Co-workers thought Tampa murder suspect looked like the killer
TAMPA, Fla. – A 24-year-old college graduate who was arrested in a string of deadly shootings that terrorized a Florida neighborhood was ordered held without bond Thursday on four counts of premeditated first-degree murder.
Howell Emanuel Donaldson was arrested Tuesday after he asked a co-worker at a McDonald’s restaurant to hold a bag carrying a gun. The co-worker looked inside the bag, spotted the weapon and approached a Tampa police officer who was sitting in the restaurant doing paperwork. When Donaldson returned to the McDonald’s, police were waiting.
The arrest brought immense relief to the Seminole Heights neighborhood, where many outdoor activities had stopped since the first death Oct. 9. Two more fatal shootings happened in the weeks that followed, and residents were so scared that police escorted children while they trick-or-treated. The fourth killing happened in November.
Judge Margaret R. Taylor set a Tuesday hearing to determine whether Donaldson will be held in jail until his trial. Appearing via a video linkup from the Hillsborough County Jail, Donaldson was shackled and wore a sleeveless, blue padded anti-suicide vest. Two bailiffs held him by the arms during the hearing as family members of the victims watched from the courtroom.
“Relief. Sadness. I think it’s a slew of emotions,” said Brittany Lott, who said she hasn’t walked her dogs in 51 days, choosing to spend time in the backyard instead.
Donaldson’s neighbors said Wednesday that they’d recently seen him playing basketball with his younger brother in the suburban driveway of the family’s brick home. Now they’re watching news of him on television, puzzled as to how a kid who went to college in New York on a basketball scholarship ended up behind bars.
“He’s very nice, he waves, very polite,” said neighbor Kelly Fabian, who said she walked Donaldson to school when he was younger. “Quiet kid. It’s a shocker.”
Arrest records didn’t list an attorney for Donaldson and the police chief said he didn’t know if he had a lawyer yet.
New York City police say they’d like to examine ballistics results of the gun used in the Florida killings to see if the weapon matches any unsolved crimes in New York. Donaldson attended St. John’s University in Queens, graduating in January. Police in New York said he had been arrested in 2014 for a minor crime, but the arrest was sealed.
The crack in the case came Tuesday when Donaldson brought a bag with a loaded handgun in it to his job at a McDonald’s and asked a co-worker to hold it while he went across the street, authorities said. Restaurant workers reported the gun to a police officer who was there, setting off an investigation. Aside from matching shell casings at the shootings, authorities said location data from Donaldson’s cellphone put him at the scene of at least three of the killings.
“The gun is what we needed,” Police Chief Brian Dugan said at a news conference surrounded by family members of the victims.
Co-workers at McDonald’s told the Tampa Bay Times they’d teased Donaldson about his resemblance to the suspect after police released surveillance video that showed a shadowy figure walking in the area around the time one of the victims was killed.
“I called him the killer to his face,” Gail Rogers said. “He didn’t like that.”
Robert Hoffa, the uncle of victim Monica Hoffa, said he was “overjoyed” when Tampa police called him to say they had made an arrest.
Donaldson did not live in the Seminole Heights neighborhood where the shootings occurred and the police said authorities have not been able to determine why Donaldson chose the area. Dugan said Donaldson has been cooperative and friendly to officers, but hasn’t shed any light on why he committed the crimes or picked the victims.
After graduating from college, Donaldson worked in customer support at the Ultimate Medical Academy, a school that trains workers for health care jobs. He started there in February and worked for about three months before he was fired for absenteeism. The academy said he passed a background check before he was hired.
His LinkedIn account also listed a job as a “guest experience host” for the New York Mets in 2016. The Mets would neither confirm nor deny that he was employed by them.
Donaldson was a crew chief at the McDonald’s when he was arrested. The tip that led police to him came from one of his co-workers at an Ybor City McDonalds, which is near the Seminole Heights neighborhood.
“The person who called us, I cannot thank them enough for standing up and doing the right thing,” Chief Dugan said.
Donaldson bought the gun and a 20-round box of bullets from Shooter’s World in Tampa on Oct. 3. He picked it up after the four-day waiting period and the first killing happened two days after that.
Detective Austin Hill wrote in a police report that Donaldson told investigators “no one, except for himself had control of the Glock firearm since his purchase.” A police report said the gun matched shell casings in three of the four homicides.
Authorities said a search of Donaldson’s cellphone found location data that indicated three days of recorded times and activities corresponding with the first three shootings on Oct. 9, Oct. 11 and Oct. 19. The casings in the fourth homicide weren’t available for comparison, the report said, but had been previously identified as being fired from the same firearm as the first three.
The arrest report said police found clothing inside Donaldson’s car that was similar to what was worn by a person spotted in surveillance video taken the night of the first shooting.
“We had a community that was on edge,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Wednesday. “Today the light shines. The darkness is over. This community begins the healing process.”
Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner and Associated Press writers Freida Frisaro in Miami, Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Colleen Long in New York contributed to this report.
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