TAMPA — For weeks, Jasmine Armstead and her Temple Terrace family stayed away from Seminole Heights.
That was difficult for the pregnant mother of two, who had worked at the neighborhood’s United Methodist Church as a preschool teacher. Armstead’s mother lived nearby. So Armstead, 31, and her sons, Darren, 11, and Darshaun, 5, would frequent local spots like Ella’s, Front Porch and Fodder & Shine.
That was until a serial killer murdered four people over two months, including Armstead’s family friend, Ronald Felton.
"It was really heartbreaking," Armstead said. "So close to home."
But Armstead was back Monday afternoon, joining several hundred others in a packed Brew Bus Brewing, where Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, Darren’s favorite player, was signing autographs. Defenseman Victor Hedman drew a large crowd at nearby Fodder & Shine, with wing J.T. Brown at Ella’s.
With the suspected killer in custody, the Lightning wanted to help bring normalcy to a neighborhood that had lived in fear. The team hoped to bring a boost to local businesses, some of which were down 30 percent during the six-week manhunt. The Armsteads got in line three hours before Stamkos was scheduled to appear.
"I don’t think a serial killer would have stopped (Darren)," Armstead said. "The minute I said, ‘Stamkos,’ he was like, ‘Stamkos!’ He was very excited."
For the Lightning players, this was no ordinary autograph signing. They loved seeing the smiles, and sometimes screams, of fans, signing everything from PlayStation controllers to jerseys to spray-painted portraits. Fans were encouraged to bring toys to be donated to underserved elementary-aged kids in Seminole Heights for Christmas.
"This is a little bit special, no way to look around that," Hedman said. "It’s been a tough almost two months for them. For us as an organization, we want to be the ones that go out to the fans, show our faces, give back to them the way they’ve supported us through everything. It’s a no-brainer for us to go down there."
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This event has been in the works for three weeks, even before suspect Howell Emanuel Donaldson III was caught in late November. Tampa interim police chief Brian Dugan said he met with some local businesses who were down by an average of 30-percent. They tried to figure out how to get people back out. Dugan suggested a toy drive.
"Someone said, ‘How about the Lightning?’?" Dugan said.
Dugan had experience with the Lightning, as a former security rep and now as police chief. He had invited Brown, along with Rays pitcher Chris Archer, to join trick-or-treaters in Seminole Heights on Halloween.
Brown could sense a strong community then.
"For all the negativity going on, for that moment, they were able to smile and laugh again," Brown said.
Anthony Derby, 27, owner of Brew Bus Brewing, said while locals were still trying to support businesses, the biggest issues came drawing people on weekends. Derby said his business was down 50 percent revenue on Fridays and Saturdays, saying Ella’s was similar.
"We have a lot of regulars that walk here or ride their bike, and after 6 p.m. they didn’t feel comfortable," Derby said. "We’re just trying to get the awareness out that Seminole Heights isn’t branded where the serial killer lives."
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With most of the Lightning players living around downtown Tampa, Stamkos said there was often a lot of talk in the dressing room about the search for the serial killer.
"It’s something that shook the community," Stamkos said. "It’s been tough to watch, and I know it’s been frustrating to people to see this going on in our backyard. Our message is, ‘We’ve got your back.’ (Monday) is a special day for me to see everyone here, back smiling again."
Darren had a big smile on his face as he approached Stamkos on Monday evening. Darren was wearing a cast over his right hand, thanks to a broken thumb suffered last week. That injury kept Darren, a defenseman, out of his roller hockey playoffs Monday at United Skates.
But this was one heck of a consolation prize. The Lightning got Darren involved in hockey two years ago, giving every kid at his Woodmont Charter School a street hockey stick and ball as part of its grassroots "Build the Thunder" campaign. Soon, Darren was hooked, shooting into the family’s laundry basket.
On Monday, Darren shook Stamkos’ hand with his left, then had the All-Star center sign the blade of his stick. Jasmine told Stamkos about Darren’s injury.
Stamkos smiled: "You’ll be back out there before you know it."
Just like Seminole Heights.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.