A Florida man opened fire on his family after Thanksgiving dinner, killing his pregnant sister, 6-year-old cousin and two other relatives before speeding off and initiating a statewide manhunt, police said Friday.
Police were searching for Paul Michael Merhige, 35, of Miami. He also is accused of gunning down his pregnant sister's twin and his 79-year-old aunt. Jupiter Police Sgt. Scott Pascarella said there had been an "ongoing resentment" in the family, but did not elaborate.
"What led to this incident, we're not quite sure," Pascarella said. "It did not appear there was any altercation prior to this shooting."
Pascarella said Merhige left briefly before returning to the gathering with a handgun.
Seventeen relatives had gathered in Jupiter, a small beach town about 90 miles north of Miami best known as a home to celebrities including Michael Jordan and Burt Reynolds.
Police spokeswoman Sally Collins-Ortiz said the city had never experienced a slaying with so many victims.
The department enlisted the U.S. Marshals in the search for Merhige, who police said had no known criminal past. He was believed to be driving a royal blue 2007 Toyota Camry with a rear spoiler and Florida license plate W42 7JT.
Pascarella said police first received a 911 call from a neighbor, then another from someone inside the home. The residence, in a well-kept new subdivision with brick-paved driveways, is owned by local TV videojournalist Jim Sitton and his wife. On Friday, it was surrounded by yellow crime scene tape and police crime unit vans.
Sitton's daughter Makayla was the young victim. Police said she had gone to bed before the rampage.
"God packed a lot of sweetness into that little body," Sitton said. "She's just our life. I don't know how we are ever going to recover."
Sitton told local media that his daughter was supposed to perform Friday in a holiday production of "The Nutcracker." The Florida Classical Ballet Theatre performed two shows Friday and artistic director Colleen Smith acknowledged the loss.
"Makayla was part of our family, and as one of the youngest dancers, she was to be one of Mother Ginger's Children," Smith said. "She was a beautiful, dear girl. She was a beam."
The other victims were Merhige's twin sisters, Carla Merhige and Lisa Knight, and an aunt, Raymonde Joseph. A fifth victim, Merhige's brother-in-law Patrick Knight, was in critical but stable condition at a local hospital. Another man, Clifford Gebara, 52, was grazed by a bullet.
Neighbors in the Palm Beach County community were shocked as police processed the home.
"Our kids walk the streets by themselves," said Nicole Kemp, 67, who did not know any of the victims. "I thought it was the safest place to live. I guess it doesn't matter, if there's a maniac here."
Carla Merhige was a real estate agent in Miami, said a co-worker.
"She was a wonderful agent," said Joanna Sherman, a manager at Coldwell Banker Residential real estate. "She was very active in the community and in charities. She was just a genuine, beautiful individual. She always had a smile for everybody."