A Virginia man charged with shooting and killing a neighbor Tuesday is a NASA executive and a former Washington state police officer who fatally shot two people in separate line-of-duty incidents, according to family members and government officials.
Michael Hetle, 52, worked in NASA’s headquarters on risk mitigation for the space agency’s programs and activities as part of the Enterprise Protection Program, NASA said Wednesday. He joined the agency in 2010 and served in various positions.
Hetle was also a former officer with the Bellevue police for nearly a decade before his resignation in 2003, the department said. Hetle was involved in a controversial 2001 shooting of an unarmed Latino man, Nelson Martinez-Mendez, during a domestic-violence call and the 2000 shooting of a bank-robbery suspect who was armed, the department said.
Both men died. Hetle was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in each case.
The shooting of Martinez-Mendez drew protests and accusations of racial bias against Hetle and the department. The man’s family later settled a civil suit against Bellevue and Hetle over the shooting for $75,000, The Seattle Times reported.
Hetle was separately disciplined for a traffic stop in which an Ethiopian immigrant accused him of racial bias, according to news accounts.
Hetle reached a settlement with Bellevue to drop a claim of emotional distress against the police department that required him to resign in 2003. The settlement also required that only certain materials about Hetle’s time with the department be forwarded to future employers.
NASA declined to comment on whether the agency was aware of Hetle’s tenure with the Bellevue police.
In Tuesday’s incident, Fairfax County police said they were called to the 7700 block of Bedstraw Court in Springfield about 4:50 p.m. for a report of a man shot. When officers arrived, they found Javon Prather, 24, suffering from an apparent gunshot wound outside a home, police said. Hetle and Prather both lived on Bedstraw Court.
Officers provided medical care, but Prather was pronounced dead on the scene, police said. Hetle was arrested and charged with second-degree murder and use of a firearm in commission of a felony. He was arraigned Wednesday and is being held without bond at the Fairfax County jail.
Fairfax County police have not disclosed a possible motive for the shooting, but Javon Prather’s mother, Shavon Prather, said Hetle had a feud with her son and his wife that dated back years. She declined to discuss what sparked the arguments.
Shavon Prather said the feud was bad enough that her son and his wife had considered selling their home and that police had been called to the neighborhood on multiple occasions. She said Hetle had a restraining order against her son’s wife.
“[Hetle] would call the HOA and say there was dog poop in their backyard,” Shavon Prather said. “He would call and complain when they put out trash. Anything he could do to scold them and to get them in trouble.”
Shavon Prather said her son had told her he believed Hetle was biased and targeted him and his wife because they are biracial. Fairfax County Police Lt. Stephen Wallace said police did not have any evidence there was any racial animus that motivated the shooting.
Shavon Prather said the shooting unfolded as her son went to check the mailbox, according to an account she was given by her daughter-in-law, who Shavon Prather said witnessed the shooting. Hetle and Javon Prather exchanged words and Hetle pulled out a gun, firing multiple shots, according to the account.
Shavon Prather said her son was nearing the end of a stint with the National Guard and planned to reenlist. He worked at a Giant Food store near his home, and she described him as outgoing. He had two brothers.
“He was full of spirit,” Shavon Prather said. “He was very hardworking.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan tweeted his condolences Wednesday.
“We’re deeply saddened by the passing of Specialist Javon Prather, a member of the 175th Infantry Regiment of the Maryland National Guard,” the tweet read. “The First Lady and I ask all Marylanders to join us in sending our heartfelt prayers to Javon’s family, friends, & to all those who loved him.”
Jason Free, who is Hetle’s former brother-in-law, said he was stunned to learn of the killing.
“From what I knew, he was very professional,” Free said.
Free said Hetle spoke several languages, has two children and was divorced from Free’s sister. Free said Hetle had grown up in California.
Hetle also previously worked for the Department of Homeland Security as a director and was a 25-year veteran of the Navy and its Reserves, according to an online biography on NASA’s website.
When asked for comment, Bellevue police referred to a statement that detailed Hetle’s separation from the department in 2003.
Court records did not list an attorney for Hetle.
The Washington Post’s Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.