August 7th, 2016 was a perfectly normal day for the Toothman family—until it wasn't. 20-year-old Zachary Toothman was home from college for the summer. Attending Virginia Tech, he was a member of the school's Corps of Cadets and Navy ROTC program. However, his grades were in the gutter, so bad that he was placed on academic suspension. Zachary was ineligible to return to Virginia Tech in the fall, but this was an embarrassment he hadn't shared with his family.
Clueless to her son's academic struggles, Susie Toothman suggested Zachary go grab his laptop so she could help him register for classes. Zachary went up stairs and grabbed his father's—Michael Toothman, a veteran Chesapeake police detective—service revolver. His brother, 17-year-old Matthew Toothman, was up there playing video games. He was the first to be fatally shot.
Hearing the gunshot, Michael and Susie rushed to the staircase. Zachary shot his father in the arm, and Michael engaged him in a struggle for the firearm. Zachary beat Michael over the head with the gun and shot him once more. According to court documents, Michael's last words were directed at Zachary: "I love you."
Zachary shot Susie in the back of the head. Struggling for life, she pretended she was dead until she found an opportunity to escape her son's rampage. Zachary set the gun down on a chair, and Susie grabbed it and stumbled outside, where a neighbor, Walter Murphy, ran to her aid. Zachary stepped out of the house after her.
Murphy's daughter, Kimberly, came out to see to Zachary while her father helped Susie. Zachary reportedly latched on to her and burst into tears. Kimberly rocked the young man and rubbed his back, later describing him in court as behaving like a small child.
When the police arrived at the scene, Zachary initially tried to pin the shootings on his mother, saying that she felt like her family had turned against. However, DNA evidence heavily contradicted this story. When Zachary went to trial in June of 2017, he pled guilty to the murders of his father and brother, as well as the attempted murder of his mother. But what was his motive?
Eight months prior to the murder of his family, Zachary attempted suicide. He was sent to a facility for a week where he was treated for the incident. The doctors claimed that it was merely a one-time episode. They didn't think anything like this would happen again. As such, the family declined to put Zachary on medication, as one of the side effects was an increased risk of suicide.
Susie holds fast to the belief that her son didn't shoot his family out of malice, but out of sheer desperation. Zachary's defense attorney said that the young man used a happy mask to disguise the depression and anxiety swirling around inside of him, and that he was simply unable to cope with life. Several relatives testified to Zachary's delicate nature and lack of maturity. He was described as a people-pleaser who was unable to make his own choices. One of his aunts said that he felt a large amount of pressure from his mother to succeed. His step-grandfather said that the young man would always turn to his mother for approval.
While his mother begged the judge for mercy for her last living family member, Zachary asked for no such leniency. He expressed that he couldn't forgive himself, but that he would use the time an opportunities presented by a prison sentence to prevent tragedies like this in the future. He wanted to honor the memories of his father and brother, so that "they [would] be vindicated somehow."
Special prosecutor Paul Ebert of Prince William County made it clear that he did not think Zachary's actions were a result of mental illness. He called Zachary a sociopath, and asserted that he believed these murders were deeply premeditated.
Circuit Court Judge Randall Smith seemed to agree with this sentiment. Describing the case as on of the "most unusual," he said that despite there being a clear reason for the violence, it was was clearly planned, and psychiatric evaluations suggested competence. He sentenced Zachary Toothman to the maximum: two life terms plus 23 years in prison.
Zachary Toothman may someday qualify for geriatric release.