A St. John’s University graduate who formerly worked for the New York Mets, Adidas and the NBA is being charged with four counts of first-degree murder in a string of shootings that terrorized Tampa, police announced.
The city’s Seminole Heights neighborhood had been on edge for more than a month as a “ruthless” serial killer claimed the lives of four people. Howell ‘Trai’ Donaldson III, 24, was taken into custody at a McDonald’s restaurant on East 13th Avenue in Ybor City before 5 p.m. on November 28. Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan told the media in the initial aftermath of the arrest, “I am optimistic on this one but time will tell.”
Donaldson worked at a local McDonald’s and is a Tampa native.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, “It’s been 51 days and it’s time for Seminole Heights to have a good night’s rest.”
More details about the case are set to be released Wednesday. A $110,000 reward had been offered for information that led to the arrest of the Seminole Heights serial killer. It’s unclear if that reward money will be given to someone. Authorities had earlier said that over 5,000 tips had been received in relation to the case. Buckhorn said in announcing Donaldson’s arrest, “Goodness has won. Light has won.” Chief Dugan said the day after the arrest, “[Donaldson] admitted to owning the gun but he couldn’t tell us why he did this… we’re not sure why he chose Seminole Heights.”
On October 9, Benjamin Mitchell, 22, was murdered while waiting for a bus on North 15th street and Frierson Avenue in Seminole Heights. On October 13, Monica Hoffa, 32, was found dead on the 1000 block of New Orleans Avenue. Her body was located in a vacant lot nearby. On October 19, Anthony Naiboa, 20, was killed along 15th street and Wilder Avenue. On November 14, Ronald Felton, 60, was found deceased at around 5 a.m. on North Nebraska Avenue and East McBerry Street. All of the victims had been shot dead.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Donaldson Asked His Manager at McDonald’s to Hold His Loaded 9mm While He Went to Take Out a Loan, Police Say
Donaldson drove to the McDonald’s in a red Ford Mustang, that’s thought belong to the suspect’s father, that was taped off by police in the restaurant parking lot. Police were seen to be taking a suitcase from the car. The Tampa Bay Times reports that Donaldson has no criminal record in Florida. The red Mustang has two speeding tickets associated with it, one of which belonged to someone who worked at McDonald’s.
An employee at the McDonald’s restaurant where Donaldson was arrested told the Tampa Bay Times that the suspect had worked at the location for four months. That employee, Gail Rogers, said that on November 28, Donaldson handed a loaded 9mm to a manager, asking him to hold it. Donaldson is thought to have bought the gun at Shooters World on East Fletcher Avenue in Tampa. A manager there told ABC Tampa’s Lauren Rozyla-Wong that Donaldson had been a “one time customer,” that the suspect submitted to a background check and passed and that he waited three days to get his gun.
Rogers told the Times that Donaldson then went to a nearby Amscot to get a payday loan. Rogers and her manager then alerted a police officer who was in the McDonald’s. That cop radioed for backup. Multiple officers were waiting for Donaldson when he returned from the Amscot.
The Tampa Police Department had described the suspect in the aftermath of the Felton killing as a black male who is between 6-feet and 6-feet-2 tall, thin build, light complexion, armed with a large black pistol and wearing all black clothing. That same police statement said that perimeter was set up around the area where Ronald Felton had been killed, along Nebraska Avenue between Hillsborough Avenue and Osborne Avenue, as officers felt the killer lived in a nearby home. Ybor City is about four miles south of Seminole Heights.
Police did not provide much information at the late night press conference Tuesday where they announced the charges against Donaldson.
“Unfortunately I will not have the answers that you want,” Chief Brian Dugan told reporters. “This is an ongoing situation.”
Dugan praised those who came forward with information, saying, “Someone stepped up and did the right thing, and that’s what we needed.”
Mayor Bob Buckhorn told reporters, “Justice will occur when this individual rots in hell. Tonight, we’re about to bring justice to someone who doesn’t deserve to walk amongst us.”
Prosecutors haven’t commented about the case yet and it’s not clear if Donaldson could face the death penalty.
Mayor Buckhorn said the day after the arrest, “If he is found guilty, he should die, it’s that simple.”
2. Someone Who Attended High School With Donaldson Said ‘The Guy in the First Kill Moves EXACTLY Like Trai’
A person named Paco Rodriguez wrote on Twitter after Donaldson’s arrest was announced saying, “[Donaldson] played basketball at my high school with my brother and I. The guy in the videos of the first kill moves exactly like Trai.”
In 2011, Donaldson graduated from Alonso High School in Tampa. Donaldson played as a guard for the school’s varsity basketball team, according to Max Preps. Donaldson has a profile at St. John’s basketball webpage, that bio does not say if Donaldson ever played for the team. Donaldson had a separate profile while at St. John’s that explains that he uses the nickname Trai because he is third generation. He adds that he was raised in Tampa. Donaldson concludes by saying, “I love basketball and plan on walking on for St. John’s basketball team.” The New York Post’s Zach Braziller reports that Donaldson was a “walk-on in 2011-12. Never played or dressed. It was under previous staff.”
In a Twitter posting by Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Anthony Chickillo, he and Donaldson are shown to be friends. Both attended Braulio Alonso High School in Tampa and are friends on Facebook.
According to his Facebook page, Donaldson was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. The page does not appear to have been updated since 2015 when Donaldson says he graduated from St. John’s University in New York. Donaldson says he attained a degree in computer science with a minor in sports management. At that time, Donaldson says he worked at a Finish Line shoe store.
3. The Donaldson Family Runs a Hair & Beauty School in Tampa
Donaldson is the son of Rosita and Howell Donaldson II. The couple have three children, two sons and a daughter, in total, according to post’s on Rosita Donaldson’s Facebook page.
The Donaldson family runs the Shear Excellence Hair Academy in Tampa. According to their website, Rosita Donaldson is the “President/CFO/Director/Instructor” and her husband, Howell Donaldson II, is the “Vice President/Operational Manager/Student Services.” The business describes itself as, “committed to excellence in Cosmetology, Nail Technology, and Restricted Barber. Shear Excellence Hair Academy being and accredited academy – is an academy with goals to meet high standards of performance. We currently meet a successful passing rate for the State Board Examination, and offer placement assistance to graduates.” Donaldson worked at the school as an assistant between May and September 2015.
4. Donaldson Used the Phrase ‘Killin’ the Competition’ as a Catchphrase
Posts from Donaldson’s Facebook page from 2010 and 2011 show him saying, “Killin’ the Competition,” at the end of each posting.
According to his LinkedIn page, Donaldson is “a natural born leader, that takes great pride in originality. A professional that executes on all levels; motivated by great heights of opportunity. Currently establishing myself for a career in the Sport World.” The page says that up until May 2017, Donaldson had been working as a Classroom Support Specialist at the Ultimate Medical Academy in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area.
Prior to that Donaldson worked for the New York Mets at CitiField in New York City. Donaldson gives his job title as “Guest Experience Host.” His roles included scanning tickets for all members entering the field and private VIP clubs. During his time at St. John’s, Donaldson worked as a student marketing assistant for the school, a conference services facilities assistant and a campus recreation student worker. In February 2015, Donaldson worked at an event for the NBA. While between February 2013 and May 2015 Donaldson worked at an Adidas store in New York City.
5. Benjamin Mitchell’s Parents Sent Him to Live in Tampa So He Would Grow Up in a Safe Environment
The Tampa PD says that Benjamin Mitchell was shot once at around 9 p.m. on October 9 while he waited for a bus close to where he lives. Mitchell died at a local hospital. Authorities say that they believe Mitchell was on his own. His aunt, Angie Dupree, told Fox Tampa Bay that Mitchell was at the bus stop to ensure his girlfriend got home safe. Dupree said, “He was either going to pick her up or was waiting on her to get out the bus because he didn’t want her to walk home alone. You can’t say that about a lot of kids, but you can literally say this about him: he was a good kid.”
Angie Dupree told Fox Tampa Bay, “This is so crazy. I can’t believe that someone took my nephew for no good reason at all. You got away with nothing. You took a child’s life for no reason at all because you didn’t get anything.” Dupree explained that Mitchell was born in California and lived in Las Vegas for a time. His parents sent him to live with Dupree and her husband so that he could grow up in a safe environment.
Police spokesperson Steve Hegarty told Fox Tampa Bay that Mitchell was a like a “boy scout” with no criminal record. Mitchell was a full-time business management student at Hillsborough Community College and was an aspiring musician, according to his obituary.
According to the Tampa Police Department, Ronald Felton was crossing a street at around 5 a.m. to meet someone when the suspect shot him from behind, killing him. Felton’s sister, Tina, told the Tampa Bay Times about the last time she saw her brother saying, “I was driving and pulled over. I told him, ‘You know all the mess going on in these areas. I want you to be careful.'” Tina Felton added, “I said, “You be careful to keep an eye out for what is going around. We don’t want to have a funeral like these other families.’ He said, ‘Ain’t gonna be me. If anything happens to me, I love ya.”
Tina Felton also said that Ronald Felton was a twin, with a brother named Reggie. Although the two had been in trouble during their lives, since 2007 both had found religion. They were regularly seen handing out food at a local food bank. Tina Felton says her brother “was a quiet, peaceful person who would not bother anyone. He was the type of person who would give you the shirt off his back.”
A City of Tampa worker discovered Monica Hoffa’s body at around 9 a.m. on October 13, reports the Tampa Bay Times. Her stepmother, Dawn Hoffa, told the newspaper:
I spoke to her eight months ago. She seemed to be having problems, and I told her she could come movve in with us. This is so awful.
Initial reports of Hoffa’s death didn’t mention her cause of death, referring to her body as being found with “upper body trauma.” A local resident told the Tampa Bay Times that she heard five shots around the time of Hoffa’s killing.
WFLA, Hoffa’s last official address was on Pittsfield Avenue in Tampa, though she was not living there at the time of her death. According to Hoffa’s Facebook page, she was in a relationship with a man named Derek Reber.
“Monica was a wonderful person, a free spirit, had a smile that would brighten up any room. She loved poetry and she loved talking to her brothers and sisters and nieces,” Kenny Hoffa, Monica’s father, told WFLA-TV. “I want to look at that man’s eyes and ask him how he could do something so terrible to my daughter.”
Anthony Naiboa’s father, Casimar, told WFLA that his son was autistic. Casimar Naiboa said that Anthony took the wrong bus home due to a cancellation and that his son ended up in a neighborhood he wasn’t familiar with. He added that his son was striving to become more independent and dreamed of getting his driver’s license. Naiboa’s parents fear that his son’s condition may have made him “an easy target.”
Speaking to WTSP, Naiboa’s stepmother, Maria Rodriguez, talked about joining others in their community to search for the killer. “We’re trying to have justice for our son. We’re speaking out because we need justice. This needs to stop.”
Rodriguez later told WFTS that her family had started a scholarship fund in Naiboa’s name to help those who have also been diagnosed with autism.
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