TAMPA — Officers saturated the area, said a frustrated Mayor Bob Buckhorn, but still, whoever is responsible for the fatal shootings that have terrorized the community of Seminole Heights struck a fourth time early Tuesday and got away.
The latest victim is 60-year-old Ronald Felton, shot before dawn outside the food bank where he had volunteered Tuesdays and Fridays for the past 10 years.
"This has got to stop," Buckhorn said during a morning news conference. "We will hunt this person down until we find them."
Like the three earlier victims, slain during an 11-day period in October, Felton was shot outside. All four victims walked, took the bus or rode a bicycle to get around town. Felton was on a bike every time his sister saw him.
Law enforcement was on the scene at Nebraska Avenue and Caracas Street within minutes of the 4:50 a.m. shooting. Police have been focused so tightly on Southeast Seminole Heights that they doubled arrests there over the previous October, but they poured in even more people Tuesday hoping for a quick arrest.
This time, they had witnesses who saw a shooter running away, along with hopes for revealing video from businesses along Nebraska, and a good suspect description — a black male, 6-foot to 6-foot-2, with a thin build and light complexion and armed with a large black pistol. He was last seen wearing all black clothing.
Police said they believed the shooter lives in the neighborhood and asked residents to stay indoors until they cleared the scene. A stretch of Nebraska remained closed for hours. Eight public schools in the area were on tightened entry restrictions until about 10 a.m., Edison Elementary School even longer.
Tampa police officers were joined by agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office deputies as went door-to-door Tuesday in the area southeast from the corner of Hillsborough Avenue and Nebraska. At times, officers converged on a particular area only to move on. They stopped at one home to take mobile phone photos of a resident who resembled the suspect’s description.
Felton was crossing the street to meet someone when the shooter came up behind him, police said. Police have the name of the person he crossed to meet and described the individual as a witness.
The woman Felton lived with, 68-year-old Cynthia Murray, said police told her Felton was on his mobile phone with his twin brother Reggie Felton at the time of the shooting. She hopes he said a name before he died.
Police declined to comment on any leads they may have in the case. They also have not revealed what evidence makes them believe the four shootings are related.
At the time of the shooting, Felton had been waiting for the New Season Apostolic Ministries to open so he could help with the food bank there, said Pastor Samuel Washington. The food bank is directly across the street from the shooting scene.
Once it opens, a line of people seeking food donated from supermarkets stretches down Caracas. Reggie Felton also volunteered from time to time and was supposed to join his brother there Tuesday.
"He hadn’t seen his brother much lately — his twin," Murray said. "He was so excited to spend time with his brother today."
Robert Clark, who was at Mike’s laundromat near the shooting scene Tuesday morning, told the Tampa Bay Times he heard gunfire, turned and saw a man running east.
"I’m getting ready to put another 75 cents in the machine when I hear a ‘Boom, boom,’" Clark said. "Five of them. I see a man lying in that street and another running to that road. When I got to the man, he was laid out bad."
Signs at the laundromat say it has video recorders. Melissa Deming, who owns property in the neighborhood, said she and others there have been asked to turn over any video they have to police.
Officers found Felton’s body in the road along N Nebraska Avenue, north of E Caracas Street.
Afterward, as law enforcement converged on the Southeast Seminole Heights area, some residents who were trying to leave or return were asked to wait.
Lori Skiles, 51, had to go to work at 11:30 a.m. and was allowed out.
"I’m just not allowed back in until they are done," Skiles said.
Said Elton Sheppard, 73, who lives near the laundromat, "I’ve been on this block a long time and I’ve never seen anything like this. When the sun is down I’m inside, and that’s not right."
The first of the Seminole Heights killings was Oct. 9, when 22-year-old Benjamin Mitchell was shot at a bus stop. Monica Hoffa, 32, was found dead Oct. 13 in an empty lot less than half a mile away. Police heard a gunshot Oct. 19 and found the body of Anthony Naiboa, 20, a few blocks from the first killing.
Earlier, police released video from the night of Benjamin Mitchell’s slaying showing a person in a hooded top running away from the scene within seconds of the crime. The clothing led Tampa police to believe it’s the same pedestrian whose image had been circulated already. They called the individual a "person of interest."
A reward for information leading to the arrest of whoever is responsible for the killings stands at $41,000.
For Casimar Naiboa, father of one of the three earlier shooting victims, news of another killing in Seminole Heights "is like salt in the wound"
"It brings back dark memories," said Naiboa, 50, father of Anthony Naiboa. "I still dream about my son."
As the father of a murder victim, Naiboa said he "feels bad for this victims’ family.
"When someone loses a son it is the worst feeling. I send my condolences to them."
That night, in front of a crowded gathering of neighborhood watch volunteers at Ragan Park Community Center, Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan expressed frustration that they haven’t been able to stop the slayings.
"It’s not from a lack of trying," he said. "We are not happy. This is not how we protect our neighborhoods. We are trying."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Jonathan Capriel, Sara DiNatale and Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected]