Police say Christopher Speight, 39, killed his sister, brother-in-law, niece, nephew and four other people early Tuesday before firing on a police helicopter, fleeing into the woods and finally surrendering nearly a day later.
Speight had struggled since his mother died from brain cancer in 2006, his uncle Thomas Giglio said Thursday. Speight's father abandoned them about 30 years ago, and he and his mother were very close.
"There was a problem with him after his mother died," Giglio, of South Boston, Va., said in a phone interview. "He didn't take it good at all. I don't think he ever reconciled it."
Lynchburg attorney Harry Devening, who handled legal matters for Speight's family, said Speight had an apparent learning disability and history of mental problems, and "ran away" from his sister's Georgia home for several days during a breakdown in 2007, about a year after his mother died.
Giglio said brother-in-law Dewayne Sipe, one of the shooting victims, found him in a motel room along a highway. Even then the family had no reason to suspect Speight might turn violent. Giglio said he last spoke to Dewayne Sipe the Saturday before the shootings and everything seemed fine.
"I never heard of any quarrels about Christopher living in the house, ever," Giglio said.
Speight is charged with one count of murder and will likely face more charges. Seven bodies were found in and around the home he shared with Lauralee and Dewayne Sipe, including theirs. An eighth person was found barely alive along the road but died at the hospital.
Jail officials would not allow a reporter to see Speight on Thursday and did not know if he had an attorney. No court date has been set.
Police have not offered a motive, but David Anderson, who owns a market where Speight sometimes worked as a security guard, said Speight worried the Sipes would kick him out.
Speight never wanted to talk about it, but he "constantly paced the floor," Anderson said.
Giglio and Devening said it was unlikely the Sipes had any such intention. Though it had not yet been filed at the courthouse, Lauralee Sipe last week signed a deed that put the Appomattox property in Speight's name, something their grandparents had requested in legal documents.
Speight had lived with and helped care for his grandparents, "and they felt that he should get the property," Devening said. "I think they just concluded he was never going to be engaged in productive employment."
Though his relationship with the family was all business, Devening described Lauralee Sipe as a great person.
"Very motivated to take care of the family," Devening said. "I can't imagine why he would turn on her."
Speight and Lauralee Sipe inherited the three-bedroom house on 43 acres when their mother died, and Giglio said the family had put it up for sale soon after. But they didn't get any takers and decided Speight would stay.
The Sipes joined him within the last few months, moving from Marietta after Dewayne Sipe's construction business dried up. Giglio said Speight and Dewayne Sipe got along "like butter in a piece of bread" and Speight got along well with Lauralee, too.
"That's why this whole thing is blowing everybody's mind," Giglio said. "Christopher always came across to me as a kind of person that if anyone tried to hurt his family or a woman or children or anything like that, he would say, 'No.' He would be a defender."
The other victims included Morgan Dobyns, Lauralee Sipe's 15-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, and 4-year-old Joshua Sipe, Lauralee and Dewayne's son. Also killed were Morgan's friend, 15-year-old Emily Quarles, and her boyfriend, 16-year-old Ronald "Bo" Scruggs, along with Quarles' parents, Karen and Jonathan Quarles, both 43, who were there to either drop off or pick up Emily.
Abigail Schroeder, a waitress at the Corner Grill in downtown Appomattox, said members of the Quarles family were regulars because Emily's older sister Megan had worked there.
"Emily and Morgan were just in Monday," Schroeder said. "And Megan's getting married in a few months. ... It's just hard right now. All this big, good stuff was about to come up, and then something like this happens to her family."
The three teenagers were students at Appomattox County High School, where crisis teams and guidance counselors were available Thursday to assist grieving students.
"This horrific tragedy will leave a tremendous scar and willful pain in the lives of all of our students and staff in our school system," Superintendent Dorinda Grasty said.
Meanwhile, the community tried to make sense of the killings. Friends described Speight as a gun enthusiast but said he did not seem to have violent tendencies.
"I am a dependable, hardworking person, not quick to anger, and find ways to get out of problems without using force or violence," Speight wrote in a 1995 application for a concealed weapons permit in Appomattox County, which he renewed in 1997, 1999 and 2004.
Rob Pearson, who owned a Lynchburg restaurant where Speight worked as a busboy and bar assistant during the 1990s, wrote a character reference letter for Speight's first application.
Pearson said Thursday that Speight always had a fascination with weapons, even bringing in a BB gun to shoot down stray helium balloons from the restaurant's ceilings after kids' birthday parties.
"I wasn't completely shocked when I picked up the newspaper," said Pearson, who lost touch with Speight five years ago.
Giglio said he knew Speight had guns but was surprised to learn police said the house had been rigged with explosive devices they spent much of Wednesday and Thursday detonating.
When he last spoke to Dewayne Sipe, part of their discussion was about Lauralee's plans to move her grandmother from a Georgia retirement home to the farm in Virginia to live with them.
"It's all gone," Giglio said. "That's over."