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Romano: Hunting for a deadly needle in the Seminole Heights haystack

The Tampa Police Department, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office continue their investigation on the fatal shooting in the Seminole Heights neighborhood on Nebraska Avenue in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday, November 14, 2017. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times
The Tampa Police Department, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office continue their investigation on the fatal shooting in the Seminole Heights neighborhood on Nebraska Avenue in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday, November 14, 2017. OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Published Nov. 18, 2017

During the day, you hear from the psychics and the kooks. The well-intentioned tipsters, and the unsolicited profilers. This is all part of serial killer spillover, a sort of cottage industry of macabre.

It gets tougher at night when you're hounded by your own doubts. When you lie awake in bed at 2 a.m., wondering if there is any possible strategy or clue you've missed.

For some reason, they never include these details in the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit research projects on serial killers. If you look closely, the FBI studies even tell you they have "little utility in helping identify an unknown offender during an active serial murder investigation.''

So, if you're Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan, you get up at 3:15 a.m. and find yourself driving toward the Seminole Heights neighborhood for another look around.

Four murdered residents, and presumably one mystery killer. Everyone with an opinion, and no one with anything resembling a name or a clue.

"I hear these retired cops, retired FBI, psychologists, sociologists, profilers and they all give such a broad range of who is doing this,'' Dugan said. "And when we catch the guy they'll be able to say, 'See, he matched three of my five categories. I was right.' Well, you're saying things like, 'They're anywhere from 18 to 50 years old.' It's almost like they're playing the odds in Vegas.''

Police are on a manhunt for a man who has not been identified. They are trying to anticipate the next move of a killer with no discernible motives. They are trying to protect residents from someone willing to kill man or woman, young or old, black or white.

This is not part of the syllabus for Serial Killer 101.

The pattern is supposed to be clearer, and the psychosis more complex. Instead, police are chasing a man who simply approaches strangers on a quiet street, guns them down and runs away.

At this point, Tampa police are reluctant to even use the term "serial killer.'' There's a panic attached to the phrase that they would rather avoid. There are also legal ramifications of approaching an investigation too narrowly. Because of video footage, they are willing to say victims one and four likely had the same killer but, at this point, victims two and three are only strongly linked.

Every day more tips come in. The tally now is somewhere north of 3,000. Around police headquarters, it is said they start each day with a brand new haystack, and proceed to look for the missing needle.

From the very beginning, they understood they might have a serial killer on the loose. When Benjamin Mitchell and Monica Hoffa were shot within days and blocks of each other, Tampa police began putting a task force together.

Since the first killing was on a Monday, they quietly set up patrols on the following Monday to see if it was the beginning of a pattern. When there was no shooting that night, they alerted the media the next day so residents could be warned about the potential danger.

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The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the FBI, the ATFE, the Florida Highway Patrol and the St. Petersburg Police Department have all offered reinforcements to either investigate or patrol the streets of Seminole Heights. Police are not being picky about stopping drivers or pedestrians. They're not trying to give tickets or make minor arrests, Dugan said, but to ask enough questions to finally catch a break.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised if we haven't already come in contact with him,'' Dugan said.

In some ways, law enforcement's greatest success has led to its most disturbing realization. The first two murders came within three days of each other. The next shooting, of Anthony Naiboa, was eight days later. The fourth shooting, of Ronald Felton, didn't come until 26 days had passed and, unlike the others, was early in the morning instead of late at night.

The presumption is that a heavy police presence has made the killer more cautious. And that means he's not as likely to make a rash mistake.

"What we're speculating, which is all we can do because we don't have the answers yet, is we threw him off of his routine,'' Dugan said. "The first three were in the evenings. And why was there that gap? We have a presence in the neighborhood. Does that mean he knows where we're at? How calculated is he? I think now we're pretty convinced that this guy knows what he's doing. We weren't sure he was all that calculated before.

"The fourth one has definitely changed the way we're thinking about this person.''

Dugan said they've reached out to former Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee, who worked the Bobby Joe Long case in Tampa in the 1980s. They've gotten data from the FBI on the Maryvale shooter in Arizona who was linked to nine murders in 2015 and 2016. They've talked to other departments about the best way to handle the large number of tips and other case management issues.

"It's our job to protect those who can't protect themselves,'' he said. "Right now, when you look at that neighborhood, it's a very intense situation. The cops are feeling the pressure, too.''


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