National News

Tampa suspect admitted to owning gun linked to killings, police say

Posted November 30, 2017 12:02 a.m. EST

— Cell phone data, shell casings and a gun helped police link a 24-year-old man to a series of fatal shootings that paralyzed Tampa residents for nearly two months.

Howell Donaldson III is facing four counts of first-degree murder in the killings of three men and a woman in Tampa's Seminole Heights neighborhood.

Despite his arrest and the evidence, the motive behind the killings remains a mystery.

Donaldson is set to appear in court for his first hearing Thursday morning but without a confession to the killings, investigators have more work to do.

"He was friendly and nice to the cops, but he didn't give us anything. He didn't tell us why he was doing it, or anything like that," Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said.

During interrogations, Donaldson only admitted to owning the weapon, police said. He said he was unfamiliar with the Seminole Heights neighborhood and did not have an association with anyone in the area, an arrest affidavit states.

When police told him that his firearm and ammunition matched the weapon they believed was used for the first three murders and that cellphone location data connected him to an address near the scenes of the three murders, Donaldson declined to explain and requested the presence of an attorney, the affidavit states.

He has not retained an attorney and will likely be appointed one at his court appearance.

A 'quiet, polite young man'

Donaldson or "Trai" -- as many call him -- did not stand out as a violent person for many who knew him.

"He is the most quiet, polite young man," said Tony Estevez, a neighbor who has known Donaldson for about 20 years. "I've never seen him say a bad word."

The 24-year-old attended Alonso High School in Tampa for half of his junior year and his senior year, the Hillsborough County School District confirmed.

From there, he attended St. John's University in New York beginning in fall 2011, and he graduated in January 2017, according to Brian Browne, executive director of university relations.

He was a walk-on for the men's basketball team during the 2011-2012 season but never played in a game, Browne said.

His freshman-year suitemate at St. John's -- who asked to not be identified -- said Donaldson had the best manners, dressed very well, and was a sneaker head.

The former suitemate said he never saw Donaldson angry, and at parties, he was a wallflower.

"[Trai was] just a regular guy," the former suitemate said. "Nothing stood out as violent."

Donaldson graduated with a bachelor's degree in sports management, CNN affiliate WFTS reported.

After college, Donaldson appeared to have returned to Tampa earlier this year. He worked at Ultimate Medical Academy, a health workers training school, for a few months until he was terminated for absenteeism, according to WFTS.

Most recently, he worked at a Tampa-area McDonald's that is about four miles from the Seminole Heights neighborhood.

Following his arrest, Donaldson was "cooperative" and seemed perfectly "fine" during police interviews, Dugan said.

"He seemed like he knew exactly what he was doing and what was going on. He was very much aware of where he was and what he was doing," the police chief said.

'We are relieved to a point'

Residents in the tree-lined neighborhood of Seminole Heights are no longer living with fear.

For more than a month, families stopped taking long walks or going on morning runs and kept their lights on at night. The neighborhood was swarmed by officers in patrol cars for weeks and lately, mounted patrols and police helicopters also became a familiar sight.

After learning that Donaldson had been arrested, Lajuanda Barrera walked to the front door of her flower shop and took down a poster that offered a reward for information about the killer.

"We are simply overjoyed. I think that's the word. Relief, utter and utter gratitude to all the men and women that are responsible to help bring this monster to justice," Barrera told CNN affiliate WFLA.

Maria Rodriguez, the stepmother of Anthony Naiboa -- one of the four people killed in the shootings -- told CNN she was happy no more people will be harmed.

"We're relieved to a point. Justice has been served so far," she said.