As the Department of Children & Families worked to stabilize the family of Sarah Spirit — a young mother with six young children — they sometimes turned to her father. In case after case, alleging Sarah Spirit was a troubled, drug-abusing mother and her children were at risk, the agency viewed Don Spirit as support.
Yet Spirit, who shot and killed his entire family before committing suicide two weeks ago, had been involved in one-third of the 18 abuse and neglect reports child welfare authorities received on the children of Sarah Spirit. He had once been accused of battering his then-pregnant daughter and beating his granddaughter with a belt. While in his care, one grandchild was burned by a space heater, and another fractured his arm.
More than a year before the shootings, a specialized team of child abuse investigators reported several of the children said they were frightened of their maternal grandfather. In the final report, the health department’s Child Protection Team recommended that Spirit “have no unsupervised contact” with the children.
That suggestion was never added to a safety plan — a written DCF approved blueprint — and he did not receive any counseling or social services, according to a DCF self-evaluation released Wednesday.
Sarah Spirit, 28, and her children — Alana Stewart, 2 months; Brandon Stewart, 4; Destiny Stewart, 5; Johnathan Kuhlmann, 8; Kylie Kuhlmann, 9, and Kaleb Kuhlmann, 11 — were living with Don Spirit at the time they died.
Despite his violent past, state records show investigators returned to Spirit again and again for counsel on whether his six grandchildren were safe.
Just over two weeks before the shooting, investigators received a report about the children on the DCF abuse hotline. The Sept. 1 report alleged they were living with adult drug abusers in an unstable home. During the investigation, Spirit told DCF she had recently been released from jail after violating probation by testing positive for illegal substances. Her criminal history included arrests for larceny, shoplifting and drug possession. The fathers of her children are both incarcerated.
In that September case, the investigator did not accurately determine the household composition. The danger assessments “did not document Don Spirit’s extensive criminal history, prior child welfare involvement and verified abuse of his grandchildren,” a preliminary review of DCF’s role with the family leading up the the shooting stated. “Don Spirit was only consulted as a family support despite his designation as an alleged perpetrator of the substance abuse in the [earlier] September 2014 investigation.”
The year before, one of Sarah Spirit’s children, Kylie, told DCF that her grandfather beat her with a belt on her knee after “flipping out over the children playing on his couch.” Under questioning by the health department team in Gainesville, Kylie said she sustained bruising from the beating from “Papa Donnie.”
A DCF report on the incident said the children confirmed their grandfather beat them with a belt. Spirit, the report said, was “dangerous.”
While Spirit denied hitting the girl with a belt.
DCF and police records portray the grandfather as a 51-year-old bipolar man with a criminal history spanning nearly two decades.
From 1990 to 1996, while Spirit was living in Hillsborough County, he was charged at least seven times with a mix of misdemeanors and felonies. The charges included battery, drug possession and depriving a child of food and shelter.
In 2001, Spirit accidentally shot his 8-year-old son, Kyle, in the head during a hunting trip, killing him. Spirit served a three-year sentence for felony firearms possession in the case, as he already had been convicted of marijuana possession and was barred from carrying a gun. His criminal history of 13 arrests also included aggravated battery, marijuana possession, larceny, and a hit-and-run with injury.
The next year, Spirit was arrested for domestic battery when he allegedly beat his wife, smashed the couple’s phone and “busted all the windows out” of her 2000 Chevy Blazer with a sledgehammer. He also “snatched” her hair, called her a “bitch,” and threatened to kill her, a police report said. Witnesses, police said, “all were very afraid for the safety of [the] victim.”
When police arrived, Spirit’s wife defended her husband, “expressing concern for [his] mental state” as a result of the hunting accident that killed his youngest son. His wife, Christine Spirit, refused to give police a written statement, saying it would “just make him more angry.”
In December 2006, Spirit was arrested again for battery. Court records say Spirit became furious with his son, Joshua, when he saw the boy’s friend wearing Joshua’s jacket. “Don Spirit called Josh a punk, and began punching him in the face,” a report said. Joshua Spirit suffered abrasions to his left eye, both sides of his neck and his shoulder blade, a Gilchrist County Sheriff’s deputy wrote. The charges against Spirit later were dropped.
In August 2008, Spirit was arrested again, this time for aggravated battery on a pregnant woman. His daughter, Sarah, was 38 weeks along with her fourth child, Destiny, and the Spirits were living together. Don Spirit was insisting that his daughter pay his property taxes, and, when she refused, he ordered her to leave the home. Her father grabbed her by the arms, shoved her against a refrigerator and “boxed her cheeks very hard,” and “slammed” her face, leaving red marks. A police report said DCF’s abuse hotline was alerted to the incident.
While Spirit was awaiting trial, his daughter made a plea to a Trenton judge on his behalf. “My father is a good person, he just has a lot of emotional problems,” she wrote. “My baby brother died about 5 yrs ago while in my dad’s custody, and that is something he has to live with for the rest of his life. Ever since my brother died, my dad hasn’t been emotionally or mentally stable. He has a lot of problems, but he would never hurt somebody intentionally.”
“Please have mercy on my father and don’t take him away from his only reason to live,” she wrote, referring to her family. “I forgive him for what he did, and I am willing to stand by his side.”