TAMPA — The front door was already open when deputies arrived about 10:30 p.m.
They stepped on the welcome mat adorned with flowers and a ladybug and peered into the house. There, they found Julia Hill, 68, dying from a gunshot wound to her chest. A .38-caliber revolver lay on the floor by her.
She had shot herself, Hill told deputies Wednesday night. She had also shot her 46-year-old daughter, Tracey Hill. Deputies found Tracey dead in her bedroom, a gunshot to her head.
Julia Hill, who called 911 after shooting her daughter and herself, died later at Florida Hospital.
On Thursday, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office ruled the deaths a murder-suicide. But a question remained unanswered for detectives and loved ones:
"We'd like to give those answers to the family, what may have caused this, what may have led up to this," said sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon.
That could prove difficult for detectives. They searched the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home at 4526 Grainary Ave. They examined letters and notes found at the house. Relatives they interviewed said nothing was wrong with the mother and daughter. Neither has a criminal record in Florida, according to state records. The Sheriff's Office had never been called to the home for any kind of domestic disturbance, according to its records.
Julia Hill was a kind, service-oriented woman who spent her time volunteering since retiring, relatives said. They never knew her to be angry or aggressive, said Angel Burch, Hill's sister-in-law. Burch had never even heard Julia Hill use profanity.
"She was a peaceful woman. What could have driven her to do such a horrendous thing, none of us know," said Burch, whose adult son, Jeb, had recently lived with the Hills for a few months. He said he never noticed problems between mother and daughter.
"I'm in shock," he said. "I don't know what it was about."
The Hills' home sits on a street shaded with trees inside the Country Place deed-restricted community along Ehrlich Road. Julia Hill bought it in 2010 with Naomi Burch, according to property records. Angel Burch said Naomi Burch is an elderly relative Julia Hill had helped care for until Naomi moved to a retirement home.
At some point, Tracey Hill, Julia's only child, moved in.
Tracey Hill married once, relatives said, years ago, but it ended. She had no children. In the past, she had worked as a mortgage broker. She fell from a horse years ago, causing a serious head injury, relatives said, but she had mostly recovered from the accident. She was attending Keiser University full-time to get a nursing degree.
Tracey had sent a text message Tuesday to Burch, telling her she was excited about an internship she was about to start.
"She (Julia) was supporting Tracey in every way as far as furthering her education. … They lived a peaceful life," said Burch, who knew Julia owned a gun for protection.
"I guess they kind of existed together," Burch said of the women. "One was not dependent on the other. They were independent women."
Burch waited Thursday afternoon at the home for other relatives to arrive. Julia Hill's brother drove down from Mexico Beach in the Florida Panhandle. He had nothing to add about a possible motive, saying only he has a meeting today with detectives.
Relatives gathered at the home to mourn, to begin the process of figuring out what to do with the belongings of the deceased, and to schedule two funerals. As they entered, they walked past two cars in the driveway: a white Suzuki sport utility vehicle — Julia's car — and a maroon Honda Accord — Tracey's.
Each car had a book on a back seat.
In the mother's — New Beginnings: Finding God's Path For Your Life.
In the daughter's, a textbook — Mental Health: Concepts & Techniques.
Times staff researcher John Martin and staff writer Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report. Laura C. Morel can be reached at email@example.com or (813)226-3386.