By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - A South Carolina man shot and killed his girlfriend and four members of her family, including two children, before turning the gun on himself in an apparent murder-suicide spurred by a custody dispute, police said on Wednesday.
The suspected gunman, Bryan Eugene Sweatt, 27, was likely waiting for the victims on Tuesday when they returned to their home in Greenwood County, South Carolina, Sheriff Tony Davis told reporters.
The victims, who ranged in age from 9 to 51, died of gunshot wounds to the head or upper body from a large-caliber handgun, local authorities said.
"I've never had anything of this magnitude," said Davis, a veteran law enforcement officer. "What you see in a horrific scene like this can never leave you."
Police were called Tuesday evening to the residence on a rural highway in northwest South Carolina by a man who said he was armed and thinking about harming himself.
A SWAT team and hostage negotiator who reported to the scene failed to make contact with anyone inside, police said. When officers entered the house about an hour later, they found the six bodies in various rooms, Davis said.
The victims included Sweatt's girlfriend, Chandra Marie Fields, 26; her parents, Richard Allen Fields, 51, and Melissa Kay Fields, 49; and two of the Fields' grandchildren, Tariq Kenyon Robinson, 11, and William Asa Robinson, 9, according to an incident report.
Four other children were spared when someone told them to get out of house, Davis said. The children ran to a neighbor's house and one child "might have said that they heard a gunshot," Davis said.
Among those four children was a 7-month-old baby police believe to be Sweatt's child with Chandra Fields.
Davis said the couple had an ongoing child custody dispute, and police had been called to the house before for a domestic argument. Sweatt had a prior criminal record but was never arrested because of violence, sheriff's Sergeant John Long said.
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson)