TAMPA (FOX 13) - Fifty-one days after the first murder in a Seminole Heights killing spree, police say the killer is behind bars and they have a solid case against him. Now, they are focused on shedding some light on so many unanswered questions.
Tuesday, a tip from a McDonald’s employee led to a break in the case. Howell E. Donaldson III, 24, was arrested Tuesday at the Ybor City restaurant where he used to work.
"He was calm and friendly with detectives," Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan told FOX 13's Alcides Segui on Tuesday morning. "I asked him why he was in Seminole Heights and he didn't respond much. I wish he had given us more answers and we just don't have that yet."
According to Donaldson's arrest affidavit, he handed his former coworker a McDonald's food bag and stated he wanted to leave Florida. When that worker opened the bag, inside was a .40-caliber Glock firearm loaded with SIG brand Smith and Wesson ammunition.
Through the investigation, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and ATF analyzed the fired cartridge casings in all four murder scenes and concluded the casings were fired in the same firearm: A Glock .40-caliber handgun, according to the affidavit. Authorities say the firearm was lawfully purchased at Shooter's World, located at 116 East Fletcher Avenue, on October 3 and picked up on October 7 after the mandatory waiting period.
The first murder occurred two days later with the death of Benjamin Mitchell, followed by Monica Hoffa on October 11, Anthony Naiboa on October 19, and Ronald Felton on November 14.
The employee who found the gun handed it over to an officer who happened to be in the restaurant. Officers quickly gathered and took Donaldson into custody and sealed off his car.
During questioning, Donaldson told detectives no one had control of the gun. He also said he was not familiar with the Seminole Heights neighborhood and didn’t associate with anyone who lives there, according to his affidavit.
Donaldson granted permission for authorities to search his car and cell phone. Inside his red Ford Mustang, officials said they found clothing similar to the outfit worn by a subject seen in the surveillance video captured on October 9, in the area where the first murder occurred. The surveillance video was released the public by Tampa police soon after. Officials also said there was possibly blood stains on the clothing they found.
Police say location data from Donaldson's phone indicated he was within the 1300 block of East Frierson Avenue on October 9, 11, and 19, and the times of phone pings to a nearby cell phone tower correspond with the times of the first three murders.
When confronted with the evidence, police say, Donaldson did not offer any explanation and requested an attorney. He has now been charged with four counts of murder.
Donaldson's affidavit indicates he was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. He appears to have a clean criminal record in the state of Florida.
“This is not somebody who fit the profile,” Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn said during a Good Day Tampa Bay interview. “The individual made a mistake. He gave that gun to somebody who has a conscience. He could have been gone today.”
Buckhorn said other than a traffic warning, Donaldson was living under the radar.
“Clearly, something happened,” Buckhorn said. “We are going to have to figure out what was it in his life that caused him to do that.”
Chief Dugan said he spoke to Donaldson briefly and said he had a calm demeanor.
"The whole thing has been very strange from the beginning," the chief offered. "What is driving someone to lash out for that? They're clearly not thinking like everybody else is."
Buckhorn commended the work done by the police department so far, as well as the McDonald’s employee who “brought this to an end.”
“Today, the good guys won. Today, Seminole Heights can sleep,” the mayor said. “There are four families who will never repair the damage and never repair the fact that their heart was ripped from their chests, but they are starting to get closure now.”
Standing next to the mayor and chief, Governor Rick Scott thanked law enforcement for their tireless efforts and said his heart goes out to the community.
“I was in Seminole Heights a week ago with the mayor and the police chief and talked to some of the families,” the governor said. “The people around the community, their hearts are broken. These people love their community. It’s a wonderful area. My heart goes out to these poor families. But I’m so happy that this individual was caught and somebody else did not get hurt.”