CULPEPER, Va. — Shauna Washington’s mother began to worry about her daughter and grandchildren when she didn’t see them at church. So she went to the family’s home just outside town, and when no one answered the door, she broke in through a window.
But when she entered the house about 10 p.m. Sunday, she came upon a grisly scene. The five family members — including three young girls — were fatally shot. Culpeper authorities are investigating the case as a murder-suicide, saying 35-year-old Clarence Washington killed himself after shooting his wife and three children: Shauna Washington, 35; Onesha Washington, 13; Onya Washington, 6; and Olivia Washington, 4.
The deaths have shocked the rural Virginia county of about 47,000, about 70 miles southwest of Washington.
Deputies arrived shortly after receiving a call from Shauna Washington’s mother, who was distraught as she reported what she saw, Culpeper County Sheriff Scott H. Jenkins said. Investigators think the couple had a heated argument, Jenkins said, but deputies were not called.
“It’s such a tragedy that no one could stop it before it got to that point,” Jenkins said.
Investigators found a firearm at the scene, but officials declined to say what kind.
The house is tucked away in a wooded area off a busy stretch of Rixeyville Road, where the sounds of cars zooming past on the highway Monday mixed with birds and crickets chirping. Two pink-and-white bikes sat next to the house at the end of a gravel walkway as deputies investigated the scene.
Reggie Massie, a neighbor, said he had not noticed anything amiss with the family. The Washingtons had hosted a big Fourth of July celebration for neighbors and relatives and appeared happy. Massie, 38, has a 7-year-old daughter who was friends with the middle child. All of the girls often played in the yard together, he said.
“They were regular people to me,” Massie said. “I never thought this would happen.”
On Monday afternoon, two houses over, two girls stood on the porch eating ice cream as news trucks parked in the neighborhood all morning began to leave.
“Is Olivia still in her house?” a 4-year-old asked her mother.
“We played with the girls over there,” her 6-year-old sister said. “We played Marco Polo. Did they die?”
Their mother watched, not sure how to answer. The neighbor asked that her name not be used out of concern for her privacy. What happened is horrible, she said, recalling the family as “tranquil.”
But the 6-year-old said that “a lot of times they fight a little.”
Massie said both parents were hardworking people and each had at least two jobs to support the family. The father worked as a school janitor while the mother had worked as a nurse practitioner. Massie said the family had been living there for about a year and a half.
Bobbi Johnson, the superintendent of Culpeper County Public Schools, said the news has hit the community and staff hard. Clarence Washington had worked at Sycamore Park Elementary School for about six years. Onesha would have started eighth grade at Culpeper Middle School this month, while Onya and Olivia would have started first grade and pre-kindergarten at the school where their father worked, Johnson said.
“We’ve had student deaths or parent deaths, but none in the same family or same incident,” Johnson said. “And not in such a tragic, violent way.”
Johnson said staff described Clarence Washington as a “subdued, quiet man” who was a hard worker. The teaching staff began coming to work today to prepare for the new school year in a few weeks, but “everyone is pretty numb,” Johnson said.
The children were liked, and the Washingtons were involved, showing up to almost every school function together as a family, Johnson said.
“They were delightful,” Johnson said. “This is very sad.”
Bradley Menefee, 45, grew up in the house where the family lived. He lives a few doors down after his father sold the house. Menefee said he rarely saw the Washingtons, but when he did they mostly talked about family.
“It is a pretty quiet, laid-back neighborhood,” Menefee said. “I’m still kind of shocked.”
Jennifer Jenkins, Magda Jean-Louis, Peter Hermann and Victoria St. Martin contributed to this report.