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The New York Times

Did He Kill Neighbor to Become ‘TikTok Famous,’ or Was It Self-Defense?

Zachary Latham and the Durham family were South Jersey neighbors who did not get along. Ultimately, their conflict turned fatal.The dispute centered on Latham’s driving. The Durhams — William Sr., his wife, Catherine, and their two sons — thought he was reckless at the wheel, and they confronted him about it more than once, according to the family’s lawyers.Their encounters, which Latham filmed in videos that he posted online, became especially charged in April. In one, he taunted Catherine Durham as “Karen” after she complained about his driving. A TikTok video of the episode that Latham posted has been viewed more than 3 million times.The tensions erupted in a bloody clash on May 4, the authorities said. When it was over, William Durham, a 51-year-old corrections officer, was dead, and Latham, an 18-year-old National Guard private, had been charged with killing him.Now, William Durham’s family is accusing Latham of committing the slaying to become “TikTok famous,” even as they also face charges for their roles in the deadly altercation.In addition to charging Latham with manslaughter and other crimes, the Cumberland County prosecutor charged Catherine Durham and her sons with assault and trespass. In a news release announcing the charges, the prosecutor, Jennifer Webb-McRae, did not say who started the fight or why, but each side blames the other in a tangle of conflicting accounts.At a court hearing in May, Nathan Perry, Latham’s public defender, called the killing a “horrific tragedy,” nj.com reported. Still, Perry said, his client had acted in self-defense and “to a very, very fair extent, the Durhams visited this great sadness upon themselves.”At the same hearing, according to a court filing, Perry said the Durhams viewed Latham as “the James Dean of the neighborhood.””He drives too fast, and his car’s too loud,” Perry told the court. “And they resolved in their mind that they’re going to fix his wagon, they’re going to straighten him out.”The Durhams’ lawyers, who want the charges against their clients dropped and Latham charged with first-degree murder, have a provocative theory for what happened: Latham, they say, deliberately drew William Durham to his death in a bid for social media celebrity.In a June letter to Webb-McRae, the lawyers, Diane M. Ruberton and Robert R. Simons, noted that Latham’s wife, Sarah Latham, recorded the brawl on her phone and said she did so “because it was her and Latham’s intent to post these videos to TikTok and become ‘TikTok’ famous.”For that reason, the lawyers argued, the self-defense claim does not hold up.”If Latham was in fear for his or Sarah’s safety, they both would have retreated inside, called police and stayed there,” they wrote. “They did not because their intent was to lure the Durhams there, attack them and record it for TikTok.”In the letter, which was first reported by nj.com, the lawyers recounted what they said were the results of their inquiry into the events preceding, and surrounding, William Durham’s killing.The interactions began two years ago, when William Durham approached Latham not long after the teenager moved into his grandparents’ house on Thornhill Road in Vineland, about 40 miles south of Philadelphia, to complain that he was driving recklessly.Latham, who was 16 at the time, came to the Durhams’ home later to apologize, the letter said, but he continued to drive erratically.After receding for a time, the tensions resumed around April, when, prosecutors said in a court filing, Latham and the Durhams became “embroiled in a ‘powder keg’ of an escalating feud.”Among the incidents that occurred then was the confrontation between Latham and Catherine Durham that earned 3 million TikTok views. Users who commented on the video, the Durhams’ lawyers wrote, suggested he should cut her tires, egg her house and “go after her.”Several days later, the lawyers wrote, William and Catherine Durham were outside their house doing yardwork when Latham pulled up and yelled, “Hey Karen, we went viral!”The Durhams, their lawyers wrote, sought help from the Vineland police several times but were repeatedly told they could not sign a complaint against Latham since the courts were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.The Vineland Police Department did not respond to a call seeking comment.On May 4, their lawyers wrote, the Durhams confronted Latham after he swerved his pickup truck at their 17-year-old son, who was riding his bike. (Latham says he honked his horn at the boy but did not swerve in his direction.)Later in the day, the lawyers wrote, William Durham pulled his truck into the street to block Latham’s truck. Catherine Durham, recording the exchange on her phone, challenged Latham over the incident involving her son.Video footage shows Latham throwing an elbow at Catherine Durham, pushing her back, knocking the phone from her hand and speeding off toward home, the prosecution filing says. Two friends were in the bed of Latham’s truck at the time.When Latham got to his house, his wife, who was recording the scene with her phone, walked down the driveway to confront the Durhams’ sons as they came onto the property, the prosecution filing says.Sarah Latham told the Durhams’ sons, the filing says, that they had “better back up” because they were “not going to like what’s coming out” of the house. William Durham soon arrived in his truck.Latham’s public defenders say in their filing that he and his wife can be heard on video footage “clearly telling” the Durhams several times to “get off the property — they are not welcome.” The prosecution filing also says Latham issued such a warning.The Durhams, “their hands visibly empty,” continued to approach, the prosecution filing says, and Latham fired a stun gun and swung a knife at one of the Durhams’ sons.William Durham then “grabbed at” Latham, who “slashed him in the right arm with his knife” before retreating into his garage, followed by his friends and William Durham, the prosecution filing says.”A brief but violent melee then ensued,” during which the stun gun was fired repeatedly and Latham’s wife urged him to drop the knife, the prosecution filing says. William Durham was “stabbed under the armpit, puncturing his lung,” in what was thought to be the fatal wound. the filing says.Perry, Latham’s lawyer, did not respond to requests for comment on the suggestion that his client had lured William Durham to his death in hopes of gaining social media notoriety.Webb-McRae declined via email to comment on the claim. In a letter responding to the Durhams’ lawyers, she wrote that the information they had shared with her office would be “taken into consideration.””As to advising you as to what additional charges will be pursued against Mr. Latham,” Webb-McRae wrote, “that will not happen at this time.” Latham is out of jail until his trial begins, which could be some time next year.As for whether the charges against the Durhams would be dropped at this time, she added, “That will not happen.”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company

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