‘No rhyme or reason’: Tampa scrambling to solve 3 mystery killings

Police are swarming a Tampa neighborhood where three separate people were killed in the past two weeks, but authorities remain baffled amid fears that a serial killer is on the prowl.

Days into an investigation, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said officials don’t have many leads on who is responsible for three fatal shootings that are believed to be linked. Nor do authorities have a motive for the seemingly random acts, he said.

“This is an unusual case,” Buckhorn said Tuesday. “There is no rhyme or reason other (than) folks being in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong neighborhood.”

The killings in the city’s Seminole Heights neighborhood began on October 9, when 22-year-old Benjamin Mitchell was shot and killed in front of his home. The second victim, Monica Hoffa, 32, was killed October 11. Her body was found two days afterward by a city employee in a vacant parking lot half a mile from where Mitchell died.

Then last Thursday, Anthony Naiboa, an autistic 20-year-old who had just graduated from high school, became the third victim after he accidentally got on the wrong bus after leaving work and ended up in the southeast Tampa neighborhood by mistake, police said. Authorities believe he was making his way to another bus stop but did not get more than 200 yards before he was shot and killed.

Investigators believe the three deaths are linked, as all three victims were alone and all were found within about a half-mile of each other, interim Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said.

“When you look at the time frame, the proximity, that there is no apparent motive, that the victims are alone at the time, it’s clear to me that they are all linked,” Dugan told reporters Friday.

Few clues

To this point, clues have been hard to come by. Police have released a surveillance video of a person walking in the area around the same time and are asking for any information, no matter how innocuous, on that person.

Mayor Buckhorn said they didn’t have any description of a suspect or suspects and could not even say if the suspect was a man or woman.

“We don’t have a lot to work with right now,” he said.

Officials said police have so far avoided calling the suspect a serial killer.

“We’re not using the word ‘serial killer’ yet because we just don’t have enough evidence,” Buckhorn said. “We’re not afraid of that word — if we think that that’s true, we’ll be happy to say it. But we’ve got to connect the dots.”

On Sunday, hundreds of residents held candlelight vigils for the victims, according to CNN affiliate WFLA.

“We won’t be afraid,” Casimar Naiboa, the father of one victim, told the crowd. “[The killer] will not get away with it. No way. We are standing right here. We are not scared of them.”

Heightened police presence

As the investigation goes on, Dugan said there will be a large police presence in Seminole Heights. Children were being escorted by police to school buses Monday, and police were actively questioning people on the streets.

“If you’re walking alone, you’re gonna be challenged,” Dugan said. “If you’re in a group, we’re gonna make sure that we know who you are. We’re gonna be cognizant of the Constitution and people’s rights to be out there, but we’re gonna talk to them and we’re gonna challenge them.”

Dugan encouraged people in the neighborhood to turn on their porch lights and keep an eye on the streets. Buckhorn added that the city was cutting undergrowth, clearing alleys and adding streetlights to better get eyes on possible suspects.

“We are hunting this person down and we’re not gonna stop and we’re not gonna leave that neighborhood until we find him,” Buckhorn said.

Dugan said the neighborhood was “on edge,” particularly with Halloween trick-or-treating coming up. Still, police said they were determined to remain there and solve the killings.

“I’m not gonna let someone take over this neighborhood,” Dugan said. “I’m not gonna let this community be locked inside their houses.”