TAMPA — On a Tuesday in November, two detectives sat with Howell "Trai" Donaldson III, a 24-year-old brought into Tampa Police headquarters for questioning after he tried to give away a gun to his manager at an Ybor City McDonald’s.
Police brought him in for questioning related to four seemingly random murders in Seminole Heights that terrified residents, forced a massive police search and earned headlines across the country. Donaldson wasn’t yet charged with any crime. He gave permission for the department to test his gun.
Two days later, Donaldson would make his first court appearance to face murder charges.
Details of Donaldson’s questioning by detectives was provided in audio recordings and investigative reports released by prosecutors late Friday, material obtained by the Tampa Bay Times through a public records request.
The interview started casually, with detectives chatting with him about basketball and his education. Four hours later, they were sure he was a murderer.
At 4:30 p.m., Det. Kenneth Nightlinger turned on the recorder that would capture the conversation. Accompanied by Det. Austin Hill, their tone would shift over the course of the evening from lighthearted to serious, and at times, bewildered.
"Any time you feel like, you know, you’re done talking, you can jet out of here, man," Nightlinger told Donaldson. That was true, for at least the first few hours.
Nightlinger was a college basketball fan and expressed interest in the young man’s time playing as a walk-on at St. John’s.
After a few minutes, Nightlinger shifted the questioning: How did his gun, a loaded Glock 27, end up in a bag at McDonald’s?
"I was going back to St. John’s, and I didn’t want the firearm to be in my home with my little brother. Accidents happen," Donaldson told them.
He was planning on flying to New York that night or the next day, he said. At that point, he was still chatty. When Nightlinger would leave the room, the suspect asked Hill about his favorite guns to use.
About 5:30, Nightlinger offered pizza. Donaldson accepted, asking for two slices of pepperoni. The pizza came from Eddie & Sam’s, the detective told him later.
That’s when the detectives broached the subject, at first in the most generic terms possible.
"Are you aware of the murder rate recently, increasing in Tampa?" Nightlinger asked. Donaldson hadn’t been watching the news, he said, but some of his co-workers had brought it up. Nightlinger asked if he knew the intersections of 15th Street and Hillsborough Avenue or Nebraska Avenue and Hillsborough. Donaldson said he didn’t.
"Tell me what you’ve heard," Nightlinger asked. "What are they talking about?"
"Um, they’re saying that people are dying, something about a serial killer."
Hill talked of his time at Florida State, and how the Seminole Heights shootings felt so different from the Ted Bundy murders. These didn’t make sense.
"And it’s unusual for somebody to shoot, actually ... most serial killers, strangling, stabbing—"
Nightlinger opened the door, with the pizza. "Serial killers? We’re talking about serial killers?"
Donaldson allowed them to search his iPhone and download any information they needed. If he wasn’t involved, the detectives told him, it could certainly offer him an alibi.
Nightlinger showed him the famous surveillance video of a young man walking through the neighborhood shortly before one of the shootings. Donaldson said he didn’t know him. Nightlinger showed him photos of the four victims. Donaldson said he’d never seen them.
Before 7, the iPhone test results came back. Nightlinger knew the device was in Seminole Heights on the nights of the murders.
The tone shifted.
"The people I showed you," Nightlinger said as papers shuffled. "Decent people. Okay? That’s a 60-year-old man that was out feeding the homeless. That’s an autistic kid, okay, that missed his bus. This young woman, 30 years old, was merely walking from her aunt’s place. All right? Just down the road, in her neighborhood. And this young man right here was waiting at a bus. To go pick up his girlfriend and make sure she got home safely. Decent people. People like you."
Donaldson’s answers were getting shorter.
"Right," he muttered. But he maintained he’d never seen them.
Three hours into the interview, the detectives started wondering aloud. What could drive someone to kill four strangers?
"What makes a person do that?" Nightlinger asked. "Is it something in their mind that just snaps?"
"I don’t know," Donaldson said quietly. "Probably lost a loved one, or, I don’t know.
Did that happen to you, Hill asked him.
Donaldson said he was flustered. Nightlinger read him his Miranda rights.
They pressed. Who was it that died? Donaldson said something quietly.
"Was it an aunt?" Hill said.
They followed up.
"Okay, and was she close to you?" Nightlinger asked.
"Yeah," Donaldson said again.
"How did she die?"
The detectives began to ask him if he owed the victims’ families an explanation. The gun test was going to come back soon, they told him, and they’d know whether or not he shot them.
"The times these people were killed, you were up in that area. But you haven’t told me as to why. Can you explain why?" Nightlinger asked.
Hill followed up: "Can you explain why you did a number of searches on the Seminole Heights case?"
"I just want to see my family right now," Donaldson said.
Nightlinger left the room, saying he needed to call the state attorney’s office.
He came back about 8:30. Donaldson had been sitting in the interview room for four hours.
The detective made sure Donaldson still knew his rights. He did, he promised.
"I want to be clear about that," Nightlinger said, taking a breath. "Because this is the gun. Okay? You murdered those people. The jacket you were wearing on the video, that we showed you, that you claimed not to be able to identify? It’s in your car. Okay? Your phone puts you right there at specific times. This is science man, this isn’t me making this s— up, this is science."
The two cops pleaded for an explanation.
"I just want to, I guess talk to my attorney, or talk to who I need to talk to," Donaldson said.
Less than four minutes later, the interview was over.
Contact Langston Taylor at (727) 893-8659. Follow @langstonitaylor.