the law.Cheatham's criminal record shows that he had several brushes with the law, including arrests for assault and battery, concealing a weapon, and escape. In 2002, he was was charged with possession of cocaine. Some two years later, a judge disposed of Cheatham's case after Cheatham successfully completed his probation and community service. Possibly he had no felony record because sometimes judges' dispositions here result in an expunged record.
"Billy R. Hicks, a Springfield criminal lawyer who represented Nathan Cheatham in a 2002 drug case, said yesterday that Sheila Cheatham called him Christmas Eve for advice on how to help Nathan, 27, who had vowed to kill himself rather than allow police to arrest him.
"'She was frightened for him,' Hicks said. 'She said he was suicidal and extremely paranoid because of something that occurred two or three days earlier.' Hicks said he recommended that she seek to have her son committed for psychiatric treatment....
"Cheatham's fear of an imminent arrest was unfounded, law enforcement sources said yesterday. There is no record that Cheatham had had trouble with police in the weeks before the killings. Investigators have not determined a motive in the slayings, the sources said, but they are focused on two theories: that Cheatham, who had a history of mental health issues, had a psychotic episode, or that drugs were involved.
"Court records and the sources indicated that Cheatham and the shooting victims had a history with drugs -- some with cocaine and others with prescription painkillers -- and might have known one another through a drug connection...."
According to the follow-up article,
"In November 2004, probation officer Sheila W. Ellis wrote to the court that Cheatham 'fully complied' with conditions of his probation and never tested positive for drug use during random screens.Claude Moore Colonial Farm, closed from December 12 through March 30, is a frequent destination for elementary-school field trips and advertises as follows on the park's web site:
"'We are happy to report that the subject did so well at his community service placement that he was hired as a paid employee,' Ellis wrote. The charge was dismissed last December. Court records indicate Cheatham was hired at Claude Moore Colonial Farm, a privately operated history museum in the National Park Service near his McLean home...."
"A visit to the Claude Moore Colonial Farm is a visit to another world ...the world of an 18th Century family living on a small, low-income farm just prior to the Revolutionary War. The year is 1771 ... won't you come and visit?"Thank God that the park was closed! The possibilities of what Cheatham might have done at the park which schoolchildren here so love don't bear thinking about. Although it is laudable that Ms. Ellis recommended her probationee for a job, I question if an individual as unstable as Cheatham should have done his community service and then have been recommended for employment at a public facility such as Claude Moore Farm. Certainly management at Claude Moore Farm must have known that Cheatham had a criminal history because his probation officer, in her official capacity, got him a position there in the first place.
Is Cheatham's story another tale of a druggie gone mad? Probably. But the first article also provides this information:
"Friends recalled Cheatham in his earlier years as a respectful youth who was gifted at drawing. But in recent years, he had run into trouble, with emotional problems, convictions on minor assault and concealed weapon charges, and arrests on drug charges, according to police, public records and friends."Schizophrenia compounded by drug use? Schizophrenia caused by drug use? Hard to say. At this point, many questions about the murderer and the victims at the Prices' house remain unanswered. Toxicology results for all those who died here on Christmas morning will be available in about three weeks, and those results may provide further clues as to motivation. Cheatham's brothers may also have some answers as to possible motivation, particularly if serious mental illness predated their brother's drug usage.
Mass murders in Fairfax County are almost unheard of--certainly on Christmas Day and especially in the prosperous, upscale McLean/Great Falls area. After all, Fairfax County is not Hollywood. But tragedy, drug-fueled or otherwise, knows no geographical boundaries.
Typical of the Washington Post, the second article tries to find something positive in the story of lives taken and lives ruined:
"News also emerged yesterday about Max, the Price family's black Labrador retriever mix, who was shot at the Great Falls home. He is expected to fully recover, said Michele Angel, a veterinarian at the Hope Center for Advanced Veterinary Medicine in Vienna.I wonder where Max will now call home.
"Angel said Max was shot three times: in the head, the right foreleg and the chest. Now that the bullets have been removed and his wounds cleaned, Max is doing well and eating and drinking, she said. He might be released as soon as today [December 28].
"'He's a big love with a great personality,' she said. 'Even though it was tragic, it just made my holiday . . . just that you can have something good come out of this.'"
Update 1 (Thursday, December 29, 2005, 1:05 P.M.) from New Details Emerge About Killer's Mental State:
"...Sandra Lebowitz, who hosted Nathan and Sheila Cheatham for Thanksgiving dinner at her Sterling home, said that although Nathan seemed to be in decent spirits, she was stunned as he joined guests in saying what he looked forward to in the coming year.Update 2 (Thursday, December 29, 2005, 6:14 P.M.) from NBC-4:
"According to Lebowitz, he said, 'I'm looking forward to going on to the next life.'
"'That quote haunts me,' said Lebowitz, a meeting manager for a consulting firm. Lebowitz added that, according to Sheila Cheatham, her son had recently stopped taking medication for an anxiety disorder, although she did not explain why....
"Friends of Sheila Cheatham's said that Nathan, one of five sons she raised, was an extremely sensitive boy devastated by his parents' divorce. He was 12 when Cheatham's marriage to Bill Cheatham Reed, a naval officer, dissolved.
"'He never got over it,' said a friend who dated Sheila Cheatham in the early 1990s and spoke on condition of anonymity because he is now married.
"The friend added that Sheila Cheatham asked Reed to help pay for psychiatric care for Nathan...."
"A man who shot and killed four people before turning the gun on himself has been linked to two other shooting incidents, according to police. One of his victims also is linked to the shootings....More information, including some pictures, is available at NBC-4. This channel is constantly updating the story.
"Detectives said they have connected Adam Price and Cheatham, 27, to two shooting incidents on Dec. 21. Investigators said that the two men allegedly drove along the 900 block of Utterback Store Road in Great Falls at about 5 a.m. and shot two bullets into a home. No one in the home was injured.
"Investigators said that at about 7 a.m., the two allegedly shot several times in the 500 block of Utterback Store Road. No homes were struck and no injuries were reported. [A recent broadcast on NBC-4 showed some bullet holes in some of the houses along Utterback Store Road]
"Police said the two cases were still under investigation when the shootings occurred Christmas Day.
"Investigators believe that Cheatham grew concerned about police discovering his involvement in these shootings."
Update 3 (Sunday, January 1, 2006, 10:42 A.M.) from an article in the Washington Post:
"Sheila Cheatham considered it her mission in life to help parents raise strong and healthy children.This lady did all that she could to deal with the incomprehensible.
"At Mother Nurture, the day-care center she ran in her McLean home, she encouraged parents dropping off their children to consult her reference library of books on nutrition, discipline and creative learning techniques. She lectured young mothers on the importance of breastfeeding. She broadened her own education with workshops and seminars by leading specialists on childrearing....
"The basement of the big white house on Lewinsville Road was warm and welcoming. It was filled with toys, a long picnic table for meals, cheery murals on the walls and a floor painted to look like a garden with steppingstones...
"Cheatham had struggled to find help for 27-year-old Nathan ever since his emotional and behavioral problems became apparent in early adolescence. Over the years, she took him to therapists, drug counselors and psychiatrists. When he was 15, she had him hospitalized for depression. She gave him a job at her day-care center. To help him foster a sense of independence and self-reliance, she even bought a house near Falls Church where he could live with his two younger brothers....
"For all the ideas Sheila Cheatham had for other parents, none seemed to work for Nathan. There were therapists and nutritionists. She spent countless evenings in group counseling sessions for parents and teenagers at the old Fairfax courthouse. She even attended sessions alone, watching other parents interact with their children in an attempt to pick up any fragment of insight that might help...."