TAMPA — Defense attorneys for Howell Donaldson III asked a judge this week to throw out much of the key evidence in the four murder charges against him, arguing that police collected it after what amounted to an illegal arrest.
In a 33-page motion filed in court Monday, Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt argues that police had no reason to suspect Donaldson of any wrongdoing when they detained him on Nov. 28, 2017, at the McDonald’s restaurant in Ybor City where he worked.
Holt also argues that the prolonged time Donaldson spent in police custody was unlawful. And his consent to let investigators examine his property was not voluntary, but a “coerced response” to police authority.
“The arrest of Mr. Donaldson at McDonalds, the subsequent restraints on his freedom to leave and requests to test fire his gun, search his cell phone and search his vehicle constituted an illegal arrest and seizure,” Holt wrote.
Her motion asks for a judge to suppress all evidence police obtained after Donaldson was in their custody, asserting that the arrest and the searches violated his constitutional rights.
The office of Hillsborough State Attorney Susan Lopez issued a statement Tuesday saying that they planned to file a response in opposition to the defense’s motion.
Location data from Donaldson’s phone and ballistics tests of his gun helped link him to the four killings, according to court records.
The murders occurred over several weeks in October and November 2017. The victims — Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton — were each shot, apparently at random, in the evening and early morning hours while they were out alone.
At each shooting scene, Tampa police identified SIG-Sauer brand bullet shell casings that investigators determined had markings consistent with their having been fired from the same weapon, believed to be a Glock handgun.
Police turned to the public for tips to find the person responsible, drawing heavy nationwide media attention.
The motion describes the events of the day Donaldson was arrested, and quotes from lengthy exchanges he had with detectives.
That afternoon, his McDonald’s manager approached a police officer who was eating a meal there and explained that one of her employees had given her a plastic sandwich bag, which she believed contained a gun. She said he told her to hold it while he ran an errand, according to court records.
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The officer opened the bag and found that the weapon was a .40 caliber Glock and that it held SIG-Sauer ammunition. Other officers soon arrived. When Donaldson returned, he was ordered to the ground at gunpoint, handcuffed and put in the back of a patrol car.
Detectives contacted the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office for advice about potentially arresting Donaldson on a charge of carrying a concealed firearm, according to Holt’s motion. But prosecutors did not think there was enough information to justify such a charge. So a decision was made to “un-arrest” Donaldson, the motion states.
Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner suggested that police ask for Donaldson’s consent to be interviewed, according to the motion.
Detective Kenneth Nightlinger told Donaldson he’d committed no crime and was free to go, but that they would like to talk to him about the gun and why he brought it to McDonald’s, the motion states. Donaldson agreed.
He was taken to Tampa police headquarters. There, Nightlinger asked Donaldson’s consent to test-fire the gun. He said the test would be to “compare it to any other potential wrongdoing in the past before it may have come into your hands,” according to the motion.
Donaldson was not told that the testing was related to the Seminole Heights investigation, Holt noted.
He signed a consent form. The gun was taken to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for testing. He also signed a consent form for police to search his Ford Mustang.
As Nightlinger continued to interview Donaldson, the detective asked if investigators could have his permission to download the contents of his cellphone. He suggested the phone might have information that could help Donaldson with a potential alibi, or that likewise could clear him of wrongdoing, according to the motion.
“It could go to benefit you a great deal,” Nightlinger said, according to the motion. “I appreciate that and you’ll appreciate that in the end.”
Donaldson signed another consent form.
Nightlinger, according to the motion, later testified in a deposition that he wanted to keep Donaldson at police headquarters as long as possible while his phone, car and gun were being examined.
After about two hours, the detective learned of the cellphone location results, but it wasn’t yet enough to arrest Donaldson.
“I’m just flustered right now,” Donaldson told him.
Nightlinger asked why.
“I don’t know,” Donaldson said. “I just wanna go home.”
He read him his rights, but Donaldson had already given some information, including his phone number, email address and the fact that he’d recently bought the gun at Shooter’s World.
He asked if he could talk to his parents. The detective suggested he could, but told him that his cellphone wasn’t working.
Donaldson asked if he could leave. The detective said he could, but that the interview was his only opportunity to tell the police what he knew.
As the detective kept talking, Donaldson asked again multiple times if he could leave or talk to his family. Nightlinger and another detective said they needed him to stay, eventually telling him he was no longer free to go.
The detective later said that during the lengthy exchange, he was “stalling” for more time with Donaldson, the motion states. When the ballistics test results came back, the detective believed he then had probable cause to arrest him.
Confronted with the evidence, Donaldson requested an attorney. The interview ended after 4½ hours.
Donaldson, 30, has been jailed since. His trial is scheduled to begin in August.