TAMPA, Fla. — Police escorted children to school Monday and a city bus changed up its usual route as a neighborhood near downtown Tampa feared a serial killer may be on the loose.

In the last two weeks, three people have been shot to death within a 1-mile (1.6-kilometer) radius in the normally quiet Seminole Heights neighborhood. Police believe the shootings are linked by proximity and time frame, but they don’t have a motive or a suspect.

All three victims, who didn’t know each other, rode the bus and were alone when they were shot on the street. None of the victims were robbed.

“I’m afraid,” said Maria Maldonado, who lives near the scene of two of the shootings that happened about 300 yards apart. The other was less than a mile away.

Maldonado won’t let her 7-year-old son play in the yard.

“We don’t open the door or nothing. A lot of people are scared. I’m scared for my son, for the neighborhood,” she said.

Seminole Heights is a working-class neighborhood northeast of downtown Tampa that’s slowly becoming gentrified. Run-down homes sit next to renovated, historic bungalows, and trendy restaurants have sprung up near auto body shops.

Residents and business owners say there are car burglaries and fights between kids, but they are not accustomed to anything like the violence that started Oct. 9.

Business owners report a downturn in recent days, as worried residents stay inside.

“We don’t know what’s next,” said Majed Foqahaa, the owner of the M&M market.

He said two of the victims would come into the store and buy soda and snacks. Foqahaa said he has a concealed carry permit for a handgun, and he keeps it at the store while he is working. When he walks out to his car at night, he holds it in his hand.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the city has put dozens of officers in the area around the clock. The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are also helping, he said.

“There aren’t a lot of facts, or evidence, yet,” Buckhorn said as he visited a block where one victim was killed. “But it’s not for lack of Tampa Police Department trying. We literally have put bodies out here by the dozens. We’re going to find this guy and we’re not leaving this neighborhood till we do.”

He was hesitant to use the word serial killer, but Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan wasn’t.

“We can call it what we want. If that brings attention to this. . That’s fine,” he said.

Police said 22-year-old Benjamin Mitchell was the first person killed on Oct. 9. Two days later, 32-year-old Monica Hoffa was killed in a vacant lot. Anthony Naiboa, 20, was shot and killed Oct. 19.

Lula Mae Lewis, an 80-year-old woman who has lived in the area for 30 years, lives across the street from where Hoffa’s body was found.

“I heard the shots that Wednesday night,” she said. “But I was afraid to open my door because they were so loud, it sounded like it was just right here.”

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Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush

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TAMARA LUSH
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