TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — After nearly six years, the Seminole Heights killer has finally pleaded guilty to his crimes.
Howell Donaldson III pleaded guilty Monday morning to the four counts of first-degree murder to avoid the death penalty. He was originally scheduled for a jury trial in August.
“Today’s announcement can never heal the broken hearts of the families whose lives were ripped apart by this killer or the community that was terrorized for 51 days,” former Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. “It does however bring finality to this case. Justice for the families and the assurance that his remaining years are spent in the hell of his own making is only fitting.”
The now-confessed serial killer was on trial for the murders of Benjamin Edward Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa, and Ronald Felton between Oct. 9, 2017, and Nov. 14, 2017.
Officials said the murders appeared to be random.
State Attorney Suzy Lopez said there will be no parole for Donaldson’s life sentences.
“This remains and always will be a death penalty case,” Lopez said. “What this man did to four families and a small community within the city of Tampa is cold, calculated, and unforgivable.”
The state attorney said Donaldson approached her office with the plea offer a few weeks ago, but it took time to get feedback from the families.
She said while she knew a jury would find Donaldson guilty, she and her office took the plea deal to spare the victims’ families from the trial process. According to the state attorney, she would not have accepted the plea deal without the families’ “overwhelming support.”
“During a lengthy trial, the families would have been forced to listen to horrific testimony and would have to relive the nightmare not only during the trial but in the years to come during the appellate process,” Lopez said.
Donaldson was identified as the killer after he gave a gun to his manager at McDonald’s in Ybor City, who then turned it in to Tampa police.
At the time of his arrest, the defendant admitted to owning the weapon but not the murders. He also said he wasn’t familiar with the Seminole Heights neighborhood or the victims.
However, data taken from Donaldson’s cell phone showed that he was in the areas where the first three murders happened. The call-detail records also showed that his phone was geographically associated with the local cell towers within minutes of the killings.
According to his attorneys, Donaldson was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was not on medications as of the Monday hearing, although he said he took his meds in jail.
After hearing the facts of the case from the prosecution Judge Samantha Ward sentenced Donaldson to life in prison.
The victims’ family members, who were present at the hearing, condemned Donaldson for the murders.
“The Word of God tells us that the Devil comes only to kill, steal, and destroy, and that is exactly what you did,” said Shelina Reneau, cousin of Monica Hoffa.
Lopez said that with this sentencing, Tampa will finally be safe from Donaldson’s violent behavior.
“He will never again be allowed to walk the streets of Seminole Heights, the City of Tampa, or anywhere else on this planet,” she said.