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Before Va. Rampage, Mother Feared Son Would Kill Self

By Bill Turque and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

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.

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.

On Christmas morning, Cheatham killed his mother at the McLean home he shared with her, then drove to a house on Sycamore Springs Lane in Great Falls and killed three acquaintances before fatally shooting himself in the head with a 9mm handgun, authorities said.

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.

Toxicology tests, which might show whether Cheatham was under the influence of drugs at the time of the shootings, will not be available from the state medical examiner for about three weeks, said Officer Richard Henry, a Fairfax County police spokesman.

Police identified the victims in the Great Falls home as Adam S. Price, 19, a friend of Cheatham's, and his mother, Janina C. Price, 50. Also killed was Christopher J. Buro, 20, a friend of Adam Price's, who might not have known Cheatham directly.

Some new details about the slayings and those involved emerged yesterday from court records and the law enforcement sources. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, identified the survivor of Cheatham's rampage as Alex Price, 20, the son of Janina Price and brother of Adam. He took refuge in the basement of the Great Falls home before calling police.

An affidavit filed in 2003 in Fairfax Circuit Court said a confidential informant told police that Adam Price was "involved" in drug use and that Janina Price was "involved in the distribution of prescription drugs." The affidavit also said illegal drugs were kept at the Prices' home on Woodleaf Lane, where they lived before moving several weeks ago to nearby Sycamore Springs Lane.

Detective Donald Kline wrote that police records showed Adam Price, then 16, had been charged with illegal possession of several drugs, including phenobarbital and oxycodone, the main ingredient in the prescription painkiller OxyContin. The outcome of the case could not be determined because the juvenile court record is not public.

During a July 2003 search of the Woodleaf Lane home, police found a bong, rolling papers, bags with marijuana residue, other "smoking devices" and small plastic bags. They also seized records and packages of a prescription drug.

Law enforcement sources also revealed yesterday that the Prices made efforts to keep Cheatham away from their home Sunday morning. When Cheatham phoned the Great Falls house, the Prices saw his number on the caller ID and decided not to answer. At some point, investigators said, Janina Price called Cheatham back and told him that it was a day for family and that a visit would not be welcome. The slayings occurred a short time later.

Hicks, a former prosecutor for Falls Church, declined to discuss what had, by Sheila Cheatham's account, so agitated her son. He said that the matter did not involve drugs and that it was not nearly as serious as Nathan Cheatham apparently believed it to be. He also said Adam Price knew the details of Cheatham's difficulties and shared them with his mother.

Cheatham had several brushes with the law in recent years and spent several months in jail after 2001 convictions for assault and battery, carrying a concealed weapon and escape, court records show.

In March 2002, Cheatham was charged with cocaine possession in Fairfax County. At the time, he was unemployed and living with his mother. He had recently left a job he had held for a few months at a Chicken Out Rotisserie restaurant.

Cheatham pleaded guilty to the possession charge, but a judge agreed to defer a final disposition while Cheatham completed two years of supervised probation, drug treatment and screenings, and 120 hours of community service.

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.

"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. The farm is closed until April.

Hicks said he remembered Cheatham as a decent but troubled young man. "It was obvious he had some pretty serious emotional problems," the lawyer said.

He also recalled that Cheatham was extremely close to his mother. "The boy worshiped his mother," he said. "He worshiped the ground that she walked on."

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.

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.

"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."

Staff writers Michelle Boorstein, Karin Brulliard, Tom Jackman and Carol Morello and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

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