Killings of Florida mother, six children stun community

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 19, 2014 6:00 AM

By Barbara Liston

BELL Fla. (Reuters) - As Florida police examined why a 51-year-old felon shot his daughter and her six children to death before killing himself, grief counselors on Friday were sent to a school that lost students at nearly every grade level in the shooting.

More than two dozen counselors were dispatched to Bell Elementary School, which the grandchildren of Don Spirit had attended before police said he killed them on Thursday.

"They were happy-go-lucky students," said Robert Rankin, superintendent of schools in Gilchrist County, a rural community of 17,000 people in the northern part of the state.

"It really hurt me this morning to be on our campus and seeing kids feeling the way they did," he told reporters.

Deputies were scouring the scene of the murder-suicide on Thursday, but no motive had been identified.

Officials provided scant detail on the events leading up to the deaths, which occurred shortly after school let out.

Gilchrist County Sheriff Bobby Schultz said Spirit called the 911 emergency line and killed himself after deputies arrived at the house at the end of a dirt road. His daughter, Sarah Spirit, 28, and her children, were found dead.

The children were identified as Kaleb Kuhlmann, 11, Kylie Kuhlmann, 9, Johnathon Kuhlmann, 8, Destiny Stewart, 5, Brandon Stewart, 4, and Alanna Stewart, 3 months.

"We feel like he was a lone gunman," Schultz said on Friday. "This is devastating, but we refuse to let this incident define us."

He said the children had many local relatives. It was not clear if they shared the same father.

Schultz said police had been called numerous times to Spirit's home near the small town of Bell, tucked amid horse and cow pastures 35 miles (56 km) west of Gainesville.

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None of the calls involved domestic violence, Schultz said.

A New Jersey native, Spirit had an extensive criminal history, according to public records, including convictions for drug and illegal weapons possession, battery and depriving a child of food and shelter.

In 2001, Spirit shot his young son in the head while cleaning rust off the barrel of his rifle on a hunting trip, the Tampa Bay Times newspaper reported.

The shooting was ruled an accident. Spirit pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm as a convicted felon in that case and served nearly three years in prison, the paper reported.

(Additional reporting by David Adams and Curtis Skinner; Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins)