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Childhood friend of Seminole Heights killings suspect saw a change in attitude

Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, 24, in white, is led by law enforcement personnel into the Orient Road Jail early Wednesday. Donaldson will face four counts of first-degree murder, Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan announced at a news conference at police headquarters. [CHRIS URSO | Times
Published Nov. 29, 2017

TAMPA — When he heard the news that his longtime friend Howell Emanuel Donaldson III — or "Trai" as he knew him — was arrested in connection with the killing of four people in Seminole Heights, Ryan Keyworth couldn't stop thinking about two memories.

One was of Donaldson in fifth grade.

They were playing basketball during gym class at Bay Crest Elementary School in Town 'N Country where they grew up two blocks apart.

No one would pass Keyworth the ball, so Donaldson went out of his way to include the awkward boy in the game.

"He was always that kid who wanted to include everyone," Keyworth said. "He was a good guy."

The second memory showed how his friend's personality had changed recently.

Around last Easter, Keyworth said, a group of old buddies had gotten together for a friendly game of pickup basketball. But when Donaldson was fouled, Keyworth saw rage in his once patient friend's eyes.

"His demeanor was different," Keyworth said. "It was something that was talked about among our close group of friends."

They wondered what the problem could be.

Had the stress of not succeeding as a college basketball player at St. John's University gotten to him?

Was he having issues with a woman he was dating at the University of Central Florida?

"There was something going on," Keyworth said. "I didn't want to pry because I figured if he wanted to talk, he would talk. But his diction changed. He was more aggressive in the way he talked. He had more of an edge. He had a fuse. I didn't remember this kid being like this."

The last time Keyworth heard from Donaldson was via text on October 3.

Unknown to Keyworth, that was the day the Tampa Police Department said Donaldson bought the gun that led to his arrest at the Ybor City McDonald's.

"We texted about life and going through hard times and how to pick ourselves up when going through adversity and overcome demons," Keyworth said.

Keyworth's mother had passed away in June and Donaldson was someone he leaned on for support.

Donaldson, Keyworth believes, was struggling with the move back to Tampa because it was something they discussed.

But even in these text exchanges, the language Donaldson used seemed unusually aggressive, Keyworth said

That was a far different person than the kid Keyworth walked with to and from elementary school every day, the kid who was always "super respectful and looking out for others, especially those being bullied."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

MORE ON SEMINOLE HEIGHTS

LIVE BRIEFING: Everything we know about the arrest in the Seminole Heights killings

BACKSTORY: Seminole Heights slayings: Man, 24, faces four counts of murder

RELATED: Phone data could be 'powerful evidence' against Seminole Heights suspect

RELATED: Seven things you need to know about Howell Emanuel Donaldson III

RELATED: What comes next for the man accused in four Seminole Heights murders?

RELATED: Sister of Seminole Heights murder victim now dealing with her husband's death

RELATED: Now that police have a suspect in Seminole Heights killings, will anyone get the $110,000 reward?

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