By: Rebekah Nelson
TAMPA, Fla. (Scripps News Tampa) — The man accused of killing four people in Seminole Heights in 2017 pleaded guilty to four counts of first-degree murder in court on Monday.
Howell Donaldson III will serve four consecutive life sentences to avoid the death penalty. He had maintained his innocence until his guilty plea was entered Monday.
Donaldson was arrested for the murders of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa, and Ronald Felton, who were killed randomly in various locations across Seminole Heights over the course of 51 days in 2017.
“There is no question this is and always will be a death penalty case. This coward committed unspeakable acts and wreaked havoc on our community for weeks on end. He will now be locked in a prison cell for the rest of his life where he will make no more headlines,” said State Attorney Suzy Lopez.
Lopez said prosecutors were pursuing the death penalty for Donaldson, but weeks ago, he and his defense made the State an offer: instead of death, he would plead guilty in exchange for four life sentences with no possibility of parole.
“When this offer was made to our office, we had a moral and ethical obligation to present this offer to the families of the victims,” she said. “What we learned sitting down with each family is that they’re exhausted and mentally drained after almost six years of court hearings, a pandemic, and an appeal.”
According to Lopez, most of the family members supported the acceptance of Donaldson’s guilty plea. Otherwise, Donaldson was set to go to trial for the murders in August.
“Without the overwhelming support of family members, we would not have accepted the defendant’s offer,” Lopez said.
However, that support was not unanimous.
According to former Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, the father of Anthony Naiboa could not accept the plea. Dugan said he met the father — Casimar Naiboa — after the murder. He has since befriended him and spoke for him in court and in a news conference on Monday.
“He doesn’t agree with this. His sense of justice is an eye for an eye. And quite frankly, I get it,” Dugan said. “Who am I to argue with a grieving father?”
As for the other parents, some of them were also reluctant but felt the plea was the best path forward after years trauma.
“I can finally sleep tonight. No more crying. No more being angry. I’m just glad it’s over with,” said Benjamin Mitchell’s mother, Brenda Samuel.
“My daughter Monica was like a ray of sunshine with a playful spirit that is deeply missed by all who knew and loved her. While nothing will bring our beloved child back, it is a small comfort to know this coward will never hurt another innocent person again,” added Monica Hoffa’s father Kenny Hoffa.
According to authorities Donaldson was arrested for the murders in late 2017 after he gave the gun used in the murders to his manager at McDonald’s. That manager reported him to a nearby police officer. Donaldson later told investigators that he gave his gun to the manager to keep it away from his little brother.
He murdered the victims in the early morning hours over the course of 51 days in October and November 2017.
Hoffa said he is able to forgive his daughter’s killer, but the sister of victim Benjamin Mitchell is not there yet.
“It’s hard. It was hard to look at him. It makes me sick to even say his name, which I refuse to do,” Nakeshia Brown said. “What he did — he has destroyed so many families.”
This story was originally published by WFTS in Tampa Bay, an E.W. Scripps Company.