The parents of a suspected serial killer, who murdered four people in the same small Tampa neighborhood, are refusing to talk to investigators on Wednesday.
Howell Jr. and Rosita Donaldson defied an investigative subpoena by refusing to answer questions about their son Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, 24.
They spoke only to confirm the names, addresses and birth dates of family members before refusing to cooperate further. The couple could be charged with contempt of court and could even face jail for ignoring the subpoena.
Investigators had been hoping to learn about the background and state of mind of Donaldson who is the main murder suspect in four Seminole Heights killings in Florida.
Howell Jr. (right) and Rosita Donaldson (left) defied an investigative subpoena by refusing to answer questions about their son Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, 24
Their son, 24-year-old ‘Trai,’ faces four counts of first-degree murder over the deaths of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton
‘That is a rarity,’ State Attorney Andrew Warren said at a Wednesday news conference. ‘Because most people understand that they have a duty to answer questions. And when that duty is explained to them by a judge, they’re willing to provide us answers.’
One of the family’s attorneys, Andrew Shafii, told Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon that the pair would not be testifying, TBO reports.
The couple had previously announced they were standing by their son even after he was accused of multiple murders.
At the conference attended by the Tampa Bay Times, Emanuel said: ‘We’re here to support our son through this.’
Rosita told the assembled reporters: ‘I felt devastation for the families when it first started, and I prayed for those families when it first started and then, when they arrested my son I felt devastation because I love my son.’
In court, Rosita began by discussing her family, saying she and her husband have three children, including a daughter, 28, and another son, 13, and that Donaldson III had a good relationship with his extended family and two surviving grandparents.
The couple previously held a press conference where they said they were standing by their son
She began speaking about having the family over for Thanksgiving when her lawyer interrupted, reminding her that if she didn’t want to talk, she needed to tell the court.
‘With all due respect, I’m not answering any more questions,’ she said.
Ralph Fernandez, another attorney for the family, said that the couple didn’t want to answer any questions to avoid further pain.
‘I think it’s important to safeguard these truly significant family values in this time of tremendous family stress,’ he said. ‘In their distressed state, they’re asked to testify against their son. … I’m hoping to avoid further grief.’
But investigators say that interviewing the family is just a routine part of an investigation.
Warren said as a father himself, he sympathized but prosecutors were under an ‘ethical obligation to exhaust every investigative avenue to make sure we understand what happened in this case.’
A hearing will be held tomorrow to decide whether Howell Jr. and Rosita Donaldson should be held in contempt of court. They could face jail if they refuse to comply with investigators although Warren doesn’t believe it will come to that.
The first attack happened on October 9 when Benjamin Mitchell (left) was shot dead after getting off a bus in the neighborhood at night. Two days after Mitchell, 22, was shot, Monica Hoffa, (right) 32, was gunned down
On October 19, Anthony Naiboa, (left) 20, was shot after taking the wrong bus home from his new job. Then on November 14 Ronald Felton (right) was crossing at Nebraska and Wilder when a man dressed in all black came up behind him and shot him
The parents will already be protected under Florida law which grants witnesses in a state attorney’s investigation ‘use immunity,’ which means they can’t be prosecuted based on their statements.
Meanwhile their son Donaldson III, faces four counts of first-degree murder over the deaths of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton.
Donaldson III was arrested after police received a tip from a McDonald’s staff member last week about a man with a gun and brought him in for questioning.
The killings started in October in the Tampa’s Seminole Height’s neighborhood.
Speaking after the arrest last week, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said: ‘Fifty one days ago I said this was a struggle between good and evil.
‘Well, tonight goodness has won.’
Police connected the killings based on their methodology – meaning they were all killed in the same way, which is common for serial killers. Each of the four victims was killed but not robbed while they walked along at night within a half-mile area of the Seminole Heights neighborhood.
Four people were shot dead in the same neighborhood in just over a month
Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, pictured far left, spoke to the press about the killings
The victims, though, didn’t have any common similarities based on race, age or occupation.
The first attack happened on October 9 when Benjamin Mitchell, 22, was shot dead after getting off a bus in the neighborhood at night.
Two days after Mitchell was shot, Monica Hoffa, 32, was gunned down.
And on October 19, Anthony Naiboa, 20, was shot after taking the wrong bus home from his new job.
Ronald Felton was the last of the four victims to be killed, and was shot on November 14.
Donaldson III is currently being held without bond.
His parents described their son as a hardworking young man with many friends, ABC News reports.
Their third child, he attended college at St John’s University in New York City and, they say, planned to start a career in sports management.
Police were hunting for the suspect last month and released this footage of a person of interest. Donaldson III has since been arrested
But colleagues at the McDonalds where he worked in Ybor City described a far more reserved, cold individual. But they were still shocked at the news he’d been arrested for the murders.
They said they’d even joked with him that he looked like the suspect spotted in CCTV footage released by police before the truth emerged.
‘We would tease him and say he was the killer, because he looked like the pictures,’ Gail Rogers told the Tampa Bay Times .
‘I called him the killer to his face. He didn’t like that.’
Rogers said that although she and her colleagues never really thought that Donaldson was the killer, he was an unusual man.
Donaldson (seen in his yearbook photo) was said by pals to have been a police and smart boy who for some reason turned aggressive after going to university in New York
‘He wasn’t a friendly person,’ she said. ‘We were all like a family. He wasn’t like the rest of us.’
But Donaldson’s long-time friends and former classmates – who knew him as ‘Trai’ – said that he had undergone strange changes in recent months.
As a child, friends said, he had grown up in a house that emphasized manners and politeness, and he had been likable and focused.
‘My mom always commended him for his manners and likability, and she still says he was the most likable kid that you could possibly ask for,’ said Tyler Gimbert, who was a close friend of Donaldson when they were kids.
‘[She] started to tear up on the phone when I told her. My dad too. It just doesn’t make sense.’
Gimbert said she hadn’t seen him since they were children, but recalled him being ‘the brave one’ who once picked up snakes and threw them at his friends, initiating a ‘snake war’.
Donaldson went on to St John’s university in New York, where he played basketball as a guard.
His former teammate, fellow guard Gerard Rivers, recalled that he was ‘productive’ and was at college for academic achievement, rather than sport.
But Rivers remembered him as a bold personality unsuited to their position on the court.
‘He just had a mouth on him really,’ Rivers, said. ‘As [a walk-on] really your role is to just be humble and help where you can, and that wasn’t him.’
They said Donaldson (pictured) was also very polite. But one friend who met with him after he went to university in New York said that he had developed a short fuse and an ‘edge’
Sam Sealy, another player recalled him as ‘a tough kid’ who ‘played with a chip on his shoulder.’
Donaldson was arrested once in New York, but his file was sealed; he then returned to Florida after six years at university, where he began to hang out with former elementary school pal Ryan Kenworth.
Over Easter, Kenworth, Donaldson and their pals played basketball – but said that when Donaldson was fouled, he reacted in anger – unusual for the young man.
‘His demeanor was different,’ Keyworth said. ‘It was something that was talked about among our close group of friends.’
‘There was something going on,’ he added. ‘I didn’t want to pry because I figured if he wanted to talk, he would talk.
‘But his diction changed. He was more aggressive in the way he talked. He had more of an edge. He had a fuse. I didn’t remember this kid being like this.’
Donaldson’s unusual behavior continued up to his arrest on November 28, when he gave his manager at McDonald’s a paper bag containing what people say was the murder weapon.
A makeshift memorial for victim Anthony Naiboa is seen above on October 24
He told the manager to hold onto the bag while he went to draw out money, and told him not to look inside. He also said he was planning to leave the state.
But the manager did look – and upon seeing a handgun, told a member of staff to call over a police officer who was doing paperwork in the restaurant. Donaldson was arrested that day.
In the state of Florida, that requires a grand jury to return an indictment, he said, and the deadline for that would be December 19.
But he added that he was seeking to have Donaldson held without bond for the duration of the trial ‘for the public’s safety’.
Warren was asked whether he would seen the death penalty in Donaldson’s case.
He has proven reluctant to pursue execution since he came to office 11 months ago, having withdrawn it from a series of cases, and would not be drawn on it here.
‘The death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst in our society, and generally speaking a serial killer would qualify,’ he admitted.
But he said that he would only seek it once all of the evidence had been examined ‘to see if there is a legal basis’ for doing so – and even then only if ‘it is consistent with what the victims’ families want.’