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Florida community reeling from 2nd tragedy, searches for answers

Investigators say motive may never be clear after gunman kills 2 deputies

BELL, Fla. – The resilience of Gilchrist County, a rural Florida community where neighbors know each other almost to a fault, is once again being tested by tragedy after one of its own did the unthinkable.

Less than four years after the county lost a mother and six children in a horrific mass murder-suicide, two Gilchrist County deputies were ambushed and gunned down Thursday as they ate together at a Chinese restaurant.

The gunman walked into the Ace China restaurant in Trenton about 3 p.m. Thursday and fatally shot Sgt. Noel Ramirez, 30, and Deputy Taylor Lindsey, 25, who were both in uniform, authorities said.

RELATED: Slain deputies were 'best of the best,' sheriff says

The shooter, John Hubert Highnote, 59, was a decades-long resident of the tiny town of nearby Bell, which was thrust under the national microscope in September 2014 when 51-year-old Don Spirit shot and killed his daughter and six grandchildren -- ages 3 months to 11 years -- before turning the gun on himself.

Highnote also took his own life after Thursday's ambush, which again has authorities using words like “resilient” and “family” to describe the Gilchrist County community. 

State agents quickly descended on Highnote's home in Bell, searching for a motive that investigators admit they might never really learn.

"It appears he just walked up and shot them, then went to his car and shot himself. It's inexplicable," State Attorney Bill Cervone said. "People will want to know why, and we may never have an answer for them."

A woman who declined to give her name, but said she lives near Highnote, said it was odd that in such a close-knit community, Highnote was all but anonymous. 

She described him as a recluse who was rarely seen outside his home, which is secluded in a rural area near two vacant homes. The woman said she never saw any lights on in the home, where investigators said Highnote lived alone. 

Investigators outside John Highnote's home in Bell

Shattered windows could be seen on the home, but authorities declined to give details about when or how that might have happened.

The home is a 20-minute drive from the Chinese restaurant where Highnote opened fire on Ramirez, who is survived by a wife and two young children, and Lindsey, who joined the Sheriff's Office in 2013.

Investigators said it appears Highnote had no previous contact with the Gilchrist County Sheriff's Office, but News4Jax found records online showing he did have some minor brushes with the law in Pinellas County years ago. 

Of those, 11 were traffic offenses, but he did have a felony charge of carrying a concealed firearm in 1978. The records show that case was resolved about two years later. 

Alachua County Sgt. Brett Rhodenizer, who is one of several law enforcement spokesmen helping the Gilchrist County Sheriff's Office, said no matter what agents find at Highnote's home, it's unlikely the biggest question will ever be answered: Why would a 59-year-old man with a relatively minor criminal history walk into a restaurant in broad daylight and ambush two deputies?

“The investigation will reveal a series of facts,” Rhodenizer said. “Whatever those facts determine, we will never find a reason for what happened to Noel and Taylor, period.”

As investigators continue to search for any answers, neighbors already familiar with the sting and shock of unimaginable tragedy are rallying behind their Sheriff's Office.

RELATED: Condolences pour in for Gilchrist County deputies

Many residents of the small town of Trenton, which is about 30 miles west of Gainesville, have a close relationship with local law enforcement and said they personally know deputies by name.

Those deputies are seeing a huge outpouring of support from their community, as neighbors bring food and drinks and seek any way they can to help during a time of grief.

“The outpouring from this community is absolutely huge,” said Lt. Scott Tummond, who had previously worked with Ramirez in Levy County. “The Sheriff's Office right now has no unmet needs.”

Tummond said deputies with the Alachua County Sheriff's Office are answering 911 calls for Gilchrist County as the small agency reels from its loss. The Gilchrist County Sheriff's Office has 66 full-time employees, 27 of whom serve as deputy sheriffs.

“We know that the community wants to rally around their heroes,” Tummond said, becoming emotional and having to pause before adding, “we appreciate that.”

As the community mourns together, neighbors will gather for a candlelight vigil at 8 p.m. Friday at the town square on SW 248th Drive in Newberry.