Fairfax County police yesterday were interviewing the brothers of a man they say fatally shot his mother and three other persons before turning the gun on himself Christmas morning.
But they say they do not know what motivated him to commit the killings.
“Perhaps we will never be able to answer the question that is most prevalent and that is, ‘Why?’” said Col. David M. Rohrer, chief of police for Fairfax County.
Police said Nathan Cheatham, 27, fatally shot his mother, Sheila, 53, at her McLean home in the 8500 block of Lewinsville Road between 9:30 and 10 a.m. Sunday.
He then drove to a home in the 10700 block of Sycamore Springs Lane in Great Falls, where he fatally shot Janina Price, 50, her son, Adam Price, 19, and family friend Christopher Buro, 20.
The victims were found in bedrooms and looked as if they had tried to hide or get away from their attacker, police said.
Cheatham used a 9 mm handgun and shot through walls and doors to hit some of his victims, police said.
His body was found in the master bedroom with what police said was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
A yellow police tape yesterday cordoned off the entrance to the sprawling white hilltop home, which is partially hidden by tall bare trees and sits about a quarter-mile from the main road in Great Falls.
“We do know that he was acquainted with the family that lives on Sycamore Springs Lane,” Fairfax County police Maj. Robert Callahan said.
Maj. Callahan said police think Cheatham had been asked not to visit the house Christmas morning.
Police arrived after a 911 call at about 10:25 a.m. Sunday, Maj. Callahan said.
Neighbor John De Wit said he and his family were opening Christmas gifts when they heard four or five bangs in “quick succession,” but thought they were fireworks.
“We get a call from the Fairfax County police at about 10:30 a.m. telling us to stay inside,” said Mr. De Wit, 60. “We thought we’d heard fireworks earlier, but it turned out to be gunshots.”
A tactical team took positions around the victims’ house, with police uncertain whether the gunman had barricaded himself inside.
At about 11:30 a.m., an unidentified 20-year-old man who lived in the house emerged. Police entered through the basement at about 2 p.m. and conducted a search.
Maj. Callahan said a Ford Ranger with the engine running was in the driveway. The car was registered to Cheatham.
When officers went to the Lewinsville Road address on the registration, they found Mrs. Cheatham’s body in the rear driveway.
Police said a witness saw Mrs. Cheatham and her son in a car at their home about 9:30 a.m. Gunshots were heard a short time later but not reported.
At the house, Mrs. Cheatham operated a licensed day-care center called Mother Nurture for children up to 12. She shared the house with her son.
Residents said the upper-middle-class McLean neighborhood is quiet and “typical.”
One resident who asked not to be identified said Cheatham visited her home several times years ago when he attended Langley High School with her daughter.
She described Cheatham as a “nice and cordial” teen who was quiet and had a talent for music. She never detected anything “off” about him that would indicate psychiatric problems.
“I never would’ve thought he would do something like this knowing him years ago,” she said. “He was just a typical 18- or 19-year-old.”
According to Fairfax County court records, Cheatham had been convicted of possession of drug paraphernalia in 2002, assault and battery of a police officer or firefighter and carrying a concealed weapon in 2001. All the charges were misdemeanors.
He also was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of escaping jail while awaiting trial in 2001.
Mr. De Wit said he has never heard of a slaying in the Great Falls neighborhood where he has lived for 20 years.
Most of the “$1 million-plus” hilltop homes sit on five-acre lots away from the road, “so we don’t see each other a lot,” he said. “Everyone keeps to themselves around here.”
Mr. De Wit said the victims were renting the home. He said he did not know them, but knows the owners.
“I was kind of shocked it could happen in a neighborhood like this,” he said. “I guess it could happen to anyone. You buy houses like this to avoid this kind of thing.”
The killing spree brings the number of homicides to 22 this year in Fairfax County. The county recorded nine homicides last year.