Without a word, Hetle fired three shots at the 24-year-old Giant worker, a prosecutor later said in court, describing a scene captured by Hetle’s Ring camera. The wounded man tried to run, but three more blasts followed him down Hetle’s front stairs. Prather collapsed, before Hetle fired a seventh and final shot into body.
Hetle swiveled, the prosecutor said, pointing the gun at Prather’s wife, Janelle, who was just feet away next door. Hetle, according to the prosecutor, had a question for her: Did she want some too?
Prather died and Hetle was charged with murder, but views over which man was the instigator in that final confrontation have divided the neighbors just as starkly as the feud that preceded it. The argument touches on race, class and the perennial tensions over neighbors who share a common wall in a townhouse community.
“This was an execution,” a Fairfax prosecutor said in court as he argued Hetle should remain jailed pending trial in the March 4 slaying.
Hetle’s attorney volleyed back that it was something else entirely — self-defense. Meghan Matulka told a judge the security footage didn’t show threats Javon Prather made before making his way to Hetle’s front door and made a motion that led her client to think he had a weapon. Prosecutors said Prather was not armed.
Matulka said Hetle was a beleaguered homeowner who had dealt with threats and provocations from the couple next door for too long. During one hearing she pointed to the courtroom gallery, where she said three neighbors sat who now felt less safe that Hetle was in jail.
“Mr. Prather and his wife Janelle Prather as well as the many occupants and transients that have come and gone from their home have tormented and terrorized the residents of their community since they moved in,” Matulka told a judge.
To the Prathers, the dispute seemed to be about more than just neighborhood nuisances. The couple, who are mixed race, thought Hetle was trying to run them out of the Springfield community in part because of their identity.
That sense was bolstered by something they would only learn after the tragedy. Hetle, who is White, is also a former police officer who killed two people in the line of duty and was once disciplined after allegations of bias in a traffic stop. Hetle and his wife declined an interview, but Matulka denied any racial animus.
“He wanted to do anything he could to get us out of the neighborhood,” Janelle Prather said of Hetle.
Tension on Bedstraw Court
Things started very differently on Bedstraw Court, a stubby block of about 10 red brick, colonial townhouses several miles from the Springfield Metro. The Daventry neighborhood has grassy common areas, shady paths and a community pool, the type of place residents invariably describe with a single word: quiet.
Janelle Prather bought her home with gray siding and a cranberry door in 2013. Hetle’s wife, a Fairfax County schools administrator, popped over that first year with Christmas cookies, Janelle said. Hetle and his wife would walk their dog and chat with neighbors.
Little seemed amiss at first.
A drizzle of complaints began in 2015.
Neighbors noticed people coming and going from Janelle’s home “both day and night” and the smell of marijuana wafting from the property, according to a lawsuit later filed against Janelle Prather by the homeowners association, which claimed she was violating neighborhood rules.
The issues grew in the following years with neighbors complaining about drunken parties, loud music, loose dogs, unscooped poop and domestic disputes at Janelle’s home, the filing claims. There were complaints that visitors threw bottles and condoms into other people’s yards and asked neighbors for use of cellphones and bathrooms, according to the lawsuit.
“We knew that house as the problem house,” Mario Arandia, a neighbor, said of the Prathers’ home.
Janelle acknowledged some of the issues in an interview but said others were misrepresented. She said Hetle trained a surveillance camera on her home and frequently made complaints to the homeowners association and police. The Daventry Community Association declined to comment, referring The Washington Post to its legal filings. The suit was dropped after Javon Prather’s death when both sides reached an agreement to resolve the issues.
“He really made it miserable,” Janelle said of Hetle.
Amid the issues, Janelle married Javon in 2017. Family described him as funny, someone who couldn’t get through a conversation without cracking a joke. Javon was a specialist in the Maryland National Guard, something Janelle said he loved. He was planning to reenlist.
Janelle’s sister said he had a military demeanor.
“I would say, ‘Stop calling me Ma’am,’ ” Dalice Sanders said. “He would say, ‘Okay, Ma’am.’ ”
Janelle traces the turning point between the Prathers and Hetle to a single day in February 2019.
She said she returned home from a funeral to find Javon stewing. “Hetle came up to me and said, ‘Do the neighborhood and the HOA a favor and move out,’ ” Janelle said Javon told her.
Drained from the funeral, Janelle said she marched over to Hetle’s home and cursed him out. She said she told him if he wanted them out so badly he should buy her home.
The next month Janelle was charged with destruction of property, after hurling candlesticks and bottles at Hetle’s car during another argument, according to court records. She eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and a judge required her to pay $1,800 in restitution.
Hetle got a restraining order.
“Suspect has . . . been contacted by police for her continued threats against me, including ‘I will kick your fat a--,’ [and] ‘I will get you,’ ” Hetle wrote in his petition for the restraining order. Janelle said she never intended any violence.
The homeowners association sued Janelle in April 2019 over ongoing issues at her home.
In September, Hetle called the police about Javon during a heated argument. Javon was arrested for being drunk in public. He “was spewing threats,” according to Hetle’s application for a restraining order against Javon Prather that was denied.
In 2019, Fairfax County police responded to the Prathers’ home 49 times, police records show. Janelle had spent thousands on an attorney to defend herself against the homeowners association lawsuit.
She feared she might lose her home.
A final clash
Janelle said that she and Javon knew little about the man who lived next door in the home with mustard trim. She said she sometimes did a Google search on Hetle to try to find out more. The one thing that she said might have made a difference didn’t show up in her search results: Hetle had been a police officer with a controversial tenure.
Before working his way up the ranks at NASA, Hetle held a job across the country with the Bellevue Police Department in Washington state. In the span of a year, Hetle was involved in two fatal shootings and a traffic stop for which he was disciplined after allegations of anti-immigrant bias.
Hetle and another officer shot and killed a bank robbery suspect in 2000, after the man charged toward one of them holding a gun, Bellevue police said. The shooting was ruled justified.
A month later, Hetle pulled over an Ethiopian immigrant, according to a disciplinary letter from the Bellevue department obtained by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Hetle made comments about the woman’s ethnicity and ability to speak English, sent a request to the state to make her retake her driver’s test and told her he was going to get her deported, the newspaper reported the letter said. Hetle displayed “animus” toward the woman as an immigrant, the newspaper quoted the letter as saying.
Matulka said she didn’t have details about the incident but said her client denies any bias.
In 2001, Hetle shot and killed a Guatemalan immigrant while responding to a domestic violence call, Bellevue police said. Hetle ordered the man out of his car and fired on him after he reached for his waistband, according to the Seattle Times. Matulka said a weapon was found inside the man’s car but nothing was on his person.
Hetle was cleared of wrongdoing, but the shooting sparked protests by members of Bellevue’s Latino community and allegations of racial bias. Matulka said Hetle shot the man because he “feared for his life.”
Hetle left the department in 2003 and moved to the D.C. area. NASA declined to comment on what the agency knew of his history before he was hired in 2010.
Janelle said she was sick when she learned of Hetle’s past.
“If Javon and I had known that, we would definitely have not bickered with him,” she said.
Matulka said she thought Javon Prather was aware that Hetle was a former police officer. Either way, the feud carried on.
About two weeks before the shooting, Janelle said she was playing hip-hop in her car in front of her home. Hetle opened one of his windows and she said he screamed, “Turn the music down — you’re ghetto!”
Two days before the shooting, Janelle and Javon put their townhouse on the market, in part because they were fed up with the dispute and the issues with the homeowners association.
Hetle’s attorney outlined his version of the shooting in a bond motion filed in June. The day of the shooting, Javon Prather was taunting Hetle and blasting music from his car, according to the account. In response, Hetle called the police non-emergency number several times that afternoon.
Just before the shooting, Prather grew aggressive, according to the account. Prather pounded on the common wall between their homes and then headed to Hetle’s home, running up the steps to the front door, Matulka wrote.
Prather pounded on Hetle’s door so loudly that the townhouse shook, according to the account. Hetle opened his door and shouted, “Get back!” Prather’s hand was in his pocket, according to the bond motion. When Prather removed it, Hetle thought he had a weapon and opened fire.
Hetle has not yet entered a plea. Matulka said in statement that prosecutors have yet to respond to a June request for any exculpatory evidence and that “fair play demands that the defense be provided any evidence that supports the innocence of Mr. Hetle and we are confident that the Commonwealth is currently in possession of such evidence.”
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said his office is respectful of a “fair and honest” process and would share the discovery in a timely fashion, but the case is not scheduled for a preliminary hearing until November.
Janelle said the trauma has made her memories fuzzy, but she does not think the shooting was provoked. She said she remembers things clearly from the moment Hetle’s front door opened. She said Hetle was wearing wraparound sunglasses and had a gun pointed at her husband.
After the shooting and Hetle’s threat against her, she said, she ran to where Javon had collapsed facedown, rolled him over and tried to drag him toward their home. Blood ran from his mouth. Janelle said she slapped his face, telling him again and again: “Wake up!”
She said Hetle had a simple rejoinder: “Javon’s not going to wake up.” He turned and walked back inside his home and shut the door “as if nothing happened,” she said. Blood covered Janelle’s hands and shoes, as she shouted for someone to call 911.
It was too late.
Hetle remains jailed as he awaits trial. His family sold the Bedstraw Court home after the shooting and moved out. Janelle still owns her home but said she would not return.