Seminole Heights is a lively section of Tampa filled with charming bungalows, artsy shops and an eclectic population. Some of it is gentrified, while other areas remain in disrepair. There are houses pushing a century old.
|Paid for through collected donations, an appreciation dinner was held Nov. 20 at Seminole Heights UMC. It was a 'thank you' to law enforcement personnel who worked for two months to track a serial killer in the Tampa neighborhood. Four lives were lost.|
Seminole Heights United Methodist Church is a congregation in the midst of this sprawling community, one that stays involved with the people surrounding the building. Lately, it has been there for a more solemn need—to support a community in the grips of a crisis.
Known for several years as the “it” community, where families and couples bid high to live in the refurbished cottages and two-story throwbacks, things have changed in recent months. Residents have lived with a serial killer in their midst.
There were four victims over the past two months, each shot by a stranger. On the night of Nov. 28, police arrested a 24-year-old fast food employee and charged him with the four murders.
There had been a constant police presence, one the community appreciated with all its heart and soul. A Seminole Heights Facebook post recently suggested the neighbors should show their appreciation. “Five posts turned to 50 and 50 to 100,” said Rev. Matt Horan, pastor at Seminole Heights United Methodist Church in Tampa.
A neighborhood association stepped up to collect donations for an appreciation dinner, even before the arrest, and a local chef volunteered to prepare food for the feast at Seminole Heights UMC. There were so many volunteers wanting to help thank the Tampa Police Department, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Highway Patrol and others, some had to be turned away.
“The dinner was Nov. 20,” Horan said. “You know, we all watched all of the police officers who were all over the neighborhood and trying their best to find this person, and they were constantly on high alert. They were at out en masse on Halloween making sure everyone was safe walking around. They weren’t with their families. They were with our families.
“I would say we easily had 300 people, as far as police officers and other law enforcement personnel. As a church, we try to do what we can to be the kind of community hub that, regardless of what is going on, we are there,” he said. “We are a place where a lot of community events happen. That’s what led us to host the dinner.”
As a church, Seminole Heights UMC also took on a bigger need—a place to hold the funeral for the third victim, a young autistic man who was walking home from his first job when he was shot and killed.
“He had just gotten a job at a warehouse packing up supplies to send to Puerto Rico,” Horan reflected.
On Oct. 19, Anthony Naiboa, 20, got off at the wrong bus stop and was walking when the stranger approached him from behind and shot him dead. Anthony’s family had no means for a funeral.
If there is a gift in this string of tragedies, it is the bond formed with Anthony’s family, Horan said. “We have forged a friendship with Anthony’s dad (Casimar Naiboa). He was obviously crushed by this; and it occurred to me, he needed to do something to get his mind off it. I play in a soccer league and invited him to come play with us.
“He asked if he could wear tennis shoes to play because he didn’t have cleats. He had size 13 feet.”
Having no luck finding cleats at the Britton Plaza Play It Again Sports in south Tampa, Horan was walking out when a clerk asked him if he needed help. It turns out, a man had just been in and sold the store a brand-new pair of size 13 cleats. “They were beautiful, easily $90 cleats. If I hadn’t been so stunned, I would have run out of the store after Jesus to thank him personally.”
Despite his grief, Casimar Naiboa got on the soccer field and smiled through the entire game. “He’s been in touch with me ever since,” the pastor said. “It’s been a neat little gift” amid the horror.
--Yvette Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.
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