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Seminole Heights killings: Parents break silence, won't provide alibi

Rosita and Howell Donaldson Jr. attend a hearing Monday in Hillsborough Circuit Court where they learn they will be released from house arrest after providing an affidavit to prosecutors answering questions about the mental health and whereabouts of their son, Howell Donaldson III, who is accused of four killings in southeast Seminole Heights last year. [Courtesy of WFLA-Channel 8]
Rosita and Howell Donaldson Jr. attend a hearing Monday in Hillsborough Circuit Court where they learn they will be released from house arrest after providing an affidavit to prosecutors answering questions about the mental health and whereabouts of their son, Howell Donaldson III, who is accused of four killings in southeast Seminole Heights last year. [Courtesy of WFLA-Channel 8]
Published Jul. 3, 2018

TAMPA — Ever since Howell Emanuel Donaldson III was accused of killing four people in southeast Seminole Heights, prosecutors have had two burning questions for his parents:

One: Did Howell Jr. and Rosita Donaldson know their son's whereabouts at the time of the murders?

Two: Did he have a history of mental illness?

Until Monday, the parents consistently refused to answer, even under subpoena. Because of that, on Feb. 20, a judge found them in contempt of court and put them on house arrest.

Four months later, the Donaldsons have relented.

Their answer to both questions? No.

They have no alibi for their son on the days and nights of the shootings.

And they have no information, they said, about him having mental health problems.

The response came in a sworn affidavit, which their attorneys gave Monday to the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office. In a hastily called court hearing, prosecutors told Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe that the document, the result of continued negotiations, had resolved the impasse.

"It appears to address our investigative concerns," said prosecutor Scott Harmon.

The judge said he would issue an order terminating the Donaldsons' house arrest.

The couple said nothing as they left the courtroom.

"It's been very difficult, but they understand the seriousness of the situation," said their attorney, Ralph Fernandez. "Their prayers still go out to the community at large, regardless of how they feel about the innocence of their son."

Howell Donaldson III, 25, faces four counts of first-degree murder in the killings of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton. The four were each shot over the course of several weeks in October and November.

Among the evidence linking Donaldson to the killings was a gun he owned, which police said was used in all four crimes. Cellphone records placed his phone in southeast Seminole Heights near the times of the first three killings, according to investigative documents.

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said his office wanted to rule out any possible alibi defense the parents could have offered.

On the night of her son's arrest, Rosita Donaldson told police that he lived at home and was in every night by 5 p.m., records show. Her words conflicted with those of several friends, who said Donaldson told them he'd been kicked out of his parents' house.

"(The affidavit) allowed us to investigate that avenue and determine they had no specific information about their son's whereabouts at the time of the murders," Warren said.

Speculation about Donaldson's mental state has dogged the case since his Nov. 28 arrest. Warren has said he intends to seek the death penalty. Any mental health diagnosis could be a mitigating factor that could keep Donaldson off death row if convicted.

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But if he is mentally ill, his parents shared no knowledge of that, according to Warren.

"From the beginning, our focus was not on punishing the parents," Warren said. "I empathize with the parents' situation, but our priority and my responsibility is the integrity of the process and holding the defendant accountable."

Donaldson is represented by the Hillsborough Public Defender's Office. In April, his attorneys asked a judge to appoint a psychologist to determine whether he is competent to stand trial.

In May, the judge received a report with the doctor's findings, but its contents have not been made public.

Last week, the defense asked for a second and third opinion. The judge agreed, appointing two more psychologists. Their reports are due by July 26.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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