BROOKSVILLE — On the night of her 17th birthday, a crowd of loved ones gathered outside Brene Marshall’s home beneath a bouquet of shiny balloons tossing in the wind.
Holding candles, teary-eyed friends and family members chimed in to sing a Happy Birthday song the teen would never hear.
"I want all y’all parents and all y’all kids to understand something from this day: Hug your mamas, hug your daddies. Hug your friends," family friend Carlos Haynes said to the group. "Let them know you love them, because tomorrow is not promised to none of us."
Three nights earlier, on Jan. 23, Marshall and her mother, 40-year-old Taneta Morrell, were shot and stabbed to death in their home, just steps from where loved ones now stood to memorialize them. A third victim of the home invasion, Marshall’s step-father Adolphus Washington, remained in the hospital Wednesday in stable condition.
Although a suspect was arrested directly following the shooting, it wasn’t until Jan. 26, as the vigil came to a close, that the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office released a name.
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Khristian Donyell Francis, a 23-year-old transient of Brooksville, faces two counts of first-degree murder and one count each of attempted first-degree murder and armed burglary, arrest records show.
According to an arrest affidavit, deputies arrived at the family’s home at 27378 Azen Loop east of Brooksville just before 9 p.m. They had received multiple reports from neighbors of screaming, gunshots and the sound of glass shattering. Another caller reported seeing a man, later identified as Francis, running from the house.
Deputies found Marshall and Morrell dead inside, the affidavit said, and Washington, who suffered gunshots to the neck and abdomen, out front.
"With the use of hands (Washington) was able to show there was only one suspect," the affidavit said. Washington told deputies he had known Francis for about a year. He told a medic "‘Khristian’ shot him and that he did not know why."
Meanwhile, the sheriff’s helicopter and police dogs tracked Francis as he ran west through the neighborhood. He broke into another home at 27199 Thorncrest Ave., a vacant residence about an eighth of a mile from the shooting scene, and barricaded himself inside, deputies said.
Eventually, Francis was taken into custody by SWAT deputies without resistance. He was arrested on three felony warrants — violation of probation, resisting an officer and felon in possession of a weapon, according to jail records — and held while detectives investigated the shooting, the Sheriff’s Office said.
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From his hospital bed Jan. 26, hours before his attacker was charged with the murder of his family, Washington picked Francis’ mug shot out of a photo lineup, identifying him as the culprit.
He told investigators Francis had knocked on the door under his carport, and when he answered, shot him twice. Washington fell to the ground, listening to gunshots and screams as Francis stormed inside, according to the report, before using the front end of a car parked there to pull himself up.
Washington made his way to a neighbor’s house and used a brick to break the front window, hoping to get help, the affidavit said. When no one answered, Washington walked back to the carport, where Francis began striking him with the end of a pellet gun before he could get back inside his home and lock the door, deputies said.
During a search of the area between Washington’s house and the house on Thorncrest Avenue, deputies reported finding the following items near the intersection of Azen Loop and Boxwood Street: Morrell’s black leather purse, a shotgun, a pellet rifle and a large kitchen knife matching a set at the victims’ home, covered in a red substance believed to be blood.
The morning after the attack, Sheriff Al Nienhuis told reporters the crime scene was "horrific."
"There was a lot of violence that went on in the house," he said.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show Francis was arrested as an 18-year-old in 2012 for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. The next year, he was arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill, a third-degree felony, but that charge was later dropped, records show. In 2014, Francis was convicted of unarmed burglary and grand theft, both felonies. In 2016, records show, he was arrested twice for violation of probation, felony unarmed burglary, misdemeanor battery, resisting an officer and possession of a weapon by a felon, but was never convicted.
From his cell at the Sumter County Detention Center, Francis declined the Tampa Bay Times’ request for an interview.
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Rashawd Morrell, son of Taneta Morrell and brother to Marshall, opened the vigil last week with a prayer thanking God for those who came. He called the group a "backbone" for his own family as they struggle to understand what happened.
"No one person alone can handle something like this," he said. "Everybody here needs everybody here."
Through tears, Shayna Morrell, a 22-year-old niece of Taneta Morrell, urged attendees to look around and realize the power of one man’s actions. She told the crowd to "stand together and spread the love" her aunt and cousin left them with.
Later, Rashawd Morrell spoke of forgiveness.
"Forgiveness is a choice, and acceptance comes from that choice," the 24-year-old said, adding that he and his family have chosen to forgive Francis. "A lot of times God tells us to be still, then stuff like this happens and you gotta be still."
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.