“This serial killer is unique. He’s not pre-selecting his victims. He’s definitely not stalking them, following them. From a research perspective, this would fit the definition of a serial killer. The only motivation this offender has is to kill.”
When you think of a serial killer, it seems like something almost mythical. It’s this rare thing people have a morbid interest in, but rarely ever understand. What’s harder to understand is living in fear of one. Not the fear a serial killer could pop up in your neighborhood or abduct you in a dark parking lot. We all live with that in the back of our mind.
We’re talking about the fear you go through when there is a serial killer in your neighborhood. The fear you experience when someone’s gunned down four people just feet from where you live. The fear that eats at you every time you leave the house. Once routine tasks like taking out the garbage or checking the mail become life-or-death moments. Every little sound makes you afraid to sleep at night.
For 51 days, that fear grew inside of the people who lived in a Tampa neighborhood. Three people shot and killed in 10 days. Then – weeks of uncertainty before a fourth person was gunned down.
In between, they tried to keep living. They banded together to make sure everyone felt safe. Didn’t cancel Halloween so kids could have some sense of normalcy. Their bonds are what gave them strength as they spent almost two months with a terrifying question playing over and over in their heads – will I be next?
“It’s scary, you know? That we seem to be in the middle of what’s going on. And we have no idea what’s going on. That’s the problem.”
Before we get to the murders, we need to introduce you to Seminole Heights and its history.
In the early 1900s, Tampa’s population grew rapidly thanks to the arrival of the railroad, the cigar industry and a growing port. It grew from a small town into a city with more than 50,000 residents. When these new families needed somewhere to live, they looked to the suburbs.
Most of them settled north of downtown in neighborhoods like Seminole Heights. Most people didn’t own cars, especially the many working-class families moving into town, so the big selling point for Seminole Heights was its direct access to the streetcar system. People would jump on it to get to and from their jobs downtown.
By the end of World War II, it was a tight-knit and growing community. It became known for its cottage-style homes, some of them ordered from Sears and Roebuck catalogs. Another little interesting tidbit about Seminole Heights homes? A few of them have basements. It’s something virtually unheard of in Florida but the neighborhood sits on higher ground.
In the years following the war, Seminole Heights started to decline. It was an aging neighborhood and people were looking for the newer, trendier spots. They had cars now. The streetcar system wasn’t a major selling point anymore. They could build their lives anywhere, so why live in an old house on the north side of town when you could move into a new one on the south side or in the northwestern area of Tampa?
The once tight-knit community was breaking apart. Property values started to decrease.
Then, White Flight. African-American people were forced to leave their neighborhoods, pushed out by slum clearance projects – a way for cities to kick low-income people out of their homes to knock them down and make way for new developments. With nowhere to live, African-American people turned to Seminole Heights. They came in and many white families moved out.
Yet another blow for the bonds forged in Seminole Heights.
The final nail in the coffin for the closeness people felt there back then? The highway. In the 1960s, I-275 went in and split the neighborhood in half. There were now two sides – east and west.
After that, the neighborhood didn’t change much until the 90s. Those long drives from the communities farther north? They were getting really inconvenient. So families started moving closer to town again. They fixed up those old Sears and Roebuck homes and started investing money in businesses.
Let’s be clear about something: A lot of this happened, and is still happening, on the west side. Fixing up homes and businesses is costly. It also boosts property values, so you need money to even move in.
If we simplify this and view it as a have-and-have-nots situation, the people living on the west side are the haves. The east would be the have nots. They’re not getting the influx of private investment into redeveloping their homes. They’re not seeing an influx of people coming to create new businesses. It’s still an economically depressed area.
It’s also where all of the victims were shot and killed.
It wouldn’t be truthful to say people felt completely safe in Seminole Heights before they realized a serial killer was stalking their streets. If you look at Tampa’s crime map starting in July of 2017, you see a pattern: Grand theft, burglary, theft, robbery, burglary, theft, theft, theft, burglary. Ninety-one incidents between July and October, an overwhelming majority over people stealing.
Of course, worrying someone will steal your car stereo isn’t the same as the fear that someone will shoot you dead in the middle of the street. There was a notable amount of crime, though. Enough that no one had to wonder what they heard on Monday, Oct. 9 at 9 p.m.
“Gunfire is one of those things that you hear it and you know exactly what it is.”
Benjamin Mitchell was gunned down at a bus stop that night. Police arriving on the scene didn’t know it would be the first in four homicides and the start of 51 terrifying days for a small community and the people sworn to protect it.
Through those 51 days, the neighborhood returned to its roots. There was no east and west, just Seminole Heights. Just the need to once again become a tight-knit community and band together – this time, to stay alive.
On television, we only have about 90 seconds to tell you a story. It’s tough to pare someone’s life down into such a small window.
So we thought – let’s do a podcast. But let’s not devote most of our time to the killer. Let’s focus on the victims. Let’s really tell the story of their lives. Let’s explore how a killer’s actions not only took away a life, but also irreparably changed their families forever. Let’s look at what it’s like to watch someone grow up. To go from a babbling toddler to an adult, then have someone take away their life in an instant. Let’s hear what it’s like for someone to go from just a call away to a memory.
51 Days of Terror is for the victims. We can’t tell this story without including the suspect, but he wasn’t our main focus from the moment we started on this journey. And after so many people graciously allowed us into their homes, shared their loved one’s stories and relived painful memories, he’s definitely not our main focus now.
The victims are, and we’ll go where their stories lead us.
51 Days of Terror is hosted by me, Amanda Ciavarri. It’s written and executive produced by Brianti Downing. Kelly Hatton is our associate producer. Editing by Dallas Cotton. Heather Monahan is our digital producer. Tim Price is our digital editor.
A special thanks to Rodney Kite-Powell at the Tampa Bay History Center for helping us with research on Seminole Heights.
And thank you to everyone who talked to us about the investigation and, especially, the victims. We’re honored to tell their stories.