Arrest of Seminole Heights murder suspect stuns his friends and neighbors

(Howell Emanuel Donaldson in a photo from 2010)

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – If suspected Seminole Heights killer Howell Donaldson III had a reason for gunning down four strangers, it’s a mystery to many of the people who watched him grow up in a peaceful Tampa neighborhood near Memorial Highway, walked him to school and pastored him at church.

“My brain won’t compute that their son could do anything like this because they’re such a beautiful family,” said next door neighbor Sylvia Fernandez.

Kelly Fabian says she walked Donaldson to elementary school for five years along with Donaldson’s older sister and he would swim in her pool. Fabian described him as a well-mannered boy who never caused any problems.

Donaldson aspired to be a basketball player. He started playing at Tampa Catholic and transferred to Plant High, where he played with teammate Ryan Coulter.

When Coulter heard about Donaldson’s arrest, he couldn’t believe it until he replayed surveillance tapes of the killer and recognized what he calls Donaldson’s unique pigeon-toed walk.

“I was absolutely shocked,” Counter said. “We called him Trai. He was always extremely nice, very well spoken. If anything, a little bit more shy.”

Counter says Donaldson was very competitive and transferred to Alonso High when he didn’t make the starting team at Plant.

After graduating, he attended St. John’s University in New York, where he graduated last year with a major in sports management and a minor in business.

This year, he started a job with Ultimate Medical Academy in Tampa in a job assisting online students.

A spokeswoman for Ultimate says the job didn’t last because Donaldson stopped showing up for work.

“As I said, terminated for absenteeism after a little more than two months,” said the Academy’s Public Relations Director Martha Monfried.

Neighbors describe Donaldson’s family as “God fearing” and very religious.

His mother often organized charity events for Church Without Walls and began her own hair cutting school at the church before moving on to another location.

Church Without Walls Senior Pastor Brandon White says the family now attends a different church but he remembers Howell as a member of the youth group and has kind things to say about the entire family.

“They’re stand up people,” White told us. “They’re the type of people every pastor would want in their church.”

Now that the family is gripped by the arrest of their son for murdering four people with no apparent motive, White is as troubled as the other friends and neighbors we spoke to about the Donaldsons, but is at a loss to explain how such a thing could happen to the boy he knew in youth group.

White is also heartbroken for the victims’ family and anyone in Tampa who has been touched by the murders.

“Everyone needs prayer right now,” White said.

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