Carlton: Murders showed what Seminole Heights is made of

OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times (2017)
Mayor Bob Buckhorn, left, and Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan last year discuss the arrest of Howell Donaldson III.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times (2017) Mayor Bob Buckhorn, left, and Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan last year discuss the arrest of Howell Donaldson III.
Published October 12 2018

You donít expect the phrase "killer on the loose" in the national news to be followed by "in Tampa." But thatís what happened, for 51 long days, when a man with a gun stalked ordinary people in the heart of a city. Those days could have changed the place for good.

A year ago, there was real fear in Tampaís Seminole Heights.

It is one of the cityís older and more interesting neighborhoods, up-and-coming but also old-school to its roots. Seminole Heights is concrete-block homes and sprawling historic bungalows, chain-link fences and ugly, busy thoroughfares ó but also, canopies of moss-draped oaks along quiet streets. Intriguing restaurants tend to pop up there. At one place they make biscuits by day and tutor kids at night. At another, they serve only foods that start with the letter C. Seminole Heights is a place of families, workers, hipsters, millennials. The historic Old Seminole Heights area has become a funkier alternative to well-heeled South Tampa.

A year ago right now, someone was shooting people there for no apparent reason. A community college student, a woman who waited tables at a pancake house, a sweet young man who wore glasses and an older man headed out to volunteer at a food bank before most of us were out of bed.

It was the oddest feeling to be there back then. You looked into the faces of strangers to see if there was something there, or you avoided looking at all. You tended to stay away, or inside, at night.

Two murders, then three. It is a thing that can change a place, but also show you something about it.

One day Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told the police, "Bring his head to me, all right?" ó exactly the kind of thing this mayor would say.

Brian Dugan, the interim police chief at the time, was showing steady mettle. When people wanted to know if Halloween would be canceled, he said no. Iíll go with you.

And so a pack of waist-high kids in costumes, and a lot of grownups, were led by a police officer on horseback from a neighborhood park to trick-or-treat for Skittles and Milky Ways.

Dugan got the chief job even before an arrest was made.

And someone sold T-shirts that said "Bring Me His Head."

A mural went up on the side of a vacant building with the faces of the victims: Benjamin Mitchell, 22; Monica Hoffa, 32; Anthony Naiboa, 20 ó downed by gunfire police were close enough to hear but not to stop ó and finally Ronald Felton, 60, killed on his way to the food pantry where he had volunteered for a decade.

"Good always prevails," someone wrote on the wall, a prediction or a wish.

Five days after Thanksgiving, police arrested 24-year-old Howell Donaldson III.

The downtown police station had been a tight fit for previous news conferences, given the national media muscling in for the big story of the Seminole Heights murders. This time, officials decided on the roomier Seminole Heights Garden Center.

Summerís swelter was gone and it turned out to be a fine November day. Someone suggested holding the news conference outside.

It was over, officials said for the cameras under the oaks and the moss and the breeze in one of the prettier settings of a sometimes gritty city, showing the world a different picture of Seminole Heights. A murderer killed four people for no reason that could ever make sense. He couldnít kill a community.