Experts and local cops say the latest grisly slaying bolsters their theory of a serial assassin stalking the street, but locals we talked to aren't ready to hide indoors.
Law enforcement agents investigate a fatal shooting in the Seminole Heights neighborhood in Tampa, Fla., Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. (Jones, Octavio/Tampa Bay Times via AP)
Ronald Felton wasn’t a member of the New Seasons Apostolic Church, but pastor Samuel Washington could always count on the 60-year-old Florida construction worker to lend a hand. For more than ten years, Felton woke up before dawn every Tuesday and every Friday to help prepare a food pantry at the church in the Southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa.
“We normally open at 5 AM to set up and sort the food,” the pastor told me. “Ronald would go pick up donated food from different locations and help unload trucks.”
But Felton never made it on Tuesday. According to Tampa Police, he was crossing an intersection around 4:51 AM at North Nebraska Avenue and East McBerry Street, about two blocks from New Seasons, when he was approached from behind and shot to death. Witnesses described the shooter as a black man roughly six feet tall, wearing all black clothing, and toting a large pistol.
Washington said homeless people who were waiting in line for food heard four shots ring out. “He was going to get there early today and that is when he was killed,” the preacher said.
Almost immediately, local officials suggested the murder was more than likely linked to three other killings in Southeast Seminole Heights that took place within a week of each last month and ignited speculation a serial killer might be haunting the quiet suburban neighborhood. That theory seemed to gain fresh support from national experts on homicidal maniacs—as well as local officials—with Felton's killing.
“Right now, we are treating it as though it is related until we can rule otherwise,” Dugan said at an impromptu press conference near the latest crime scene Tuesday morning. “I believe that this person lives in this neighborhood and we need everyone’s cooperation. We need everyone to pay attention to what is going on.”
Buckhorn told assembled reporters the latest tragedy had renewed a local sense of urgency to solve the case. “We need to catch this killer before we have to notify another family that their loved one is dead,” he said. “We are going to stay on this until we catch the guy.”
After responding to the site of Felton’s murder, officers quickly set up a perimeter that remained in place through the late afternoon. Nebraska Avenue was closed to traffic in both directions between Hillsborough and Osborne avenues, according to Tampa Police spokesman Eddy Durkin.
“Officers are still out there actively checking the neighborhood,” Durkin told me. “We want to make sure we are thorough by checking every area and talking to as many people as we can.”
If there is a serial killer on the loose in the city, police believe he struck first on October 9, when 22-year-old Benjamin Mitchell was shot and killed waiting for a bus. Two days later, 32-year-old Monica Hoffa disappeared; her body was found on October 13. A week later, officers who heard gunfire found a lifeless 20-year-old Anthony Taino Naiboa. Like Mitchell, Hoffa and Naiboa were both shot to death.
Brianna Fox, a University of South Florida criminology assistant professor and former FBI agent, was convinced Tampa Police were dealing with a serial killer after Hoffa’s murder. Felton’s death simply reinforced her belief, she told me. “It’s the modus operandi,” Fox said. “He is picking random people, the victims were alone, and all the murders have taken place within the same area of Southeast Seminole Heights.”
She added that the killer is likely a male in his early 20s to early 30s who is very familiar with the neighborhood. “He is not willing to go outside his comfort zone,” Fox said. “It’s part of an insecurity he has.”
There is only one aspect of the case that diverges from traditional serial killer conduct, she said: This murderer does not seem to want any intimacy with his victims. “Most serial killers will strangle or stab [people]” she told me. “Serial killers really enjoy that rush of power and feeling a connection with their victims.”
Whatever the murderer’s motives might be, community leaders in Southeast Seminole Heights insisted the killings would not compel residents to cower in their homes. Stan Lasater, president of the neighborhood’s civic association, told me he and his neighbors are going about their normal routines. “We have been very defiant,” he said. “We are not going to let this guy scare us. Of course, we are using common sense. If you need to go somewhere, call a neighbor to go with you.”
He also advised people in the area to be extra cautious with their cellphone use. “I tell them don’t text or go on Facebook while you are out walking,” he said.
Washington, the New Seasons pastor, said that before Tuesday, he had not been as vigilant as he might be. “I’ll probably look twice now,” he said. “But, honestly, I am not feeling scared. I believe in a higher power.”
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