Hillsborough County

Accused Seminole Heights killer's parents must explain to judge why they should not be held in contempt of court

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) - A Hillsborough County judge on Thursday ruled that the parents of the accused Seminole Heights serial killer must appear in court on Jan. 5 to explain why they should not be held in contempt of court for not answering investigator's questions.

Rosita and Howell Donaldson Jr. have refused to answer questions about their son, 24-year-old Howell Donaldson III, who is accused of killing four people in a string of recent murders that terrorized the Seminole Heights community.

The state wants the court to intervene to force the accused killer's parents to speak to investigators.

The couple was in court on Thursday morning as their attorneys explained to Hillsborough County Judge Margaret R. Taylor what they are going through.

"The parents haven't slept, can't function, can't think clearly... they feel like hostages in their home," said the attorney, adding that the couple has been considering leaving town.

On Thursday in court, attorney Ralph Fernandez said the parents knew when they met with investigators they wouldn't answer questions that would lead to the execution of their son.

Judge Taylor says the parents will have the option of giving sworn statements to investigators at any time before the scheduled hearing.

Taylor referred to a 2016 court order from a Miami judge in a similar case and decided to take the route of civil contempt of court rather than criminal contempt.

The Donaldsons aren't as likely to go to jail if held in civil contempt. Legal experts say there are more options for punishment if it comes to that.

The couple now has more time to get their thoughts together.

Earlier this week, the parents were interviewed by prosecutors as the State Attorney's Office began digging deeper into the background of the accused serial killer. Prosecutors want answers about the young man at the center of the case.  Did he suffer from mental health issues?  What was his state of mind leading up to the murders?  Was he under psychiatric care at that time?

The state went straight to the source for the answers, sending a subpoena to the suspect's mother and father.

Their answer - was no answer.

On Tuesday, after the parents were questioned, their attorney shared with News Channel 8 the reaction of the mother and father when they were asked to provide details about their son. This is how the attorney described the reaction from his clients.

"One of the two said, 'testify against our son,'" he said. "'You mean to testify against our baby?'"

Each of them was questioned separately, in different rooms. They gave the same answer to every inquiry.

"Each time the response that was elicited was, 'I'm not going to answer that question,'" said Fernandez.

Ultimately, the parents refused to give up any information about their son.

"They elected not to discuss any matters that they were asked about because they are not going to be witnesses against their son," said Fernandez.

The attorney for the parents describes the Donaldson's as the "perfect family," married for 30 years, religious and loyal to their son. So loyal that they're willing to go to jail.

The first time the Donaldson's saw their son since his arrest was last Friday afternoon in a brief, two minute video conference.

The couple was said to be so emotionally exhausted after the video conference, they had to be helped out of their chairs.


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