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First murder, then porn, reports allege of Howell Donaldson III

Hillsborough County Sheriff bailiff's lead Howell Donaldson III, the accused Seminole Heights killer, into a Tampa courtroom. Donaldson's lawyers told judge Mark Wolfe they want a psychologist, who examined the defendant, to testify about Donaldson's competency to stand trial. A hearing was set for June 29. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Hillsborough County Sheriff bailiff's lead Howell Donaldson III, the accused Seminole Heights killer, into a Tampa courtroom. Donaldson's lawyers told judge Mark Wolfe they want a psychologist, who examined the defendant, to testify about Donaldson's competency to stand trial. A hearing was set for June 29. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Published Jun. 8, 2018

TAMPA — Howell Donaldson III killed people and then soon after visited an adult-themed website, according to newly released investigative reports in the trial of the man accused of four Seminole Heights murders.

Data from his cell phone showed a "significant amount of Internet activity" within close proximity to the shooting deaths of Benjamin Mitchell on Oct. 9, Monica Hoffa on Oct. 11 and Anthony Naiboa on Oct. 19, records show.

The website name is redacted. In a warrant, a Tampa police sergeant described it as a place where customers could view others in sexually themed situations and interact with models privately.

"In summary, Howell Donaldson showed a pattern of visiting this adult-themed website after committing three homicides," the warrant said.

The latest insight into the Donaldson case was provided in a release by prosecutors late Friday of more than 1,500 pages of investigative reports and audio recordings, material obtained by the Tampa Bay Times through a public records request.

The records portray Donaldson, now 25, as a man whose behavioral changes had begun to trouble his on-again, off-again girlfriend but whose parents stood by him even as police were about to charge him with ending the lives of strangers.

His sister had just had a baby and he wouldn't visit. Friends said he was no longer the sharp, together guy they knew in high school. He needed a haircut and his clothes were sloppy. They noticed he would repeat the same mundane questions to them, even after they had answered multiple times.

It was a period of intense activity in his life.

On Oct. 3, the day his on-again, off-again girlfriend began a new job, Donaldson went to Shooter's World and bought a .40-caliber Glock 27 handgun, records show.

He first began visiting the porn website on Oct. 5.

He picked up the gun on the morning of Oct. 7 after passing a background check. He also bought a 20-round box of ammunition.

The last murder was Nov. 14, when Ronald Felton was shot to death along Nebraska Avenue.

Police have previously acknowledged that they used Donaldson's cell phone to establish his location at the time of the killings.

His defense attorneys objected to public release of some investigative materials that were released to prosecutors, including the website name. One possibility: CamSoda, the only pornographic site included in the state's evidence list. It features live video streams, including some provided by users.

In a discussion of the adult site, police noted 269 "internet activities" between Oct. 5 and Nov. 4.

•••

On the ground, he tilted his head to the left and addressed the police officer who was handcuffing him.

"I'm sorry," Donaldson said, according to a police report.

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The officer didn't ask what he was sorry for.

It was Nov. 28, that day at the Ybor City McDonald's where Donaldson had worked until he handed a gun in a bag to a supervisor and almost instantly became the No. 1 suspect in the city's long-running hunt for a serial killer.

By evening, his parents, Howell Jr. and Rosita Donaldson, were in the lobby of police headquarters.

The parents told police their son was living with them, and he was always home after 5 p.m.

"We wondered why he didn't go out and do things but he was always home," the mother she told the detective, according to a report.

They didn't know if he had a gun, they said. If so, maybe it was for self-defense. They were aware there was a serial killer in the city.

Why did police think her son was the killer, the mother asked. Detectives weren't ready to say he was.

The detective wrote down the dates of the homicides, along with his number and asked the parents to check through call logs, text and memory if they had information about their son on those dates.

A little while later, the detective came back and told the parents they had enough evidence to charge Donaldson. The parents became emotional, and asked how this could happen and why.

Rosita Donaldson said her son was always at home after 5 p.m.

She told the detective her son worked at McDonald's mostly in the morning but that day was working in the afternoon

The detective asked her if she noticed any changes in her son.

"Some in the last couple of months," she said. "But not like this."

He was raised in the church, she said, raised not to do this.

The detective then helped the parents exit police headquarters to avoid the gathered media.

As soon as the parents left, about 10:40 p.m., police began following their cars, a 2012 black Dodge Challenger and a 2017 gold Land Rover. They went to an apartment complex and then left at 12:46 a.m. with a third vehicle described as an SUV.

Police tailed them for about 40 minutes longer.

"After numerous U-turns and evasive driving tactics by the above three vehicles, surveillance units lost the vehicles and surveillance was terminated," the officer wrote.

•••

It was weird, Nicole Minnis said. And it kept getting weirder.

She hadn't seen Donaldson in years. They had been in touch by phone intermittently after their relationship ended in 2013.

Then, out of the blue, he returned to Tampa in mid-August. He told her he had lost his job. He had been a customer support employee at Ultimate Medical Academy.

"It was very strange as to how he would reach out to me and not one of his close friends," Minnis, 25, told police.

They spoke, off and on, and then on Nov. 11, he called her from a La Quinta Inn.

He said he had nowhere to stay.

Minnis said she would ask her mother, a schoolteacher, if he could spend the night at their three-bedroom house in the Westshore area.

"Let me know in 15 minutes, because I have to check out," he said.

He stayed in the garage, which had been converted to a bedroom. He had found a job. But they were shocked to see him in a McDonald's uniform, as he had a college education. His belongings were all in plastic trash bags.

He was evasive when they asked about the job, Minnis said.

"I'm going through some stuff right now," she recalled him saying. "I'm trying to get my feet on the ground."

Donaldson's sister and friends started contacting Minnis. They hadn't seen him for days. They worried about him. Not only did he not want to see his sister's new baby; he had bolted, on the way to the hospital, when he saw her boyfriend.

On Nov. 13, Minnis said, Donaldson went to bed around 8:30 p.m. but went out later in the evening.

"I remember hearing the dog bark in the middle of the night," she said. "My mom probably heard the dog barking because Trai was leaving the house. He came back. My mom must have woken up and locked the door."

Between 5 and 5:15 a.m., Minnis said, the doorbell rang and his mother let Donaldson in. Both women were irritated. Minnis asked where he had been and he said he had to go to the McDonald's where he worked, and check on his schedule. "It made no sense whatsoever," she said.

He stayed until Nov. 16, she said.

She didn't hear from him for weeks. On Snapchat, he posted that he had returned to his family.

On Dec. 13, Nicole Minnis reviewed video footage captured from a resident's home surveillance camera the night Anthony Naiboa was killed on E Frierson Avenue.

"I mean it, it looks like Trai," Minnis told homicide investigators.

Trai was Donaldson's nickname.

"I mean the hair, just the way that he's walking."

Still, Minnis told police she didn't recognize the clothing worn by the man in the video, and the man's gait seemed faster than Trai's. On a scale of 1 to 10, Minnis gauged her certainty that the man in the video was Trai at "between a 7 and an 8."

"And if you had seen this video on the news, would you have been led to the same conclusion that you've been led to today?" investigators asked.

"Yes," she replied.

"And that conclusion is?"

"That it is Trai," Minnis said.

•••

Sitting in the back of a patrol with his hands handcuffed in front of his body, Donaldson told officers he was trying to leave town.

"I'm just trying to get out of here so I can go back to school," he said. He had spent five years at St. John's University in New York.

He suggested officers take him to the airport.

"I'm just trying to get my education and further my career," he said. "I just want to do good in the world."

Staff writers Josh Solomon, Howard Altman and Marlene Sokol contributed to this story.

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