Kenny Hoffa surprised everyone when he made the seven-hour drive from Charleston, S.C., to Tampa's Seminole Heights to attend a dinner set up to thank police for working hard to solve a string of recent killings.
For Hoffa, it was an easy decision. After all, these were the men and women trying to solve his daughter's killing.
"I have faith in God and in these officers," Kenny Hoffa, 52, said to the scores of officers who ate baked chicken ziti Monday at United Methodist Church of Seminole Heights. "My goal is to keep these officers encouraged so they can find who killed my daughter."
For weeks, Tampa police have saturated Southeast Seminole Heights, working long hours to solve four random but connected killings. Residents wanted to say thanks with a sit-down supper.
Several dozen volunteers with four neighborhood associations served up the food.
"We've had a great amount of support from the Tampa Police Department," said Debi Johnson, president of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association. "We know the officers are putting in extra time and working extra hard to try to resolve this. We just thought this would be a good way to thank them."
The killings began Oct. 9 with the shooting of Benjamin Mitchell, 22. Two days later, Monica Hoffa, 32, was shot dead, her body found in a vacant lot. On Oct. 19, Anthony Naiboa, 20 was gunned down.
After police announced the three fatal shootings were connected, they increased patrols in Seminole Heights, more than doubled the October arrests compared to last year and received thousands of tips. Despite that, the fourth and perhaps most brazen killing came last week when Ronald Felton, 60, was fatally shot on his way to help out at a food bank.
Kenny Hoffa hasn't lost hope that Tampa police will solve his daughter's killing, he said. He arrived at the church just after food started to be served and stayed until the last round of officers arrived. Hoffa said, if possible, he wanted to shake each one of their hands.
"I really respect what they are doing," he said. "I know they will catch this guy."
The idea to give back to police has bounced around on community Facebook groups for a couple of weeks. The planning and preparation for this particular event came quickly.
On Thursday, eight association members chatted online about how to express their gratitude, Johnson said. A Friday night call for volunteers and a PayPal link asking for donations brought in more than $2,000, said Brian Frey, president of the Hampton Terrace Community Association.
To feed a small army of police and other first responders, Frey sought the help of his neighbor Joe Parker, 36, who is an executive chef and staff sergeant in the Army Reserve.
Parker, who normally runs his food consulting company on Monday mornings, oversaw about half a dozen volunteers during the preparation of 60 pounds of pasta. Parker came in the night before to marinate 40 pounds of chicken breast. Cooking for a few hundred wasn't difficult for Parker, who often serves thousands of soldiers.
"It feels good to give back to these guys," Parker said. "I see them all hours of the night keeping us safe."
Officer Devante Robinson, 24, said the food was almost as good as what his mother served while growing up in Old Seminole Heights.
"Just don't tell her I said that," said Robinson, who patrols District 3, which encompasses the neighborhood. "The community has been very appreciative. It's great to see everybody come together like this."
Officers arrived to the church about 50 at a time and filled nearly every seat of the dining room during the five hours dinner was served. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and former police Chief Jane Castor also made appearances. Grateful residents shook hands and hugged Chief Brian Dugan when he arrived.
"Tampa has a very unique relationship with its police," Dugan said. "Under the current situation, it's great to see the community rallying behind us."
Hoffa spoke to Dugan and thanked him for his part in trying to solve his daughter's killing. The father said he would make the seven-hour drive from South Carolina many more times if he must.
"Hopefully there will just be one more trip," he said. "The day they catch him."
Contact Jonathan Capriel at [email protected] Follow @jonathancapriel.