(TAMPA, Fla.) — The last time Michael Estevez saw Trai Donaldson, it was sometime in October and the two lifelong friends sat watching ESPN in Estevez’s Tampa home, discussing the best basketball player of all time.
Estevez said LeBron. Donaldson said Jordan.
“It was a friendly debate,” recalled Estevez.
On Tuesday, Estevez got a call from another friend. Tampa Police were questioning Donaldson in a string of deadly shootings that had terrorized a Florida neighborhood since Oct. 9.
Estevez was floored.
“You couldn’t write me a check or give me ten million in cash to say he possibly did that,” he said Thursday, the same day the man he calls his “godbrother” made his initial court appearance, charged with four counts of first-degree murder. “I can’t just call him my friend, because that doesn’t do justice. God could not have made us closer unless we were blood brothers.”
Howell Emanuel Donaldson, 24, was arrested Tuesday after he asked a co-worker at a McDonald’s restaurant to hold a bag carrying a gun. The co-worker looked inside, spotted the weapon and alerted a Tampa police officer seated in the restaurant doing paperwork. When Donaldson returned, police were waiting.
The arrest brought immense relief to Seminole Heights, a working-class neighborhood plunged into fears of a serial killer on the loose after three late-night killings in October and a fourth in November. But it also left people puzzled as to why a young man from a comfortable middle-class family could suddenly become the suspect with apparently little sign of something amiss — although at least one co-worker had picked up on the resemblance between Donaldson and a surveillance video released by police.
Co-workers at McDonald’s told the Tampa Bay Times they’d previously teased Donaldson, a restaurant crew chief, about his resemblance to the suspect after police released video of a shadowy figure walking near where one of the victims was killed.
“I called him the killer to his face,” Gail Rogers said. “He didn’t like that.”
Donaldson didn’t live in Seminole Heights and told investigators he was unfamiliar with the neighborhood, giving no indication why it was singled out, police said. Though cooperative with officers, he also shed no light on a motive or why individual victims were targeted, according to officials. Arrest records didn’t list an attorney for Donaldson, who appeared shackled and wearing a blue padded anti-suicide vest in a jail video…