By Mary Beth Sheridan and Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
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.
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.
Even as police swarmed around the home yesterday, looking for clues, they acknowledged a sense of mystery about the killings, which brought the number of homicides in Fairfax County this year to 22.
"Perhaps we will never be able to answer the question that is most prevalent, and that is, why?" Fairfax County Police Chief David M. Rohrer said at an afternoon news conference.
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.
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.
"He seemed to be a loner," said a woman who lived near the Lewinsville Road home of Sheila Cheatham, near Tysons Corner. "I would see him sitting out on the porch by himself."
Police said that autopsies were being conducted and that they will ascertain whether Nathan Cheatham had drugs in his system.
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.
One Lewinsville Road resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the area -- a mix of modest homes and large, new houses -- as "a wonderful neighborhood. I've been here 40 years, never had anything" happen.
Until Christmas morning.
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."
Neighbors near Janina Price's previous home, on Woodleaf Lane, said they did not know what she did for a living. According to court records, Price, a widow, had been charged nearly 20 times in the past 12 years with minor violations ranging from concealing merchandise to trespassing to driving with a suspended license. The most serious offense appears to have occurred in 1999, when she was sentenced to 30 days in jail on a misdemeanor theft charge.
About 10:25 a.m. Sunday, police received a 911 call from a Price family member who had hidden in the basement after hearing the shots outside. That person, whom authorities declined to further identify, was to be the sole survivor of the attack. Police arrived at the house four minutes later and found Cheatham's idling truck at the end of the driveway. But the shooting was over, they said.
Authorities said that about 11:30 a.m., the survivor fled the house, and police then secured the basement. The tactical unit entered the home about 2 p.m. and found the four dead people, including Cheatham, whose body was in the master bedroom. Police said they discovered bullet holes in the bedroom doors and unused ammunition on Cheatham's body.
Meanwhile, officers sped to the address of the truck's registered owner, Nathan Cheatham, in the 8500 block of Lewinsville Road, about 11 a.m. They discovered the body of Sheila Cheatham, shot multiple times, in the driveway behind the house.
The day's casualties also included a black Labrador retriever named Max, who was found at the Sycamore Springs Lane home. The dog had been shot three times and was taken to a Vienna emergency clinic, where veterinarians performed surgery. The dog is expected to survive, police said.
Staff writers Michelle Boorstein Allison Klein, Carol Morello, Sue Ann Pressley and William Wan and staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.