TAMPA — In an investigation that drew a blizzard of tips and for seven weeks seemed to revolve around grainy video showing a man in a hoodie, police knew one thing for sure.
Four shootings. One gun.
Police didn’t release that fact publicly until this week, but they knew it before Tuesday, thanks to lab analysis of shell casings from four different fatal shootings in southeast Seminole Heights.
Investigators recovered two casings from the bus stop where Benjamin Mitchell was killed on Oct. 9.
Five from the overgrown lot where Monica Hoffa died on Oct. 11.
One from the driveway where Anthony Naiboa was shot on Oct. 19.
Four from the street where Ronald Felton was killed on Nov. 14.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives analyzed those casings. All 12, the labs found, were fired by the same .40-caliber Glock handgun, according to an arrest affidavit for Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, the 24-year-old Tampa man who now faces first-degree murder charges.
That’s where things stood about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday when Donaldson, a crew chief at a McDonald’s in Ybor City, handed a takeout bag to a supervisor and said something about getting out of Florida. Then he walked out.
"The co-worker opened the bag when Mr. Donaldson left and found the gun inside," police Chief Brian Dugan said Wednesday. "Thought it was strange."
"My manager didn’t know what to do," said Gail Rogers, a four-year employee at the McDonald’s. "He handed her the gun. He said he would text her what to do with it. I told her, ‘Let’s tell the police officer.’?"
The manager turned the bag over to Officer Randi Whitney, a police liaison to the homeless who was in the restaurant doing paperwork. She saw the gun, a .40-caliber Glock, and called for backup. Among the first officers at the scene were investigators who knew exactly what kind of gun the police were looking for in the Seminole Heights slayings.
It was a critically important break in the case.
"That was the bit of information we were looking for," Dugan said. "That is what we needed."
Police sealed the scene, called in forensic investigators and began looking for Donaldson, who had walked to a nearby Amscot where he bought a $160 pre-paid MasterCard, according to the company.
During the 51-day investigation leading up to Tuesday, police had received a total of 5,219 tips and fanned out to talk to as many people in the field as they could. But before Donaldson returned to the McDonald’s on Tuesday, he had not been on investigators’ radar, Dugan said.
That changed immediately, and led to more evidence that police say ties Donaldson to the killings.
Police said they detained Donaldson, and he agreed to give a statement about the gun to Detectives Kenneth Nightlinger and Austin Hill.
At police headquarters, the detectives told Donaldson he had a right to leave or stop talking. They also asked if the FDLE lab could examine the gun and if technicians could search his cell phone and his car at the McDonald’s parking lot.
Donaldson said yes, Hill wrote in the arrest report.
While detectives kept Donaldson talking, the FDLE analyzed the Glock against their previous findings about the shell casings from the scene. The casings from the fourth murder weren’t available, but the gun matched the shell casings from the first three.
Investigators found that Donaldson bought the gun on Oct. 3 at Shooter’s World on E Fletcher Avenue in Tampa. Store receipts showed he picked up the gun four days later, after a mandatory waiting period, along with a 20-round box of .40-caliber ammunition that matched both the brand of shell casings found at the murder scenes and the five rounds still loaded in the gun.
Donaldson told detectives that "no one except for himself had control of the Glock firearm since his purchase," Hill wrote in the arrest report.
At the same time, a search of Donaldson’s phone found stored location data showing that it had pinged off an AT&T cell tower near the first three murder scenes within minutes of each of those shootings.
And a search of the Ford Mustang that Donaldson had parked at the McDonald’s found clothing similar to what a man was wearing in surveillance video captured on E Frierson Avenue on Oct. 9 shortly before and after Mitchell’s murder, the arrest report says. Detectives found what they suspect to be a blood stain on one area of the clothing, the report says.
With evidence from the gun, the cell phone and the car in hand, detectives read Donaldson his Miranda rights and asked for an explanation.
In reply, he asked for a lawyer.
"He was very friendly and nice to the cops, but he didn’t tell us why he was doing it or anything like that," Dugan said. The chief said he didn’t believe Donaldson was trying to turn himself in when he gave the gun to the manager.
"I don’t think he wanted to get caught," Dugan said. "He gave it to her for safekeeping."