The Spirit family that child welfare investigators confronted two weeks ago presented a volatile mix: two drug-abusing adults, six small children and a history of violence. It exploded Thursday when Don Charles Spirit killed his daughter and six grandchildren one by one.
The killing spree in tiny Bell, Florida, is believed to be the largest loss of life in a single family with a child welfare history ever in Florida. And records show authorities knew there were risks.
On Sept. 1, Florida child protection investigators received a report on the youngsters over the Department of Children & Families’ abuse hotline. They were told that the children of Sarah Spirit, 28, were living with drug abusers. During the investigation that followed, Spirit told the agency she had just been released from jail after violating probation by testing positive for illegal substances. At the time, she was living with her father, a 51-year-old man with a record of violence who had once gone to prison for fatally shooting his son in a hunting accident.
The probe of the hotline report was still open last week when Spirit shot his daughter and her six children — ages 11 years to 2 months — before turning a gun on himself as Gilchrist County Sheriff’s deputies arrived. A DCF report offered no details on its handling of the two-week-old hotline call.
Killed were Alana Stewart, 2 months; Brandon Stewart, 4; Destiny Stewart, who would have turned 6 on Saturday; Johnathan Kuhlmann, 8; Kylie Kuhlmann, 9, and Kaleb Kuhlmann, 11.
On Monday, DCF administrators released records to the Miami Herald suggesting the family had a long history of failed child protection efforts. Allegations concerning Spirit’s parenting ran the gamut: drug abuse, medical neglect, poor supervision of her children, and domestic violence, including fights with her father. Don Spirit had a DCF history also, including an allegation of “the physical abuse of his grandchildren.” Don Spirit, DCF was told, “hit one of them with a belt, which resulted in bruising.”
Sarah Spirit’s history with DCF dates to at least 2007, when the agency first offered her “voluntary” services in an effort to improve her parenting. The agency offered help to her two more times, in 2012 and the following year. “It does not appear that services were ever fully engaged in the latter year,” the latest incident report said.
Don Spirit’s history with DCF included allegations that he physically abused both his children and grandchildren, as well as at least one report of domestic violence between him and his daughter.
From 1990 to 1996, while Don Spirit was living in Hillsborough County, he was arrested and 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 in Osceola County, killing him instantly.
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.
Sarah Spirit’s history included arrests for larceny, shoplifting and drug possession. The two fathers of her six children both are incarcerated.
In an effort to review its history with the family, DCF dispatched a “Critical Incident Rapid Response Team,” a triage unit created by lawmakers last spring as part of an overhaul of the state’s long-troubled child welfare system. The law was passed following the Herald’s publication of Innocents Lost, a series that studied the deaths of nearly 500 children whose families had been known to child protection workers.
This is not the first time Florida has seen an entire family killed after a long history of domestic violence and some DCF involvement. Including the Spirit case, there have been at least three such sprees, all occurring in September.
Four years ago this week, Patrick Dell forced himself into his estranged wife’s Riviera Beach home, fatally shooting her and four of her children. Killed were Bryan Barnett, 14; Daniel Barnett, 10; Diane Barnett, 13; and Javon Nelson, 10. Another Barnett boy was also shot but survived. Like Spirit, Dell shot and killed himself as police arrived.
Dell had terrorized his wife, Natasha Whyte-Dell, for three years in fits of anger and jealousy, including threatening her with a knife. In the months leading up to the shooting deaths, Dell told her “your family is going to cry today,” and “you will be going to the morgue.”
The family was dead nine months later.
In September 2009, Mesac Damas allegedly killed his whole family after a decade-long history of beating his wife.
Police discovered the bodies of Guerline, 32, and the five children — their throats all slit — in their North Naples home after she did not show up for work. The children killed were Meshack, 9; Maven, 6; Marven, 5; Megan, 3 and Morgan, 1.
Damas has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder after initially fleeing to Haiti.