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Tuesday, Nov 21, 2017
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Tampa police link two shootings, tell Seminole Heights residents to avoid walking alone

TAMPA — One was a 22-year-old African American man. The other was a 32-year-old white woman.

Both died mysteriously of gunshot wounds in southeast Seminole Heights last week. Now police are asking nervous residents to be alert, avoid walking alone at night and to come forward with any information that might help solve the crimes.

"We're looking for awareness and assistance," Interim Police Chief Brian Dugan said at a hastily-called news conference Tuesday. "It's very important that the people in these neighborhoods be aware of what's going and keep an eye out."

Dugan said there are no clear connections between the victims, but the time frame, proximity and the nature of the shootings lead detectives to believe they are related. He declined to say whether bullets were fired from the same gun.

Perhaps most troubling for residents: Investigators have not identified any motives, sparking fears that an indiscriminate killer may be on the loose.

Benjamin Edward Mitchell was found lying near a bus stop at 15th Street and East Frierson Avenue on Oct. 9. He was taken to a local hospital, where he later died from his injuries.

"Mr. Mitchell has no criminal background," the chief said. "He's a good person who comes from a good family and he was just an innocent victim."

Monica Caridad Hoffa was found in the 1000 block of E New Orleans Avenue early Friday and was likely shot a day or two earlier, police said. Her body was discovered by a city worker in a vacant lot on the street lined by oak trees and tidy bungalows.

"These are people aren't living a lifestyle that would lead to the fact that they may end up getting murdered," Dugan said.

Mitchell, who previously attended Middleton High School, was a student at Hillsborough Community College, majoring in psychology.

Hoffa's Facebook page, filled with pictures of a beagle, mentioned a prior waitressing job.

In the days after the violence, makeshift memorials popped up at the scenes where the victims were found, as family members and friends sought comfort.

"I never really thought about what the word broken meant until this morning," Hoffa's father, Kenny Hoffa, wrote on Facebook Monday. "I am broken and cannot be fixed. I will lean on the Lord today but will find no peace. I am broken and cannot be fixed."

Mitchell's family gathered at his home on 15th Street, just a few blocks from the bus stop that has since drawn balloons, candles and stuffed animals.

His cousin, Sheree Allen, said the family moved to Tampa from Las Vegas 10 years ago hoping for a better life.

"He could be himself here. He wasn't bullied, and kids wouldn't pressure him into things," Allen said. "He kept out of trouble."

His aunt, Minnie Mitchell, said he loved rap music and even made some of his own.

He went by "Eddie Banks" on Facebook, where he described himself as an "Upcoming Musician and Business Leader," beside the words, "Keep your head above the water."

He kept to himself and was often seen listening to music wearing his big headphones, said Yahrael Bey, 30, who lives across the street from the bus stop where Mitchell was shot.

Bey said he heard the gunfire, went outside and stayed with Mitchell until paramedics arrived.

"He liked music," Bey said. "He always wore his headphones, even on that day."

 

The locations where victims were found are about 10 blocks apart in an older section of Tampa.

After each killing, police sent messages to neighborhood residents through Alert Tampa, the city's emergency notification system.

"We have been very strategic in letting everyone know in those neighborhoods," Dugan said. "We're trying to find that balance of investigative integrity and neighborhood awareness."

Officers have blanketed the area and collected surveillance video but are asking residents who may have additional footage to contact the department.

Surveillance video from the night of the first shooting shows a slender man in long hooded shirt or jacket walking on a neighborhood street. Police want the public to view the video and call (813) 231-6130 with any tips.

"We're not sure if that is him," Dugan said. "We just want to know who he is and see what information he may have for us."

Police are telling people in the area to keep their porch lights on at night and even offered free light bulbs to those who may need them. The department has stepped up patrols and residents walking in the area shouldn't be surprised if an officer engages them, Dugan said.

"If you're out and about, there's a good chance someone's going to talk to you and see what you're doing out there and what you may know," he said.

The Facebook and Nextdoor pages of Seminole Heights neighborhood groups have been buzzing about the killings.

Kate Goad, who is active on the Southeast East Seminole Heights neighborhood watch group, came home from work for lunch last week to find her street blocked off by patrol cars as detectives investigated the scene where Hoffa was found.

"I was really hoping it wasn't random, just for the reassurance and peace of mind," Goad said.

Goad moved to the neighborhood about two years ago and until this felt safe walking her pitbull mix Dexter. On Monday, she learned that police believe the killings are linked.

She walked Dexter that evening, worried about a killer is on the loose. As dusk set in, she hustled home.

"I'm not going to lie, I was terrified and very jumpy and just constantly looking around," she said. "It was a very quick walk."

Goad already carries mace and is thinking about carrying a gun. She has noticed that more neighbors are out and about during the day.

"We all say we're going to keep out an eye out for another," she said. "As long as we just keep vigilant and communicate on social media and email, hopefully we can find this person sooner than later."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes. Contact Jonathan Capriel at [email protected] Follow @jonathancapriel

     
 
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