DALTON, Ga. - What started as a 4-year-old girl's birthday celebration Thursday ended with little children cowering in an attic for safety as family members died below in a hail of gunfire.
The girl's mother, Mindy Bullard, 35, was shot twice while begging for mercy and fleeing across the family's roof. On the ground, her ankles broken, she dragged herself toward a neighbor's yard.
She survived, and her injuries are not life-threatening, authorities said, but three men died in the exchange of gunfire, including the alleged perpetrator, David Hartline, a 41-year-old convicted child molester from Summerville, Ga., who deputies believe was drunk and full of jealousy.
Bullard's father, Edward H. Manz III, 61, of Chattanooga, and her ex-husband, Kenneth Simonson, 41, of Cleveland, Tenn., also were killed but not before Manz fired at least two deadly rounds at Hartline.
Bullard had been trying to end a tumultuous six-month relationship with Hartline when she told him not to attend the family birthday party Thursday afternoon.
He showed up anyway. Shunned a second time, he grabbed a gun, and started on a deadly attack, Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood said.
Bullard, a mother of seven children ranging in age from 4 to 16, begged for Hartline's mercy moments after hoisting her children to safety in the home's attic, 911 calls indicate.
"His name is David Hartline. He's in my house, and he's got a gun," Bullard said, after telling a child to get into the attic. Hartline yells an explicative-filled rant with allegations that Bullard had been seeing another man. She denies everything and begs, "Please don't hurt me, David."
A voice that is apparently Hartline yells across the line "I'll ... put this gun to your ... head and pull the trigger right now!"
Seconds later, gunfire echoes across the phone line and the call ends. Bullard was later wounded in the legs as she ran across her home's roof, the sheriff said.
In other calls, witnesses plead for faster response. Deputies took a little more than 10 minutes to get to the scene, according to an incident report.
"People shot out here on Rainbow Circle, get the ambulances out here quick," a male voice pleads. "Man is killing people out here, killing people!"
The line goes silent after the caller says, "Oh, here he comes." And then there are four gunshots.
When Whitfield County sheriff's deputies arrived at 1751 Rainbow Circle, they found Bullard on the ground behind the house, according to the sheriff's department incident report.
Six children were in the home for the birthday party Thursday. A family member said it was rare for Bullard and Simonson to have all their children together at one time, but everyone had united for the birthday party.
Four children live in the rural north Whitfield County home and three live with Simonson. A 16-year-old girl did not attend the party. Bullard has children by both Simonson and another man, family and friends said.
Some of the children hid in the attic, but Margaret Manz, Bullard's aunt and the sister-in-law of Edward Manz, said at least one of Simonson's sons was found hiding in the woods two hours after the shooting.
"It's just tragic," Margaret Manz said. "Mindy feels awful. She's in terrible pain, and she blames herself."
Deputies ushered the children to Azalea Thompson's home two doors down on Rainbow Circle as they sorted out the scene. She's known the children for years, and had had them over to play her Nintendo Wii on several occasions.
"The kids were quite not themselves," Thompson said Friday while standing on her porch in the heavily wooded neighborhood with big yards and large homes. "We hugged them, and my daughter made them popcorn and tea and they played the Wii."
She said the children, who were later taken to stay with a relative, acted as though they were numb. Some knew family members had been shot. One or two of the children may have realized someone died, Thompson said.
The number of murders in Whitfield County recorded by law enforcement agencies for the five-year period 2005-2009:
Source: Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Annual Uniform Crime Reporting Program summary reports
Bullard has been complaining to family members for some time that Hartline was causing her trouble.
Her father "had told me that within the last couple months, she had gotten involved with someone who turned out to be a psycho and was making her life miserable," Margaret Manz said.
Hartline served a seven-year prison sentence for child molestation and was released in 2007, state prison records show.
From her Summerville home, an aunt of David Hartline said the family was still absorbing the shock from the previous night. She said the Hartlines didn't know Bullard's family very well.
"It's just a loss for everybody involved," Judy Hartline said. "We're feeling for our loss as well as the other family's. It's a tragic event. That's our family's comment at this time."
Deputies theorize that despite being wounded himself in the exchange of gunfire, Manz managed to unload two shots into Hartline before dying himself.
Though Edward Manz, whom friends knew as "Buster," had a sometimes strained relationship with his daughter, he was always there for her. The large home on four acres of land was owned by Manz, neighbors said, and he often performed odd jobs there.
"They had their ups and downs, Mindy and Buster, but when it comes down to it, blood is thicker than water, and he wasn't going to let that guy kill his grandchildren," Margaret Manz said.
Staff writer Chris Carroll contributed to this story.