TAMPA — Interim Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan elicited loud gasps from the crowd of about 400 who showed up at Edison Elementary School on Monday night to learn more about the string of unsolved killings that have left the southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood gripped by fear.
"Everybody at this point is a suspect," Dugan told the crowd. "If you are out there walking alone . . . you are either a suspect or a potential victim."
"Oh Jesus," one woman said aloud.
It started with the Oct. 9 murder of 22-year-old Benjamin Mitchell. A total of three victims — two men and a woman — have been gunned down at or near bus stops along N 15th Street.
Monica Hoffa, 32, was killed Oct. 11 and her body was found two days later, police said. The next murder took place Oct. 19, when police said Anthony Naiboa, 20, was killed about 200 yards south of where Mitchell was shot.
Many attendees had to stand in the aisles to find out what police know about these crimes and how close officers are to catching whoever is responsible.
But no solid answers were offered. Just reassurances that the Tampa Police Department and other agencies were doing everything they can to solve these crimes.
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Investigators have no suspects and no motives. They aren't even sure how many people may be involved.
"Everyone wants to know, 'Is there a serial killer,' " Dugan said. "That's the big question I get. I have purposely avoided that, because there is stereotyping associated with serial killers."
Dugan used an example to show how that kind of thinking could mislead the public: Ted Bundy. One of the most infamous serial killers in Florida history, Bundy died in the electric chair in 1989.
Bundy was a white man who acted alone. But investigators don't know the race, gender, ethnicity or anything else about whoever is responsible for the recent deaths in Seminole Heights, the chief said.
"I am old," Dugan said. "When I hear serial killer, I think Ted Bundy. But this may not be a white person. It may be a black person, maybe a female. How do we know it's not two step brothers living in a house doing it together?"
Because police have so few answers, Dugan said, they have been more transparent than usual when dealing with the media and public.
"We don't know who this person is," he said. "That's the reality. We know we have three people murdered in half a mile of each other in 10 days, They were all walking alone. Probably minding their own business. Lord knows whoever is doing this."
In addition to working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Dugan said Tampa police has also consulted with the FBI and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has joined the investigation. His agency has also reached out to the St. Petersburg Police Department for help.
Law enforcement is working around the clock, the chief said.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn lauded their efforts.
"This is personal," he said. "We will hunt this son of a b---- down."
Authorities are employing other methods to keep the public safe. In an effort to make it harder for anyone to hide in the area, city crews have been removing debris from alleys and unkept shrubbery around the neighborhood, the mayor said, and TECO crews are working to replace street lights. Dugan added that his officers have given out 82 porch lightbulbs and are ready to give out more to those who need them.
The chief again reminded people to stay vigilant and report anything suspicious, no matter how small those details may be. Dugan also asked the crowd not to "hunker down" for Halloween, saying that he and his officers will be out in force that night.
Andy Suhar, 59, of W Louisiana Avenue, usually has his grandchildren, ages 6 and 3, come over to visit for Halloween. But not anymore, she said.
"They live in Carrollwood, but this is more of a close-knit neighborhood, so they come here because they get more candy," Suhar said. "But I can't take them to this neighborhood. My grandchildren are really sad. But I can't take them unless they catch the killer or killers."
Earlier Monday, police started escorting students to bus stops as they blanked the neighborhood. It was the same approach police took Sunday night as they provided security for a neighborhood candlelight vigil in memory of the shooting victims.
Family members of the Seminole Heights victims were also at the meeting. Afterward, Casimar Naiboa and Maria Rodriguez, the father and stepmother of Anthony Naiboa, expressed gratitude to the police and those who came out to the meeting.
"My family is so humbled to know that all these people care," the father said.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.