TAMPA — The people who knew him best have struggled to understand how police could accuse Howell "Trai" Donaldson III of striking down four strangers with gunfire, terrorizing Seminole Heights for 51 days.
His parents said they also have no explanation.
Howell Donaldson Jr. and his wife, Rosita, spoke publicly for the first time Friday evening. They appeared shell-shocked as they spoke of the 24-year-old man they raised, their heartbreak from his arrest brought and the sorrow they share with the families of those killed.
"We’re here to support our son through this," the father told the Tampa Bay Times. "And we just want to let the families know that we love them. Our hearts are heavy for their loss."
Their attorney, Ralph Fernandez, wouldn’t let them address the key question in all this: What led their son to face four first-degree murder charges? Why did this happen?
"We’re not going to discuss anything that could impact either the prosecution or the defense," Fernandez said.
But in a brief interview, the parents offered a glimpse of their son, who they said loved basketball and had many friends. They called him Trai — pronounced "Tray" — because he was the third Howell in his family. His dream was to live in New York City.
He went to college there at St. John’s University, played on the basketball team, and earned a degree in sports management in 2016. He had been looking to start a career in that industry.
"I’d like to think I did a good job with my boy," his father said through tears. "Everybody would want to be with Trai because Trai made everybody feel good, made everybody feel inclusive.
"Just like any neighborhood, our house was (full of) kids."
They recounted how they found out about their son’s arrest Tuesday. Howell Donaldson Jr. said he was taking his younger son, who is in middle school, to a basketball game when his wife called him. She told him the police had taken their 24-year-old son in for questioning.
"It stopped everything instantly," the father said.
His mother had seen him earlier that day, she said. She did not discuss what he said or did.
"He’s my baby," Rosita Donaldson said. "We talked every day. ... Trai was very respectful. He’s a leader. And he loved everyone."
"I felt devastation for the families when it first started, and I prayed for those families when it first started and then, when they arrested my son I felt devastation because I love my son."
"And then there was disbelief that this was happening to our family and we questioned why." Her eyes welled with tears: "Just why? Why?"
The parents haven’t been allowed to ask their son that question, they said. They haven’t been able to visit with him since he was jailed Tuesday.
Tampa police spent six weeks searching for whoever was terrorizing Seminole Heights. The break in the case came Tuesday afternoon, when they said Trai Donaldson III visited the Ybor City McDonald’s where he worked and handed a coworker a bag that held a .40 Glock handgun. He mentioned something about leaving town.
Detectives asked him to come in for questioning, police said, and then they quickly determined the weapon was the same one used in all the Seminole Heights murders.
"We want to see him," Rosita Donaldson said. "He needs to know that we love him and support him and we need to see him."
Fernandez is now representing the parents and said Friday that he is assembling a defense team to represent their son in court. Trai Donaldson III could face the death penalty.
The couple said they still love and support their son. But for now, all they can do for him is pray, Howell Donaldson Jr. said. They’ll pray for their son and for the families of the victims. He hopes they’ll pray for his family, too.
A childhood friend also revealed more about Trai Donaldson III. Jacob Peters said he ran into him for the first time in about eight years at the "Spectrum" office building at 3101 W Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
He seemed "totally, completely normal," Peters, 26, told the Times.
Peters paid for his friend’s lunch in the cafeteria, a buffalo chicken wrap.
"No joke, he was still the nicest dude," Peters said. "You can’t make this stuff up. Growing up with the kid he was always respectful, he knew my family and I knew his family. I never would have thought he was capable of this."
They laughed at the odd coincidence of once again being neighbors — Peters works at the PricewaterhouseCoopers’ office in a building next door to the Ultimate Medical Academy office where Donaldson started a job in January.
He said they laughed and smiled as he bombarded Peters with questions about what he had done with his life since high school.
But it struck Peters as odd that Trai Donaldson III didn’t reveal much about himself. He was also dressed oddly: everyone else in the cafeteria was in business attire, but Donaldson wore a red sweatshirt and basketball shorts.
And instead of sitting to eat lunch with him, Trai Donaldson III walked away after just a few minutes of reminiscing.
"Now I get the chills just thinking I talked to this dude," Peters said.
That’s because days later, on Oct. 9, a neighbor found the first shooting victim, Benjamin Mitchell, 22, by a HART bus stop on E Frierson Avenue.
Peters said he, Trai Donaldson III and a handful of others grew up together in an Old Bay Crest neighborhood off Memorial Highway. But in high school they began to drift apart. Donaldson played basketball at Tampa Catholic and Alonso High while Peters played basketball at a private Christian school.
"I guess people change," Peters said, "but this was unexpected."
A bond hearing for Trai Donaldson III is scheduled for Dec. 5. Until then, he is being held without bail in the Hillsborough County jail.