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Three young lives bound by death in Seminole Heights shootings (w/video)

TAMPA — The three young people gunned down this month in Southeast Seminole Heights — crimes police believe were random but related — often spent time outside when they needed to go somewhere.

Benjamin Mitchell was waiting for a bus near his house so he could meet up with a co-worker. Monica Hoffa arranged a ride by phone with a friend in the moments before she was killed. Anthony Naiboa was shot dead walking along bus Route 9.

Police are keeping details of their investigation secret, a common tactic that can help nail a suspect who might be the only one who knows them.

Beyond opportunity, it's not clear what drew the killer — or killers — to these three people.

But interviews with family and friends shed light on the victims, now bound together by tragedy.

• • •

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Benjamin Edward Mitchell

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Benjamin Edward Mitchell

Benjamin Edward Mitchell woke up in a good mood.

He had studied the night before for the coming Philosophy midterm at Hillsborough Community College and wasn't scheduled to work his job at Ikea in Ybor City.

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So he was free to spend the day, Oct. 9, on a favorite pastime — talking with his aunt Bettie McDaniels, a devout Pentecostal who took him into her small home off North 15th Street when he was 14.

Mitchell, 22, enjoyed reading the works of Langston Hughes and always had plenty to talk about. Philosophy class, maybe, or his pursuit of a business degree to further his music career.

Or his father, a chef at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas who was retiring in a month to an apartment he and his son had found to share in Temple Terrace. His dad had a new car, too, and finally planned to teach his son to drive.

Had it been any other Monday, Mitchell and McDaniels would have gone out for breakfast. But a phone call brought more good news: His cousin, rapper Cameron Chambers, had found a rehearsal space to rent the next time Mitchell visited him in Los Angeles.

Mitchell and his aunt decided breakfast could wait for Saturday, maybe Golden Corral or Goody Goody.

Mitchell was beginning to gain a following as rapper Eddie Banks, producing tracks for independent record label Relentless. His songs evolved from poems the popular-yet-private Middleton High School grad and football player posted on Facebook.

"I would go to parties and people would come up to me all excited like, 'Eddie Banks is your cousin?'" Chambers said. "It makes me feel proud that I was starting to look up to him as an artist, but it makes me mad that got stolen from him."

The night Mitchell died it was raining. He finished his midterm about 8:15 p.m. and took a bus from the HCC Ybor City campus to the stop about 50 yards from his home.

Minutes after Mitchell walked in the door, he turned to his aunt and told her he was heading back out. He had developed a crush on a coworker at Ikea and didn't want her to ride the bus home by herself.

"I said, 'That's too much to go to Ikea and wait for her and bring her home,' but you know how young men are," McDaniels said. "He was all smiles and just said, 'I'll be back soon,' and that was it."

Just before 9 p.m., Yahrael Bey heard three pops outside. He dismissed them at first as fireworks. But when he looked out his front door, Bey saw Mitchell lying on the ground by the bus stop across the street, wearing his trademark black headphones, blood pouring from his stomach.

Bey stayed with Mitchell until paramedics arrived. Mitchell couldn't talk. When he tried, his mouth made a hissing sound.

Now, the headphones are wrapped around the bus sign in a makeshift memorial.

McDaniels never cared much for rap, but now, she said she needs her nephew's songs to help her keep his memory alive. She's never listened to them before but wants to now — as soon as she can figure out how to fix her laptop.

"Everything complicated like that he would do for me," she said. "I had a problem with it the other day, so I just turned it off and set it in the corner."

• • •

Monica Hoffa worked at IHOP the Wednesday she was shot to death.

She had the dinner shift: Red button-up shirt, black pants, black apron, sandy-blond hair pulled back. She carried her usual stacks of pancakes. She smiled. Her customers loved that smile. It crept across her cheeks and spilled into her dimples.

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Monica Hoffa and her dog, Titus.

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Monica Hoffa and her dog, Titus.

Coworkers said her tables would write about her sunny demeanor in surveys on the back of their receipts. It seemed she had no enemies. Kenny Hoffa said his 32-year-old daughter didn't hold grudges. She didn't take sides during family feuds, even if her parents did.

"She would never go without forgiving," he said.

Monica Hoffa had always been that way. In middle school, she threw crumpled papers that read, "I love you," at her best friend's head, even though they were in a fight over a boy. Sometimes she would just stop and remind the people closest to her, "You know I love you, right?"

She started conversations with strangers.

But the last time anyone heard from her, she wasn't chatty or bubbly, said her friend and IHOP server Angela Poston. She sounded scared. A mutual friend was set to pick Hoffa up near her Seminole Heights home and take her to her grandparents' home in Hampton Park, Poston said.

"She was talking loudly like she was trying to let someone hear that she had someone on the way," Poston said. It was 8:31 p.m. on Oct. 11.

When the friend arrived minutes later, Poston said, Hoffa was gone.

She didn't show up to either of her two jobs Thursday. Her boyfriend, friends and coworkers called again and again but got only voicemail. The next day, Poston and another IHOP server walked to the small brown house on Ellicott Street where Hoffa rented a room. As Poston neared New Orleans Avenue, a block from Hoffa's house, she saw the officers, the yellow tape.

The body was shrouded by calf-high grass.

"My heart dropped," Poston said. "I knew somehow in my gut it was her."

A city worker mowing the grass on a vacant lot had found her. She had been shot in the upper body.

At her memorial service two weeks later at a Tampa funeral home, only a few rows were reserved for family. Dozens of friends, former classmates and coworkers spilled into the back of the room. Several stood because there were no seats left.

At least half of them were deaf or hearing impaired, like Monica's mother. Monica could sign fluently. Some in the crowd spoke only Spanish. She was fluent in that, too.

"She just loved being around people," said her father, who lives in South Carolina. "She reached every race, creed, personality there was ... She knew everyone."

And she had her struggles. Court records show she was caught with four Xanax pills and no prescription earlier this year. Last year, she left the scene of a car accident. She lost her driver's license and was on probation. She missed meetings and struggled to pay money she owed to the state.

Kenny Hoffa's wife, Monica's stepmom Dawn Hoffa, had offered to let her come stay with them. They could sense there were troubles.

But things in Tampa seemed to be getting better.

"She told me I gave her hope," said her boyfriend Derek Reber. "She wanted to do better."

She had just started a new restaurant gig close to her grandparents' home. Reber had taken her to Target to fill out an application the day before she died. She told him she was thinking about beauty school. Over dinner recently, she started teaching him sign language.

She told him he needed to communicate to her mother how much he loved her daughter.

A container with Monica Hoffa's ashes was on display at the front of the funeral home during the Oct. 21 memorial. It was surrounded by flowers and a table of her favorite things. Trinkets from TV shows she binge-watched like Family Guy; a stuffed beagle just like her dog Titus, who died last year; a box of Fruit Loops; a pack of 305's menthols.

She was a cigarette fiend. Her family always wanted her to quit. They worried she would die young.

• • •

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Anthony Naiboa

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Anthony Naiboa

Family and friends worried a lot about keeping Anthony Naiboa safe.

The 20-year-old Tampa man had a mild form of autism but lived independently and held jobs. One of his instructors at Middleton High School, special education teacher Alonso Ashwood, described him as regular kid who was very smart.

But Naiboa became a target for bullies and criminals.

"We warned him to be aware of what was going on around him," stepmother Maria Rodriguez said. "But he was living in his own world."

Since May, his parents said, thieves had confronted Naiboa twice, making off with his bicycle both times and one time, with his mobile phone. Then a con-man drove him to a bank in St. Petersburg and opened an account in his name.

"He was such a sweet boy," said his father, Casimar Naiboa, his eyes welling with tears. "He looked weak to predators. He wore big glasses and was skinny."

Anthony Naiboa was the oldest of five children. He loved music and watching TV shows like American Dad, Family Guy and The Cleveland Show.

The music helped him bond with friend Corey Tucker, a rapper who goes by the name Master Corey. Naiboa would lay down beats with Tucker and used the nickname James Firefox, for his favorite animal, the fox.

The two attended a special education class together as students at Sligh Middle School.

Tucker worried about Naiboa, too, and recalled warning him again and again about walking around late at night by himself. One time was at a Super Bowl party Tucker hosted in February, when Naiboa got a phone call to come home.

"I told him, 'No, bruh, don't walk,'" said Tucker. "'Someone could come up from behind you and just hit you."'

Tucker dropped him off at home. He waited to make sure his friend made it in the door safely.

Naiboa had no one watching out for him on May 12, when he was biking home around 1 a.m. from his job with 717 Parking in downtown Tampa.

Near the corner of Nebraska Avenue and Sitka Street, someone punched Naiboa and took his bike and phone.

"He told us he didn't think he could identify the assailant," Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty said.

Three months later, on Aug. 9, a thief confronted him again, Hegarty said. As Naiboa got off his bicycle, someone jumped on and rode off. Again, Naiboa said he said he could not identify the culprit.

Then last month, as he was leaving a temporary job service, a man approached him and offered him a way to make money, St. Petersburg police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said.

Naiboa told police that the man drove him to a Bank of America branch in St. Petersburg on Sept. 25 where the man opened an account in Naiboa's name and persuaded him to turn over information about his Suncoast Bank account, according to a police report.

Naiboa was supposed to meet the man the next day but the man didn't show up. Fraud alerts came from both banks. Naiboa told Rodriguez, his stepmother, and she contacted police. He could provide only a vague description of the suspect.

"We were worried that whoever did this might come after Anthony because I went to the police," Rodriguez said. "I told Anthony if the man called or texted, not to answer, but to tell me."

Someone targeted Naiboa one last time on Oct. 19.

He forgot Rodriguez wasn't working that day. So around 7 p.m., he left his temporary job packing meals for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico at a warehouse on Harney Road and took a bus to meet her at her job in Netpark Tampa Bay on East Hillsborough Avenue.

Shortly before 7:30 p.m., Rodriguez called him. She reminded him she wasn't working and gave him permission to take the bus — as long as he came straight home. Naiboa took the Route 32 west on Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard, Rodriguez said, and got off at North 15th Street. He could have caught the Route 9 there and ridden north toward the family's home.

For some reason, at about 7:40 p.m., he started walking instead, through the Southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood where police were out in force, searching for whoever was behind two shootings a week earlier.

Naiboa made it about 14 blocks, to Conover Street, right in front of the home of shooting victim Benjamin Mitchell.

A gunshot rang out. Police heard the sound, just before 8 p.m., and quickly tracked it down. But it was too late.

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com. Follow @ADawsonWrites. Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale. Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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