BELL, Fla. -- On the day after Don Spirit carried out a mass killing of his own family — his adult daughter and six grandchildren before ending his own life — this small north Florida town was trying to cope with the horror of what happened less than 24 hours ago.
Meanwhile, law enforcement authorities held a news conference Friday morning, but shed no new information on what weapon Spirit used or what his motive may have been. They did say he was not allowed to carry a firearm because he was a convicted felon and that were no survivors following the violent rampage.
Gov. Rick Scott was scheduled to visit the community on Friday afternoon.
Much of the community’s attention in the aftermath of the mass killing is focused on helping children deal with the tragedy and remembering the children killed.
Gilchrist County schools Superintendent Robert Rankin described Friday as a “tough morning at our elementary school.”
“These students were loved by their classmates, by the teachers and the staff of Bell Elementary School,” he said.
Rankin described the children killed as “happy-go-lucky students.” They were in kindergarten, second, third and fifth grade.
The superintendent said there was no evidence of trouble at the home.
“As far as I know, they all got on the bus yesterday and they rode home,” he said.
Rankin said there were about 30 additional grief counselors and school resources officers at the elementary school, which has more than 500 students.
“Everybody grieves differently,” he said. “We are trying to work with each [student] and meet their needs.”
Parents and children streamed into Bell Elementary on Friday morning in an apparent state of bewilderment. They were escorted from the parking lot by uniformed Gilchrist County sheriff’s deputies, who offered condolences and hugs.
Some young children clutched fists full of tissues.
“The parents are coming in with tears in their eyes,” said Wendy Pineda, who brought her two sons to the school Friday morning. “The children are crying, too.”
Amanda Lamb, 25, hesitated to tell her 4-year-old daughter what had happened. “She wouldn’t understand,” she said.
Lamb went to Bell High School, and had a close relationship with Spirit’s son, Josh. She recalled the family talking about Kyle Spirit, who died in a hunting accident in 2001. “They really missed him,” she said.
Now, Lamb said, the whole town — with a population of about 350 —was grieving.
“It’s going to be a hard day around here,” Lamb said. “We are such a small community. It hits everybody hard.”
Dale Thigpen explained to his daughter, a student in the fourth-grade, that another child had passed away. He felt that he had to, he said.
“Pretty much everybody knows everybody here,” he said. “It’s very shocking that something like this would happen in Bell.”
What happened in Bell took place at a home off a dirt road in this rural Florida community about 30 miles west of Gainesville.
Police say Spirit, 51, went on a violent rampage Thursday afternoon, killing seven family members.
Speaking at a news conference late Thursday night, Gilchrist County Sheriff Robert Schultz said a deputy had gone to Spirit’s home to investigate a reported shooting at about 4 p.m. When he arrived, he made contact with Spirit, who then committed suicide.
Investigators later found seven bodies “all over” the property, Schultz told reporters.
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. There’s going to be questions that we’re never going to get answered,” he said.
The victims were identified as Sarah Lorraine 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 confirmed that Spirit had a criminal history. According to the Florida Department of Corrections website, Spirit was released from prison in February 2006 for a gun charge that was related to the 2001 death of his youngest son, Kyle, during a hunting trip in Osceola County.
On the last day of the trip, Spirit’s hunting rifle discharged as he was cleaning rust off the barrel. The bullet struck the young boy in the head, killing him 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 spent three years in state prison.
Court records in Hillsborough and Gilchrist counties show Spirit had often run afoul of the law.
Hillsborough County court records show Spirit had been arrested and charged at least seven times for various misdemeanors and felonies between 1990 and 1996. Among the charges: battery, drug possesion and depriving “a child of food, shelter.”
Over the last decade, Gilchrist County court records show Spirit had been charged with several misdemeanors and felonies. In 2008, he spent nearly four months in jail on a battery charge, while in 2009 he was put on probation after a DUI charge was reduced to reckless driving.
In a tearful interview with the then St. Petersburg Times in 2001 following the accidental shooting death of his youngest son, Spirit acknowledged he was no saint.
“I may not have lived the best life,” he told the newspaper.