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A year later, Seminole Heights killings take toll on victim families

The four Seminole Heights shooting victims: Benjamin Mitchell, 22 (left); Monica Hoffa, 32 (top middle); Anthony Naiboa, 20 (bottom middle); and Ronald Felton, 60 (right).
The four Seminole Heights shooting victims: Benjamin Mitchell, 22 (left); Monica Hoffa, 32 (top middle); Anthony Naiboa, 20 (bottom middle); and Ronald Felton, 60 (right).
Published Oct. 8, 2018

TAMPA — On the morning of Oct. 9, 2017, police found the body of Benjamin Edward Mitchell near a bus stop at 15th Street and East Frierson Avenue.

The shooting death of Mitchell, 22, was the start of a 51-day ordeal that would grip the city. Three others died before police arrested a suspect.

As the first anniversary of the Seminole Heights serial killings nears, no one feels it like the families of the four people police say were slain by Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, 24.

For them, life won't ever be the same.

"Life has sucked," said Kenny Hoffa, the father of Monica Caridad Hoffa, 32, who police say became Howell's second victim on Oct. 11, 2017.

"I am just praying for this to end and that justice prevails. We relive this every day.

RELATED: Interviews detail the downward spiral of the Seminole Heights killing suspect

The holidays are particularly tough, said Hoffa. So was his daughter's birthday, in April.

"Every time we see a new piece of news, or anything, it just brings it back up," said Hoffa. "It is a daily grind. We lean heavily on faith."

The ongoing court case against Howell has added to the family's stress, said Hoffa, 53, a safety manager for a construction company in South Carolina.

"We know it is going to be a long process, with all the hearings," he said. "The district attorney has been a godsend. They keep us informed."

Hoffa also praised victim advocate Jo Byrd Carroll, who works for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.

"She helps us a lot," he said.

This year, to mark the anniversary of his daughter's killing, Hoffa said he plans to stage a memorial at the spot where her body was found two days later in a wooded lot near the corner of East New Orleans Avenue and North 11th Street.

"We might release balloons," he said Friday afternoon, adding that the details were still in flux.

•••

"We've got an emptiness that won't go away," said Casimar Naiboa.

On Oct. 19, his son Anthony Naiboa, 20, became the serial killer's third victim, police say.

The Middleton High School graduate got off at the wrong bus stop after work and was shot while walking north on 15th Street to another bus stop.

"We have always been together," Naiboa, a long-haul trucker, said nearly a year later. "Now we are not complete. Everything is still raw."

Naiboa said that some nights, as the family gathers around the table for dinner, they do what they did the night he was killed. Hope that he will walk in the door and join them.

Other times, the horrible memories will wash over the father at moments unexpected.

"I could be cleaning the house, or washing the dishes or just standing in front of the house and it hits you hard," he said.

"Some days, I get up in the morning and feel like it is going to be a bad, bad, bad day. Some days, you just want to cry and remember harder."

But the hardest moments, said Naiboa, 51, are about what could have been done differently.

"We know the reality, but there are some times when we wonder what we could have done that would have been better," he said.

Time has flown by since his son was killed.

"It is going so fast," he said. "It feels like it happened last week."

The anniversary of his son's death will mean "one year without him," Naiboa said. "One year without his love for us. I can't believe it has been one year already."

The family will do something come Oct. 19, though Naiboa is not sure what. They may walk to the spot where Anthony was killed. They may have a memorial.

But no matter what they do, one stark truth remains.

"We are never going to be the same," he said."

•••

When Ronnie Felton, 60, was shot at Nebraska Avenue and Caracas Street before dawn on Nov. 14, it did more than end his life, said his sister, Tina Felton.

"It's not like we are family anymore," said Felton, 66, a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home.

Her brother's death shattered her once close family, she said.

"Everybody has their own opinion about certain things," she said. "We all have the idea of loving and missing Ronnie, but being around each other, a lot of us have problems."

The main fissure evolved around attitudes toward the accused, said Felton.

"When the young man goes to court, I go," she said. "They don't like that, but I want to know for real if he did it, because I believe in the system. I want to hear the young man say, 'Yes, I did it,' or maybe, 'I did it, but it was a mistake.'"

Many other family members just want to see Howell executed, or sent to jail for life.

"It causes a lot of tension in the family," said Felton, adding that she feels sympathy for Howell's family, because they may lose their loved one.

Felton, who "thinks about it every day," said she has been largely a shut-in since her brother was killed, a tragedy that took place just days before her husband would die.

"I haven't been sleeping as much, and I don't go to places I used to go as much," she said. "I was so used to seeing my brother."

Adding to her malaise is the fact that her brother Reggie is Ronnie's identical twin.

"Whenever I see Reggie, he knows it is hurtful," said Felton.

Like Naiboa, Felton said she struggles with the "what-ifs."

"What if I talked him into letting me pick him up?" she said of her brother. "Or I took the day off and had lunch with him earlier? We were supposed to have lunch two days later."

Felton, who said the family has yet to decide how to memorialize the anniversary, said she knows that after a year she needs to move on.

"I don't want my kids to see me crying every time they look up," she said. "My daughter, who is 40, said, 'Mama, just rest. Ronnie would have wanted you to rest.'"

Relatives of Benjamin Mitchell, the first victim, did not return phone calls.

Howell is scheduled for another court hearing Oct. 30.

"I will be there," Felton said.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman