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In Seminole Heights, candy flows as officers watch over Halloween

TAMPA — Dozens of princesses, superheroes and Star War characters who stood no more than waist high filled their bags with candy handed out by police officers Tuesday evening at Giddens Park in Seminole Heights.

Alexandra Cannon, 28, watched her 18-month-old daughter Alana, dressed as a pirate princess, attempt to hand her toy sword to the officers.

The more than 40 officers patrolling on foot, on bikes, in patrol cruisers and the two on horses were a comfort for Cannon, a mother of two who has lived in southeast Seminole Heights since she was 3.

"It's a shame what's happened this month," Cannon said. "But I'm not going to let that stop my family from having a good time."

That's because this Halloween her neighborhood is grappling with the unthinkable: three people shot dead in recent weeks. Tampa police believe the murders are connected, committed by someone who may know Seminole Heights well. That's why they've flooded the neighborhood, to investigate the crimes and prevent further loss of life.

The murders started Oct. 9 when Benjamin Mitchell, 22, was shot at a bus stop on N 15th Street near E Frierson Avenue. Monica Hoffa, 32, was killed Oct. 11 and her body was found two days later in a lot with unkempt grass on E New Orleans Avenue. The body of Anthony Naiboa, 20, was found by police on Oct. 19 near 15th and E Conover Street on Oct. 19.

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: SEMINOLE HEIGHTS MURDERS

Tampa police link two shootings, tell Seminole Heights residents to avoid walking alone (Oct. 17, 2017)

"Someone is terrorizing'' Seminole Heights after third slaying in 11 days (Oct. 20, 2017)

Experts have some theories on who's carrying out Seminole Heights killings (Oct. 21, 2017)

New video shows person running seconds after Seminole Heights shooting (Oct. 26, 2017)

Murders cast pall over Seminole Heights' festive Halloween (Oct. 27, 2017)

The event at the park was an attempt by city officials to bolster confidence in Seminole Heights while the investigation continues. Halloween is usually a much more festive occasion in this tight-knit community. However, some residents said they were impressed by the turnout of trick-or-treaters, remarking that it was higher than they had seen in years.

"I've already gone through two bags of Tootsie Rolls," said Cyd Deathe, who lives across the street from Giddens Park. "We are seeing a lot more kids today."

Deathe and her husband Richard sat in lawn chairs in front of their home with a bucket of candy between them. Then four children dressed as Wonder Woman and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (the Black, Blue and Red Rangers) approached with their bags open.

"I have no reason to be afraid when we have all the superheroes right here," Cyd Deathe said.

Interim Tampa Police chief Brian Dugan had promised an increased presence in southeast Seminole Heights in the days leading up to and during Halloween. But then patrols had already been stepped up in recent weeks after the first two murders were linked. Officers heard the shots that killed the third victim, but arrived too late to save his life or catch whoever pulled the trigger.

Halloween, the chief said, is a special time for children. He was relieved to see so many costumed children and their parents out for the night.

"Our presence has calmed the neighborhood," Dugan said, "and probably kept some of the bad elements away."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn handed out candy to children alongside WWE professional wrestling star and former University of Florida football player Titus O'Neil, Tampa Bay Lighting forward J.T. Brown and Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer.

Buckhorn, who told police to bring him the head of the suspect behind these murders, said he avoided that kind of "Game of Thrones" talk on Tuesday.

"These kids don't understand what is going on out here," the mayor said. "This is a special opportunity for us to make sure these kids get a good Halloween and meet some amazing officers and athletes."

Natalia Alcantara, a mother of two, had planned to cancel her family's trick or treating this year.

"The neighborhood was just too quiet," Alcantara said. "You usually see neighbors outside, or children on bikes. But since the murders no one goes outside."

But after seeing how many officers were at the park and on her street, she changed her mind. Her 11-year-old daughter, Dana, had declared that she was going out to trick-or-treat regardless of what her mother said.

"The police didn't give us enough candy," Dana said.

Contact Jonathan Capriel at jcapriel@tampabay.com. Follow @jonathancapriel.

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