Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, also known as “Trai,” was born in North Carolina to Howell Donaldson Jr. and Rosita Donaldson. His family eventually moved to Tampa, where Donaldson grew up alongside his older sister and younger brother. 

People who knew “Trai” called him well-mannered, well-spoken and even shy. His family has been described as very religious and attended Church Without Walls, where Donaldson was a member of the youth group.

Donaldson aspired to be a basketball player and started playing at Tampa Catholic. He continued playing when he transferred to Plant High School. When he didn’t make the starting team at Plant, he ended up transferring again to Alonso High School to play guard on the varsity team.

In 2011, Donaldson graduated from high school and went on to study at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. He was a walk-on student-athlete for the men’s basketball team his first year of college but did not play in a game. Donaldson graduated from the university in January 2017 with a major in sports management and a minor in business.

Donaldson returned to Tampa after graduation and started working in a customer support role at the Ultimate Medical Academy. He was terminated in May for absenteeism when he stopped showing up for work.

A friend met up with Donaldson toward the end of July and said he looked unkempt and unlike himself. The friend later told police Donaldson mentioned he was looking for a job, had broken up with someone and was trying to save money. About a month later, Donaldson met with that friend again and said he was having trouble with his parents.

At some point in the fall of 2017, friends say Donaldson hit “rock bottom” and was strapped for cash. He met with his friend again on Sept. 30 and said he wasn’t in a “good spot” and asked if he knew how he could get a gun.

One day after asking his friend about getting a gun, Donaldson reached out to a different friend and asked if she could buy him a one-way plane ticket to Los Angeles because he couldn’t use his card and was in a “bit of a situation.”

On Oct. 3, Donaldson purchased a Glock firearm from Shooter’s World. He picked it up on Oct. 7 and purchased a 20-round box of SIG brand Smith and Wesson ammunition.

Two days later, police say he shot and killed Benjamin Mitchell. Within ten days of Benjamin Mitchell’s murder, Monica Hoffa and Anthony Naiboa are also shot and killed. 

Donaldson started working at McDonald’s in Ybor City at some point in October. His manager said he asked if he could sleep in the lobby at night. Search warrants indicate Donaldson was living with his parents but also staying with a female friend on West Shore Boulevard.

Search warrants show Donaldson searched “Seminole Heights killer” and “Seminole Heights” several times on Google between Oct. 27 and Nov. 14. His web history also included visits to Tampa Police Department’s social media platforms, specifically media that was related to the Seminole Heights murders. 

On Nov. 28, records show Donaldson performed multiple online searches for flights. That same day, he went to work and told his manager he was going through something and needed advance payment. Donaldson worked until noon, left to get cash, then came back and said he needed more and really needed to leave town.

Before leaving again, Donaldson handed her a McDonald’s salad bag containing something heavy and made her promise not to look inside. The manager didn’t look in the bag but handed it off to a police officer who was in the restaurant so they could check it. The officer found a .40 caliber Glock inside.

Donaldson was detained when he returned to the restaurant. He agreed to speak with officers and allowed them to examine his car, phone and gun.

Late that night, police officially arrested Howell Emanuel Donaldson III at the age of 24 and charged him with the murders of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton.

At the time of his arrest, Donaldson had no previous criminal history in Florida but did have some traffic citations. He was reportedly arrested in New York City in May 2014, but additional details on that arrest have not surfaced.

Donaldson remains behind bars. In July 2018, doctors ruled that he is fit to stand trial. The State Attorney’s Office said it will seek the death penalty against him for the four killings he is accused of committing.

>> Listen to 51 Days of Terror

>> Learn more about Benjamin Mitchell

>> Learn more about Monica Hoffa

>> Learn more about Anthony Naiboa

>> Learn more about Ronald “Ronnie” Felton

>> View the 51 Days of Terror timeline