TAMPA — One day last September, Howell Emanuel Donaldson III sat in his red Ford Mustang outside a Clearwater coffee shop.
"I’m just not in a good spot," he told a friend who sat beside him. "I’m going through a rough time."
Matt Threadgill, his old high school basketball teammate, guessed that Donaldson wanted to borrow money. The 24-year-old recent college graduate had been hitting up everyone — friends, coaches, an ex-girlfriend — in a way that seemed desperate.
He said he’d soon be working at McDonald’s and rambled about trying to be a good role model for his younger brother.
Threadgill asked what he wanted. Donaldson responded.
"Do you know how I could get a gun?" he said.
The parking lot meeting occurred three days before Donaldson paid $399 for a .40-caliber Glock handgun at a Tampa firearms store. It was 59 days before he became the prime suspect in a series of random shootings that sent waves of terror through the Tampa neighborhood of southeast Seminole Heights.
After Donaldson’s Nov. 28 arrest, detectives talked to dozens of his friends and acquaintances. Prosecutors released recorded interviews earlier this month in response to public records requests from news organizations, including the Tampa Bay Times.
In them, a pattern emerges of a man under pressure and adrift, one who sought help from people he hadn’t seen in years.
He at times seemed almost homeless, living out of his car, borrowing beds from friends, even staying in a motel — all in the city where his family lived. His mother, Rosita Donaldson, told police on the night of his arrest that he lived at home and was in every night by 5 p.m., but friends told a different story.
Donaldson told Threadgill and others that he had been kicked out of his parents’ home.
He seemed troubled for reasons no one could explain.
And money was on his mind.
He was known as "Trai," (pronounced TRAY), because he was the third Howell in his family. Friends thought of his parents as strict but not unreasonable.
He attended three high schools — Tampa Catholic, Plant and Alonso — and played basketball at each. His sights were set on the NBA, but friends said he wasn’t an outstanding player.
"He quit a lot of the teams we played on," Threadgill told police. "I felt like he never accepted responsibility for himself and he blamed coaches."
At St. John’s University, Donaldson was a walk-on for the college basketball team. He graduated in January 2017 but stayed in New York, working odd jobs.
Threadgill saw him there on a visit in July, he told police. Donaldson said he had recently quit a sales job because he disliked the company. He complained about the cost of living in New York City and said he might move home to save money.
Threadgill worked in sales for an accounting business. Donaldson asked him to help find a job.
Back in Tampa later that summer, Donaldson told his friend he’d been kicked out of his parents’ house.
"What it sounded like was they were kind of arguing about him," Threadgill said. "They were saying how he didn’t have a job or whatever and they would get mad if he came home late. They just weren’t getting along, so they didn’t want him to live in the house and he didn’t want to live there, either."
Donaldson asked to live with Threadgill, who declined.
About the same time, Donaldson called Nicole Minnis. He had dated her in high school and took her to the prom, but they hadn’t spoken much in four years.
He told her he needed money to get his car fixed so he could get to a job interview, she told police.
She loaned him $300, she said. He promised to pay back $150 with his first paycheck Sept. 15, then the rest on Sept. 30. The dates passed. He didn’t pay. She assumed he didn’t get the job.
• • •
Steven Livingston had coached Donaldson at Tampa Catholic. In late August, Donaldson asked him for help finding work in sports management. The two met for coffee.
"I told him, if you’re going to be in the sports business, you’re going to have to be more lively," Livingston said. "Show your passion for the game."
He wanted Donaldson to help run basketball camps at Trinity School for Children. Donaldson stressed that he needed immediate income.
Livingston put him in touch with J.C. Prado, another Tampa Catholic coach. Prado owned a McDonald’s in Ybor City.
On Sept. 13, Donaldson started flipping burgers and deep frying chicken nuggets.
Delonda Walker, the store’s general manager, told police he was unreliable. He often arrived late. Sometimes, he would have "flare-ups" with employees.
"He couldn’t deal with people," she said.
He once asked if he could spend the night in the dining area, a request she denied.
• • •
It was Sept. 30 when Donaldson asked Threadgill about a gun. Threadgill wondered if he was a joking.
"It shocked me," he told police later. "I’m like, ‘Trai, are you talking about robbing somebody?’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t know what to do, man.’"
Threadgill concluded the gun comment was just a strange way of asking for money.
He gave Donaldson $120 cash.
• • •
In his off-time, Donaldson handed out flyers offering his services as a private basketball coach. One landed in the hands of Robyn and Brian Spoto, whose son wanted to hone his skills in anticipation of team tryouts.
They agreed on a price of $25 per lesson for six 90-minute sessions. Donaldson had the boy sign a contract, promising to work hard in the athletic drills. The parents were impressed.
"He clearly had knowledge of the game and had played," Brian Spoto later told investigators.
After three sessions, Donaldson asked Robyn Spoto if she could pay him for the next two in advance, she said. He said he was "in a bit of a situation."
That was Oct. 1.
• • •
Todd Price had coached Donaldson for one season at Alonso High School. Since then, Price hadn’t heard much from him. So Price was surprised when Donaldson texted in early October, asking to borrow $150.
Donaldson explained he’d been kicked out of his house, and needed money for an apartment, Price told detectives. Where was the apartment, the coach asked. Donaldson didn’t respond.
• • •
Inside Shooters World, a set of incomplete paperwork bore Donaldson’s name. It showed he had visited the Fletcher Avenue firearms dealer Sept. 27 and tried to buy a used 9mm handgun. But the weapon’s previous owner had recently turned it in, making it subject to a 30-day hold. Donaldson canceled the purchase.
He returned Oct. 3. Store surveillance images show him talking to a clerk. Donaldson asked about a .40-caliber Glock 27.
He looked it over and paid the $399. Three days later, on Oct. 7, he returned. He retrieved his weapon and bought a 20-round box of bullets.
• • •
Benjamin Mitchell was standing at the bus stop at 9 p.m. Oct. 9 at 15th Street and Frierson Avenue in Tampa when someone approached from the west and shot him four times.
Monica Hoffa was walking about 8:45 p.m. Oct. 11 near 11th Street and New Orleans Avenue when someone shot her three times.
Anthony Naiboa was in front of 5111 N 15th Street about 8 p.m. Oct. 19 when someone shot him once in the head.
Nothing was taken from the victims, police later reported.
On Nov. 11, Donaldson told Minnis he had some money to repay her. She met him at a motel where he said he had been staying. He gave her $50 and asked if he could stay with her.
Her mother, Sandra Swan, agreed to let him spend a few nights in their South Tampa home. In the early morning hours of Nov. 14, Swan awoke when their door slammed shut. She got up and saw Donaldson’s car gone. She locked up.
Just before 5 a.m. near McBerry Street, someone shot Ronald Felton four times as he was crossing Nebraska Avenue.
At about 5:16 a.m. Donaldson phoned Minnis, then rang her mother’s doorbell. He was locked out. Swan, startled again, let him in. He told her he had gone to check his work schedule, she later told police. The mother wanted Donaldson gone.
He spent the night with another friend Nov. 16. The next day, Minnis invited him to spend the weekend at her father’s house in Odessa.
Thanksgiving was Nov. 23. Friends said Donaldson posted pictures to social media of his family’s holiday feast.
On Nov. 27, he showed up again at Minnis’ mother’s house, clad in his McDonald’s uniform. Minnis told him he couldn’t stay there anymore. He left.
At work the next day, Donaldson asked Walker about getting more hours and being paid in advance. He wanted to use the WiFi connection to look for plane tickets.
He left twice that afternoon to get money. The first time, he said he needed to visit the corporate office to collect a cash advance. When he returned, he complained they only gave him $150.
He asked Walker if she could help him pay for a plane ticket. She gave him $12.
He asked if he could use her credit card to buy a plane ticket online. She suggested he go to a nearby Amscot for help.
Before he left, he handed her a plastic salad bag and made her promise not to look inside.
But she did. It held the gun that Tampa police would use to link him to the Seminole Heights killings.
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.