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 linkup for Thursday’s court appearance.
Estevez, 25, lives with his parents around the corner from where Donaldson lived with his family. Friends since elementary school, both grew up in an upper-middle class neighborhood of ranch homes.
“He’s really the first friend I ever made in my life,” Estevez said Thursday in a phone interview.
Attending elementary and middle school together, Estevez said, they built a friendship on a mutual love of sports. Donaldson loved basketball and Estevez, baseball. Both nurtured dreams of playing professionally. During school breaks, they’d shoot hoops for hours in their driveways. By high school, Donaldson attended a succession of schools, trying to play for better teams, his friend said.
And they remained close. Part of it was Donaldson’s charisma; he was funny and charming.
“All growing up, he was the most confident person, well taken care of, always clean, always had a haircut every single week, nice clothes, nice shoes,” said Estevez. “He was the type of guy that when we were in a room, everyone in that room, was like, ‘I gotta know this guy.’”
They drifted apart somewhat in college. Estevez went to school in Alabama to play sports, while Donaldson enrolled at St. John’s University in New York. He was a walk-on for the men’s basketball team, never playing a game there, and Estevez didn’t understand why his talented friend didn’t go to a lesser-known school as a sports standout.
After graduating, Estevez was signed to a minor league team of the Toronto Blue Jays but gave up baseball a few years later due to injury and moved back to Tampa. It took Donaldson six years to finish college, and he moved back after graduating.
Donaldson worked a few jobs, one at a customer support gig where he was fired for absenteeism. Then he was hired at a McDonald’s near Tampa’s nightclub district. None of that surprised Estevez, who chalked it up to a tough economy for millennials. He said he saw Donaldson in his restaurant uniform and shrugged.
“No shame from me,” he said. “I knew he’d just got out of college; that’s a hard transition time for anybody.”
The pair had discussed someday moving out of their parents’ homes and getting an apartment together. And Donaldson didn’t seem all that bothered by not reaching his goal to be a professional athlete – “he was too mentally strong for that.”
Estevez said Donaldson seemed like the same guy he always knew, and gave no indication of having bought a gun. After all, he’d never seen him even fight with another kid.
“Never. Never. Never.” Estevez paused. “I would have never believed he had a reason to need a gun.”
Police said ballistics tests linked the killings to the gun in Donaldson’s bag and his cellphone held location data corresponding with the first three shootings.
Estevez said he’s gotten two hours of sleep since Tuesday and is in shock. When he read others’ accounts of how Donaldson seemed to have rage in his eyes during a recent pickup basketball game, he said that wasn’t possible. His friend hadn’t changed since childhood, he insisted.
“In the back of my mind, I’m going to always think he didn’t do it.”