TAMPA — Howell Donaldson III admitted Monday morning that he shot and killed four people in 2017 in southeast Seminole Heights, a development that brought an abrupt end to one of Tampa’s most extraordinary and notorious criminal cases.
Donaldson pleaded guilty to four counts of first-degree murder in a deal with prosecutors that allowed him to avoid the possibility of capital punishment and instead receive four consecutive sentences of life in prison without any potential for parole.
Donaldson’s defense team, led by Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt, publicly announced the deal in court Monday morning. It happened in what was scheduled to be a hearing on a recent defense request to throw out much of the key evidence in the case.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward accepted Donaldson’s plea and imposed the four life sentences.
Hillsborough State Attorney Suzy Lopez said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times that the defense approached her office 2½ weeks ago with the offer.
She said their case was “very strong” and that they were prepared to continue their pursuit of the death penalty in a trial later this year that was expected to last at least two months.
But it was the prevailing desire of the victims’ families for the long-running case to be done, Lopez said.
“They are mentally drained and exhausted,” she said. “I’ve met with them. I’ve spoken with them. If they had said no, we wouldn’t be here.”
As the hearing started, Holt mentioned to the judge that Donaldson had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, a mental illness marked by hallucinations and delusions. He stood wearing a red jail uniform, chains at his wrists and ankles. His defense team stood at his side.
Ward asked Donaldson a series of standard questions designed to ensure he understood his guilty plea and its consequences.
“In reality, as we stand here today, there is no way that you’re leaving Florida State Prison,” Ward said. “Do you understand that?”
“I understand,” Donaldson said.
Attendees at Monday’s hearing included former Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan and families of the victims.
As Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon read a statement of facts about each of the crimes, several people in the courtroom gallery began to gasp and sob.
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The random shootings began Oct. 9, 2017.
Benjamin Mitchell, 22, an amateur rapper and college student studying business and philosophy, went out that night to catch a Hartline bus. He was on his way to IKEA to visit a girl he liked who worked there.
As Mitchell waited at the bus stop near North 15th Street and East Frierson Avenue, someone shot him four times. Security cameras recorded images of a tall, slender person wearing a hooded shirt and fiddling with a cellphone while walking east, then darting west moments after the shooting.
Two nights later, Monica Hoffa, 32, who worked as a waitress, left her home on East Ellicott Street to meet a friend. Neighbors near North 11th Street and East Orleans Avenue reported hearing gunshots, but responding officers didn’t find anything.
Two days later, a landscaper found Hoffa’s body in the tall grass in an overgrown lot, near where the gunshots had been heard. She’s been shot once in her neck and twice in her back.
At both scenes, investigators found several spent bullet shell casings. They were all SIG-Sauer brand and bore marks that indicated they’d been fired from the same gun, believed to be a .40-caliber Glock.
Police announced that they believed the cases were related and asked the public to help them identify the gunman. The phrase “serial killer” began to spread. International media attention converged on the nondescript Tampa neighborhood. Residents were reluctant to leave their homes at night. Restaurants refused to send their delivery drivers to the area. Police patrol cars became a constant presence.
On Oct. 19, 2017, came the third killing. Anthony Naiboa, 20, a mildly autistic man who’d been working a temporary job packing meals for hurricane victims, was on his way home when he got off at a bus stop on North 15th Street. As he walked north toward East Hillsborough Avenue, someone shot him once in his head.
More than three weeks passed before the fourth killing. Ronald Felton, 60, a volunteer for a food pantry on North Nebraska Avenue, was waiting for the pantry to open a little before 5 a.m. on Nov. 14 when someone shot him as he crossed the road. Like the others, he’d been killed with SIG-Sauer ammunition.
The manhunt continued until Nov. 28, 2017. That afternoon, a manager at an Ybor City McDonald’s 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. The employee, identified as Donaldson, told her to hold it while he went to get cash.
He told her he was preparing to leave town because he’d “done something bad that he could not take back,” Harmon, the prosecutor, said in court.
The officer opened the bag and found that the weapon was a .40-caliber Glock and that it held SIG-Sauer ammunition. Donaldson was detained when he returned to the restaurant. He gave police permission to test fire the weapon and to download the contents of his phone.
The data revealed a location history putting the phone in the Seminole Heights area at the time of the homicides, police said. Firearms analysts found the gun was a match to the shell casings at the murder scenes.
Donaldson has remained jailed as his case made a five-year slog through court.
Last month, his defense argued that evidence police obtained as a result of Donaldson’s detention should be tossed. They argued that the way police detained him and interrogated him for hours amounted to an illegal arrest, and that his cooperation was a “coerced response” to authority.
Harmon was confident the state would have prevailed over the defense request.
Despite the mention of schizophrenia, the prosecutor said he saw nothing in the case to suggest Donaldson suffers from a major mental illness.
Ultimately, the state’s decision to accept the plea deal rested heavily on the consensus of the families, Harmon said. They knew of the renewed pain that would come from a lengthy trial. They also considered the lengthy appeals process that would follow a death sentence, versus the finality that a life sentence would bring, Harmon said.
One family, though, remained adamant that they were against anything short of a death sentence.
“He sentenced Monica and Benjamin and the other gentleman and Anthony to death,” Naiboa’s father, Casimar Naiboa, told the Times. “Why would you make a deal with him?”
Naiboa did not attend Monday’s hearing. But former Chief Dugan, who he called a friend, spoke in court on his behalf.
“He said to me ‘how do you expect me to be in the same room with the person who killed my son,’” Dugan said. “And I can’t argue with a grieving father.”
Other family members expressed ambivalence about Donaldson’s fate.
“I wanted them to stick a needle in your arm,” said Hoffa’s father, Kenny Hoffa. “But then I thought that is no way for you to go. Because we are all suffering every day. And now you are going to suffer just like we do.”
“I want you dead,” Mitchell’s sister, Nakeshia Brown, told Donaldson. “Hate is such a strong word, but I hate you. ... I wish you pure hell when you walk back into those gates.”
Donaldson said little throughout the hearing. But he appeared to wipe away tears as the families spoke.
Upon Donaldson’s arrest in November 2017, former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said that if found guilty “he should die.”
In a statement issued Monday through the State Attorney’s Office, Buckhorn acknowledged that while the plea deal “can never heal the broken hearts of the families,” it can bring closure.
“Justice for the families and the assurance that his remaining years are spent in the hell of his own making is only fitting,” Buckhorn said.