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Homicides, suicides make January Hernando's bloodiest month in recent memory

BROOKSVILLE — Jan. 10: A married couple are found dead in their lakefront mansion, the victims of a murder-suicide.

Jan. 14: Two women are killed during a shooting rampage at a home-based color analysis business. Two more women are wounded, and a sheriff's captain and a fetus will later die as part of the tragedy.

Jan. 23: Another murder-suicide, this time a couple who lived in a gated golf course community.

It was the bloodiest January in Hernando County in anyone's memory.

During those two weeks, there were more homicides here than in all of 2009. In fact, there were more murders in Hernando in January than during five of the years of the past decade.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement figures technically do not even include the deaths of Dr. Robert Blackburn and George Larsson, who both turned the gun on themselves after fatally shooting their wives. Their deaths are classified as suicides.

To be sure, the horrific incidents are both rare and unrelated. But experts note that the murders all occurred against the backdrop of increasing rates of domestic violence and tension during one of the most economically stressful periods in the county's history.

"It does suggest — particularly in a small community like Hernando — that there may be an increase in stress level," said Kathleen Heide, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida. "I think it's a hard time for people right now. It seems like the negative climate is wearing people down."

The violent outburst to kick off 2010 dampened some of the enthusiasm within the Sheriff's Office, which was hopeful that a 15 percent drop in violent crimes in 2009, according to recently released figures, would extend into the new year.

In a matter of days, that hope evaporated.

"I hope it's over," said sheriff's Chief Michael Maurer. January "has certainly been challenging for us. But we don't intend it to be a template for the rest of the year."

The mayhem started on Jan. 10, when prominent osteopathic physician Robert Blackburn, 55, killed his wife, Sarah, 40, in their sprawling home in one of Spring Hill's lavish communities. He savagely beat and strangled his wife before shooting her once in the head. Blackburn then shot himself.

Four days later, John Kalisz, a 55-year-old roofer, drove to his sister's house in rural Brooksville, walked in the front door armed with a 9mm handgun and started shooting, officials say. He fired 15 rounds, officials say, killing his sister Kathryn Donovan, 61, and her 59-year-old office manager, Deborah Tillotson.

Donovan's daughter, Manessa, 18, and another employee, 33-year-old Amy Wilson, each suffered multiple gunshot wounds and survived, though pregnant Manessa lost her fetus during surgery. Kalisz fled north to Cross City, where he killed Dixie County sheriff's Capt. Chad Reed in a shootout, officials say.

And then on Jan. 23, at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital, George Larsson went into the room of his wife, Dorothy, and killed her, authorities say. He then walked outside the front doors and shot himself. They were both 85 and had been married for more than half a century.

"We've never had four (homicides) in one month, as far as I can recall," said Sheriff Richard Nugent, who has worked at the agency for more than 25 years. "And they were each different and unique. We're praying that the rest of the year is much quieter."

Maurer said he couldn't remember a bloodier stretch in Hernando since 1993, when Edwin "Mike" Kaprat III was responsible for a terrifying series of crimes. Kaprat killed five elderly residents that year, raping two of the women and trying to burn all of their bodies and homes.

"That was a busy year," Maurer said. "But that was very unusual. This has been a bad month."

Sensing a shift in the local mood, the West Hernando/Spring Hill Hadassah recently held a symposium titled "Anger and Rage — What is becoming of our society" at Temple Beth David in Spring Hill.

The local chapter of the largest women's Jewish and largest Zionist organization in the United States invited local authorities and officials, including Maurer and Nugent, to discuss some of the reasons why people seem more tense and angry than usual.

"People are so stressed out, anything will set them off," said Barbara Auerbach, vice president of education for Hadassah. "We're all walking on that thin line between sanity and insanity."

Heide said a combination of factors may have contributed to the gloomy mood: a crippled local economy, anger with government and record numbers of job losses. Hernando has been hit particularly hard, with the second-highest unemployment rate in Florida at 14.9 percent.

"We're all living with a lack of certainty," Heide said. "And if your relationship is falling apart, your health is declining or your family is not all that supportive, it can make all the difference in pushing someone over the edge."

Though authorities say little can be done to prevent similar crimes, Heide said making sure that residents realize there's counseling and other services available during tough times could potentially make a difference.

"You never know," Heide said. "Maybe seeing a number to a help line on a billboard could make someone think twice before taking such extreme measures. It couldn't hurt."

Auerbach echoed that advice, saying that people should stay connected to their communities during tough times.

"People need to know they're not alone," she said. "No one wants to be isolated. You want to know there's a lot of company out there.”

Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

Homicides, suicides make January Hernando's bloodiest month in recent memory 02/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 12, 2010 8:43pm]
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