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Motive still a mystery in Seminole Heights murders but crises marked suspect's upbringing

Rosita Donaldson, left, and Howell Donaldson Jr. don't want to speak with authorities about son Howell Donaldson II, who is charged in the four Seminole Heights murders. Public records show a family history that includes domestic violence, bankruptcy and possible death threats. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA   |   Times]
Rosita Donaldson, left, and Howell Donaldson Jr. don't want to speak with authorities about son Howell Donaldson II, who is charged in the four Seminole Heights murders. Public records show a family history that includes domestic violence, bankruptcy and possible death threats. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Published Dec. 21, 2017

TAMPA — The community breathed a sigh of relief when police announced they had made an arrest in the seemingly random series of four shootings known as the Seminole Heights murders.

But a month later, the evidence pointing to who is responsible still doesn't point to why, and those closest to 24-year-old suspect Howell Emanuel Donaldson III aren't talking. His parents are even risking jail time by refusing to answer a subpoena that compels them to testify.

In the absence of explanations, hundreds of people have turned to social media posts from the Donaldson family's past — and created their own online forums to discuss them. About 1,100 Facebook users have joined the closed group "Howell Donaldson, Seminole Heights Serial Killer Tragedy, Tampa Florida," and about 1,150 users belong to the "Seminole Heights Serial Killer Theories" group.

Public records also help tell the story of Donaldson's life, and while nothing hints at the capacity to inflict the terror he now stands accused of, it is the story of a family that has known crisis — the father's arrest during a violent period that nearly ended in divorce, a series of foreclosure and bankruptcy filings, and a complaint that went to court about death threats involving a daughter's ex-boyfriend.

What's more, the record points to ties between the Donaldson family from Town 'N Country and two addresses way across town, within the square-mile area in Southeast Seminole Heights where all four victims were shot dead in October and early November.

The path that led to Trai Donaldson's arrest Nov. 28 began in North Carolina, where his parents married — a young couple united by their Christian faith and a passion for charitable work. The family moved to Tampa, buying a red-brick ranch house in 1995 in Town 'N Country's Bay Crest Park where they raised Trai and his older sister Chimara.

Two years later, in September 1997, Howell Donaldson Jr. was arrested at the home in connection with a domestic violence attack against his wife. He was booked into jail on charges of battery and false imprisonment.

About two weeks later, a judge granted Rosita Donaldson's petition for a one-year restraining order against her husband. He was directed to complete counseling at the Spring Domestic Violence Intervention Program and lost custody of his children, then 4 and 8. The couple began the legal process to dissolve their marriage, though a divorce was never finalized. In November 1997, Rosita Donaldson dropped the charges against her husband.

Reconciled, the couple launched their own cosmetology school in November 2002 — Shear Excellence Hair Academy.

They joined Without Walls International Church, "the perfect church for people who are not" as it billed itself, and soon assumed leadership roles at charity events and worship services. The church was among Tampa's largest, known worldwide, before questions were raised about lavish spending and co-founder Paula White — now a spiritual adviser to President Donald Trump — divorced from husband Randy.

In October 2004, the Donaldsons welcomed their third child, Matthias Donaldson.

• • •

Trai Donaldson excelled in class and made the AAU basketball team during middle school. He enrolled in Tampa Catholic High School to play basketball freshman year but his reputation as a stand-out player soon faded.

In December 2008, when he was 15, his parents filed for protection from creditors through Chapter 13 bankruptcy, citing an annual income at $54,000 for the household of five. In addition to their cosmetology school and a home where they were living in Wesley Chapel, the couple reported owning five rental properties and a timeshare in Daytona Beach.

One of the rentals was a small home at 3601 E. McBerry Street, near where the murders occurred.

In the bankruptcy claim, the couple reported five foreclosure cases already pending in court and a list of more than 50 creditors. By late 2008, two of the Donaldsons' houses were repossessed, one in Sulphur Springs and one in Old Seminole Heights. The family's 2004 Chevy Tahoe was repossessed in 2009, leaving them only the red 1995 Ford Mustang that Tampa police seized when Trai Donaldson was arrested at work.

Private-school tuition payments stopped when Trai Donaldson transferred from Tampa Catholic to Plant High School in South Tampa. The family moved back to their Bay Crest Park home in January 2010, and Trai transferred again, this time to Alonso High in Town 'N Country.

Friends talked about the move on Facebook but Trai brushed off their comments with a status post: "Staying strong ... Keeping my head high."

In December 2010, his sister Chimara was arrested on a charge of petty theft of less than $100 — the first of her three arrests over as many years. In May 2011, she was arrested on a charge of driving on a license that was suspended or revoked, and in February 2012, on another charge of petty theft. Chimara declined a request to be interviewed for this story.

On social media, her brother's posts were focused on his continuing pursuit of a basketball career.

"Ima show them what gifted is! Workout soon. (Comeback Season)," reads one August 2010 post. "Ball is life and I want it forever," reads another.

By the time he graduated from Alonso High in 2011, Trai Donaldson had adopted Nike's slogan, "Killin the Competition" as his mantra, friends said. In August 2011, Donaldson's parents and little brother helped move him to St. John's University, a Catholic school in New York with a reputation as a basketball powerhouse.

On his Facebook page, Trai wrote on Aug. 26 that year: "My parents and little brother just left for a good ... i love my family. If you don't have God & family you don't have anything! Killin The Competition."

• • •

He joined St. John's basketball team as a walk-on for the 2011-2012 season, but never played a game. He held short-term jobs with the University's Campus Recreation and Athletics departments and spent a season working in hospitality for the New York Mets.

In 2014, Trai Donaldson was arrested in New York City. Details remain under court seal. His activity on social media sites appeared to have ceased shortly before the incident.

Back in Tampa, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office responded to five calls from the Donaldson home from 2011 to July 2014. Records from the Sheriff's Office, with information redacted, label at least one of those calls "juvenile trouble/assault or battery."

In August 2016, Howell Donaldson Jr. filed a stalking injunction against Hasson Saif Majied, an ex-boyfriend of his daughter Chimara, saying the man repeatedly came to his home and called the family's salon with "several threats that if he had a gun he would shoot me." Chimara, now 28, works with the salons her family operates, one in Tampa and two in the Brandon area.

A judge declined to issue the injunction, saying the request didn't meet the requirements of the law. Majied could not be reached for comment but his father, Alif Majied, told the Times last week the relationship was never serious enough for the family to have met Chimara Donaldson. Majied would not comment on the request for an injunction.

Majied lives within the square-mile area where the Seminole Heights murders occurred, near the home of the first victim, 22-year-old Benjamin Mitchell. Mitchell was killed Oct. 9, followed by Monica Hoffa, 32, on Oct. 11; Anthony Naiboa, 20, on Oct. 19; and Ronald Felton, 60, on Nov. 14.

Majied said he didn't know Chimara had a brother until he learned of Trai Donaldson's arrest.

"The family has to know something about why this happened," Alif Majied said. "If he is the guilty person the punishment should fit the crime — for the horror and pain and anguish he caused the people of Seminole Heights."

Deputies visited the Donaldson home again earlier this year, after Trai Donaldson graduated with a sports management degree in January and moved back in with his parents. There were four calls for service to their home in February, records show, but the reason for the calls was redacted by the Sheriff's Office. One call, on Feb. 13, came the day Trai Donaldson began working at Universal Medical Academy in Tampa.

He was later fired from the job for not showing up to the office.

• • •

Friends from his youth in Tampa say they noticed a change after he returned home from college — a more aggressive Trai with a rage in his eyes during pickup basketball games that wasn't there before. Co-workers at a McDonald's restaurant, where he was working when he was arrested there, say he never really fit in.

"There was something going on," Ryan Keyworth, a friend from elementary school, told the Times the day of the arrest.

The next day, with her husband at her side, Rosita Donaldson told reporters, "Everybody who knows Trai knows that's not Trai. That's not my son, my baby."

Since then, their attorney Ralph Fernandez has spoken publicly on behalf of the family. Fernandez calls the Donaldsons the embodiment of "family values," and the most loving and principled parents he's encountered.

A judge is scheduled to decide Jan. 25 whether Rosita and Howell Donaldson Jr. should be held in contempt for refusing to testify when subpoenaed. The couple faces fines or possible jail time.

Trai Donaldson has pleaded not guilty to the four murder charges and is awaiting trial.

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.