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02 Oct 2014

Details Revealed on the Spirit Family Tragedy

DCF ignored granddad's violent past before he wipes out family

Although Don Spirit had a long and sometimes violent criminal history, DCF
treated him as an asset and often asked him if he thought his grandchildren
were safe.As the Department of Children & Families worked to stabilize the
family of Sarah Spirit — a young mother with six young children — they
turned to her father. In case after case alleging Sarah Spirit was a
troubled, drug-abusing mother and her children were at risk, the agency
viewed Don Spirit as support. Yet Spirit, who shot and killed his entire
family before committing suicide two weeks ago, had been involved in
one-third of the 18 abuse and neglect reports child welfare authorities
received on the children of Sarah Spirit. He had once been accused of
battering his then-pregnant daughter and beating his granddaughter with a
belt. While in his care, one grandchild was burned by a space heater, and
another fractured his arm. More than a year before the shootings, a
specialized team of child abuse investigators reported several of the
children said they were frightened of their maternal grandfather. In the
final report, the health department’s Child Protection Team recommended
Spirit “have no unsupervised contact” with the children. That suggestion
was never added to a safety plan — a written DCF approved blueprint — and
he did not receive any counseling or social services, according to a DCF
self-evaluation released Wednesday. Sarah Spirit, 28, and her children —
Alana Stewart, 2 months; Brandon Stewart, 4; Destiny Stewart, 6; Johnathan
Kuhlmann, 8; Kylie Kuhlmann, 9, and Kaleb Kuhlmann, 11 — were living with
their Don Spirit at the time they died. Despite his violent past, state
records show investigators returned to Spirit again and again for counsel
on whether his six grandchildren were safe. Just over two weeks before the
shooting, investigators received a report about the children on the DCF
abuse hotline. The Sept. 1 report alleged they were living with adult drug
abusers in an unstable home. During the investigation, Spirit told DCF she
had recently been released from jail after violating probation by testing
positive for illegal substances. Her criminal history included arrests for
larceny, shoplifting and drug possession. The fathers of her children are
both incarcerated. In that September case, the investigator did not
accurately determine the household composition. The danger assessments “did
not document Don Spirit’s extensive criminal history, prior child welfare
involvement and verified abuse of his grandchildren,’’ a preliminary review
of DCF’s role with the family leading up the the shooting stated. “Don
Spirit was only consulted as a family support despite his designation as an
alleged perpetrator of the substance abuse in the [earlier] September 2014
investigation.” The year before, one of Sarah Spirit’s children, Kylie,
told DCF her grandfather beat her with a belt on her knee after “flipping
out over the children playing on his couch.” Under questioning by the
health department team in Gainesville, Kylie said she sustained bruising
from the beating from “Papa Donnie.” A DCF report on the incident said the
children confirmed their grandfather beat them with a belt. Spirit, the
report said, was “dangerous.” While Spirit denied hitting the girl with a
belt. DCF and police records portray the grandfather as a 51-year-old
bipolar man with a criminal history spanning nearly two decades. From 1990
to 1996, while Spirit was living in Hillsborough County, he was charged at
least seven times with a mix of misdemeanors and felonies. The charges
included battery, drug possession and depriving a child of food and
shelter. In 2001, Spirit accidentally shot his 8-year-old son, Kyle, in the
head during a hunting trip, killing him. Spirit served a three-year
sentence for felony firearms possession in the case, as he already had been
convicted of marijuana possession and was barred from carrying a gun. His
criminal history of 13 arrests also included aggravated battery, marijuana
possession, larceny, and a hit-and-run with injury. The ne
xt year, Spirit was arrested for domestic battery when he allegedly beat
his wife, smashed the couple’s phone and “busted all the windows out” of
her 2000 Chevy Blazer with a sledgehammer. He also “snatched” her hair,
called her a “bitch,” and threatened to kill her, a police report said.
Witnesses, police said, “all were very afraid for the safety of [the]
victim.” When police arrived, Spirit’s wife defended her husband,
“expressing concern for [his] mental state” as a result of the hunting
accident that killed his youngest son. Wife Christine Spirit refused to
give police a written statement, saying it would “just make him more
angry.” In December 2006, Spirit was arrested again for battery. Court
records say Spirit became furious with his son, Joshua, when he saw the
boy’s friend wearing Joshua’s jacket. “Don Spirit called Josh a punk, and
began punching him in the face,” a report said. Joshua Spirit suffered
abrasions to his left eye, both sides of his neck and his shoulder blade, a
Gilchrist County Sheriff’s deputy wrote. The charges against Spirit later
were dropped. In August 2008, Spirit was arrested again, this time for
aggravated battery on a pregnant woman. His daughter, Sarah, was 38 weeks
along with her fourth child, Destiny, and the Spirits were living together.
Don Spirit was insisting that his daughter pay his property taxes, and,
when she refused, he ordered her to leave the home. Her father grabbed her
by the arms, shoved her against a refrigerator and “boxed her cheeks very
hard,” and “slammed” her face, leaving red marks. A police report said
DCF’s abuse hotline was alerted to the incident. While Spirit was awaiting
trial, his daughter made a plea to a Trenton judge on his behalf. “My
father is a good person, he just has a lot of emotional problems,” she
wrote. “My baby brother died about 5 yrs ago while in my dad’s custody, and
that is something he has to live with for the rest of his life. Ever since
my brother died, my dad hasn’t been emotionally or mentally stable. He has
a lot of problems, but he would never hurt somebody intentionally.” “Please
have mercy on my father and don’t take him away from his only reason to
live,” she wrote, referring to her family. “I forgive him for what he did,
and I am willing to stand by his side.”