Watch: Tampa killings suspect makes first court appearance

Posted at 8:16 AM, Nov 29, 2017

After a nearly two-month search, Tampa police arrested and charged a 24-year-old man with four counts of murder in connection to a series of fatal shootings that had terrified residents in the city’s Seminole Heights neighborhood.

Howell Emanuel Donaldson III

Howell Donaldson III was taken into custody Tuesday afternoon at a nearby McDonald’s after police recovered a gun that they said had been used in the four killings.

Donaldson admitted that he owned the gun but did not admit to the killings, Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said, but police are convinced that they finally caught the person responsible.

“We’ve had other guns, but we knew this was the one,” Dugan said. “Now the work begins to shore up the case and get a full prosecution.”

The arrest came 51 days after the first of four shootings in Seminole Heights, each of which targeted citizens doing ordinary things, like waiting at a bus stop or crossing the street. The four seemingly unconnected victims were each killed — but not robbed — while walking alone at night within a half-mile area, police said, leading to fears of a serial killer on the loose.

In the past month, officers swarmed the tree-lined neighborhood, advising residents not to go outside alone, to be alert and keep their porch lights on. Some residents stopped walking their dogs, running outside, going for walks or waiting for the bus alone, saying they no longer felt safe.

Police said they didn’t yet know the motive for the killings or why the suspect chose Seminole Heights.

“He was friendly and nice to the cops, but he didn’t give us anything, tell us why he was doing it or anything like that,” Dugan said.

For weeks, officials had said they were not calling the suspect a serial killer. But on Wednesday, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he was proud of the city, which “has now spent the last 51 days dealing with a serial killer.”

The arrest

Police said they received a tip on Tuesday around 2:40 p.m. from a McDonald’s employee about a man who had a gun in a bag at the fast food restaurant. The McDonald’s is about two to three miles from where the killings took place.

Donaldson worked at that McDonald’s, Dugan said, and went there earlier in the day. He gave a coworker a gun in a paper bag for safe-keeping, the chief said. The coworker then gave the weapon to a police officer, who called for backup and detained Donaldson for more questioning.

Dugan told reporters late Tuesday night about the arrest of Donaldson, even though they hadn’t finished drawing up the charges against him. He said they wanted to get out the news of the arrest quickly to reassure the Seminole Heights community.

“The real goal is to let the people of Seminole Heights be able to get a good night’s sleep,” Dugan said. “It’s been 51 days that they’ve been terrorized in their neighborhood and it is about letting these families know that we’re going to bring this person to justice, and letting this neighborhood get some rest.”

Dugan added that police recovered a hoodie and a jacket from Donaldson that might be the same ones worn by the suspect in surveillance video released last month. More lab work is needed on that, but “it’s encouraging,” Dugan said.

Donaldson is scheduled to make his first court appearance on Thursday. It was not immediately clear if he had legal representation.

Suspect was on university basketball team

Donaldson attended St. John’s University in New York beginning in fall 2011 and graduated in January 2017, according to Brian Browne, executive director of University Relations.

He was a walk-on for the men’s basketball team during the 2011-2012 season but never played in a game, Browne said.

His freshman-year suitemate at St. John’s said Donaldson introduced himself as “Trai” in the fall of 2011. The suitemate, who asked to not be identified, said they lived in the same suite the entire year, until Donaldson got an off-campus apartment.

When college friends sent the former suitemate Donaldson’s mugshot early Wednesday morning, “my mouth dropped,” the former suitemate said, still in shock.

“It’s just like, what? Not Trai. I just don’t see what his motive would be.”

His first impression of Donaldson was that he was quiet, although the suitemate admitted that was typical the first few days of school. He said Donaldson had the best manners, dressed very well, and was a sneakerhead.

He said he never saw him angry, and at parties, he said Donaldson was a wallflower.

“[Trai was] just a regular guy,” the former suitemate said. “Nothing stood out as violent.”

Officials said they still had several unanswered questions about the motive for the killings.

“We’re still trying to figure out this person’s ties to the neighborhood,” Dugan said. “We’re not sure why he was in this neighborhood or what his motive is. There’s still a lot more to go in this investigation.”

Relief in Tampa

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who had visited Seminole Heights last week, said he had seen “firsthand the pain that these crimes have caused across the community.”

“In Florida, we have absolutely zero tolerance for this type of evil behavior and anyone responsible will be held to the fullest extent of the law,” he said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Scott thanked Tampa police and other law enforcement agencies for working around the clock to solve the confounding case.

“Why somebody would have it in their mind to go take four individuals’ lives, I just don’t get it,” Scott said. “And I don’t know that we’ll ever understand.”

Buckhorn praised the “tired” law enforcement authorities who had worked 24 hours a day to solve this case.

“Today was a good day. Today, the good guys won. Today, Seminole Heights can sleep,” he said.

“Today we begin the healing process. And today, the judicial process starts. And it will end. And I can promise you that when it does end, that this community will be a better place. Because I know where this guy is gonna spend his eternity.”

The victims

The victims seem to have been selected at random, leaving the community on edge as the number of unsolved shootings mounted.

  • Benjamin Mitchell, 22, a full-time student at Hillsborough Community College, was shot and killed at a bus stop in the Seminole Heights neighborhood October 9.
  • Monica Hoffa, 32, a waitress, was shot and killed October 11. Her body was found two days later in a vacant parking lot.
  • Anthony Naiboa, 20, who had autism and had just started a temporary job packing relief supplies for hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, was shot October 19 when he accidentally got on the wrong bus and ended up in Seminole Heights.
  • Ronald Felton, 60, who worked in construction and had three grown children, was shot in the back on November 14.

Family member reaction to arrest

Maria Rodriguez, the stepmother of Naiboa, told CNN she was happy no more people will be harmed.

“We’re relieved to a point. Justice has been served so far,” she said.

Rodriguez said her family plans to follow the legal proceedings in the case.

“I want to be there because I want this person to get the death penalty,” she said.

In late October, Dugan released blurry video of a “person of interest” wearing a hooded jacket casually walking down a street near one of the killings.

The police chief released new video about two weeks ago showing a similar-looking person with the same gait who was present near the last shooting, that of Felton. The person in the video, Dugan said then, had become a suspect.

Based on a witness statement, Dugan initially described the suspect as a black male between 6 feet and 6 feet 2 inches with a thin build and a light complexion. The surveillance images were in black and white.

The suspect was wearing all black and a black baseball cap and armed with a large black pistol, police said.