Another small town in America — this time, the “graceful Old Florida” community of Bell — endures the aftermath of horrific gun violence: heart-wrenching grief, candlelit memorials, and the unanswered why?
Four elementary school children innocently ride the school bus home to a murderous grandfather who guns them down.
In the rampage, convicted felon Don Spirit, 51, shot and killed seven — his 28-year-old daughter and her six children, including a newborn — before killing himself with the .45 caliber handgun he had illegally obtained.
Their school’s superintendent described the children as “happy-go-lucky.”
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The children lived in grinding poverty crowded into a trailer with drug-addicted adults.
The Gilchrist County sheriff, who for days following the killing declined to reveal the type of weapon Spirit used, said we may never know what happened and why.
The highly dysfunctional Spirit family was well-known to local and state authorities, who had been to the home to intervene in quarrels between father and daughter and to investigate neglect, threats, and violence by Spirit.
Gov. Rick Scott, on the scene Friday, said all we can do is pray.
This was a killing foretold.
As facts slowly emerge despite the official protective shield authorities and the tight-knit community have raised around the family, there’s mounting evidence that local and state authorities failed to protect these vulnerable children. For one, the long father-daughter history of drug abuse, domestic abuse and unlawful conduct, including illegal gun possession, was readily available.
The state’s Department of Children and Families, alerted to problems with Sarah Spirit’s parenting as early as 2007, received a report on Sept. 1 that Sarah’s children — Kaleb Kuhlmann, 11; Kylie Kuhlmann, 9; Johnathon Kuhlmann, 8; Destiny Stewart, 5; Brandon Stewart, 4; and Alanna Stewart, a 2-month old — were living with a neglectful drug-abusing mother and grandfather.
Why weren’t those children promptly removed from the home of angry law-breakers with a long history of child neglect and domestic violence? Why didn’t local authorities investigate further a convicted felon with a history of illegal gun possession who threatened to act with violence, Gilchrist County police records show, as far back as 2002 and again in 2008?
This was a man who killed his youngest son, 8-year-old Kyle — put a bullet through the child’s brain — as he was cleaning his rifle on the last day of a hunting trip in 2001. The death was ruled an accident, but Spirit, already a convicted felon, went to prison for three years for violating probation by having a firearm. And that’s only one item in a criminal record that encompasses three counties and includes 13 arrests for aggravated battery, marijuana possession, larceny, and a hit-and-run with injury.
Yet police officers who are quoted on television and newspapers lament: “How could anyone have predicted this?”
What else does a man have to do to be treated like the criminal he is in a one-ZIP code town — population 500 and 98 percent white, according to City Hall estimates — an agricultural community where people claim to know each other?
Why didn’t DCF exhaustively intervene in the case of a 17-year-old with an absent mother and a history of drug abuse who starts having children she can’t house or feed with loser boyfriends, one after another?
Bell may be a town of lovely farmsteads with large oaks dripping Spanish moss and rows of pecan trees, but as it knows too well now, it isn’t immune from the state’s or the nation’s failings.
We pay a high price to live in a culture that worships guns and a man’s right to own them, amass them, and proudly expose his vulnerable children to them — a culture that stereotypes criminals and too often chooses to look the other way when they’re one of their own. We pay a high price to turn our eyes away from inherited cycles of poverty, from the lack of mental health services and the need for contraception, no matter what’s preached in church.
Authorities may run for cover and choose to act clueless, but the reasons why six innocent children were gunned down are right in front of our faces.