The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mysterious killings paralyzed a Tampa neighborhood. Now, a man is charged with murder.

Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said officials are investigating a tip about a person with a gun at a McDonald’s. (Video: Tampa Police Department)

A good night’s sleep.

That’s what authorities in Tampa said they hoped residents could enjoy again after the Tuesday night arrest of a man accused by police of a string of mysterious killings in the city’s Seminole Heights district over the past seven weeks.

The shootings, which began in early October, left four people dead and shook frightened residents of the historic bungalow-filled neighborhood in central Tampa.

On Tuesday afternoon, police picked up Howell Emanuel Donaldson III for questioning after an employee at a local McDonald’s reported that Donaldson had brought a gun to the fast-food restaurant, about two miles south of where the killings had taken place. Within hours, the 24-year-old Tampa resident was arrested.

Donaldson was charged Wednesday with four counts of first-degree murder for the four fatal shootings and booked into the Hillsborough County jail, where he is being held without bond.

“I assure you this is the man who did this,” Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan told reporters at a news conference Wednesday morning.

Dugan said Donaldson apparently worked at the McDonald’s and had given his co-worker a gun in a fast-food bag. That employee contacted police shortly afterward, and the gun was found to be linked to all four shootings through shell casings, police said.

“I cannot thank them enough for standing up and doing the right thing . . . saying, ‘This doesn’t seem right. Why does this person have a gun in a bag?’ ” Dugan said.

Donaldson admitted to owning the gun but, to the frustration of investigators, did not admit to the shootings or indicate any motive for why he would have killed four apparent strangers, Dugan said. Donaldson seemed “laid back” and “relaxed” during his arrest and does not appear to have a criminal history, he added.

“He was cooperative but he did not tell us why he was doing this,” Dugan said. “We were really hoping to find out what was driving him to do this. We don’t have those answers yet.”

The case had stymied authorities for weeks, as fear saturated the Seminole Heights neighborhood, with increasing talk of a serial killer on the loose.

The first three people were killed in an 11-day period, all within a one-mile radius.

Benjamin Mitchell, an aspiring musician and community college student, was shot while standing at a bus stop on Oct. 9.

Monica Hoffa, a 32-year-old waitress, was shot two days later.

On Oct. 19, Anthony Naiboa, a 20-year-old with what his family said was a mild form of autism, was walking home when he was killed nearby, police said.

Then, a reprieve from the mysterious killings. It lasted 26 days, before police responded to a shooting call and found Ronald Felton, 60, dead in the street, blocks from where the other killings occurred.

Another victim, seemingly at random. The fourth one.

The victims did not appear to be connected to one another by age, race or other demographics. The only common factor was that the crimes all took place within a few miles of one another in the Seminole Heights neighborhood.

The shootings drew the attention of national media as Seminole Heights residents adjusted their daily routines. Foot traffic dried up; people stopped lounging on their porches.

Late Tuesday night, authorities held a news conference to publicize the arrest. Dugan said police had little other information to release but nevertheless wanted to announce the arrest for the sake of the neighborhood.

“We knew by coming out here tonight we’d probably create a lot more questions,” Dugan told reporters Tuesday. “But the real goal is to let the people of Seminole Heights be able to get a good night’s sleep. It’s been 51 days that they’ve been terrorized in their neighborhood.”

Dugan reiterated Wednesday that the police did not yet know about Donaldson’s connection to the neighborhood. He was reportedly “unfamiliar with the area . . . and did not have any association with anyone in the area,” according to a police report obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

The arrest report also noted that Donaldson’s Glock handgun had a loaded magazine with five rounds of SIG brand Smith & Wesson .40 caliber ammunition. Donaldson told police that “no one except for himself had control of the Glock firearm since his purchase,” according to the report.

A person who picked up the phone at the McDonald’s where Donaldson worked said the manager at the branch would be “unavailable all day” for comment.

Donaldson obtained the gun legally, Dugan said.

An address listed for Donaldson indicated that he lived about 10 miles east of Seminole Heights. He had just graduated from St. John’s University in New York in January, after enrolling in the fall of 2011, a spokesman for the school in Queens confirmed to The Washington Post. The school representative also said Donaldson was a walk-on student athlete for the St. John’s men’s basketball team during the 2011-12 season but never played in a game.

Police still need to examine items found in Donaldson’s car, including a hoodie that seemed to match one that appeared in surveillance camera video from the first shooting, Dugan said.

“The work really begins now,” said Dugan, who thanked his department employees for their work. “This morning is I think when it hit me, like we actually got this guy . . . To start off as the chief of police and to have four unsolved homicides on your watch, that’s a tough pill to swallow. That is something I’ll carry for the rest of my life.”

Fourth slaying stokes fear of a Tampa serial killer — and police say suspect may be an area resident

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Wednesday that he thinks the death penalty should apply to the case.

“I think at the end of this, if he is found to be guilty, he should die,” Buckhorn said. “It’s that simple.”

The investigation taxed the city’s police department as well as its residents. “Bring his head to me, all right?” Buckhorn had exhorted the police at one point.

Dugan said that officers had sifted through more than 5,000 tips as a reward grew to $35,000.

“It’s been a very rough couple of months,” Seminole Heights resident Renee Campbell told The Post earlier this month. “We’ve had to change all of our patterns, if you will. We don’t walk the dog anymore twice a day. We don’t sit outside as much as we used to. We used to sit on the front porch and chat after dinner. Now we do it in the back yard, if we go out at all.”

At a news conference Wednesday, Robert Hoffa, the uncle of Monica Hoffa, thanked police for helping bring the ordeal to an end.

“I’m sure we have a lot of people in this community who are able to sleep now,” he said. “Benjamin, Monica, Anthony, Ronald: We will not let their names die in vain.”

Jon Silman in Tampa contributed to this report.

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