FAIRFAX, Va. — Michael Hetle was an executive at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. His neighbor, Javon Prather, worked at a grocery store and was a member of the Maryland National Guard.
Years of disputes between the two men over dog feces, noise and trash ended in gunfire last March. On Thursday, Hetle, 54, of Springfield, Virginia, was convicted of first-degree murder in Prather’s death.
He was also found guilty of using a firearm in the commission of a felony.
Prather, a 24-year-old National Guard infantryman, was gunned down March 3, 2020, on the driveway of Hetle’s Bedstraw Court townhouse. His wife, Janelle Prather, and multiple shocked neighbors witnessed the shooting, which prosecutors described in court as an execution.
Hetle’s own Ring doorbell camera captured footage of the daylight murder, as well as a chilling threat he shouted at Janelle Prather after firing seven shots into her husband, the last of which was fired as Javon Prather lay dying on the ground.
“You want it, too?” Hetle asked the man’s wife angrily.
The case has inflamed racial tensions in the community, as well as in the Daventry neighborhood where both men lived. Hetle is white and Javon Prather was of mixed race.
“Evidence submitted during the trial revealed that racial animus was a contributing factor in Mr. Hetle’s actions,” Steve Descano, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Fairfax County, said in a statement.
Part of that evidence was the testimony of Hetle’s son, who told the court that his father often used a racial epithet when talking about Prather, according to The Washington Post.
Prosecutors argued that the killing was premeditated, pointing out that the same day he killed Prather, Hetle sent an ominous email to their neighborhood homeowners association. In the message, Hetle warned that the feud between him and Prather could “result in tragedy” if nothing was done.
Fairfax County prosecutor Joe Martin said Heltle was angry because he believed the HOA and police weren’t taking his complaints against the Prathers seriously enough.
‘He wanted Javon dead’
The Post reported that prior to his job at NASA, Hetle was a police officer in Bellevue, Washington. While with the department, he fatally shot two men in separate incidents.
One victim was an unarmed Guatemalan immigrant.
Hetle’s two fatal shootings occurred less than a year apart. They were also two of only three lethal officer-involved shootings in the Bellevue Police Department’s then-48-year history, according to 2001 reports.
In a third incident, Hetle was disciplined for a 2000 traffic stop in which an Ethiopian immigrant accused him of racial bias, the Post reported. As part of the settlement in the case, Hetle resigned in 2003.
Along with his resignation, the settlement in the incident with the Ethiopian woman required that only certain portions of Hetle’s personnel file be given to future employers.
Hetle was cleared of wrongdoing in both fatal shootings. The family of the Guatemalan man, Nelson Martinez-Mendez, later settled a federal lawsuit against the former officer and the department for $75,000.
It wasn’t immediately clear what Hetle did for work in the period between that resignation and his tenure with NASA, which the Post reported began in 2010. In the aftermath of last year’s fatal shooting, NASA officials declined to comment on whether Hetle’s entire work history had been shared with the space agency.
Descano said he plans to seek a life sentence for Hetle, who is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 28.
“Mr. Prather served in the Maryland National Guard and had a bright future ahead of him. He should be with his family and community today,” Descano said.
At trial, the defense portrayed Hetle as firing out of fear for his family’s safety after Javon Prather walked next door and knocked on the older man’s door. According to authorities, the men had argued earlier in the day.
In his testimony, Hetle said he believed Prather was there to hurt him. According to the Post, the defendant claimed that Prather banged on his door so hard that it popped open.
“It was this look of pure rage,” Hetle said of Prather’s expression moments before the shooting. “His eyes were wide and bloodshot.”
In the footage, however, Prather appears calm as he knocks and then waits for Hetle to open the door.
Hetle opens the door and immediately begins firing without warning. Authorities said he fired seven shots in about six seconds.
Hetle’s trial attorney, George Freeman IV, told jurors his client believed Prather was armed.
“Mr. Hetle did not commit a murder,” Freeman said, according to the Post. “He was defending himself and his family.”
In closing statements, Fairfax County prosecutor Lyle Burnham disputed the defendant’s claims of self-defense.
“He didn’t want Javon hurt. He didn’t want Javon to leave. He wanted Javon dead,” Burnham said.
‘Tormented and terrorized’
Authorities and Prather’s family said the dispute between the two men had been ongoing for more than three years before the shooting. Their townhomes were side-by-side, sharing a common wall.
In pretrial court proceedings, defense attorney Meghan Matulka alleged that the Prathers were to blame for the animosity.
“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, according to a September article in the Post.
Janelle Prather argued that Hetle’s beef with the couple seemed to be more about their racial identity than about the usual nuisance issues between neighbors.
“He wanted to do anything he could to get us out of the neighborhood,” she told the newspaper.
All seemed pleasant when an unmarried Janelle Prather first moved into the home in 2013, according to the Post’s report. By 2015, however, neighbors said the complaints had begun.
A lawsuit filed against Janelle Prather by the Daventry Community Association described roaming dogs that left feces in other people’s yards, domestic disputes and loud and drunken parties. Some neighbors complained that visitors at the couple’s home left empty bottles and used condoms in others’ yards and asked to use neighbors’ bathrooms or telephones.
Neighbor Mario Arandia told the Post the Prathers’ home was the “problem house” on the street.
Javon Prather entered the picture in 2017, when the couple married.
In 2019, Janelle Prather was charged with destruction of property after throwing candlesticks and bottles at Hetle’s car during an argument, the newspaper reported. Hetle sought, and successfully obtained, a restraining order against her.
A request for a restraining order against Javon Prather was denied, according to the Post.
That year, police officers responded to the couple’s home a total of 49 times.
Janelle Prather, who told the Post she spent thousands of dollars defending herself against the homeowner’s association lawsuit, said she and her husband knew little about their neighbor. She Googled his name to find out more.
One thing that didn’t show up on her searches was his deadly history as a police officer in Washington state. It was only after her husband’s murder that Janelle Prather learned Hetle had killed before.
“If Javon and I had known that, we would definitely have not bickered with him,” Prather told the Post last fall.
A final confrontation
Hetle and Javon Prather continued to butt heads, but the defendant and Janelle Prather’s descriptions of those arguments differed greatly. Janelle Prather alleges that Hetle continued harassing her and her husband, who put their townhouse on the market days before the murder.
The main source of contention appeared to be loud music.
Janelle Prather said Hetle screamed at her to turn down her music a couple of weeks before the shooting, calling her “ghetto,” according to the Post.
Matulka wrote in a bond motion last year that Javon Prather was using loud music to taunt her client the day of the shooting. Hetle called the nonemergency police number multiple times in response.
According to Matulka’s account, Prather grew aggressive, pounding on the shared wall between the two homes and racing up the steps to Hetle’s front door.
The security camera footage, which was obtained by Fox 5 in Washington, appears to contradict the defense’s description of what took place. Prather is seen going down his steps at a brisk, but casual-looking pace and going up Hetle’s steps to the front door.
Watch the footage below, courtesy of Fox 5.
After Prather knocks, he is seen waiting for several seconds for his neighbor to respond. At no time does he appear to be carrying a weapon.
Fox 5 did not broadcast the shooting itself, but the Post described the footage as showing Hetle’s door swinging open and Hetle firing the first shot, without warning, into Prather’s abdomen.
Prather turns and tries to run away.
Hetle fires five more shots into him before Prather falls to the pavement of the driveway. He then fires the seventh shot as Prather lay prone on the ground.
Four of the bullets were fired at close range, Fox 5 reported. Two struck Prather in the back as he tumbled down the steps.
According to the Post, one of the bullets to the back severed Javon Prather’s spinal cord. The seventh and final shot struck Prather under the chin, prosecutors said.
The footage picks up after Prather is on the ground, the image of his body blurred by the news station, and shows Hetle casually walking down the steps of his porch. As he reaches the landing, he apparently sees Janelle Prather on her own porch.
He aims the gun at her.
“You want it, too?” he asks.
The footage shows a scared Janelle Prather walking onto Hetle’s driveway. Hetle, who had gone back up the steps and into his home, comes out with his gun pointed at the woman.
At one point, Janelle Prather is heard saying something about calling the police.
“You get the (expletive) out of here,” Hetle tells her, again pointing his weapon at the neighbor.
As Janelle Prather moves behind a white car in his driveway, Hetle reacts.
“Get out! Get out! Get away!” Hetle screams at her from his porch, gun trained on her as she spots her mortally wounded husband.
Hetle continues to tell her to get off his property, even as she tries to help Javon Prather.
“Get away!” Hetle shouts repeatedly.
She tells him she needs to get her husband. The footage shows Janelle Prather dragging her husband’s body into their yard.
“Get away!” Hetle continues.
“I am. I am,” Prather tells him as she drags her husband by his wrists.
Javon Prather was pronounced dead at the scene, according to police.
Descano, the commonwealth’s attorney, told WTOP in Washington that the video footage played a vital role in convicting Hetle.
“Being able to actually show the jury what happened and actually being able to show the demeanor and the seven shots, I think, really brought home to the jury the malice of getting this first-degree murder conviction,” Descano said.
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