String of Murders Has Florida Neighborhood on Edge

(CN) – As the sun sets over Tampa, Florida, a chill breeze sweeps over the car lots and strip malls on four-lane Nebraska Avenue. Normally during this time of year, when residents receive a respite from the heat, the area is bustling with residents walking their dogs, riding bikes and strolling to the local food mart or bar.

But after a suspected serial killer murdered a fourth victim early Tuesday morning, locals are hesitant to walk the streets after dark. People don’t answer doors and shoppers at the nearby Winn-Dixie and Family Dollar stores walk quickly to their cars.

For the last month, the Seminole Heights neighborhood – a rapidly-gentrifying working-class area — has been plagued by random murders that authorities believe were committed by the same person. The victims, which range from age 22 to 60, were shot dead under the cover of darkness within a mile of each other.

The latest victim, 60-year-old Ronald Felton, left the church food pantry where he volunteered at 4:50 a.m. and crossed the street to meet a friend. His assailant came from behind Felton, shot him in the back of the head and ran off. Tampa police, who have blanketed the area over the last few weeks, arrived at the scene almost immediately, but the gunman was gone.

The crime scene was just blocks away from a mural memorializing the previous three victims: Benjamin Mitchell, 22, shot Oct. 9 while waiting for a bus; 32-year-old Monica Hoffa, a waitress at IHOP, found dead in a vacant lot on Oct. 13; and Anthony Naiboa, 20, shot on Oct. 19 while walking down a neighborhood street after taking the wrong bus home.

Police have no names or motive – only two grainy surveillance videos that point to a black male, 6’0 to 6’2 with a thin build, wearing a hoodie or light jacket. Witnesses to the latest shooting say the man has a light complexion and carried a large pistol, though police have not released information on the weapon or weapons used in the murders.

On Tuesday morning, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms joined local police and locked down part of the neighborhood. SWAT team members went door to door, asking questions and searching some homes.

Authorities insist they are doing everything to keep the neighborhood safe. Last month, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn urged police to hunt down the killer and “bring me his head.” A week later, on Halloween, the mayor joined law enforcement to encourage trick-or-treating in the area, though locals say the event was not well attended.

The spate of killings continues to put an entire neighborhood on edge, dissuading residents from their porches and prompting foot patrols by the Tampa chapter of the Guardian Angels, the citizen policing group started in New York during that city’s 1970s crime wave. The creator of a neighborhood Facebook group even began selling bullet-proof vests — with the group’s logo, of course.

The evidence

At a press conference on Wednesday, Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, who was interim chief until just eight days ago, released the best evidence police have about the shooter: low-quality surveillance video showing their suspect walking down a road just seconds before shooting the latest victim. Investigators added earlier footage to the video from the Oct. 9 homicide. The person in both videos appears to be the same man judging by his appearance and gait.

“Someone has to know who this is,” Dugan said. “I don’t need speculation. I don’t need profiles. We need names.”

Dugan hesitated calling the suspect a serial killer, but added police are “pretty confident” the person is involved in at least two of the murders.

“I don’t believe in coincidence,” he said.

In the two days since the latest killing, Tampa police received 450 tips, adding to the thousands gathered over the last month. A reward for information leading to the killer’s capture stands at $91,000.

After urging residents to “go outside” and “stick together,” Dugan reflected on the seemingly flippant mannerisms of the suspect, who is seen casually taking out his phone and looking at it, minutes before killing his first victim.

“It’s certain to me this person can flip a switch and go out and murder someone,” Dugan said.

The neighborhood

Bounded by busy four- and six-lane thoroughfares, the Seminole Heights neighborhood is made up of restored bungalows and smaller, more modest stucco homes. Mechanic shops and fast-food restaurants share roads with authentic Cuban restaurants and craft beer pubs like Hampton Station, which lies blocks from the latest murder site.

“It’s business as usual here,” said Nicole Posner, a manager at Hampton Station. “The neighborhood is trying to stay out and support local businesses.”

Posner said the employees have taken precautions when leaving late at night.

“We never leave by ourselves,” she said.

Later in the evening, the pub’s patio looked sparse, much like other outdoor areas of restaurants, even a few miles from the murder sites.

Nearby, resident John Durdines said his neighbors are definitely “traveling in pairs.”

“It seems like everyone is aware and the police are hyper-vigilant,” he said from his ranch-style porch, complete with a red rocking chair. “We’ve had a lot of helicopters flying overhead.”

Durdines, 52, has not radically changed his routine since the murders, but he stopped taking late night walks with his dog Nebraska, a pit bull named after the street where he was found.

“I’m not really that afraid of it,” he said, though the most recent murder “hit closest to home.”

“I feel connected with the guy who was killed Tuesday,” Durdines said of Felton, noting the victim walked to the food pantry where he volunteered twice a week. Durdines regularly walks down Nebraska Avenue to volunteer at a local Buddhist center.

But despite the dog-walking precautions, the police presence and authorities’ requests to leave porch lights on, the Seminole Heights resident is unsure what anyone can do to stop the killer.

“I don’t know how you really prevent a person from just randomly picking someone to kill,” he said. “It definitely gives you the creeps.”

 

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