When the final bullets were silenced at a home on a dirt road in a rural small town about 35 miles outside of Gainesville, Fla., every family member inside was dead, deputies said.
Donald Spirit is believed to be the lone gunman responsible for slaying his 28-year-old daughter and her six “happy-go-lucky” children. But after investigating through the night, Gilchrist County deputies still don’t know why the 51-year-old man opened fire on them before calling 911 and then killing himself Thursday afternoon.
In a 2001 hunting accident, Spirit also admitted to killing his young son and was later sentenced to three years in prison for the crime. The while Spirit was in prison, his family was constantly concerned he might attempt suicide, court documents show.
Although Spirit’s mental health was called into question after the accident, it’s not clear if his son’s death had anything to do with Thursday’s murder-suicide.
At a news conference Friday morning, Gilchrist County School District Superintendent Rob Rankin said at least 25 grief counselors were sent to local schools, including the one attended by the victims, Bell Elementary.
“It hurt me to be on campus and see the kids feeling the way they did this morning,” Rankin said. “It’s devastating to our school.”
The victims were identified as Kaleb Kuhlmann, 11; Kylie Kuhlmann, 9; Johnathon Kuhlmann, 8; Brandon Stewart, 4; Destiny Stewart, 5; 2-month-old Alanna Stewart, and their mother Sarah Spirit, 28.
Of the elementary school-aged victims, one was a kindergartner, one was in second grade, another was in third and the other was in fifth grade, Rankin said.
According to Rankin, teachers never noticed any signs that would have hinted at trouble inside the home in Bell, a town of fewer than 1,000 residents.
One teacher, whose name was not released, told Rankin that she put one of the young victims on a school bus about 3 p.m. Thursday. At that point, everything seemed normal but within an hour, the children were dead.
“We would all like to know why this happened … but we’d just be speculating at this time,” said Lt. Jeff Manning with the Gilchrist County Sheriff’s Office.
Deputies had been called to the home before for minor issues, Manning added.
This is the first homicide the town has seen in more than a year. In the last case, one person was killed and the case was closed quickly when the suspect was arrested, officials said.
“This is devastating but we refuse to let this define us and how we do things,” said Gilchrist County Sheriff Robert Shultz III. “Our focus is on our children.”
Donald Spirit, a New Jersey native, had a criminal record, Shultz said.
He spent three years in prison on a gun charge after he accidentally shot and killed his son Kyle on a 2001 hunting trip in Osceola County, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
The accident happened outside Kenansville on Nov. 14, 2001. Spirit was pointing out rust on the muzzle of his rifle when it fired, striking 8-year-old Kyle in the head.
He put Kyle in the flatbed of his truck and drove to a campsite, an area near U.S. Highway 441, where he got help.
Spirit was a felon from a previous drug conviction at the time of the shooting. Spirit pleaded guilty to a charge of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon just as his trial was set to begin, in exchange for the minimum sentence.
In a letter to Judge Thomas W. Turner dated Feb. 10, 2003, wife Christine Spirit wrote that her husband constantly blamed himself for Kyle’s death. He had trouble sleeping, she wrote, and she could not leave him alone for fear that he would hurt himself.
Time in prison, away from the refuge of his family, could push her husband to commit suicide, Christine Spirit wrote.
She pleaded with the judge to waive the mandatory three-year sentence because her husband “has punished himself more then (sic) the court system could ever punish him.”
“Staying together and being here for each other has helped all of us,” she wrote. “Life for me will be horrible without him. Every time the phone rings I will be thinking that it is the jail calling to say he killed himself.”
And if he were sent to jail, Christine Spirit said, he would miss important family milestones. Their 17-year-old daughter was expecting her first child three months later, in May. Another son was turning 13 at the end of February.
“Our family has been through so much and I don’t know more we can stand,” Christine Spirit wrote.
The letterhead Christine Spirit used was decorated with two apples with angel wings with the word “Jax” under them, an allusion to her deceased son’s nickname, AppleJax.
Calls to Spirit’s family were not returned.
(Orlando Sentinel staff writer David Harris contributed to this report.)
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