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Citing lack of cooperation, lawyers ask to bar Seminole Heights victim’s parents as witnesses

The parents of murder victim Anthony Naiboa have avoided testifying in pretrial depositions in the case of Howell Donaldson III, court documents state.
In 2017, Casimar Naiboa pleads for help capturing the killer of his son, Anthony Naiboa. Naiboa, 20, was shot and killed in Seminole Heights.
In 2017, Casimar Naiboa pleads for help capturing the killer of his son, Anthony Naiboa. Naiboa, 20, was shot and killed in Seminole Heights.
Published Jan. 16|Updated Jan. 18

TAMPA — Defense attorneys for the man accused of four killings in Tampa’s southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood have asked a judge to bar the parents of one victim from being witnesses at trial, citing a lack of cooperation.

Anthony Naiboa was the third person killed in a series of four apparently random shootings that occurred over several weeks in the fall of 2017. The state has accused Howell Donaldson III of the killings.

Anthony Naiboa, 20, was one of four people shot in southeast Seminole Heights in late 2017. (Facebook)
Anthony Naiboa, 20, was one of four people shot in southeast Seminole Heights in late 2017. (Facebook)

As the case against Donaldson has moved toward trial, lawyers for the state and defense have sought to take pretrial deposition testimony from scores of witnesses. They include Naiboa’s father, Casimar Naiboa, and stepmother, Maria Rodriguez.

But both parents have avoided testifying. It is not clear why.

A recent court motion filed by the office of Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt details the repeated efforts lawyers have made to have the couple testify. Both have failed to show up for scheduled depositions. After multiple subpoenas, Rodriguez finally did appear but refused to answer questions about her stepson.

The defense motion asks that the couple be excluded as witnesses in both the guilt and penalty phases of Donaldson’s trial. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. Donaldson’s next court hearing is set for later this month. No trial date has been set.

Related: Police release dramatic interview with Seminole Heights killing suspect

A spokesperson for the office of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren declined to comment about the issue. It is not clear if prosecutors will challenge the defense’s motion.

With their motion, the defense attached several documents illustrating their attempts to get Naiboa’s parents to testify.

The documents include email correspondence with Assistant State Attorney John Terry. In January 2020, Terry sent an email to one of Donaldson’s defense attorneys asking to reschedule the couple’s depositions, which were to occur late that month. He wrote that they had apparently told the state’s victim assistant that it was too difficult for them to attend.

“I believe they are evading service right now,” Terry wrote. “We have tried to reach them and have left messages but they are not returning our calls at the moment.”

The prosecutor wrote that he thought the pair would need some cajoling.

“I have no doubt I will eventually get them to cooperate,” Terry wrote. “I just need a little more time.”

The depositions were reset for April 2020, but they were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The pair were served with subpoenas to appear for a new date of May 14, 2020, but they did not show up.

“Very surprised neither showed,” Terry wrote in an email that afternoon. He noted that someone from the State Attorney’s Office had spent time with Rodriguez, explaining the importance of the deposition and the potential consequences.

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“Frustrating,” Terry wrote.

In a later message, he wrote that he felt the couple would continue to ignore subpoenas. But the lawyers tried again, setting a new date for June 10, 2020.

That morning, Rodriguez showed up. As Holt began to question her, Rodriguez gave her name and date of birth, but then refused to go any further. She said she only came so that she wouldn’t be arrested, according to a deposition transcript.

“I showed up, and that’s all that I want to be reported, that I showed up,” she said. “But I do not want to answer no question that has to do with Anthony. I’m sorry.”

Casimar Naiboa, father of shooting victim Anthony Naiboa, 20, lights a votive candle at a memorial to his son in October 2017 as Anthony's stepmother, Maria Rodriguez, looks on.
Casimar Naiboa, father of shooting victim Anthony Naiboa, 20, lights a votive candle at a memorial to his son in October 2017 as Anthony's stepmother, Maria Rodriguez, looks on.

The defense attorneys left the room while Rodriguez spoke privately with the prosecutor. Returning minutes later, Holt noted that Rodriguez was crying and did not appear to be capable of continuing, according to the transcript. Rodriguez had explained that a lawyer friend told her if she simply showed up, she could avoid getting into trouble. She also mentioned that Anthony’s father works out of state and she did not know when he would return.

Casimar Naiboa declined to comment when reached by phone Friday.

When he spoke to the Tampa Bay Times in October 2020, he said his family had experienced fatigue at the case’s duration. He said that he and his wife had refused to testify in depositions because they believed the lawyers wanted to “dig up dirt” about his son. He said they felt re-victimized.

Donaldson is charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Naiboa, Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa and Ronald Felton.

Police determined the killings were are all committed with the same handgun, a .40-caliber Glock. Donaldson was arrested in late November 2017. A manager at the Ybor City McDonald’s where he worked notified police after he gave her a bag that contained a .40-caliber Glock handgun and told her to hold onto it while he ran an errand. Firearms tests linked the weapon to bullet shell casings found at the shooting scenes, according to court records.

In late 2020, a judge agreed with defense attorneys that the four killings should be split into four separate trials, instead of one. Prosecutors asked that evidence of the other crimes be allowed into each trial, but a judge denied their request. The case is on hold while a state appeal of that issue is pending.

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