JUPITER — Federal marshals and law enforcement officers from Jupiter to southern Miami-Dade County are searching today for Michael Merhige, the 35-year-old Miami-area man police believe shattered a family Thanksgiving dinner in Jupiter.
Merhige fatally shot his twin sisters and his 76-year-old aunt, and injured two other relatives, and killed a 6-year-old relative as she slept in her bed.
"God packed a lot of sweetness into that little body," Jim Sitton, shaken and ashen, told reporters this morning.
The photographer for WPTV-TV Channel 5 found himself on the other side of the camera in the worst way.
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Merhige, the cousin of his wife Muriel killed his own twin sisters and Muriel's mother.
And Makayla, the Sittons' only child.
Merhige, who as a Miami-area teen had been a top scholar and athlete at the prestigious Gulliver Preparatory School, is believed armed and dangerous, Jupiter police said.
Seventeen invited friends and relatives, including Merhige, were packed into the home at 104 Via Veracruz, near Military Trail and Indiantown Road.
Merhige had had some issues with his relatives, but "the problems could not have been that bad because they invited him over for dinner," Jupiter Police Chief Frank Kitzerow said this afternoon.
"It was discovered the suspect did in fact have on-going resentment toward several family members within the residence," police said in a release. "At some point, the suspect exited the residence and returned a short time later. As he stood inside the residence, he began shooting the victims without warning."
Police said Merhige killed the child, sisters Lisa Knight — who was pregnant — and Carla Merhige, both 33, and aunt Raymonde Joseph.
He injured Lisa Merhige's husband, Patrick Knight, 37, a lawyer and motivatinal speaker, and a cousin, Clifford Gebara, 52 .
Knight went to St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach in critical condition and was upgraded to stable condition this afternoon, police said.
Gebara was treated at the hospital and released.
"God be with us and our family and friends," relative Beth Knight posted on her Facebook account from the Chicago area. Keep my brother-in-law in your prayers as he is fighting for his life right now. God be with us!"
A man who looked like Merhige drove toward the Sitton home about 5:30 p.m. Thursday, said Carole Turano, a neighbor who was walking her dog.
"He looked confused. We saw him drive up to the house. I recognized the photo when I saw him on television," Turano said.
Merhige, who lives in the Kendall area southwest of Miami, fled in a blue 4-door Toyota with Florida tag W42 7JT, police said.
State records show he had only one arrest, for misdemeanor disorderly conduct in Miami-Dade County in 1998, and underwent pretrial diversion.
Police have not determined how many shots were fired Thursday night.
"We have determined it was a handgun by the shell casings," Jupiter Police Spokesman Scott Pascarella said.
"I heard three quick shots. Shortly after, I heard the police cars and the helicopters," said Vera Armstrong, who was house-sitting for her daughter about three houses away from the salmon-colored, barrel-tiled Sitton home. "I called my daughter and she said, 'Oh no, don't tell me it was Makayla.'"
This morning, authorities began to gather evidence inside the home after waiting most the night for a search warrant.
Jupiter police had raced to the home just after 10 p.m. after getting numerous 911 calls, Pascarella said.
Because the case still is fluid, Kitzerow, the police chief, would not describe the 911 calls, and would not describe the condition of the home or detail what police might have learned about the moments surrounding the shooting.
The first call to 911 came from neighbors who heard gunfire, the second from within the home.
"Then we heard all the helicopters," said neighbor Fran Labossiere, referring to the Trauma Hawk aircraft that delivered the victims to St. Mary's. "And all the police cars. It was scary."
The Red Cross' disaster team will provide lodging for the family through the weekend. The organization got the call at 2 a.m. and representatives were on site until 8 a.m.
"The family was tired and cold and couldn't go back home," said Anne Kazel-Wilcox, of the Red Cross. "Everyone was shaken up."