Home invasion: Man tells of terror on Cleveland Ave.
It was just before sunrise on Saturday morning, December 6, when 84-year-old James Wyatt was awakened in his Cleveland Avenue bedroom by a nightmare.
This nightmare, however, didn't end when he opened his eyes. A hooded figure loomed over his bed in the still darkened room, pressing a gun to the octogenarian's face, screaming garbled demands. As the haze of sleep evaporated, Wyatt realized with horror he was in the middle of a home invasion–- and now he wants to make sure no one else suffers a similar fate.
"Totally traumatizing," says Wyatt, a retired interior designer and World War II pilot, who had accidentally left a sliding door unlocked, allowing unfettered access to his home, located in the 500 of block of Cleveland Avenue off of Fifth Street.
Sadly, his experience, while horrific, is not unique.
In July 2007, two men burst into a Park Street home and held two residents at gunpoint while the invaders robbed the house. The husband and wife were pistol whipped, but survived.
Later that year, another young woman was not so lucky.
On Thursday night, November 8, 2007, Jayne McGowan, a 26-year-old UVA grad who'd recently returned to Charlottesville to work at a nonprofit, was at home in her tiny rental cottage on St. Clair Avenue after an evening at a friend's house. Sometime after 10:30pm, according to court documents, two men came to her door. They had apparently selected her house randomly, and set about committing one of the most disturbing crimes this town has ever witnessed.
They robbed her of her computer and her car, and shot her multiple times–- the last time, allegedly, as they were leaving the house and realized she was still alive.
Concerned colleagues discovered McGowan's body the next morning after she failed to show up for work. The two suspects, William Douglas Gentry and Michael Stuart Pritchett, are charged with Capital Murder in her death and will stand trial next year.
While McGowan didn't live to testify against her assailants, Wyatt will be able to tell prosecutors exactly what happened during the invasion at his home–- if police are able to apprehend the perpetrator. At press time, police had not returned the Hook's call.
"I said, 'What are you doing in my house?" Wyatt recalls. Although the intruder's shouting was difficult to understand, Wyatt says he finally comprehended the message: "I want your cash."
Forced from his bed with the gun inches from his face, Wyatt retrieved his wallet from a dresser. The wallet contained less than $40, and under cover of darkness, Wyatt says, he was able to palm his credit cards.
The whole time, Wyatt says, he stayed focused on remaining calm–- particularly because he feared his physical response could lead to serious health repercussions.
"I'm a stroke victim," he says, "so this was going through my mind also: 'You cannot lose it.'"
The intruder, Wyatt says, seemed to be a young, African American man, between ages 25 and 30, although his hood and the dark room conspired to obscure his features. Wyatt estimates his height to be the same as his own– about 5'10." He also seemed to be under the influence.
"He was either on something or just desperate," says Wyatt. Once Wyatt had handed him the cash, the intruder forced him back into his bed, then fled.
Wyatt called 911 just before 7am, and police arrived in minutes.
Although the invasion was over, Wyatt says his fear remained.
"It wasn't until the police came and kept saying, 'Are you alright?' that I realized I wasn't breathing. I literally was holding my breath," he says, describing the terror as, "Like trying to scream and not making a sound."
Although his children wanted him to stay with them the night after the attack, Wyatt says he needed to sleep in his own bed–- a trick for overcoming fear he learned as a pilot more than six decades ago.
If you crashed your plane, Wyatt recalls, "The first thing they'd do was put you in a plane and make you take off. It wasn't easy, but it's the best thing you can do."
Still, he's making some changes in security. He now locks not only his external doors but his bedroom door as well, and he says he's planning to install an alarm system. But he still feels the anxiety.
"It's going to take a month for me to feel that the house is my own again," he says, "if it ever does."
He says his message to other area residents is simple.
"I allowed this to happen by carelessness," he says. "Make certain, don't take a chance, check your door, check your windows. If I'd closed that door, he wouldn't have been able to get in."