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Seminole Heights Neighborhood Finds Light In Shadow Of Serial Killings

A group of volunteers are putting up Christmas lights in their Tampa neighborhood, just blocks from where food pantry worker Ronald Felton was shot and killed by a serial killer just a few weeks earlier.

They outline the roof of Donna Bradley's gray bungalow with a string of lights. Their goal is to light the entire Southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood.

When the volunteers with Light the Heights notice Bradley's windows are still boarded up from Irma, they switch gears and pull down the plywood.

Bradley, who uses a motorized wheelchair to move around the house, is excited to have a decorated house for the first time in years.

“It’s really nice because there is a lot of us old people that live in this neighborhood,” She said.

This sight hasn’t been that uncommon in Seminole Heights over the last few months.

Credit Roberto Roldan / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Light The Heights volunteers remove the plywood boards that cover the windows of Donna Bradley's home.

Southeast Seminole Heights Civic Association President Stan Lasater said a lengthy police manhunt and the arrest of a suspect in the string of four shooting deaths has forced the community closer.

“When the murders occurred, everyone stood together as Seminole Heights,” Lasater said. “We’re starting to see a lot more new faces, a lot more new ideas and a renewed sense of energy.”

Seminole Heights hasn’t always been this way.

It is a diverse and sometimes fragmented neighborhood – young and old, white, Latino and African American.

The area is now known for its trendy bars and award-winning chefs, but it’s also a traditionally working-class area. It is a part of Tampa where boutiques opened up on blocks where the poverty rate reached nearly 50 percent.

In the 51-day manhunt that followed the first of four serial killings in mid-October, residents were drawn to local events and volunteering.

“Anybody who was active in the Civic Association and volunteering wasn’t scared,” Lasater said. “People who weren’t involved were nervous, were fearful. They saw this and said ‘Okay, we are going to come out and stand with you.’”

These events brought people together that wouldn’t have otherwise met -- people like the Light the Heights volunteers and Donna Bradley.

Standing outside Bradley’s home, volunteer and resident Robert Blakely said he hoped the Christmas decorating got residents walking around outside again.

Blakely said before the killings he would wave to his neighbors and maybe even say hello. But it wasn’t until the last couple months that he began getting involved.

“We're noticing more people coming out and being more forthright of getting more involved with their community,” he said. “It's sad at times that it takes such a dreadful situation to bring a community together."

Community support has also helped keep afloat the local businesses along Florida and Nebraska Avenues.

People from the Seminole Heights neighborhood and throughout Tampa frequented area shops when others were scared away.

Melissa Deming, owner of Ella’s Americana Folk Art Café, said when the news began covering the Seminole Heights killings people canceled reservations and foot traffic fell. Those living near the Nebraska Avenue restaurant picked up the slack.

“The neighborhood has kept us alive during this time,” she said. “They came out extra just to make sure that everything we’ve all worked so hard for hasn’t been blighted by the whole situation."

Light The Heights organizer Courtney Bumgarner says that despite the fear, the community has rallied together to support one another and the families of the four victims.

A number of memorials have sprung up across the neighborhood. Large murals of the four victims adorn a wall on Nebraska Avenue at Osbourne Avenue. Wreaths have been placed at the vacant lot on New Orleans Street where Monica Hoffa was killed and another on Nebraska Avenue, where Ronald Felton was gunned down.

Speaking at a press conference shortly after the arrest of a suspect on Nov. 29, Robert Hoffa, uncle of shooting victim Monica Hoffa, thanked the community for supporting his family. Families and friends of the other victims – Benjamin Mitchell, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton – also attended the conference.

“This is my community, I live here and I’ve been in Tampa for four years,” Hoffa said. “We can show the city that we are light. We are not shadowed by this whatsoever… We will shine on through this.”

Asked if this heightened sense of community will continue on now that a suspect is behind bars, Civic Association leader Stan Lasater said:

“If we keep it alive, I think we can.”

Events like Light the Heights are a first step.

What began as a way of lighting the sidewalks for police on patrol turned into a week of community celebration and remembrance. It began with a motorcycle ride on Sunday, Dec. 10, led by the family of Monica Hoffa.

Neighborhood leaders say the next step is building a permanent memorial - a memorial they hope can appeal to people from all parts of the community.

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