Did he kill neighbor to become ‘TikTok Famous,’ or was it self-defense?
Ed Shanahan/ New York Times
Zachary Latham and the Durham family were South Jersey neighbors who did not get along. Ultimately, their conflict turned fatal.
The dispute centered on Mr. 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 Mr. Latham filmed in videos that he posted online, became especially charged in April. In one, he taunted Ms. Durham as “Karen” after she complained about his driving. A TikTok video of the episode that Mr. Latham posted has been viewed more than three million times.
The tensions erupted in a bloody clash on May 4, the authorities said. When it was over, Mr. Durham, a 51-year-old corrections officer, was dead, and Mr. Latham, an 18-year-old National Guard private, had been charged with killing him.Now, Mr. Durham’s family is accusing Mr. 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 Mr. Latham with manslaughter and other crimes, the Cumberland County prosecutor charged Ms. 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, Mr. Latham’s public defender, called the killing a “horrific tragedy,” nj.com reported. Still, Mr. 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, Mr. Perry said the Durhams viewed Mr. Latham as “the James Dean of the neighborhood.”
“He drives too fast, and his car’s too loud,” Mr. 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 Mr. Latham charged with first-degree murder, have a provocative theory for what happened: Mr. Latham, they say, deliberately drew Mr. Durham to his death in a bid for social media celebrity.
In a June letter to Ms. Webb-McRae, the lawyers, Diane M. Ruberton and Robert R. Simons, noted that Mr. 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, Mr. Durham’s killing.
The interactions began two years ago, when Mr. Durham approached Mr. 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.
Mr. Latham, who was 16 at the time, came to the Durhams’ home later to apologize, the letter said, but he continued to drive erratically.
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After receding for a time, the tensions resumed around April, when, prosecutors said in a court filing, Mr. Latham and the Durhams became “embroiled in a ‘powder keg’ of an escalating feud.”
Among the incidents that occurred then was the confrontation between Mr. Latham and Ms. Durham that earned three 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, Mr. and Ms. Durham were outside their house doing yardwork when Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Latham after he swerved his pickup truck at their 17-year-old son, who was riding his bike. (Mr. Latham says he honked his horn at the boy but did not swerve in his direction.)
Later in the day, the lawyers wrote, Mr. Durham pulled his truck into the street to block Mr. Latham’s truck. Ms. Durham, recording the exchange on her phone, challenged Mr. Latham over the incident involving her son.
Video footage shows Mr. Latham throwing an elbow at Ms. 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 Mr. Latham’s truck at the time.
When Mr. 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.
Ms. 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. Mr. Durham soon arrived in his truck.
Mr. 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 Mr. Latham issued such a warning.
The Durhams, “their hands visibly empty,” continued to approach, the prosecution filing says, and Mr. Latham fired a stun gun and swung a knife at one of the Durhams’ sons.
Mr. Durham then “grabbed at” Mr. Latham, who “slashed him in the right arm with his knife” before retreating into his garage, followed by his friends and Mr. Durham, the prosecution filing says.
“A brief but violent melee then ensued,” during which the stun gun was fired repeatedly and Mr. Latham’s wife urged him to drop the knife, the prosecution filing says. Mr. Durham was “stabbed under the armpit, puncturing his lung,” in what was thought to be the fatal wound, the filing says.
Mr. Perry, Mr. Latham’s lawyer, did not respond to requests for comment on the suggestion that his client had lured Mr. Durham to his death in hopes of gaining social media notoriety.