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Sister tries to understand what led to family tragedy, with one brother in jail, another dead

SPRING HILL — A tight-knit family lived behind the stucco walls of 8456 Peoria St. before tragedy struck Monday.

They kissed each other goodbye before going anywhere and opened their home to people who needed help, said Laura Johnson, the first member of the Eckard family to speak publicly about the horror that has enveloped them all.

Johnson on Thursday provided details of what life was like for the Eckards before her father, Samuel Eckard, unearthed the body of his 19-year-old son Sean from the home's side yard.

"Everyone bickers and everyone fights, but we're a big family and we love each other," said Johnson, 40, Sean's half sister. "This isn't something we ever would have imagined."

Stanley Elias Eckard, 21, admitted Monday strangling Sean, Hernando County Sheriff's Office documents said. The arrest affidavit said Elias, as his family calls him, planned to move the body when his parents went out of town in a few weeks. He is being held without bail at the Hernando County Jail.

Donna and Samuel Eckard have not commented, and the Peoria Street phone number has been disconnected. They moved out before deputies exhumed the body and have not returned.

The autopsy was conducted Wednesday, but Sgt. Donna Black of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office said results cannot be released because the investigation is ongoing.

With one son dead and one in jail, Donna and Samuel are depending on their blended family for support, Johnson said.

Samuel and Donna Eckard each had three children, now all in their 30s and 40s, from previous marriages, then had two children together: Stanley Elias and Sean Paul. The siblings' ages ranged from 19 to 40. Sean was the youngest.

"None of us were ever step this or step that," Johnson, the oldest sibling, said. "We were brothers and sisters."

The Eckards moved from Southern California when Donna's aging mother's condition grew worse about five years ago, Johnson said. They settled near her in Spring Hill, where Samuel took a job as a custodian at Grace Presbyterian Church and Sean and Elias made friends with the neighborhood kids.

One friend was Juan Quinones, 20, who lived behind the Eckards until March of this year. He described Elias as a fun kid, but a compulsive liar and thief. He had a self-esteem issue, he said, and often lied to make himself look better.

But Elias was a talented musician who had a "very, very high IQ," Johnson said. She said he used such big words that sometimes people couldn't understand him.

"I don't want people thinking something happened to him, or that he was bad from the get-go," Johnson said. "A lot of people that have high IQs just seem a little different from everybody."

Both boys dropped out of Springstead High School.

Elias and Sean shared some friends and interests, including Japanese anime and video games, said Aaron Jasiak, 20, who lived in the Eckard house for more than six months.

Jasiak was one of many the Eckards took into their home over the years, Johnson said.

"Donna kind of adopted any kid she thought needed help," Johnson said of her stepmother. "They were welcomed into our home and they were family."

Rumors that the Eckards owned a "party house," or that deputies were called there frequently are untrue, Johnson said. Black, the sheriff's spokeswoman, said deputies visited the house twice since the Eckards moved in — once when Sean disappeared but turned up at a friend's house, and once for the homicide.

The Eckards raised their children as Christians, said Johnson. Jasiak, who said he goes to church every Sunday, said religion helped him form a strong bond with Sean.

"We had some deep talks about what that all means to us," Jasiak said. "And I liked being able to share that with someone."

Sean became more deeply religious in recent years after falling into a coma for 44 days, Johnson said. Tampa doctors said he had white lesions on his brain and called survival unlikely.

"But my parents' faith was so strong that nothing could convince them he wouldn't wake up," Johnson said. "And he did."

When Sean awoke, 40 pounds lighter, he had to relearn how to walk, talk and feed himself.

His attitude changed, too, Johnson said. He was more lighthearted, and appreciated the small things more: telling a joke, or taking a photograph of a frog coming out of a potted plant.

"Our family was full of jokes and full of silliness," Johnson said. "Our attitude was, 'Enjoy the moments you have, because you never know what will be your last day.' "

Laura J. Nelson can be reached at (352) 848-3179 or at lnelson@sptimes.com.

Sister tries to understand what led to family tragedy, with one brother in jail, another dead 06/24/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 24, 2010 10:22pm]
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