Parents of Seminole Heights murders suspect given time to 'show cause'

By Jason Lanning , Reporter
Last Updated: Thursday, December 07, 2017, 11:28 AM EST
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The parents of the Seminole Heights murders suspect appeared before a Hillsborough County judge Thursday morning and were told to report back in early January.

  • Suspect's parents appeared in court Thursday
  • Parents have not answered all investigators questions
  • Howell Donaldson III, 24, is facing four counts of first degree murder

A judge told Howell Donaldson Jr. and his wife, Rosita Donaldson to return to court Jan. 5 to "show cause as to why they should not be held in indirect civil contempt" for not answering certain questions posted to them by investigators.

Howell Donaldson III, 24, is facing four counts of first degree murder in the Seminole Heights killings.

He was arrested Nov. 28 at the Ybor City McDonald's where he worked. He was detained after a co-worker told police that Donaldson handed her a bag with a gun inside and told her to watch it for him. The co-worker alerted a police officer that was in the McDonald's.

In court Thursday, Ralph Fernandez, the attorney for the parents, said they "have been devastated not just for the personal tragedy" but for everything that's happened.

State Prosecutor Jay Pruner argued there is no privilege which allows the parents to avoid answering questions.

Seminole Heights residents and police had been on edge since Oct. 9, when 22-year-old Benjamin Mitchell was shot to death. 

Two days later, 32-year-old Monica Hoffa, was slain. And on Oct. 19, Anthony Naiboa, 20, was killed after taking the wrong bus home from his new job. On Nov. 14, 60-year-old Ronald Felton was shot and killed.

As part of the ongoing investigation, investigators have been following thousands of tips and leads that came in, interviewing family members of the victims and talking to Donaldson III's family.

But Donaldson Jr. and his wife, Rosita Donaldson have not answered all of their questions. Howell Donaldson Jr. could face contempt charges.

"We are going to use every avenue at our disposal to obtain the most available evidence," said Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren. "(We have) to determine what happened to bring prosecution to this defendant."

The Donaldson's attorney, Ralph E. Fernandez, hasn't offered a legal argument for why they aren't cooperating with the investigation, only saying it is too soon for them to be forced to answer questions. 

"Within days of this tragedy striking, you know, devastated as they are, exhausted," Fernandez said. "They are being asked to render testimony against their son."

According to Spectrum Bay News 9 legal analyst Kevin Hayslett, the law does not protect parents of the accused. Hayslett said the judge could order them to 11 months if they are found to be in contempt.

"I understand it's the parents," Hayslett said. "And when it seems like as parents or family member, we want to look at it differently. But think of those parents as witnesses. Fact witnesses as to oral communications between the defendant and them."

If the Donaldsons are forced to answer questions, it could happen as soon as today. 

Any type of exchange won't take place in open court though. It's likely a court reporter will be made available for a private interview if they choose to answer questions.