TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — When Howell Donaldson III appeared at the Hillsborough County Courthouse via television, family members of at least two of the Seminole Heights murder victims watched in dead silence.
You could hear a pin drop. No emotion, no reaction. Just a dozen of stares that could have bored a hole through the TV screen above the window into the courtroom.
Throughout the short but quick-moving hearing, family members stayed silent. Afterwards, they expressed relief that law enforcement was so confident they’d found the killer. But so many questions remained.
“I’m relieved that the person has been caught,” said Olga Lavandeira, Monica Hoffa’s mother. She used sign language to painfully draw out the words, which were then interpreted by Monica Hoffa’s cousin. “But now the question again is, why?”
“The question we’re all going through is why,” said Kenny Hoffa, Monica’s father. “He [Donaldson] didn’t live there. He had no ties to the place. He just killed people indiscriminately. We don’t understand why he chose our daughter. We want to understand that so maybe have complete peace, but I don’t think peace will ever come to all of us, not completely. We’d really like to understand. We just don’t understand.”
“I’m praying for his family,” Kenny Hoffa said with unimaginable grace in the face of such sadness. “I know they’re experiencing what we’ve all experienced, but on a different magnitude. We’ve got a real strong faith in God and he’s gonna carry us through this. We’re gonna pray for his family that they get carried through this. We understand that they brought him up in a church setting, but HE chose to go do this. He’s gonna have to pay for what HE did. And unfortunately, they’re gonna suffer for what he’s done. They’re gonna lose a son like we lost a daughter. It’s a tragedy all the way around.”
Before the hearing, state attorney Andrew Warren addressed the families, explaining what would happen in the courtroom, and expressing his “most sincere condolences” that he was meeting them under such awful circumstances.
When Donaldson left the jail courtroom on the TV, the families piled out of the courtroom, trudging past the window into where the attorneys and judge sat.
They huddled around each other outside in the courtroom hallway. Some got emotional. Many of them hugged.
It was a surreal scene, a group gathered together by chance, supporting each other through tragedy with no discernable thread linking them together, other than one of the most horrific killing sprees in recent memory in Tampa.
“Nothing is going to bring back Monica,” said Yuri Gutierrez, Monica’s cousin who says she was more like a sister. “But this is a good day. The healing process begins for us.”