SEBRING-Residents in this quiet rural Sebring community quivered in fear and took cover as a neighbor peppered their homes with bullets and some whizzed past them as they slept in their beds early Sunday morning, Sheriff Susan Benton said.
The 10 or so residents, including children, escaped unharmed but a Highlands County Sheriff's Office sergeant was forced to shoot and kill the alleged shooter, Floyd Gene Hodge, of 215 Plantation Road, Sebring, a 31-year-old whose mental condition had gotten increasingly worse over the last two weeks and whose family was trying to get him help, Benton said.
"This could have been a very serious situation," Benton said during a press conference, adding deputies Justin Norris and Dennis Williams and Sgt. John Singha averted a potential mass shooting by putting their lives on the line.
Hodge, whose home was found "full of firearms and a warehouse of ammunition," was standing by his yard, spraying bullets on four homes with an AK-47 rifle, Benton said.
Authorities at first received a couple of calls Saturday night about shots being fired. They went out to the area to investigate but heard nothing or saw anyone around and about, Benton added.
At 4:30 a.m., Central Dispatch got a barrage of phone calls from residents calling about bullets hitting their homes.
As Highlands County deputies arrived, they were immediately under fire and had to take cover behind their patrol cars and neighboring homes, "struggling in the heavy fog to see the shooter," authorities add.
At one point, Hodge even got into one of the patrol cars and parked it in his yard, Benton said. That cruiser, along with a second patrol car, was hit numerous times with bullets, Benton said.
While Norris, Williams and Singha were trying to dodge Hodge, Singha heard a rifle clip being dropped and the gun being reloaded, Benton said.
Singha had taken cover by the fence on the opposite side of the road where Hodge lived and then ran across the road and took cover under oak trees by Hodge's house, Benton added.
It was a foggy night but Hodge was sandwiched between the headlights of his car that were on and the patrol car's lights, so Singha could see him, Benton said.
Singha ordered Hodge to drop his weapon but he did not comply, Benton said.
He then shot him dead, and took only one shot, Benton said.
While the suspect hit four homes, the home of one of his neighbors who had complained about him in the past appeared to be especially targeted, Benton said. Bullet holes riddled the side of the house Sunday.
The neighbors were shaken up by the shooting, Benton said, but grateful to the sheriff's office.
Hodge was there with his wife, Lisa, when the incident happened. She was one of those who called 911 but Hodge did not hit their home, Benton said.
Just before the press conference started, Lisa Hodge, who was very distraught, questioned why authorities shot her husband, instead of tasering him or shooting him in the leg.
She said he "had his demons" and needed help.
"He was not in the right state of mind," she added, before Benton escorted her and other family members and friends away from the media that had gathered by the home.
She said she explained to Hodge's wife and family that it was a life-and-death situation for the authorities who had responded to the scene.
"When they are being fired at, they have to take that threat out," she said. "We are trained to shoot, to kill."
Benton said Hodge's family was in the process of getting a court order to help him, either through a Marchman Act order or a Baker Act.
"How do we intervene with people sooner, quicker before tragedy happens?" she asked. "When do you keep it from reaching that tipping point? I don't know what triggered this for Mr. Hodge?"
It could have been a possible mental situation mixed with drugs and several firearms thrown in, Benton said, clarifying later she did not know for sure about any drug use and was waiting for the medical examiner's report.
Residents had complained in the past about Hodge's shooting activities on his property but authorities found out at that time he was doing nothing illegal, Benton said, adding it's legal to shoot in your own yard and at the time, he was in compliance with the noise ordinance.
Meanwhile, Benton did not know as of Sunday afternoon if the rifle was registered in Hodge's name.