Cellphone helped catch Tampa killer, used often to catch criminals

Posted at 4:23 PM, Nov 29, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-30 04:34:00-05

Weeks before video of a suspected serial killer’s capture fueled relief in Tampa, images of a man walking with a cellphone the night of one of the murders put the kept the city on high alert.

Surveillance video captured the man moments before the fourth homicide. He was seen casually walking in the Seminole Heights neighborhood looking down at a cellphone.

It’s a cellphone, Tampa police now say helped them connect 24-year-old Howell Emanuel Donaldson III to randomly killing four people in five weeks.

“To hear that a cell phone played a key part in this guy’s arrest, oh no not surprising, not surprising at all,” said digital forensic analyst Vincent Risalvato.  His job with Global Digital Forensics, often depends on the secrets he can dig up in a cellphone.

“It’s a recording of everything that you’re doing,” he said.

Including location. According to Tampa police, it was "significant" location data from a cellphone that helped link Donaldson to the crimes.  Key to that, a cellphone tower that pinned him to the same Seminole Heights neighborhood around the same times three of the four killings took place.

Risaltavo says even when location data is turned in the "off" position, cellphones are still recording location data often unbeknownst to users.

For law enforcement agencies, it’s a digital jackpot increasingly being used to catch criminals and ultimately convict them.

“Location data is key to most crimes,” said Risalvato.  “Where’s the criminal and what were they doing,” he said.

Howell Donaldson III remains in jail.  Now it will be up to prosecutors and police to prove he’s the man behind the murders, the man we saw casually walking the streets with his cellphone.