Mass killing of 7 horrifies Florida town

Kaleb Kuhlmann uploaded to Sarah Spirit's Facebook page on Dec. 8, 2011.
Kaleb Kuhlmann uploaded to Sarah Spirit's Facebook page on Dec. 8, 2011. Facebook/Gainesville Sun

It was hard enough for the adults in this tiny north Florida town to make sense of the mass killing that jolted their community Thursday.

It was even harder explaining it to their children, who knew four of the victims from the local grade school.

So on Friday morning, parents and students arrived at Bell Elementary in an apparent state of bewilderment, many with tears streaming down their faces. Uniformed sheriff’s deputies escorted them into the building. Once they were inside, nearly 30 grief counselors awaited them to talk about the tragedy.

“This has been a tough morning at our elementary school,” Gilchrist County Schools Superintendent Robert Rankin said. “These students were loved by their classmates, by the teachers and the staff.”

Meanwhile, law enforcement officials held a news conference on Friday but provided no new information on the gruesome crime or what might have motivated a 51-year-old man named Don Charles Spirit to kill his 28-year-old daughter and six grandchildren — none more than 11 years of age — before taking his own life.

Gilchrist County Sheriff Robert Schultz declined to say if drugs had been involved, or to whom the weapon had belonged. Just reconstructing the crime scene could take days, especially because there were no survivors.

Even Gov. Rick Scott conceded he was struggling to understand the mass shooting.

“This is a small community,” Scott said Friday afternoon during a visit to Bell. “Everybody knows these children. So you just don’t know what goes through the suspect’s mind when this happens.”

What happened in Bell took place at a mobile home off a dirt road in this rural Florida community, about 40 miles west of Gainesville.

Police say Spirit went on a violent rampage Thursday afternoon, killing seven members of his family.

Schultz, the county sheriff, said a deputy had gone to Spirit’s home to investigate a reported shooting around 4 p.m. He made contact with Spirit, who killed himself.

Investigators then found seven bodies inside the home. Each suffered gunshot wounds.

The victims were identified as Sarah Spirit, 28; Kaleb Kuhlmann, 11; Kylie Kuhlmann, 9; Johnathon Kuhlmann, 8; Destiny Stewart, 5; Brandon Stewart, 4; and Alanna Stewart, an infant who was born in June.

Schultz said deputies had been to the home in the past for various reasons but did not provide additional details.

“There’s still a lot of unanswered questions,” he said. “There’s going to be questions that we’re never going to get answered.”

Court records show Spirit had often run afoul of the law.

While living in Hillsborough County from 1990 to 1996, he was arrested and charged at least seven times for various misdemeanors and felonies. The charges included battery, drug possession and depriving “a child of food, shelter.”

In 2001, Spirit accidentally shot his son, Kyle, in the head during a hunting trip in Osceola County. The young boy died instantly.

At the time, Spirit had already been convicted of marijuana possession and, under law, was not allowed to carry a firearm. He pleaded guilty to a felony firearms violation and served three years in prison.

“I may not have lived the best life,” he said in a tearful 2001 interview with the then-St. Petersburg Times before going to jail.

Devastated by the accidental shooting death of Kyle, the family moved to Bell for a fresh start.

But after relocating, Spirit, who left prison in 2006, would be charged with several misdemeanors and felonies. In 2008, he spent nearly four months in jail on a battery charge, and in 2009 he was put on probation after a DUI charge was reduced to reckless driving.

Spirit’s children also had brushes with the law. Sarah Spirit, who was killed Thursday, was charged with grand theft last year and served probation.

Two of the men who fathered her slain children are serving time in prison.

Reuters reported late Friday that Sarah Spirit had gone to court in 2008 to request protection from her father but did not follow through with authorities.

Still, neighbors did not suspect problems at the house. Some said they saw Don Spirit around town and at school functions with his grandchildren, and were surprised he would be capable of such a horrific crime.

Rankin, the superintendent, had not seen signs of trouble, either. He described the children killed as “happy-go-lucky students.”

For the 350 people who call Bell home, the mass killing is something they would read about elsewhere and not experience themselves.

It truly is a small town, with a downtown dotted with businesses, Baptist churches and a BBQ joint. Most of the community is farmland. Its residents grow peanuts, corn and watermelon and raise cattle.

They choose Bell because it is peaceful — and small.

“Even if you don’t really know someone, you at least know who they are,” said Brittany Durst, 19.

Throughout the community, people felt a personal connection to the shootings. And everyone had a story to share.

Dolores Miuldin, 65, remembered Don Spirit coming to her roadside vegetable stand to buy softball-sized onions, tomatoes and homemade preserve.

John Prentice’s four nieces and nephews had been on the school bus with Sarah Spirit’s children Thursday afternoon, he said.

Justin Travis, 20, said he saw Sarah Spirit last Saturday during his shift at the Dollar General. He was working again Thursday afternoon when a customer delivered the grim news.

“Nobody could believe it,” he said.

But nowhere was the pain more profound than at Bell Elementary.

“It hurts,” said Amanda Lamb, after bringing her 4-year-old daughter to the school.

Reporting from The Associated Press was used in this article.