BELL, Fla. — Investigators continued Friday to seek a motive behind the killing of two Florida sheriff’s deputies gunned down while eating inside a restaurant the previous day, even as the sheriff’s office said no answers would fully explain the shocking attack.
The Gilchrist County Sheriff’s Office, in a statement released about 24 hours after the shooting, said “there will never be a reason for what he did to Sgt. Noel Ramirez and Deputy Taylor Lindsey. Nor will it ever satisfy their families. They sat down to eat, and were here to serve.”
The slain deputies — 29-year-old Ramirez and 25-year-old Lindsey, both of whom were in uniform and on duty — were eating at the Ace China restaurant in Trenton, Fla., when the gunman went in and opened fire, the sheriff’s office said. A day earlier, authorities had said the attacker fired from outside the restaurant. Police have identified the shooter as John Hubert Highnote, 59, of Bell, Fla., and they said Friday he had shot and killed himself in his car parked outside the restaurant.
“Our deputies were ambushed,” the sheriff’s office said in its statement. “They were unable to return fire.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the shooting. A spokesman for the agency declined Friday to say what could have motivated the attack, citing the ongoing investigation into what happened in Gilchrist County, a small Northern Florida community 40 miles west of Gainesville.
The sheriff’s office said it did not have additional information about Highnote, saying only, “He’s a coward, period.”
In the neighboring community of Bell, residents who lived near Highnote said they had not encountered him, though they described that as common in an area where people live far from one another. Highnote’s home in Bell was a small, one-story structure with a no trespassing sign out front, plywood on the windows and shell casings in the front yard.
“Most of us people have lived here for years and years and never even heard of [Highnote],” said Becky Barnette. “We mostly all just stay to ourselves.”
Bill Crace, a mechanic who has spent 27 years repairing engines in Bell, echoed Barnette.
“I never saw him,” said Crace, whose business flies American and Confederate flags outside. “I never even heard of him until yesterday. … I do know a lot of people. But I never knew him.”
In Akins BBQ, a restaurant on Bell’s Main Street, waitress Jamie Mallman said the slain deputies had frequently come in to eat.
“It’s tragic when it happens to your own,” said Mallman, a lifelong Bell resident. “There’s no rhyme or reason to this crime.”
Public records showed that Highnote had lived or associated with addresses across Florida, including in Daytona Beach, Melbourne, Clearwater and St. Petersburg. During that time, he had a handful of encounters with police, mostly involving traffic infractions. There were other encounters with the courts and law enforcement, including a 1978 charge in Pinellas County for carrying a concealed firearm. He entered a not guilty plea, court records show, and the case was dismissed in 1980.
In 2001, a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy said he was called to a BMW dealership in Palm Harbor, Fla., a community north of St. Petersburg, because of an incident involving Highnote. The parts manager at the dealership told police he had initially called in Highnote, an employee at the time, to talk about a problem with a customer, the deputy wrote in his incident report.
The manager said Highnote “became very upset and began yelling and screaming,” at one point throwing a cup of coffee on the floor, the incident report stated. The manager said he fired Highnote and told him to leave. In the incident report, the manager said he was only contacting police in case Highnote “returned and tried to cause any problems.” The sheriff’s deputy said he tried to contact Highnote but was unable to reach him.
A few days later, another Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy said they were called back to the dealership because the parts manager wanted to give a trespassing warning to Highnote, who had returned to get his last paycheck. In that deputy’s incident report, they wrote that Highnote signed a document confirming he had received the paycheck and left without any issues.
Police officials told local reporters Friday that Highnote had no prior history with the Gilchrist County Sheriff’s Office. His only court record in the county related to a 2012 traffic ticket for making a wrong turn. Highnote pleaded guilty and paid the $143 fee, according to court records.
At the Ace China restaurant Friday, where two bullet holes could be seen in a window, people had created a memorial with flowers, balloons, flags and candles.
At a briefing after the shooting on Thursday, Gilchrist County Sheriff Robert D. Schultz III acknowledged not knowing what could have motivated it, but he also appeared to link what happened to the increased scrutiny police officers have faced in recent years regarding how they use fatal force.
“What do you expect happens when you demonize law enforcement to the extent that it’s been demonized?” Schultz said during the briefing. “Every type of hate, every type of put-down that you can think of. The only thing these men were guilty of was wanting to protect you and me.”
Through Friday, there had been 40 officer deaths so far this year, down from 41 at the same point in 2017, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, a nonprofit group that tracks police deaths. The number of officers killed by firearms has increased to 23 such deaths from 13 at the same point, the fund’s preliminary data showed, while deaths caused by traffic crashes and other causes fell from last year.
According to the Gilchrist County Sheriff’s Office, Ramirez and Lindsey were the first officers killed in the line of duty since 1956. Sheriff Mark Read was killed that year while “responding to a drunk with a shotgun,” the sheriff’s office said Friday.
Berman reported from Washington. Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.