Sunday, June 24, 2018
News Roundup

Parents of Seminole Heights murder suspect refuse to talk to investigators; judge to rule

TAMPA — Investigators had questions for the parents of Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, the suspect in four Seminole Heights killings.

They wanted to ask Howell Jr. and Rosita Donaldson about their 24-year-old son’s background, developmental history, gun possession and state of mind.

But both parents refused to answer Tuesday, defying an investigative subpoena, according to the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office. They revealed only the names, addresses and birth dates of family members before refusing to answer other questions.

"That is a rarity," State Attorney Andrew Warren said at a Wednesday news conference. "Because most people understand that they have a duty to answer questions. And when that duty is explained to them by a judge, they’re willing to provide us answers."

Warren’s office is asking a judge to consider whether the parents should be held in contempt of court. A hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. today before County Judge Margaret Taylor.

"Mr. Donaldson’s refusal to testify .?.?. despite having received a court-authorized subpoena, constitutes indirect criminal contempt," Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner wrote in a motion filed Wednesday that names the father.

A similar motion was filed against the mother, along with a transcript of her interview with Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon.

From the beginning, Andrew Shafii, one of two attorneys who accompanied Rosita Donaldson, told Harmon neither of the parents would testify that day.

Harmon began asking questions to establish a record.

Rosita Donaldson said she and her husband have two other children — a daughter, 28, and another son, 13. The children have several aunts, uncles and cousins. Howell had a good relationship with his two surviving grandparents, she said. The family had frequent gatherings around holidays.

"Thanksgiving everyone was at our house," she said.

Shafii interupted. He told her if she wanted to refuse to talk, she needed to say so. Harmon asked if she would continue.

"No," she said. "With all due respect, I’m not answering any more questions."

Her son, Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, faces four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton. The four were shot to death during October and November in southeast Seminole Heights.

"We’re not only trying to build a case against the defendant, we’re trying to ask the broader question of why — a question that the victims’ families and the community deserves to have answered," Warren said.

The younger Donaldson was arrested Nov. 28 after he handed a gun in a food bag to an employee at the Ybor City McDonald’s where he worked. The employee called police, and investigators later determined the gun was the same one used in each of the four shootings, an arrest report stated.

Donaldson, who police said acknowledged the gun was his, has been jailed without bail since his arrest.

Ralph Fernandez, the attorney representing the Donaldsons, said the parents were devastated by their son’s arrest. Their refusal to answer questions, he said, was intended to avoid further emotional pain.

"I think it’s important to safeguard these truly significant family values in this time of tremendous family stress," he said. "In their distressed state, they’re asked to testify against their son. .?.?. I’m hoping to avoid further grief."

But Warren said the couple was only being questioned as part of the investigation.

"I’m a father. So I recognize and sympathize with the unenviable situation that they’re in," Warren said. "But we have an ethical obligation to exhaust every investigative avenue to make sure we understand what happened in this case."

He was asked if the parents might be fined or jailed for their refusal to comply.

"I don’t think it’s going to come to that," he said.

The state’s court filings note the parents have been granted immunity "by operation of Florida law.’’ The documents also state that the couple invoked no legal or constitutional privilege to justify their refusal to answer questions.

State law provides immunity to witnesses who are called to testify in a state attorney’s investigation, said Stephen Romine, a Tampa-area defense attorney who is not involved in the Donaldson case. And unlike some states, Florida has no law establishing what is known as "parent-child privilege," which would keep communications between parents and children confidential.

Under the law, witnesses in a state attorney’s investigation are given what is known as "use immunity," which means they can’t be prosecuted based on their statements.

"Tactically, what it does is it gives (prosecutors) a free look at what the truth is," Romine said. The state can only charge a witness if they develop evidence independent of the testimony, he said.

The events in Donaldson’s case appear to parallel those of another high-profile case in which Romine assisted.

In 2004, Jennifer Porter was arrested when she drove off after accidentally striking four children with her car, killing two. In that case, prosecutors tried to force her parents to talk about what they knew regarding the hit-and-run.

But they refused, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Fernandez was their attorney at the time.

Prosecutors told the Porters they could not invoke the Fifth Amendment because they had immunity. At a hearing, a judge warned the couple they could be jailed if they did not cooperate. A few days later, they reluctantly agreed to testify.

Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

Rays beat Yankees in 12 innings on Jake Bauers homer

Rays beat Yankees in 12 innings on Jake Bauers homer

ST. PETERSBURG — Rays first baseman Jake Bauers sat at his locker after Sunday afternoon's 7-6, 12-inning win over the Yankees and thumbed through his text messages. There was no way he could get through them all. That's what happens when ...
Updated: 5 minutes ago
Rays journal: Yarbrough comes through, Venters to DL, support for Ramos

Rays journal: Yarbrough comes through, Venters to DL, support for Ramos

ST. PETERSBURG — Ryan Yarbrough was only supposed to throw on Sunday if it was an emergency. In the 12th inning with the score tied 6-6 and a runner on first, there was an emergency.Jonny Venters tweaked his right hamstring trying to cover firs...
Updated: 6 minutes ago
Hit-and-run driver plows into New Tampa family on bike ride

Hit-and-run driver plows into New Tampa family on bike ride

A Tampa man suffered life-threatening injuries and his 3-year-old son is in serious condition after being struck by a hit-and-run driver as they went on a family bike ride Sunday afternoon."This is a family in a very tough situation," Tampa police Ch...
Updated: 20 minutes ago
Rays season turning into good one

Rays season turning into good one

ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays are not the best team in baseball. They are not going to win the World Series this year. Heck, they probably won't even make the playoffs.But I tell you what. This team is a heck of a lot of fun to watch.And ...
Updated: 26 minutes ago

A local hockey draftee? Mitchell grad Nathan Smith is just that

TAMPA — Every year during draft season, local players from the Tampa Bay area are selected in the NFL, MLB and even NBA drafts.But hockey?Sure enough, in the third round of Saturday's NHL draft, the Winnipeg Jets selected Nathan Smith, a forwar...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Suspect dead, 2 injured in St. Petersburg home invasion-turned-shooting

Suspect dead, 2 injured in St. Petersburg home invasion-turned-shooting

ST. PETERSBURGSuspect dead, 2 injured in home invasion, shootingThree people forced their way into a St. Petersburg house before dawn Sunday before gunfire broke out, killing a suspect and injuring two residents, police said.About 5:30 a.m., the peop...
Updated: 1 hour ago
A jogger accidentally crossed into the US from Canada and was detained for two weeks

A jogger accidentally crossed into the US from Canada and was detained for two weeks

The coast of White Rock, British Columbia, in western Canada looks to be an ideal place for a run, with its sweeping views of the Semiahmoo Bay to the west and scores of waterfront homes and seafood restaurants to the east. That’s what 19-year-old Ce...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Office building demolition at Midtown Tampa site proves tougher than expected

Office building demolition at Midtown Tampa site proves tougher than expected

TAMPA — Stripped to the girders, the old Bromley office building looked about as substantial as fish bones on a dinner plate.But the 5-story structure proved Sunday it still had a surprising amount of fight left in it.A demolition team had planned to...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Head-on crash kills Pasco teenager, injures three

Head-on crash kills Pasco teenager, injures three

NEW PORT RICHEY — A 19-year-old driver died in a three-car crash on Moon Lake Road on Saturday afternoon, the Florida Highway Patrol reported.Jillian Faith Hitt, 19 and of New Port Richey, was driving north on the road in a 2008 Hyundai Accent, weari...
Updated: 6 hours ago
President Trump’s trade war threatens the US newspaper industry

President Trump’s trade war threatens the US newspaper industry

STERLING, Ill. - As a longtime editor of small-town newspapers, Jeff Rogers has seen his industry face the collapse of print advertising, the rise of the internet and more. Today, his 18 employees work in a newsroom here that puts out two daily newsp...
Updated: 7 hours ago