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Seminole Heights celebratory, skeptical after police make arrest in four killings

More than 50 people gathered and walked in the Southeast Seminole Heights community on Oct. 20 to pay respects to the first three shooting victims, before a fourth was killed. Residents say the crisis crystalized the community. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL  |  Times]
More than 50 people gathered and walked in the Southeast Seminole Heights community on Oct. 20 to pay respects to the first three shooting victims, before a fourth was killed. Residents say the crisis crystalized the community. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL | Times]
Published Nov. 29, 2017

TAMPA — When she heard the news Tuesday night, Melissa Deming couldn't quite believe Tampa police had made an arrest in the murders that plagued southeast Seminole Heights.

Deming, the co-owner of Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe on Nebraska Avenue, said it wasn't real to her until morning.

"I don't think I have smiled that hard in 51 days," she said as she and others prepared for Ella's to open Wednesday. "We were all so emotional."

For months residents have lived under a siege of warnings and dread. Police told them not to walk alone at night and to keep porch lights on. Possibly most frightful of all, police said whoever was behind the murderers was likely someone who knew Seminole Heights well.

But much of the fear fell away after Tampa police announced that they arrested Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, 24, and charged him with four counts of murder.

Deming said her restaurant barely had time to recover from the slowdown caused by Hurricane Irma before the string of murders made customers cautious of staying out too late.

"The locals really rallied behind us and kept us going," Deming said. "Now it feels like we are finally free."

Southeast Seminole Heights is stronger than ever, she said.

"This whole thing has really crystallized us as a community," she said.

The common enemy of a killer on the loose united people. Events like the trick-or-treating with Tampa police and the Thanksgiving week supper for first responders were reactions to the killings, but they also brought people together.

The neighborhood's most recent initiative, Light the Heights, aimed to string up Christmas lights on most homes in order to give much needed holiday cheer to residents and aid Tampa police's search for a killer. But the arrest of a suspect has changed the tone, said Stan Lasater, president of the Southeast Seminole Heights Civic Association.

"Now it's a celebration party where people are wanting to shut down the neighborhood and bring the entire city of Tampa to celebrate with us," Lasater said.

Lasater, who was downtown at the Tampa Police Department when Chief Brian Dugan announced the arrest, said he was "elated" by it.

Many customers at M&M Food and Meat, a convenience store on 15th Street, seemed to be overjoyed by the arrest, said Mike Hamdan, 20, a store manager.

"There was a lady in here dancing earlier, singing, 'They got him,'?" Hamdan said. But Hamdan did not share their joy.

"I don't think he's the guy," Hamdan said. "How did he avoid police so long only to be dumb enough to give his gun to someone?"

Others doubted that the killings would stop. Just a few blocks away in front of the bus stop where the first victim was shot dead, Natasha Livingston, 29, lives with her seven kids.

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"I think the police should still be out patrolling," Livingston said. "That man doesn't look like the images they've been showing. That dude doesn't match the description. You'll see. You'll be back out here reporting another dead body."

Contact Jonathan Capriel at jcapriel@tampabay.com. Follow @jonathancapriel.

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