BELL, Fla. (AP) — Most people in this rural, north Florida community seemed to know about the Spirit family’s troubled and tragic past.
The patriarch, Don Spirit, who police say killed his daughter and his six grandchildren before committing suicide, served time a decade ago after he accidentally shot his son to death during a hunting trip. His daughter 28-year-old Sarah Lorraine Spirit was on probation at the time she was killed. Two men who fathered her slain children are locked up.
Gilchrist County Sheriff Robert Schultz couldn’t say Friday what may have led up to the shootings. Don Spirit, 51, called 911 on Thursday afternoon from his home to say that he might hurt himself or others. By the time a deputy arrived at his mobile home along a dirt road, Spirit had committed suicide.
“There’s still a lot of unanswered questions. There’s going to be questions that we’re never going to get answered,” Schultz said. Bell, a town of some 500 people, is south of Tallahassee, west of Gainesville and about three hours north of Tampa. Unlike much of Florida, it’s not known for theme parks or beaches or tourist spots. Here, large dairy farms dot the gently rolling hills and most people spend their free time dirt biking, hunting or fishing. It’s common for residents to live in mobile homes on several acres, and Don Spirit was no different.
Several hundred people were at the local high school football game Friday night, many wearing white in honor of the victims. Danielle Barry, 27, grew up in Bell, but now lives in a town about a half-hour away. She was a high school classmate of Sarah Spirit.
“I got off work early to at least wear the white shirt and support everyone the best I could, she said, choking back tears. “Never live for tomorrow because tomorrow isn’t promised.” She said Sarah “was a really good girl, she had a lot of potential.”
It’s unclear when Don Spirit first arrived in Bell. Criminal records show he was in the Tampa area in the mid- to late-1990s. There, he was charged with a variety of offenses, including leaving the scene of an accident involving death. The details of that case couldn’t be obtained Friday.
Schultz said Don Spirit couldn’t legally have a gun because he had a felony record. Killed from gunshot wounds were Sarah Spirit and her children: Kaleb Kuhlmann, 11; Kylie Kuhlmann, 9; Johnathon Kuhlmann, 8; Destiny Stewart, 5; Brandon Stewart, 4; and Alanna Stewart, who was born in June.
Schultz said they were found “all over the property.” He wouldn’t elaborate. According to Gilchrist County criminal records, Sarah Spirit was arrested Aug. 26 for violating her probation. It’s unclear when she was released.
In 2001, Don Spirit was convicted in a case where he accidentally shot and killed his 8-year-old son, Kyle, Sarah’s younger brother. A 2003 story by the Orlando Sentinel said that on a walk through the woods with Kyle and an older son, Spirit pointed out rust on the muzzle of his rifle. The rifle fired, hitting Kyle in the head. Because of an earlier felony conviction for marijuana possession, Don Spirit couldn’t legally possess a gun and spent nearly three years in prison.
Kasey Hart, a friend of Sarah Spirit, said in a Facebook message to The Associated Press, that Sarah was a busy mom, who loved to laugh and watch comedies. “Her poor mother has lost her youngest son, oldest daughter and all her grandkids to her ex-husband,” Hart said.
Both of the men who fathered Sarah Spirit’s children are locked up. Edward Kuhlman, who was the father of the three oldest children, is in state prison for a dozen burglary and grand theft charges. He was serving a 25-year sentence. James Stewart is in Levy County jail on a probation violation charge, according to online records. A message with the jail was not immediately returned.
Property records show that Don Spirit has lived in the mobile home where he shot his family since at least 2006. The two-acre property is worth $20,000, according to the county property appraiser. Gilchrist County Schools Superintendent Rob Rankin said four of the children attended Bell Elementary School. They were enrolled in kindergarten, second grade, third grade and fifth grade. A teacher there said she put the children on a bus at 3 p.m. They were found dead at Spirit’s home less than two hours later.
Twenty-nine-year Bell resident Barbara Whiddon cried when asked about the killings at a convenience store. She said she knew some of the slain children. “If he was going to do something he should have done it to himself. Them babies is God’s angels,” he said.
Wides-Munoz reported from Miami