In what is being called one of the worst Fairfax County murders in more than a decade, a 27-year-old McLean man shot to death his mother and three family friends on Christmas morning.
Nathan William Cheatham, who had a history of mental problems and drug abuse, killed his mother, Sheila Cheatham, in the driveway of her McLean home at 9:30 a.m.
He then drove his Ford Ranger pick-up truck down the winding backroads of Great Falls to a large house at 10720 Sycamore Springs Lane. After indiscriminately firing more than 50 bullets from his 9 mm handgun at the front of the house, Cheatham broke in through the front door and shot to death Christopher James Buro, 20, Janina C. Price, 50, and Adam Sebastian Price, 19.
Police believe Cheatham methodically walked room to room in the house, kicking or shooting his way into each bedroom, where each of the victims were hiding.
Buro, originally from Vienna, was shot multiple times in his first floor bedroom. Janina Price was killed in the second floor master bedroom. And Adam Price was killed in his second-floor bedroom's closet, apparently in an attempt to hide from the bloodbath.
"Once he started shooting, it did not take long," said Maj. Bob Callahan, commander of the Fairfax County Police Department's criminal investigations bureau.
ALONG THE WAY, police said, Cheatham reloaded his 9 mm automatic handgun multiple times, discarding the empty clips.
As the shooting rampage continued on the upper floors of the three story house, a 20-year-old survivor called the Fairfax County police station in Reston. The survivor, who has not been identified, escaped and told police details of the harrowing scene inside.
The police tactical unit arrived and quickly established a barricade around the perimeter of the house. Heavily-armed police officers entered the home through the basement, slowly securing each room of the 3,600-square-foot home, which was decorated for Christmas.
The officers discovered the three bodies and learned that Cheatham had committed suicide via a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in the master bedroom.
Police also found two black Labrador dogs, one of which had been shot three times. The dog, named Max, was treated by a veterinarian clinic in Vienna and is expected to survive.
INVESTIGATORS said they may never know the motive behind Nathan William Cheatham's string of murders and suicide.
"Perhaps we'll never be able to answer the question that is most prevalent, and that is why?" said Fairfax County Police Chief David Rohrer.
But after interviews with friends and family members, detectives are focusing on the possibility that Cheatham was either on drugs or undergoing a psychotic episode.
"It's a tragic event," said Capt. Michael Spradlin, commander of the Major Crimes Division of Fairfax County police. "There are so many theories out there and we are trying to pin them down."
One of the leading theories is that Cheatham became obsessed with the thought that he would be arrested for a drive-by shooting on Wednesday, Dec. 21.
Early that morning, at about 4:50, Cheatham and Price drove through Great Falls and — for an as yet undisclosed reason — shot twice at a house in 900 block of Utterback Road. One bullet went through a window and the other went through the gutter into the roof.
Several hours later, the two young men shot at another house in the 500 block of Utterback Road. No bullets apparently hit the second house.
"It is possible he was concerned police would find out about the shooting and that's what led to the homicides on Christmas morning," said Officer Rich Henry, a police spokesman. "Why he committed the homicides, only he'll ever know. But we believe this may have been a contributing factor to why he did what he did."
Cheatham had been arrested before in 2000 for driving on a suspended license and again in 2001 for assaulting a police officer and carrying a concealed weapon. In 2002, he was sentenced to 10 days in jail after he was arrested for possession of cocaine.
Though they declined to provide specifics, investigators did say Cheatham had a history of mental illness.
"We do know that he had some contact with mental health professionals," Callahan said.
THE CHRISTMAS MORNING killings brought the county's number of homicide victims for 2005 to a total of 22 — a 10-year high for Fairfax County.
According to police statistics, the murders were among the worst in Fairfax County in a decade. Since 1995, there had been only three other triple homicides in Fairfax County.
Though rare in the quiet neighborhoods of McLean and Great Falls, the area has experienced several similar cases of matricide in recent years.
Last March, Jayant Kadian, a 20-year-old Great Falls resident and Langley High School graduate, was charged with murdering his mother, stabbing her 30 times with a kitchen knife.
Like Cheatham, Kadian also had a history of mental illness and drug abuse. Though he admitted his guilt to police, Kadian's confession was dismissed by a judge in December on a technicality. He is currently awaiting trial in Fairfax County Circuit Court.
In February 2003, 19-year-old Joshua Cooke killed his adoptive parents in their Oakton home, shooting them to death with a shotgun. Cooke is serving a 40-year prison sentence, having pleaded guilty to the slayings.
And in August 1995, Edward Y. Chen, then 29, killed his parents and brother, hiding their bodies in the family's Great Falls home for four years. Chen, a Herndon High School graduate, was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to 36 years in prison.