TAMPA — One day in early January, the man accused of ambushing and killing four people in Seminole Heights called his parents from jail.
“I can’t even explain all the stuff that’s been happening to me, man,” said Howell Emanuel Donaldson III. “They’re in here killing me. … I’m surprised I’m still here, honestly.”
The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office released a recording of the nine-minute call late Wednesday along with 40-minute video of a jailhouse visit the parents had with their son a few weeks later.
The recordings were among a trove of materials authorities have collected in the 15 months since Donaldson was captured by Tampa police after an intense search for the Seminole Heights serial killer who spent six weeks terrorizing those neighborhoods in 2017.
In both conversations, Donaldson said he is miserable.
Now 26, he told his parents then that the jail staff was manipulating him, wearing him down.
“I can’t be in here no more,” he said in the phone call. “My spirit is down. … They’re killing me. You know what I’m saying? They’re killing me.”
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THE 2017 SEMINOLE HEIGHTS MURDERS
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The recordings offer no insights into the high-profile murder case. Donaldson knows everything he says is being recorded, so he does not discuss the allegations against him.
But they do offer a glimpse into what life is like for Donaldson in jail as he awaits trial. They also show how his parents are dealing with a son who, if convicted by a jury, will then face the death penalty.
THE ANNIVERSARY: A year later, Seminole Heights killings take toll on victim families
The phone call was made Jan. 2. In it, Donaldson mentions that he put in a request to be moved to a different housing unit. But he was not moved. He complained about being mistreated, though it is unclear by whom.
“When I first got in here I’m thinking they’re gonna help, they’re talking about rehabilitation, helping with your problems, your stress,” he said. But he said no one helped: “They throw it in my face what I’m being accused of ...
“They try to make it like I’m the only one done some dirt or accused of doing dirt … It’s crazy. Every day I wake up, I haven’t had one day of peace in here. I’m thinking, every day I’m off the street I can get my mind right. No, that hasn’t happened.”
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The video took place 18 days later. In it, Donaldson shuffled into view amid the backdrop of a high-security jail pod. He looked haggard, bearing a light beard and unkempt hair. He picked up a telephone and greeted his mother, Rosita Donaldson, and father Howell Donaldson Jr.
“You look good,” his mother told him.
“I don't feel like it,” Donaldson said. “I'm in pain every day.”
He said he tries to keep his mind occupied by reading books. He read the 2007 memoir, “The Age of Turbulence,” by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, and a Jason Bourne novel by Robert Ludlum.
But life in jail has physically weakened him, he told his parents. His father asked if he's exercising.
“I'm so broken, I can’t,” Donaldson said. “If I do my arm will break off.”
“I've got to see other inmates come out, you know, with a smile on their face, you know, doing their time, regular stuff that regular inmates are doing and I'm coming out every day in agony, man,” he said. “And it's hard. But you know I'm just trying to stay with it. I really don't care. Because these dudes don't care.”
He mentioned that he wants to speak to the judge in his case about the problems he's having. Days later, on Jan. 28, he did just that, complaining to Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe during a routine court appearance that the jail was making him physically ill.
The judge ordered a medical evaluation.
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Throughout the conversations with his parents, Donaldson is careful not to talk about his case. He said he would like to see his team of public defenders more often. He said he was told they’re busy with another trial.
“Obviously I could never think myself to be in jail,” he said. “But while I'm in here I could never think it would be the way it is.”
His mother and father told him his friends still come by the house to ask about him. They said his younger brother is doing well in school. His older sister's son is now a year old and learning to walk.
They told him to keep his nose in the Bible and to focus on God.
“We're going to see this through," the father said, “and He's going to reunite our family ... Just know that you got a mother and father that loves you. You've got a brother and sister that loves you.”
Since Donaldson's arrest on Nov. 28, 2017, prosecutors have collected six other jailhouse phone calls and 12 other video visitations he has made. The items have all been listed among the evidence in the state's case, but they have yet to be released publicly. It is unclear if Donaldson ever discusses the crimes he is accused of in any of them.
He was captured after a 50-day manhunt sparked by four random, fatal attacks in the Seminole Heights area. Police said they tracked him down after linking the murders to a gun he gave to a co-worker at a McDonald's restaurant in Ybor City. Ballistic tests, police said showed it was the same weapon used to kill all four victims: Benjamin Mitchell, 22; Monica Hoffa, 32; Anthony Naiboa, 20; and Ronald Felton, 60.
There are hundreds of witnesses and voluminous evidence for defense attorneys to sort through, however. It will likely be years before Donaldson is put on trial. His next court date is scheduled for May.
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-386. Follow @TimesDan.