The arrest of a suspect in four recent murders in Tampa brought relief to residents and some measure of comfort to the victims’ families Wednesday, even as the ordeal has a long way to play out in the lives left behind and the criminal justice system. Tampa police charged Howell Donaldson III with four counts of first-degree murder Tuesday, ending a dragnet of 51 days after an apparent chance encounter at a McDonald’s restaurant. This has been a harrowing time for the victims’ families, the police and residents of the Southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood, but their working together has been a show of civic spirit.
Police arrested Donaldson late Tuesday after detaining him at an Ybor City McDonald’s, where he allegedly asked a co-worker to store a gun while he ran an errand. A store manager alerted a Tampa police officer doing paperwork inside, who called for backup, and officers stopped Donaldson when he returned to the restaurant. After questioning at headquarters, police charged Donaldson, 24, with the death of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa and Anthony Naiboa in October and of Ronald Felton in November. In an arrest report, police said state investigators had linked Donaldson’s gun to the crimes and that cellphone data put him in the area where the first three killings occurred.
A seven-week manhunt may have ended on a bit of luck, but this experience was a testament to dogged policing, to nonstop outreach to the community and to the spirit of private citizens who took the responsibility to get involved. Police Chief Brian Dugan was a constant, visible and reassuring presence in the neighborhood. His dual call for residents to be vigilant but also remain out and about helped to put more eyes and ears on the ground and restore some sense of normalcy. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn went over the top by urging officers in October to "bring his head to me." But the mayor’s public presence in the neighborhood boosted morale among officers and residents. He brought the necessary resources to the search and ensured the city helped in even small ways, like clearing alleyways where a suspect could hide.
Authorities are still building a case against Donaldson, and the judicial process will expose what worked and what didn’t in the city’s response. But it appears the police acted methodically to vet the thousands of incoming tips. Officers and residents in the racially mixed neighborhood used the manhunt to strengthen their relationships. There seems to be a better understanding in Tampa of the job the police face and of the challenges that come with living in a neighborhood that has not been a priority. The potluck dinners have brought neighbors together. Pledges of reward money for bringing in the killer from residents beyond Seminole Heights underscored how this was a citywide tragedy demanding a citywide response.
The killings shook the city’s psyche and brought residents to reassess their fundamental sense of safety. As more information on the case becomes available in the coming days, the public should have a better feel for the city’s confidence in this arrest, and for the prospects of seeing some sort of justice for these tragedies.
But in moving into the next phase of this case, residents and police cannot forget how they worked tirelessly for a common goal in making the community safer. That shared responsibility is what makes a community tick. It may have culminated here in a flash of trust and quick thinking in a fast-food restaurant. But it took everyone doing their part — which it always does.