Co-workers said Howard ‘Trai’ Donaldson (pictured) was unfriendly but they were still shocked to learn that his handgun was linked to four murders in Tampa, Florida
Colleagues of alleged Tampa serial killer Howell Emanuel Donaldson III joked with him that he looked like the suspect spotted in CCTV footage released by police, it has emerged.
Donaldson, 24, is believed to be the maniac who shot dead four people in Seminole Heights between October 9 and November 14.
In a Thursday-morning court appearance it was announced that he would be held without bail on four murder charges until at least Tuesday.
But to his colleagues at the McDonald’s in Ybor City, Donaldson was a regular guy – albeit an unusually reserved one.
So when police released security footage of the figure they say had haunting the central Tampa neighborhood, they didn’t think twice about some good-natured ribbing.
‘We would tease him and say he was the killer, because he looked like the pictures,’ Gail Rogers told the Tampa Bay Times .
‘I called him the killer to his face. He didn’t like that.’
Police released this CCTV footage; Donaldson’s co-workers joked that he looked like the man, but didn’t believe it was him until he handed the gun to his manager for safekeeping
Donaldson reportedly said he was going to get money as he was leaving the state, and gave the manager of Ybor McDonald’s (pictured) a paper bag, telling him not to look in it. When the manager opened the bag, they found a handgun inside and called police
Rogers said that although she and her colleagues never really thought that Donaldson was the killer, he was an unusual man.
‘He wasn’t a friendly person,’ she said. ‘We were all like a family. He wasn’t like the rest of us.’
But Donaldson’s long-time friends and former classmates – who knew him as ‘Trai’ – said that he had undergone strange changes in recent months.
As a child, friends said, he had grown up in a house that emphasized manners and politeness, and he had been likable and focused.
‘My mom always commended him for his manners and likability, and she still says he was the most likable kid that you could possibly ask for,’ said Tyler Gimbert, who was a close friend of Donaldson when they were kids.
‘[She] started to tear up on the phone when I told her. My dad too. It just doesn’t make sense.’
Gimbert said she hadn’t seen him since they were children, but recalled him being ‘the brave one’ who once picked up snakes and threw them at his friends, initiating a ‘snake war’.
Donaldson went on to St John’s university in New York, where he played basketball as a guard.
His demeanor was different… he had more of an edge. He had a fuse. I didn’t remember this kid being like this
Childhood pal Ryan Kenworth on Donaldson after they met in Easter
His former teammate, fellow guard Gerard Rivers, recalled that he was ‘productive’ and was at college for academic achievement, rather than sport.
But Rivers remembered him as a bold personality unsuited to their position on the court.
‘He just had a mouth on him really,’ Rivers, said. ‘As [a walk-on] really your role is to just be humble and help where you can, and that wasn’t him.’
Sam Sealy, another player recalled him as ‘a tough kid’ who ‘played with a chip on his shoulder.’
Donaldson was arrested once in New York, but his file was sealed; he then returned to Florida after six years at university, where he began to hang out with former elementary school pal Ryan Kenworth.
Over Easter, Kenworth, Donaldson and their pals played basketball – but said that when Donaldson was fouled, he reacted in anger – unusual for the young man.
‘His demeanor was different,’ Keyworth said. ‘It was something that was talked about among our close group of friends.’
‘There was something going on,’ he added. ‘I didn’t want to pry because I figured if he wanted to talk, he would talk.
‘But his diction changed. He was more aggressive in the way he talked. He had more of an edge. He had a fuse. I didn’t remember this kid being like this.’
Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, pictured far left, said on Wednesday that the gun was linked to the killings. Donaldson’s childhood friends remembered him as ‘brave’, not a killer
They said Donaldson was also very polite. But one friend who met with him after he went to university in New York said that he had developed a short fuse and an ‘edge’
Donaldson’s unusual behavior continued up to his arrest on November 28, when he gave his manager at McDonald’s a paper bag containing what people say was the murder weapon.
He told the manager to hold onto the bag while he went to draw out money, and told him not to look inside. He also said he was planning to leave the state.
But the manager did look – and upon seeing a handgun, told a member of staff to call over a police officer who was doing paperwork in the restaurant.
Donaldson was arrested that day. He is currently being held without bail, until his next court appearance next Tuesday, TBO reported.
On Wednesday police said that the gun was the missing piece of the puzzle.
‘The gun is what we needed,’ he told reporters. He said that based on the evidence he is ‘100 per cent sure’ they have the right man.
Police found SIG Sauer brand .40 caliber shell casings at each of the four locations where Donaldson allegedly shot dead Monica Hoffa, Benjamin Mitchell, Anthony Maiboa and Ronald Felton.
The shell casings from the first three murder scenes were fired from a Glock handgun that Donaldson told police he bought on October 3, according to a forensic analysis.
He picked up the gun four days later and also bought a 20-round box of SIG Sauer brand .40 caliber bullets, according to store receipts.
The bullets from Felton’s murder weren’t available for comparison after the gun was confiscated, but were previously identified as having been fired from the same gun.
The Glock was confiscated and had a loaded magazines with five brand new rounds of .40 caliber bullets, according to the Times.
Donaldson told police that the gun wasn’t handled by anyone else from the time he picked it up from the store, the paper said, but also has not admitted to the killings.
Donaldson told police that the gun wasn’t handled by anyone else, the report states. On Thursday it was decided he would be held without bail until at least Tuesday’s hearing
While Dugan considers the gun to be the most critical piece of evidence, cell phone data also places him roughly at the scene of the crimes on all dates and times corresponding with the first three murders.
He told police he was ‘unfamiliar’ with the Seminole Heights area and doesn’t know anyone who lives there.
Police also found a hooded sweatshirt with what appears to be a blood stain in Donaldson’s red Ford Mustang, which was parked at the McDonald’s when he was taken in for questioning. The sweatshirt is similar to what a suspect was wearing in a surveillance video taken October 9 just before and after Benjamin Mitchell’s murder.
Dugan told reporters Donaldson wasn’t a suspect until Tuesday when they confiscated the gun. He said he doesn’t think the alleged serial killer was trying to turn himself in.
Donaldson is currently being held without bail and should appear in court for the first time on Tuesday.
‘We were really hoping to find out what was driving him to do this,’ Dugan told reporters.
‘We don’t have those answers yet. It’s an ongoing investigation. We’re going to speak to a lot of people now who know he did this, we’re going to have a lot more tips, a lot more information.’
Donaldson was reportedly friendly to police. He didn’t admit to the killings or offer any motive. Police don’t believe anyone else was involved or that he is involved in any other crimes.
It does not seem like Donaldson has a criminal record.
Police had been searching for clues to who committed the four murders for 51 days.
On October 19, Anthony Naiboa, (left) 20, was shot after taking the wrong bus home from his new job. Then on November 14 Ronald Felton (right) was crossing at Nebraska and Wilder when a man dressed in all black came up behind him and shot him
The first attack happened on October 9 when Benjamin Mitchell (left) was shot dead after getting off a bus in the neighborhood at night. Two days after Mitchell, 22, was shot, Monica Hoffa, (right) 32, was gunned down
Earlier this week police connected the killings based on their methodology – meaning they were all killed in the same way, which is common for serial killers.
Each of the four victims was killed but not robbed while they walked along at night within a half-mile area of the Seminole Heights neighborhood.
The victims, though, didn’t have any common similarities based on race, age or occupation.
The first attack happened on October 9 when Benjamin Mitchell was shot dead after getting off a bus in the neighborhood at night.
Two days after Mitchell, 22, was shot, Monica Hoffa, 32, was gunned down. And on October 19, Anthony Naiboa, 20, was shot after taking the wrong bus home from his new job. Police patrolling nearby heard the gunshots and rushed to the scene to find Naiboa dead.
Then in late October Dugan released a blurry video of a suspect, who can be seen wearing a hooded jacket and walking down a street near one of the shootings.
He then released another video on November 16 of who he believes is the same man, who was present near the fatal shooting of Ronald Felton.
Felton was the last of the four victims to be killed, and was shot on November 14.
Police said the victim, a construction worker and father of three adult children, was crossing at Nebraska and Wilder when a man dressed in all black came up behind him and shot him.