TAMPA, Fla. – It was a tip from a McDonalds that ultimately fed an entire neighborhood the news they wanted to hear for two months – the arrest of a suspected serial killer.
Howell Emanuel Donaldson, 24, was charged with four counts of first degree murder in the killings of Benjamin Edward Mitchell, Monica Caridad Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton in Southeast Seminole Heights.
Donaldson was taken into custody Tuesday afternoon at the restaurant on East 13th Avenue in Ybor City after another employee said he handed a gun to a manager, who then reached out to an officer in the building.
Speculation of an arrest in the killings quickly spread. A crowd gathered in the parking lot. Police Chief Brian Dugan gave a press conference to quell any excitement of an arrest.
Hours later, Dugan’s feelings of cautious optimism were validated.
‘It neighborhood’ gripped in fear
Donaldson’s arrest happened during the kick off for the first annual “Light the Heights” event.
The holiday-themed effort to light every home with Christmas lights is the latest to brighten up the area with light – as well as some holiday cheer.
"We have a goal of having every house in our neighborhood lit up to bring a positive light to our neighborhood,” organizer Courtney Bumgarnar said.
The event also aimed to build neighborhood unity during a time of uncertainty.
From fear to resilience, then back to fear and now resolve, residents were on edge as a string of serial killings resulted in unwanted national attention for the up and coming neighborhood.
At one point, Tampa officers and FBI agents in full tactical gear went door-to-door asking residents to take safety precautions.
Patrol officers and state troopers were a regular sight throughout the neighborhood.
Street lights were fixed, alleyways were cleaned and hedges were cut.
Authorities provided updates during multiple community meetings and press conferences.
Businesses feared the impact a neighborhood killer would have on their bottom lines.
Residents wondered: Who will be the next victim?
All of this in an area our reporting partners at the Tampa Bay Times dubbed as the “it spot for hot restaurants, bars” in 2015.
Whirlwind of events
Tuesday's arrest is the latest in a long string of events since the first victim was found:
Oct. 9 – The body of Benjamin Edward Mitchell, 22, is found at a bus stop at North 15th Street and East Frierson Avenue.
Oct. 13 – The body of Monica Caridad Hoffa, 32, was found near the intersection of East New Orleans Avenue and North 10th Street. Police said she was shot and killed two days prior.
Authorities then released a video of a person of interest who later became a suspect in the killings.
Oct. 17 – Investigators connected the killings of Mitchell and Hoffa, citing “circumstances” and that they were killed within 10 blocks of each other.
Oct. 20 – Anthony Naiboa, 20, is identified as the third person killed in the area. Naiboa took the wrong bus home and was killed the day before.
Oct. 21 – Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives offers a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the killings.
Oct. 22 – Hundreds attend a vigil in honor of the victims, quietly walking with candles to the locations where each victim was found.
Oct. 23 – Seminole Heights residents voice their fears and frustrations at city officials during a community meeting.
Oct. 25 – Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn called on officers to hunt down the “son of a b---h” and urged investigators to hunt the suspect down “and bring his head to me.”
Oct. 26 – Tampa police release new video footage taken on the night Mitchell was killed.
Nov. 9 – The reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction is increased to $41,000.
Nov. 14 – The body of Ronald Felton, 60, was found on North Nebraska Avenue near East McBerry Street.
Nov. 15 – Tampa police release new surveillance video showing the same person from the initial video released on Oct. 26. Investigators also named the person as a suspect wanted for the killings and increased the reward to $91,000.
Nov. 28 – Donaldson is taken into custody and charged with the killings.