Tampa police may have ended a six-week hunt for a serial killer when they arrested former St John’s University basketball player Howell Emanuel Donaldson III earlier this week. The 24-year-old McDonald’s crew leader was taken into custody at the fast food restaurant near the city’s Seminole Heights neighborhood, where he allegedly shot four people to death and sent law enforcement and residents into panic over the past two months.
On Wednesday, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who refrained from using the term serial killer during the investigation, told reporters during a press conference that he was proud of “a city that had just lived through [Hurricane] Irma and has now spent the last 51 days dealing with a serial killer,” according to CNN. Buckhorn then told the Washington Post that he supported the death penalty for this case. “I think at the end of this, if he is found guilty, he should die. It’s that simple.”
Donaldson has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder. He is being held without bond at the Hillsborough County jail and remains scheduled to make his initial court appearance on Thursday. Here is what we know so far about Donaldson and his suspected killings.
Who is Howell Donaldson III?
Born in North Carolina, Donaldson played basketball at Tampa Catholic High School, before graduating from the city’s Alonso High School in 2011, according to a report from the Tampa Bay Times. He then enrolled at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, where he studied sports management. He made the Red Storm men’s basketball team as a walk-on athlete in 2011 to 2012, but never played in a game. His profile on a team website was removed Tuesday morning, according to the New York Daily News. In 2014, Donaldson was arrested in Manhattan, but the case has been sealed. His LinkedIn page showed him as a “guest experience host” for the Mets in 2016. He graduated from the university in January 2017.
According to the Washington Post, Donaldson has an address about 10 miles east Seminole Heights. His family lives in the Sulphur Springs.
Who are the victims?
Tampa police have identified four unconnected victims in Seminole Heights.
On October 9th, Benjamin Mitchell, a 22-year-old musician and community-college student, was shot to death as he stood at a bus stop. Then Monica Hoffa, a 32-year-old waitress, was killed on October 11th. Her body was found two days afterward by a city employee in a parking lot. On October 19th, Anthony Naiboa, a 20-year-old autistic man was slain while walking home. Twenty-six days later, on November 14th, police found 60-year-old Ronald Felton gunned down in the street only blocks away from where the others were discovered.
How did authorities find Donaldson?
As the Tampa Bay Times reported, it was about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday when Donaldson drove a red Mustang to the McDonald’s in Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood, roughly three miles from Seminole Heights. He was wearing his uniform when he asked a manager to hold his Glock handgun and then went to a nearby Amscot to get a payday loan.
With Donaldson out of sight, the manager approached a police officer doing paperwork inside the McDonald’s and told them about the firearm and that Donaldson mentioned leaving the state. ABC News reported that the officer looked into the bag, saw the .40-caliber Glock loaded with Sig brand Smith & Wesson ammunition, and called backup just before 3 p.m. Officers were waiting for Donaldson when he returned to the restaurant parking lot.
At that time, police only reported taking him into custody for questioning. Tampa Bay Chief Brian Dugan stood outside of the McDonald’s and told media that he was “guarded” about the result. “There’s a lot to go through, a lot to sift through, and it’s going to take many things to fall in line,” Dugan said. Family members of the victims told reporters that they were nervous and wanted the chaos to end. “It is like riding a roller coaster right before you go over the edge and you feel your stomach raise up in your face,” said Kenny Hoffa, whose daughter Monica was killed over a month ago.
At 11 p.m. Tuesday, in the police headquarters, Dugan announced that “tonight we will be making an arrest in the Seminole Heights murder.” Buckhorn added: “Fifty-one days ago I said this was a struggle between good and evil. Well, tonight goodness has won.” At 2:25 a.m. Wednesday, a Tampa police cruiser drove Donaldson to jail, where officers and sheriff’s deputies walked him into booking. That morning, Dugan told reporters at a news conference that “this is the man who did this.”
In part, the arrest is a relief for police department, which received over 5,000 tips during the investigation and dispatched undercover officers into the neighborhood. The investigation is being called the largest police effort in Hillsborough County since the search for cop-killer Dontae Morris in 2010.
Has Donaldson cooperated with police?
Despite the seriousness of the charges, Donaldson “seemed fine to me, which is a strange answer for me to give, because why is he out murdering people?” Dugan said. “He seemed like he knew exactly what he was doing and what was going on. He was very much aware of where he was and what he was doing.”
Donaldson told investigators that he bought the Glock, along with a 20-round box of .40-caliber ammunition, on October 3rd from a store called Shooter’s World in Tampa. He picked it up after the four-day mandatory waiting period on October 7th, just two days before Mitchell was killed. Donaldson copped to owning the piece, which matched cartridge casings found at four murder scenes.
Aside from the Glock, how else do police connect Donaldson to the killings?
During his interview with police, Donaldson consented to a search of his car, cellphone and firearm.
Police found blood on his hoodie, which matched surveillance footage allegedly showing a man walking before Felton was killed. Donaldson told investigators that he “was unfamiliar with the area identified as the Seminole Heights neighborhood, and he did not have any association with anyone in the area.” But his cellphone data puts him near the first three murder scenes in Seminole Heights on the same dates and times of those crimes. Other phone records show him “geographically associated” with a cell tower in the locations of all four murder scenes.
Police said that Donaldson requested an attorney when he heard the evidence against him.
Is there motive?
Police do not yet know the motive for the killings. On Wednesday, Dugan said that Donaldson “was friendly and nice to the cops, but he didn’t give us anything. He didn’t tell us why he was doing it, or anything like that.”
Florida Governor Rick Scott weighed in as well, saying, “Why somebody would have it in their mind to go take four individuals’ lives, I just don’t get it. And I don’t know that we’ll ever understand.”
A former suitemate at St. John’s told reporters that his “mouth dropped” when he saw Donaldon on the news. “It’s just like, what? I just don’t see what his motive would be.” He described Donaldson as a quiet, well-mannered sneakerhead. “[Trai was] just a regular guy. Nothing stood out as violent.” Then Tony Estevez, a neighbor whose son grew up with Donaldson, said the suspect went over his home last weekend to watch football and chill by the pool. “He is the most quiet, polite young man. I’ve never seen him say a bad word.”