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DCF Investigated Home Where 8 Died

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
AP Photo/Gilchrist County Sheriff's Office
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Two weeks before a Florida man fatally shot his daughter and six grandchildren, someone called the state child abuse hotline, worried that adults were doing drugs in front of the kids, according to documents released Monday.

Authorities said 51-year-old Donald Spirit called 911 from his mobile home Thursday warning he might hurt himself or others. By the time a deputy arrived, Spirit had committed suicide. And he had killed 28-year-old Sarah Spirit and her six children, including an infant girl born in June.

The Department of Children and Families said it opened an investigation into Sarah Spirit on Sept. 1 after getting a tip that she or other adults in the home were smoking pot and synthetic marijuana in front of the children. Spirit told investigators she had tested positive for drugs when she was screened by her probation officers and was arrested on Aug. 26 for violating that probation.

When she got out of jail, Spirit and the children were kicked out of their home and went to live with her father. Besides the baby, the children were 11, 9, 8, 5 and 4. Four of the children were found dead about two hours after boarding the bus home from school.

Gilchrist County Sheriff Robert Schultz said their bodies were found all over the property of Don Spirit's mobile home in Bell, a rural, north Florida community of about 500 residents.

Both father and daughter had a troubled history and were the focus of several child abuse allegations. Most involved complaints that Sarah Spirit was neglecting the children and abusing drugs, according to child welfare officials. The agency investigated a domestic incident between Sarah and the father of one of the children in 2013, but no details were given. The two men who fathered her slain children are behind bars.

One of the more troubling calls came on Aug. 27, 2008, when Sarah Spirit alerted police that her father beat her in front of her 3-year-old. She was 36 weeks pregnant at the time.

An officer found Sarah with red marks on both sides of her face. She said he'd become enraged after she told him she couldn't pay his taxes on the property where they both lived, according to Gilchrist County court records.

"He then grabbed her by the arms and shoved her up against the refrigerator and then took both his hands and placed them close to the sides of her face and boxed her cheeks very hard leaving red marks on them just below the eyes," the officer wrote in his report.

When Gilchrist County sheriff's deputies arrived to arrest Don Spirit the next day, he refused to come out of the house, saying "that the only way we were going to get him to come out is to break down the front door and throw in in the tear gas," court records show.

Spirit eventually gave up, and was taken into custody.

Weeks later, Sarah Spirit wrote a letter to the court, asking for leniency and taking blame for what happened.

"I forgive him for what he did, and I am willing to stand by his side and help him (through) his problems," she wrote.

Child welfare officials said they had referred the troubled young mother to voluntary services three times since 2007, but noted in a report that Sarah Spirit didn't "fully engage" in the services offered in 2013.

Earlier this year, Florida lawmakers made sweeping changes to the way DCF relies on such parental services after repeated complaints that children were being taken from foster care and returned to dangerous home environments based on little more than verbal promises from parents to do better and attend parenting, anger management or substance abuse classes. After several child deaths, a new bill says safety plans can no longer rely on verbal promises from parents.

Gilchrist County court records are littered with police reports documenting violence between Don Spirit and his ex-wife and daughter with details of him terrorizing them.

Most recently, there was a report that Don Spirit hit one of his grandchildren with a belt in 2013.

In 2002, police reported that Don Spirit had smashed his wife Christine's car with a sledgehammer.

Christine Spirit said she was worried about her husband, who she said had become suicidal after he accidentally killed their 8-year-old son in a hunting accident in 2001. He was convicted of a gun charge in the killing in 2003 and spent about three years in prison.

After questioning by police, Christine told officers she was afraid of her husband, who had threatened to kill her.

When police asked her to make a formal statement about the violence her husband had directed at her, the officers said she refused.

Three years later, the couple divorced.