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Saturday, Dec 16, 2017
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On the night shift in Seminole Heights, Tampa police keep watch for a killer

TAMPA — Tampa Police Lt. Gary Neal is almost halfway into his shift when the shots ring out.

He jumps into his white 2016 Dodge Charger and races the few blocks from District 3 headquarters to the scene of a drive-by shooting in a city rattled by a spree of unsolved homicides.

Seconds later, several more officers run out of the building and into their cars.

The dark night is illuminated by flashes of blue and red lights. Sirens and the beating of helicopter blades pierce the stillness.

• • •

It's a Friday night ride-along with the Tampa Police Department that drags into the early morning, a nearly 12-hour shift for Neal that, lately, carries with it new, pressing stakes. The department and community is coping with four seemingly connected killings in southeast Seminole Heights.

Less than two miles from TPD district headquarters where Neal, 46, serves as shift commander, a neighborhood has been gripped by the fear of a possible serial killer roaming the streets.

Since Oct. 9, Benjamin Mitchell, 22, Monica Hoffa, 32, Anthony Naiboa, 20, and Ronald Felton, 60, were all gunned down in a roughly half-mile radius. Police have witnesses in only the Felton slaying, and a few videos of a man they say is a suspect in his killing and Mitchell's. He is described as a black male, about 6 to 6 foot 2 with a thin build and light complexion.

It is against this backdrop of tension that the affable Neal oversees police activities in one of the city's most challenging districts.

"We want this to stop," says Neal, whose family came to the U.S. from Jamaica when he was 12, and who still has a hint of Jamaican accent. "The citizens want this to stop. I would love to get this guy into custody."

There are no bodies at Lake Avenue Liquors, the store at 23rd and Lake where the drive-by shooting took place. Just little yellow plastic numbered tents, more than a dozen marking the location of a bullet shell casing.

There is no apparent connection to the murders taking place two miles north. But after spraying the area with gunfire, a suspect fled, police say, crashing a short while later on the 800 block of E Conover Street and Nebraska Avenue.

That's just around the corner from where Felton was gunned down shortly before 5 a.m. Nov. 14. The resulting heavy police presence created an instantaneous surge of social media speculation on whether police had finally caught the still-elusive killer.

To Neal, who has to deal with the fallout from the major interest, it's another incident in a career that has spanned 16 years. Despite the attention focused on the unsolved murders, Neal says police have to maintain their focus in a district that stretches from MacDill Air Force Base in the southwest to Busch Gardens in the northeast. That includes Seminole Heights, downtown, the Ybor City entertainment district, the Port of Tampa and East Tampa.

"When we hear shots fired, we don't know who is shot," he says. "As police, we run to the gunfire."

• • •

Before Neal can leave the crime scene, two young men approach and ask if they can finally retrieve their cars, which are parked in a lot next to the liquor store, behind yellow crime scene tape.

Neal asks where they are from.

Seminole Heights, they both say.

"Know anybody looking for the reward money in the Seminole Heights killings?" Neal asks. "A hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money."

The young men shrug their shoulders.

"I live there," says one. "I don't want to see no one else get hurt or killed."

With no information to offer and no apparent connection to the drive by, the men get in their cars and head off into the night.

"We have a sense of urgency," Neal admits.

After chasing down another report of gunshots, which doesn't seem to pan out, Neal pulls into the Tampa Super Store at 34th and East Lake Avenue.

Having worked the night shift for 14 of his 16 years on the force, the naturally gregarious Neal knows a lot of people who frequent the convenience store.

Customers smile and wave, and Neal asks again whether anyone wants to earn the six-figure reward.

Mike Hamdan, one of the store managers, steps outside and approaches Neal.

"I have something to tell you," says Hamdan, 20. "I work at our store in Seminole Heights, too. He shot three of my customers."

He motions for Neal to follow him back into the store.

Mitchell, Hoffa and Felton were frequent visitors to M&M Food and Meat, a convenience store just blocks where the first three killings took place, Hamdan tells Neal. Then he makes a dramatic pronouncement.

"I can lead you to who the killer is," says Hamdan. "I have surveillance cameras that recorded a pistol in his pocket when he walked into my store."

Neal tries to keep a poker face, but hints of skepticism and frustration can be seen in his eyes. The police have been inundated with tips, thousands and counting.

Before inquiring further, Neal asks Hamdan if he has contacted any other officers. Hamdan rattles off the names of several detectives and adds that he also spoke with the state attorney.

"You spoke to all the right people," says Neal.

Frustrated, Hamdan wonders aloud why police just can't pull the man in and search him.

"At this moment, it is not the time for a Constitutional rights thing," says Hamdan. "I am from Palestine. Where I am from, this would not be an issue."

Neal, who once served as a school resource officer at Franklin Middle School, explains.

"We have to abide by the constitution," says Neal. "The worst thing we can do is make an arrest and not be able to build a case. We are frustrated too, but I need to be able to prove things."

• • •

As the man in charge of a big police district, there is a lot of ground for Neal to cover on this night.

Heading toward Ybor City before he has to return to the office to fill out the piles of paperwork associated with the drive-by, he cruises down Nebraska Avenue for a short spin past southeast Seminole Heights.

It is about 1:30 a.m. The area offers places for a cunning, opportunistic killer to hide and quickly strike.

A police cruiser idles every few intersections, and many more drive through the neighborhood under siege. But for the most part, Nebraska Avenue is empty, save for two men walking in tandem.

"I'm glad they are together," says Neal. "The message is getting out. We need a break from all the killings."

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

   
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