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Mountains beckon, but family sticks with beleaguered Seminole Heights for Thanksgiving this year

TAMPA — Before the killings began, Bob and Vivian Fiallo envisioned having Thanksgiving at their North Carolina mountain getaway.

Most years, the couple spends the holiday at their tidy, brick-faced home on North Olney Avenue, in the heart of Southeast Seminole Heights. The house had been the family holiday center since Vivian's parents built it in 1951. After they died, Vivian and Bob moved in.

The recent string of four shooting deaths in the neighborhood, two of them just a couple of blocks away from the Fiallo home, made some of Fiallo's friends decide this was a perfect time to head north, away from danger. But the couple began to think that leaving would feel like fleeing a community that needed them.

"This is our family home," said Vivian, 65. "We're not going to run and hide."

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For weeks, since police announced that the first three killings were related, Police Chief Brian Dugan urged residents not to live in barricaded fear. Be cautious, be aware of your surroundings and don't walk alone at night, but don't let the killer or killers hold you hostage.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Seminole Heights thanks officers by serving them baked ziti

Before Halloween, Dugan pledged to keep trick or treaters safe by saturating the neighborhood. Families flooded the streets, but some others decided to take their kids elsewhere.

Two weeks later, 60-year-old Ronald Felton was gunned down while crossing Nebraska Avenue near Caracas Street. Police now have a vague description of a suspect seen running away from the scene but have made no arrests.

With Thanksgiving on the horizon, would some residents with plans to bring friends and family into the neighborhood have second thoughts?

"As far as I know nobody's really changing anything," said Stan Lasater, president of the neighborhood civic association. "Hopefully, it stays that way and they continue with life as they should. For most people, it's life as normal, they're just a little more cautious."

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For Vivian Fiallo, the shootings are a difficult chapter in the story of the neighborhood she loves.

When her parents Joe and Vera Muley moved in, it was the kind of self-contained place that boasted a Rexall drug store, hardware store and corner grocery. Fiallo and her brother and sister walked to Hillsborough High School.

"It was a very close knit area in here," said Vivian, a retired college counselor for Hillsborough County schools, as she sat in her cozy living room Tuesday.

By the 1970s, the aging neighborhood began to decline as original owners died off and the houses turned into rentals. The Muleys stayed put.

Bob and Vivian met at the University of South Florida and married in 1974. They raised their two children in Lutz and Wesley Chapel, but would spend many weekends and most holidays in Southeast Seminole Heights with her parents, whom the kids called MeMe and PaPa. Some years, more than a dozen people crammed into the home for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"There are lots of wonderful shared memories in this house," said Bob, 70, a retired director of community relations for USF.

Vera died in 2004, Joe in 2012. The Fiallos decided to keep the house in the family and moved in that year. By then, Seminole Heights was already on the rebound as young families and others attracted to the neighborhood's reasonable prices began to move in and new restaurants and shops sprouted.

The Fiallos have made improvements to their home, but it still feels much like MeMe and PaPa's place. The colorful bird houses Joe built from scratch still hang under the carport. On Tuesday, his handcrafted wooden reindeer — red-nosed and roughly the size of teacup poodles — stood at attention on a picnic table on the patio.

"I think we all still feel the presence of my parents here," Vivian said.

The two-bedroom cabin in Franklin, perched on a hill in a small town in North Carolina's Nantahala National Forest, has been in the family for more than 30 years and has served as a holiday getaway some years. As fall approached, the Fiallos decided to spend Thanksgiving there. Their daughter Erin, an assistant principal at nearby Edison Elementary who lives in Old Seminole Heights, and son Robert and his wife Rachel, who live in Forest Hills, would join them.

Then the murders started.

Benjamin Mitchell, 22, was shot Oct. 9 at a bus stop on 15th Street, around the corner from the Fiallos' place. Monica Hoffa, 32, was found dead Oct. 13 in an empty lot less than half a mile away. Police heard a gunshot Oct. 19 and found the body of Anthony Naiboa, 20, a few blocks from the first killing. Felton was killed on Nov. 13.

As the community rallied together, the Fiallos had a change of heart. They told the kids that Thanksgiving would be in Southeast Seminole Heights after all.

Staying, they said, is a show of solidarity with the neighborhood and way to boost local businesses that need fearless customers. In the three weeks or so they would have spent in North Carolina, they'll be buying pizza at Cappy's, Cuban bread at Mauricio Faedo's Bakery and pints at Southern Brewing & Winemaking. On Monday, they helped serve baked ziti to Tampa police officers during an appreciation dinner at Seminole Heights United Methodist Church.

On Thursday, Vivian will cook turkey and green bean casserole and they'll sit on the back patio after dinner, probably swapping stories about MeMe and PaPa. They'll be alert but not fearful as they say goodbye to their kids well after dark.

"This is a tiny blip in history," Bob said, "and we're not going to let one cretin ruin our Thanksgiving."

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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