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After arrest, Seminole Heights will be lit in celebration

Volunteers walked through Seminole Heights to convince neighbors to "Light the Heights" this weekend by hanging holiday decorations. Amidst four murders, organizers hoped it would make residents feel safe about venturing outside and that the lights would help illuminate dark corners of the neighborhood. But the arrest of a suspect late Tuesday has turned this weekend's event into a celebration. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
Volunteers walked through Seminole Heights to convince neighbors to "Light the Heights" this weekend by hanging holiday decorations. Amidst four murders, organizers hoped it would make residents feel safe about venturing outside and that the lights would help illuminate dark corners of the neighborhood. But the arrest of a suspect late Tuesday has turned this weekend's event into a celebration. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Nov. 29, 2017

TAMPA — John O'Meara stepped off his porch barefoot as a pack of Seminole Heights residents passed by his house on a cool Tuesday night.

"Did you guys see the news?" the 42-year-old asked the group. It was 6 p.m., and they were handing out fliers, encouraging neighbors to hang up holiday lights this weekend.

"Light the Heights" was aimed at bringing Seminole Heights together to celebrate the holidays — and make the streets safer. Four people had been killed there in six weeks, leaving the area on edge and blanketed by police.

Everything we know about the arrest in the Seminole Heights serial killings.

Then O'Meara recounted the news of the day: Police were questioning a man in connection with the murders. Many held onto a sliver of hope that the shooter had finally been found.

"Light the Heights" co-organizer Lindsay Guyer said she they were waiting to see what would happen next.

"We're hoping it's him so that it can be a huge celebration," she said.

• • •

The group played Christmas music from a bluetooth speaker as they waited for stragglers to catch up and police cruisers drove by. They left fliers on door handles, tucked into mailbox flags and in the hands of residents, encouraging them to hang up their holiday lights.

The message, Guyer said, was to make sure residents feel safe if they wanted to go outside and hang up decorations. They also hoped to illuminate parts of the neighborhood left darkened by dormant street lights.

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

But residents couldn't help but wonder about the sudden turn in the investigation.

Scott Waltz, 38, who was on his second day walking the neighborhood with the group, describing his feelings as "tempered excitement."

"You don't know until (authorities) do their due diligence," he said, then paused: "I want it to be him."

They walked past where Monica Hoffa's body was found on Oct. 11 near the corner of E New Orleans Avenue and N 11th Street. She was the second victim.

Gio Blakley, 45, said it was a dark and overgrown area, where stray cats gather. Residents were wary of places where someone could hide in their neighborhood.

She and her husband Robert had stopped riding their bikes in the dark. Tuesday was the first time in weeks that they had been out after sundown. She was tired of being scared.

During their walk, Bob Fiallo pointed to a pocket of brush hovering over N 14th Street, a short, dimly lit alley that connected E New Orleans to E Louisiana Avenue.

Fiallo wondered: was the killer was using their alleyways to get away? Possibly, he concluded, but officials were working on clearing it.

As they continued their walk down E New Orleans, a passing driver hollered: "Hey, I hope they got him!"

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"Me too," Fiallo yelled back.

• • •

It was 11 p.m. when Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan announced that the 24-year-old man they questioned would face four counts of first-degree murder.

So what of "Light the Heights" now? Co-organizer Courtney Bumgarner said Wednesday that the weekend event will become part of the healing process. Now residents can focus on the holiday spirit, not the hunt for a serial killer.

"It'll be a way to come together for once to see each other without hearing about another murder," she said.

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In just one day, Vivian Fiallo, Bob's wife, felt a shift in her neighborhood. Residents smiled more. The bells at Seminole Heights United Methodist Church rang out. The mailman was no longer wearing a bullet-resistant vest.

She stayed up late watching the news conference on TV. The next day, she went to the chief's Wednesday news conference in Seminole Heights, where he revealed more details about the arrest.

"I think everybody is feeling this cloud has been lifted over Seminole Heights," she said. "It's a good feeling."

Contact Melissa Gomez at mgomez@tampabay.com. Follow @melissagomez004.