A Springfield, Virginia, man charged with first-degree murder in the death of his next-door neighbor took the witness stand in Fairfax County Circuit Court Tuesday to describe what led to the shooting that was captured by a Ring doorbell camera of his front porch.
Detailing more than two years of run-ins and conflict before the March 2020 killing, Michael Hetle, 54, described Javon Prather, 24, as “engulfed with rage,” banging on his front door so violently it gave way a few inches and rattled windows of his home.
Hetle said he believed Prather had a small gun in his pocket. Fearing for his safety and that of his wife and young child, he pulled the door open, and began firing at Prather. He continued to fire even as Prather fell down the front steps because Hetle said he saw no reaction from Prather and no indication the rounds were “taking effect.”
Hetle told the court his gun, typically located upstairs in a drawer, was in the living room in its case before the incident because he intended to clean it.
Fairfax County prosecutor Joe Martin asked Hetle whether he remembers firing a seventh shot after Prather had tumbled down the front stairs and landed on the driveway.
“I see from the video that I did,” Hetle said.
In the years leading up to the shooting, there were alleged incidents of Prather being on Hetle’s roof, in his yard, egging his car, verbally abusing him and making several threats of violence, even in the presence of a police officer.
Documents show Hetle requested a protective order against Prather that was denied. There was a successful restraining order against wife Janelle Prather related to her destruction of property arrest after an incident with Hetle.
Hetle described an encounter in December 2019 that he said felt like a cold bucket of fear being poured over his head. As he walked his dogs in the dark, Hetle was approached by Prather. Prather stared at Hetle so intently that he nearly tripped over one of the dogs, flinched and dropped a knife before running away, the 54-year-old said.
Hetle told the jury that he believed Prather “was going to perpetuate an attack on me.”
After Hetle fired seven bullets in 8 seconds and his neighbor went down, video of the incident showed Hetle appearing to point the gun toward Janelle Prather — who was sitting on her front stoop next door — and shouting, “You want it too?”
Hetle told her to get out of there, indicating she should not come to her husband’s aid. He described what he thought was her moving a knife behind her body to hide it and thinking, “He has a gun; she has a knife … I feared they’d collaborate on an attack.”
Hetle also described being told by police and a Prather family member that Javon and Janelle were “targeting him” and were “out to get him.”
Closing arguments are planned for Wednesday afternoon.
Hetle is charged with first-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. But during instructions, prosecutors and the defense will agree whether lesser included offenses would be appropriate for presentation for consideration by the jury.
Just before the trial concluded, Hetle said he was not happy about what happened that day, calling it a “sad, tragic event, horrific occurrence with a horrible outcome. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody to deal with and go through it.”
Heltle was an administrator for NASA for 10 years and worked for Homeland Security. He was a police officer for nine years in two West Coast cities, including Bellevue, Washington.
Prather served as an infantryman for nearly four years in the Maryland National Guard. His mother, Shavon Prather, told NBC Washington that her son and Hetle argued for years.
“(Hetle) would call the HOA (home owners association) and say there was dog poop in their backyard,” Shavon Prather told The Washington Post. “He would call and complain when they put out trash. Anything he could do to scold them and to get them in trouble.”