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A former police officer and NASA executive is facing life in prison after a jury in Virginia convicted him of first-degree murder for the fatal shooting of his mixed-race neighbor, who was a member of the Maryland National Guard.
Prosecutors in Fairfax County said racial animus was a contributing factor when 54-year-old Michael Hetle, who is white, killed Javon Prather, 24. The two men were neighbors for five years and had an acrimonious relationship, frequently arguing about trash, noise, dog excrement, and drinking, according to the Washington Post.
Prosecutors said that Hetle was deeply dissatisfied with the way the homeowners association and local police handled his numerous complaints about Prather and so decided to take matters into his own hands on March 4, 2020.
Hetle testified during his trial that he acted in self-defense as he was fearing for his family’s safety. He told the jury that Prather repeatedly threatened him and stalked him. In December 2019, he was out walking his dog when Prather approached him, he told the court; that night, Prather “was going to perpetuate an attack on me” but dropped a knife before running away, he told the court, according to WTOP.
Hetle also told jurors that police had said that relatives of the Prather and his partner had said the couple was “targeting him,” and were “out to get him,” according to the station.
However, Prather’s mother told the Post that it was Hetle who had targeted her son.
“[Hetle] would call the HOA [Home Owners Association] and say there was dog poop in their backyard,” Shavon Prather told the Post. “He would call and complain when they put out the trash. Anything he could do to scold them and to get them in trouble.”
Prosecutors argued that the killing was not self-defense but first-degree murder.
At the trial, Hetle’s son testified that his father used a racial slur when referring to Prather, the Post reported.
On the day of the shooting, Hetle sent an email to the Home Owners Association indicating that the escalating feud could “result in tragedy,” Fairfax County prosecutor Joe Martin said.
Jurors were shown video encounters between the two men, including the final deadly confrontation, which was captured on a Ring video and obtained by WTTG. Six months before his murder, Prather is seen in one of the videos driving by his neighbor’s home and cursing at him. Once police arrived, Prather shouted at the officers from his front door.
On the day of their deadly encounter, seven shots were fired in six seconds; four were shot at point-blank range and two were fired as Prather is seen falling down a flight of stairs. The seventh shot is fired as he was laying in the driveway, according to WTTG.
Hetle is seen in the video pointing a gun at Prather’s wife.
“You want it, too?” he is heard saying in the footage. Hetle is then seen yelling at her repeatedly to get away as she threatens to call the police. She then dragged her husband’s body out of Hetle’s driveway.
“He didn’t want Javon hurt,” Fairfax County prosecutor Lyle Burnham said during the trial. “He didn’t want Javon to leave. He wanted Javon dead.”
Prather served as an infantryman for nearly four years in the Maryland National Guard, according to WTOP. Hetle, before joining NASA, worked as a police officer for nine years in Washington State.
Shortly before the trial concluded, Hetle called the deadly encounter a “sad, tragic event, horrific occurrence with a horrible outcome. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody to deal with and go through it,” according to WTOP.
Hetle was also found guilty of using a weapon in the commission of a felony. His sentencing is scheduled for January 28.
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