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 III, 24, will be 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 who was already 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 while also expressing cautious optimism.
Hours later, his feelings were validated.
"When I think I found out there was a gun, and when we looked at his description, it was a little more than what we really had," he said. "It just felt right. I kinda had a feeling that we were going to get a break."
Investigators are still determining Donaldson's connection to the neighborhood, said Dugan, who did not elaborate on whether he confessed to the killings.
"We're not sure why he was in this neighborhood," Dugan said. "We're not aware what his ties are and we don't know what his motive is. But there is a lot more to go."
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn described the killings and the subsequent investigation as a battle between good and evil.
"Well tonight, goodness has won," he said. "Tonight, in the battle between darkness and light, light has won."
Buckhorn added that Tuesday's arrest is not the end.
"Tonight is the beginning of when justice will be served," he said. "And then the process will occur when this individual rots in hell."
It's not the first time Buckhorn has used expressive language during the investigation:
Gov. Rick Scott, who visited Seminole Heights last week, released a statement thanking law enforcement for their efforts.
Neighborhood on the rise gripped with fear
Donaldson’s arrest happened during the kick off for the first annual “Light the Heights” event.
The effort aimed to light every home with Christmas lights and 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 killings resulted in unwanted national attention for the 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 the “it spot for hot restaurants, bars” in 2015.
Now 51 days after the first killing, Seminole Heights families can now get a good night's sleep, Dugan said.
"The real goal is for Seminole Heights to be able to get a good night's sleep," he said of the late night press conference. "It's been 51 days that they've been terrorized in their neighborhood and it is about letting these families know that we're going to bring this person to justice and letting this neighborhood get some rest and hopefully try to put their lives back together."
Chief Dugan credits arrest in series of Seminole Heights murders to hard work of officers, federal partners, and community members. pic.twitter.com/LxDv7fHv41— TampaPD (@TampaPD) November 29, 2017
10News reporter Beau Zimmer streamed the press conference on the 10News Facebook page, then talked to a Seminole Heights resident and Robert Hoffa, the uncle of Monica Hoffa:
Timeline 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 will be charged with the killings.