Corey McNabb is driving to Seminole Heights to pick up a friend. Her name is Monica Hoffa.
It’s Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. This is day three.
Corey calls Monica at 8:39 p.m. and tells her he’s three minutes away. She’s acting a little strange tonight. She’s not distressed but she’s talking faster than normal. Before they hang up, she tells him “OK, I gotta go.”
Later, Corey would tell police it seemed odd. Why would she tell him she had to go? He was the person she was meeting with. Could she have been in trouble but unable to tell him in that moment? Was someone holding a gun to her, forcing her to get off the phone?
Corey drives to their usual meeting spot just off Nebraska Avenue. He doesn’t see Monica. He rolls his windows down to get a better look at his surroundings. He doesn’t spot her anywhere.
Corey decides to drive to Monica’s house. He pulls into her driveway. He doesn’t see her standing outside or walking around the area. He honks his horn and no one comes to the door.
So, he goes back to their meeting spot. Still no Monica.
Now Corey’s upset. He came from St. Pete after work late at night to give her a ride and Monica is nowhere to be found. He texts her and tells her he’s angry. Where is she?
What he doesn’t know is Monica may already be dead.
It’s just two days after Benjamin Mitchell was murdered. This area is only about half a mile from where he was killed.
Jenna Umberger is at home with her husband. It’s sometime between 8 and 9 o’clock at night. She’s just about to sit down to dinner when she hears gunshots. She counts at least three, maybe four. But at this moment, Jenna doesn’t actually realize what she’s hearing is gunshots. She thinks they sound too soft, so it must be fireworks.
Frances Kelly also hears gunshots. But she thinks it’s sometime between 9 and 10. Kelly counts four rounds. She looks out of her window but doesn’t see anything.
Romano Whitley hears gunshots around 9 o’clock. At least four or five of them. She’s too afraid to look out her window to see what happened.
Jessica Coleman hears the shots around 9:30. She counts six. She looks out her window but doesn’t see anything.
Janice Thornton hears at least four or five gunshots between 9 and 10 o’clock. She looks outside but doesn’t see anything.
Cedric Walden hears gunshots sometime between 8 and 9 o’clock. He counts five or six. He doesn’t see anyone around.
It goes on and on like this in police reports. The time and number of shots vary by witness. It’s probably because it’s hard for some of them to remember exactly what time they heard the shots and exactly how many they heard.
Unlike with Benjamin Mitchell’s murder, people aren’t recounting the events a few hours later. In Monica’s case, it’s two days after she’s killed. Because that’s how long it takes for anyone to find her body.
Police do come out that night to investigate. They look all over the area for clues, including in a vacant lot on East New Orleans Avenue. The grass is high and it’s dark out, so it’s no wonder they never see Monica lying somewhere between the tall blades.
It’s Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. Day five.
Landscapers show up at the vacant lot on East New Orleans Avenue. They come out once a month to trim the grass. It’s morning – sometime before 9:30. As they’re working, the landscapers notice something in the grass. It’s probably the last thing they expected to see today or any other day – a dead body.
Police show up a few minutes later. Monica’s on her back. She’s wearing a red button-up shirt and black pants. Her right arm is above her head. In her left hand is a pack of cigarettes – a lighter and $75 in cash are tucked inside. There’s a blue cell phone in the grass near her, about a foot away from her body. There’s blood coming out of Monica’s nose and mouth. She has a visible gunshot wound on the right side of her neck. They later discover she’s been shot in the back too – twice.
An officer puts gloves on and walks over to the body. He checks her right wrist for a pulse. He doesn’t find one. What’s more, she’s cold to the touch and rigor mortis has already started.
Thirty-two-year-old Monica Hoffa is dead.
Something stands out about Monica’s murder. It seems messy. It makes us wonder if she was running away from her killer.
Let’s look at the evidence.
The night of the shooting, a bullet went through the garage door of a home about a block away. It hit a Chevy Impala kept inside. This house was a block away from where Monica was killed. Another round hit a limo parked in the driveway of a home nearby. Reports don’t mention exactly where this house is, but it’s near the crime scene.
Something else – police found shell casings in different locations. Two on the road near where her body was found and then two more on the grass near her feet. It’s as if the killer was moving, which could mean he was chasing after Monica.
We also can’t forget that Monica was shot in her back. Twice. That would mean the killer hit her from behind.
Maybe she saw the killer coming, raising a gun to shoot her. And she did what most of us imagine we’d do in this situation. She ran. Maybe the killer fired off some shots as she took off, hitting the garage and limo as he aimed for Monica. Maybe she ran toward the field. Maybe she hoped the high grass would give her cover as the killer pursued her. But maybe he keeps her in his sights and continues shooting until she goes down.
We ran our theory by Tampa police. They told us they can’t be sure. They see how we could make that conclusion considering she was shot in the back. But they haven’t seen any official documents proving we’re right. Right now, they just don’t know for sure.
Monica’s name starts making the rounds in the media. Reporters start looking for her family. Her grandfather was listed as the next of kin, so it’s likely he’d been told. But the message hadn’t made it to her father.
“A reporter called my wife and asked if she would make a statement. And my wife Dawn said ‘Does her father know?’ and I hadn’t been contacted.”
That was Kenny Hoffa. He was actually driving toward Tampa when that reporter called to get a statement. Kenny had no idea his daughter was dead until his wife called him with the tragic news.
Kenny: “She called me, made me pull over and then told me what had happened.”
Kenny starts getting choked up at this point in the interview. It’s 2017, about a week and a half after Monica’s murder. They just buried her a few days before, so the wounds are still fresh. He’s now back in his home state of South Carolina, but the distance isn’t helping him manage the grief. Nothing can really ease the pain of losing a child.
Kenny has a buzz cut. His hair was probably once light brown, but now it’s mostly gray. He has a goatee – also mostly gray. For the interview, he’s wearing a red polo shirt with the words South Carolina Fire Academy embroidered on the front.
We’re going to do something you won’t hear in future episodes.
We reached out to some of Monica’s loved ones, but no one wanted to give us an interview for the podcast. We get it. This is painful to talk about and not everyone wants to relive it.
We still want to paint the best picture of Monica and how her death impacted the people who loved her the most – just like we did with all of the other victims. So, we’re handing things over to Kenny by playing the bulk of his interview. I won’t speak in between. You won’t hear anyone else talking. Just a father trying to grapple with the death of his daughter.
“I couldn’t imagine what had happened. And then later on finding out she had been shot randomly by a lunatic. It’s just more than somebody can bear.
My hope and prayers are that Chief Dugan takes care of this guy. I talked to him at the memorial service and he said he was doing everything in his power to bring this man to justice. I just want him to bring his man to justice. And then I want to look into that man’s eyes and ask him how he could do something so terrible to my daughter.
What kind of person shoots someone and just walks away? I’m reaching out to the Seminole Heights community right now. I’m asking you if you have any information to contact Chief Dugan. I want this man brought to justice. I’m praying for the other two families that lost their children. I know we’re all going through a hard time right now, but it’s so important that we bring this man to justice. I need your help with this. I’m begging. I pray to God that he just allows this man to be brought to justice soon before someone else gets hurt.
My daughter never held a grudge. She never was mad at anybody for longer than a day. She would always tell people how she loved them. She would always say, ‘You know I love you right?’ Today, I think in honor of Monica, we should all go out and find someone we’re having a hard time with and find those people. Thank God they’re in your life. I think everyone should go and hug their children tonight. Just hug them and tell them how much you love them and tell them how much they mean to you. And to that man who did this: God says I have to forgive you, but I pray to God that justice is served.”
Now, we want to introduce you to Monica. The best way we can is through her obituary. It paints the picture of an intelligent, loving and empathetic young woman. Some of it you heard from her father, but it bears repeating.
Monica Caridad Hoffa, 32 years old, born April 11, 1985, passed away October 11, 2017. She graduated from Gaither High School in 2003 and attended Valencia College. Monica was fluent in English, Spanish, and Sign Language. She loved life and had a beautiful smile that would light up the room. She was raised by her grandparents Guillermo and Ana, her mom, Olga, and her aunt, Ana. Monica also grew up with her cousins Ivette & Yury and they were raised as sisters. Monica was very close with the family. To Monica’s grandparents, she was the light of their life. She loved her significant other, Dereck, very much, and would talk to her family about the plans she had in her heart for their future. Monica would always make sure to say to her family members “You know I love you, right”? She would make time to just come, sit, and talk to her cousins and do their nails and hair. Monica had a great love for the deaf community and many of her friends were deaf. She also loved to write poetry and was known for her drawings. She enjoyed the beach, walking, and just hanging out with family and friends. To Monica it was very important to forgive and forget. She would not remember any wrongdoings and didn’t hold a grudge. Her life was taken from her with no motive. We know God has her in His glory and we will see her again soon.
It’s Oct. 17, 2017. Day nine of the investigation.
Interim Police Chief Brian Dugan is holding a press conference on the murders of Benjamin Mitchell and Monica Hoffa.
Chief Dugan: “Based on the proximity and circumstances, we believe the killings are related. There are no clear motives behind the killings.”
Not only is there no motive, there’s also no connection between the victims. Monica and Benjamin didn’t know each other. There’s no evidence they even had any mutual friends. The only thing connecting them is the way they were killed. Both of them late at night. Both of them in Seminole Heights. And both with the same type of weapon – a Glock.
The chief also gives the media something he wants them to get out to the public – surveillance video of a person of interest.
Chief Dugan: “We’re showing the residents a video of a man walking around the area. We’re not sure if that is him. We just want to know who he has and see what information he may have for us.”
This is the same video we described in episode two. A man walking casually toward the scene of Benjamin Mitchell’s murder. He has on a hoodie. He’s spinning a cell phone around in his hand. Again, you can’t really make out his face. At this point, the best police can hope for is for someone to recognize his mannerisms.
It might seem far-fetched, but you’d be surprised at what people will notice.
We’re going back in time now to Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. It’s nine days before Benjamin Mitchell’s murder and 11 days before Monica Hoffa’s.
Matt Threadgill gets a message from his friend, Nicole Minnis. She tells him their mutual friend needs to talk. His name is “Trai.”
Matt knows Trai from middle school and high school. They played basketball together. He knows Trai is unemployed right now and living with his parents. A month earlier, he’d even asked to move in with Matt and his brother, but it didn’t work out.
Instead of going inside the Starbucks, Trai wants to talk in his car – a red Mustang. Matt notices that Trai seems upset. It’s not just his demeanor that’s different. Trai doesn’t look, well, good. He just saw him in early August and he looked well put together. Now, not so much.
This is Matt speaking to police weeks later.
Police: “How was his appearance, is it still sharp?”
Matt: “He was wearing like a T-shirt and shorts and his hair was kind of messed up.”
Trai tells Matt he’s going through a tough time, but he’s about to start a new job at a fast food restaurant. He’s also getting a side job, but Matt can’t remember the details on that one. He thinks maybe it was in sales. Matt also thinks Trai was embarrassed about working at McDonald’s and lied about the side job to make himself look better.
This is where it gets strange. Matt thinks this is all a set-up to ask him for money. Trai’s telling him he’s in a tight spot. He definitely looks like he’s in a tight spot. He isn’t working yet, but he tells Matt he’s about to have some money coming in. It definitely seems like he’s making a case before asking to borrow some cash.
But that’s not the question he gets from Trai.
Matt: “I’m like, ‘Alright, so what do you want Trai?’ He asked me, ‘Do you know how I could get a gun?'”
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.
Thank you to everyone who talked to us about the investigation, especially the victims. We’re honored to tell their stories.