A man accused in a bloody weekend rampage that killed six was a quiet, burly drywaller who started the attacks by beating an acquaintance to death in Alabama, police said.
Authorities say he then headed north to Tennessee, where the violence escalated as he repeatedly stabbed his estranged wife and her family.
Investigators have said Jacob Shaffer's motive for stabbing his wife, Traci, and her father, brother and son was "domestic." Caught up in the attacks, however, were an acquaintance who was the first to die 30 miles away and a 16-year-old neighbor among those found dead in Tennessee. A family friend said investigators think the only person spared was the Shaffers' 4-year-old daughter.
Although Shaffer and his wife were known to fight, Wilson said he didn't expect anything to turn deadly. Police still haven't said which house was attacked first, or how the 6-foot, 215-pound Shaffer managed to kill so many people.
Shaffer, 30, has been charged with five counts of homicide in Tennessee and another in Alabama. In one house in Fayetteville, authorities found Traci Shaffer, 38; her son from a previous marriage, Devin Brooks, 16; and neighbor Robert Berber, also 16. The others, Traci Shaffer's brother, Chris Hall, 34, and father, Billy Hall, 57, were killed in a home across the road.
Dr. Amy McMaster of the Tennessee medical examiner's office said Monday that she didn't know what weapon was used to stab the victims. She would not say whether there had been a struggle.
'There is no more family'
Shaffer was sitting on the porch of one of the homes when authorities arrived Saturday. Huntsville police said he has confessed to all the killings.
"There is no more family," said family friend James Wilson. The family is seeking donations to pay for the burials — the only adult survivor is Traci Shaffer's sister, Jennifer Hall, Wilson said. Traci Shaffer also has a 9-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.
Jennifer Hall lived with her father and brother but was spending the night with Wilson, her longtime boyfriend. They found out the family was dead when they stopped by Saturday to invite Billy Hall on a camping trip.
The first victim was Sidney Wade Dempsey, 50, who was killed late Friday or early Saturday at a business Wilson said is owned by the Hall family.
Huntsville police Sgt. Mark Roberts said Dempsey worked and lived at Hall Cultured Marble Granite and knew the suspect.
"I think the guy (Dempsey) was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Roberts said. "I think the guy (Shaffer) just decided to start there."
The next attacks were about 30 miles north in Fayetteville, a town of about 7,000 people near the Alabama line.
The two teenagers were classmates at Lincoln County High School, counselor Shelia Daniel said Monday.
She said Berber and his family moved from McAllen, Texas, about a year ago. He was interested in a collision repair course that is part of the school's career technical program.
"He was a strong B student," she said. "He never caused any problems for anyone."
Brooks was also smart, she said.
"I don't think his grades indicated how bright he was. He liked writing. He was in an honors English class," Daniel said.
Pastor Robert Doud said he got to know Brooks and Berber through The Basement, a Christian outreach center that ministers to young people with rock shows and alternative worship services. Brooks worked in the snack bar there.
"Devin and Robert were sweet, awesome kids. It was an honor just to get to know them," Doud said.
Black ribbons were on the center's door knobs Monday, and Doud said kids held an impromptu memorial service there Sunday, sharing memories and talking through their grief.
Cody Tate, 17, said he was best friends with Brooks and said Traci Shaffer was "like my second mom."
The muscular Jacob Shaffer was always at the house but rarely spoke, said Tate, who didn't realize the couple wasn't living together.
Shaffer was working as a drywall installer around Huntsville, and Billy Hall had been driving him back and forth to work before the couple split, Wilson said.
"Her dad done everything he could for Jacob," Wilson said. "I have no idea why he walked across the street to her daddy and her brother. Her daddy never done anything wrong."