TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa Police say they’ve arrested a 24-year-old man in connection with four fatal shootings, that for nearly two months had eluded authorities and terrified residents in the city’s Seminole Heights neighborhood.
The charging documents are still being crafted for Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, who will face four counts of first-degree murder, said Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan in a late night press briefing Tuesday. But Dugan said police wanted to get the news of the arrest to assure 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 late Tuesday. “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.”
The shootings started in Seminole Heights in early October, striking people who were doing ordinary, everyday tasks like waiting at a bus stop or crossing the street. The killings seemed random, leaving the community on edge as the unsolved shootings mounted. Some residents stopped walking their dogs, running outside, going for walks or waiting for the bus alone, saying they no longer felt safe.
As the mystery widened, police received more than 5,000 tips.
On Tuesday, police say they received a tip from a McDonald’s employee around 2:40 p.m. about a man who had a gun in a bag at the fast food restaurant.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that Donaldson had arrived to the McDonald’s that day and asked a manager to hold onto his loaded 9mm handgun for him.
According to the paper, that manager didn’t know what to do with the gun and a female worker noticed a police officer inside the restaurant who was doing paperwork. She told the manager to notify that officer, and when he did, the police called for back-up.
Police said they confiscated the weapon and detained Donaldson to learn more about the gun and any possible connection to the killings.
Dugan said he wasn’t sure whether Donaldson worked at the McDonald’s. He also said he couldn’t answer many questions, because the investigation is ongoing.
“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.”
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.
Donaldson is in police custody, said Eddy Durkin, Tampa Police Department spokesman.
The four seemingly unconnected victims in Seminole Heights were each killed — but not robbed — while walking alone at night within a half-mile area, police said.
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.
Officials have said the killings in October and November are connected in their methodology, leading to fears that a serial killer is on the loose. But officials said they are not calling the suspect a serial killer.
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 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.
In the past month, officers have swarmed the tree-lined neighborhood, advising residents not to go outside alone, to be alert and keep their porch lights on.
Dugan thanked the Seminole Heights community members, saying they had been “phenomenal in their support of our police department. It’s been their patience and their support in the way they’ve rallied behind the cops of Tampa.”