Eerily similar Tampa serial killer cases a century apart

In late-1911 and early-1912, Robert Anderson killed as many as 10 Tampa residents. [Credit: Angela Alderman]
In late-1911 and early-1912, Robert Anderson killed as many as 10 Tampa residents. [Credit: Angela Alderman]
Published Dec. 2, 2017

TAMPA — It is a horrific case of local deja vu.

Twice, a man in his early 20s has stalked the streets of Tampa under cloak of darkness, used a gun to snatch the lives of random victims, was identified in Ybor City under odd circumstances and arrested in November.

The second instance has played out over the last two months, culminating in the arrest this week of 24-year-old Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, who is charged with four murders in Seminole Heights.

The first killer — Robert Anderson — roamed the streets a century ago.

"I am stunned history is repeating itself with such detail," said Angela Alderman, who learned her uncle, Florentino Martinez, was shot by the 22-year-old Anderson while researching her family's genealogy. "This is very tragic and scary that Tampa had to go through this again."

Local historians think Anderson was likely Tampa's first serial killer. In all, he killed at least 10 people.

The first body was found on Christmas Eve in 1911, along the Hillsborough River, according to news reports of the time.

Over the next month, three more dead men — two African-Americans and one Latino — were discovered in the same area.

Then a few months of silence, until a letter written by an anonymous black man was sent to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

The author didn't take responsibility for the murders, but said that if white men did not stop "having relations" with the black women who lived on Fifth Avenue he would burn the city to the ground. He tried to live up to his word.

Over the next two months, nearly 100 homes were set on fire in the African-American community of the Scrubs located on the outskirts of downtown.

Then he destroyed a more prominent target: the original and wooden Centro Asturiano social club building in Ybor City, via arson.

A man was seen running from some fires, but he hid his identity by wearing a woman's wig and dress.

In the middle of 1912, the man nicknamed "the Ybor City Fire Bug" wrote a second letter to law enforcement, taking credit for the arson and Hillsborough River murders and promising more deaths would come.

It was 9 p.m. on July 4, 1912, when Alderman's uncle Martinez, while standing on a corner in Ybor, was shot in the back. The bullet passed through his kidney and out his body.

"He needed a miracle to survive surgery," Alderman said.

He somehow did survive, but future victims weren't so lucky.

Again, like the man who terrorized Seminole Heights this year, victims were chosen arbitrarily.

Most of the murders were in the Scrubs: Two black women were killed as they relaxed on different occasions on their front porches, one was shot through an open window while she sat inside her home, and Anderson walked into another African-American woman's living room to murder her.

Anderson also killed a Latin man standing outside an Ybor store and a black male psychiatric patient by shooting him through an open window of a ward.

Then in September 1912, Anderson, in broad daylight, shot at and missed a white police officer patrolling the Scrubs. Anderson got away, but the officer had a description: around 5-foot-6, 150 pounds, and "ginger black" skin tone.

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A month later, officers approached Anderson as he hung outside an Ybor bar and said he looked like the serial killer. Anderson invited them to search his apartment to prove his innocence.

The invitation, equal parts confounding and exceptionally risky, again draws parallels to the recent Seminole Heights killings. In that case, the 24-year-old charged with four counts of first-degree murder asked a fellow Ybor City McDonald's employee to look after a paper bag containing a loaded gun that police say was used in the crimes.

In Anderson's apartment, the officers found a gun, bullets matching those at murder scenes, a woman's wig, fake eyelashes and a dress.

But before they could arrest Anderson, he ran and escaped.

For a month, a statewide manhunt ensued. A reward of $2,200 was offered.

In early November, Anderson was arrested in Jacksonville.

The trial was quick, as was the execution order. On Nov. 22, Anderson was hung in front of an audience at the Hillsborough County jail yard. The rope was divvied up among the onlookers for souvenirs.

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow