A Florida man pleaded guilty Monday to randomly shooting four people in a 2017 killing rampage that set a Tampa neighborhood on edge for weeks.
Howell Donaldson III entered the guilty pleas to four counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences without parole, according to court records. The surprise plea deal means that Donaldson will avoid the death penalty, prosecutors said.
“This coward committed unspeakable acts and wreaked havoc on our community for weeks on end,” said State Attorney Suzy Lopez in a news release. “He will now be locked away in a prison cell for the rest of his life where he will make no more headlines.”
Donaldson, 30, admitted to the shooting deaths between Oct. 9 and Nov. 14, 2017, of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton. They were each shot in the early morning hours in the Seminole Heights neighborhood with the same type of ammunition while doing everyday tasks such as waiting at a bus stop or crossing a city street.
Police eventually concluded that the killings were linked.
The case wasn't solved until Donaldson asked the manager of a McDonald's restaurant where he worked to hold a plastic bag with something heavy in it while he ran an errand. The manager instead showed the bag to a Tampa police officer who was eating in the restaurant and found it contained a .40-caliber Glock handgun.
Donaldson was taken into custody and the handgun was matched to the slayings. Investigators also used cellphone records and the video to place Donaldson at the locations where the four victims were killed.
The guilty plea Monday came during a hearing that had been set for defense motions seeking to toss out evidence obtained from the McDonald's encounter, which Donaldson's lawyer had contended was an illegal arrest. The trial was scheduled to begin in August.
Family members and investigators attended the hearing. Kenny Hoffa, father of victim Monica Hoffa, said in the news release that it is “a small comfort” to know that Donaldson will spend his life behind bars. His daughter, a 32-year-old waitress, was killed while walking from her home to meet a friend.
“My daughter Monica was like a ray of sunshine with a playful spirit that is deeply missed by all who knew and loved her,” Kenny Hoffa said. “We will continually reflect on Monica's incredible zest for life as her memory lives on through the rest of us.”
Lopez said the family members were in agreement with Donaldson's guilty plea. Interim Tampa Police Chief Lee Bercaw said the investigation was one of the most difficult in recent memory.
“Countless hours and sleepless nights were dedicated to finding this killer and restoring peace to the Seminole Heights community he terrorized,” Bercaw said.