Gainesville serial killer to die

An execution date of Oct. 25 is scheduled for Danny Rolling, who killed five University of Florida students in 1990.

Published September 23, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Danny Rolling, one of Florida's most notorious killers, finally has a date with death.

Gov. Jeb Bush signed an execution warrant Friday for Rolling, who killed five Gainesville students in a brutal rampage 16 years ago.

The murders sent the college town into a frenzy that lasted months. Rolling, now 52, became the bogeyman for a generation of students.

His execution is set for Oct. 25.

Ada Larson, mother of victim Sonja Larson, was happy to hear that Bush was keeping a promise he made to execute Rolling during his tenure as governor.

"I'm glad we're going to get it over with," Larson said when hearing of the execution date. "He deserves to die."

Gail Patterson, an Alachua County sheriff's deputy who found the third victim, called the date "about damn time."

"It was the worst series of crimes I've ever been involved in," she said. "I think it's a just punishment for the things he did."

Rolling entered Florida history with a Marine Corps Ka-Bar knife. His killing rampage lasted four nights in August 1990.

Rolling attacked his victims as they slept in their beds. He bound four women with duct tape before stabbing them to death. Three he raped, and one he decapitated. Some he left posed in lewd positions.

The victims were Larson, 18; Christa Hoyt, 18; Christina Powell, 17; Tracy Paules, 23; and Manny Taboada, 23.

The killings terrified the University of Florida campus. Thousands of students left for home. The ones who stayed emptied local store shelves of security devices and hunkered in safe havens, staying in large groups.

The campus breathed easier days after the murders when authorities thought they had found the killer, a UF student arrested after an altercation with his grandmother. The anxiety level shot up when it became clear that he hadn't done it.

It took another five months for authorities to name Rolling as the prime suspect. He was a drifter from Louisiana in jail for robbing an Ocala supermarket. Eventually, DNA connected him to the killings.

Joseph Touger, who graduated from UF in 1991, worked in the university's public relations department during the time of the killings.

He remembered the calls that came in from as far away as Caracas, Venezuela.

"It destroyed the illusion of safety and security that we all had," Touger, a Tampa lawyer, said Friday. "But the generation of students who are there now probably don't know much about Rolling or what happened."

On the day his murder trial was to start in 1994, Rolling confessed to torturing and killing his victims. After a two-week hearing to determine a sentence, the jury returned a unanimous recommendation for the death penalty.

John Philpin, a criminal psychologist who built Rolling's profile first for the Miami Herald and then police, said Rolling would have continued killing.

"Danny Rolling is probably one of the purest psychopaths, historically, in the population of serial killers," said Philpin, who went on to co-author a book about the killings. "I'd be willing to bet if you talked to him today, he'd be just as cocky, just as arrogant and thinking he's just as untouchable as he did back then."

National notoriety

The case gave a small dose of national fame to the state attorney who prosecuted the case, Rod Smith, a state senator from Alachua who recently lost a bid to be the Democratic candidate for governor.

The case also vaulted Smith to celebrity status in Gainesville. For months afterward, when he would walk into a mall or a restaurant people would clap or cheer him on.

Smith said he has no plans to attend the execution. He doesn't want to give Rolling any more publicity.

After the U.S. Supreme Court in June denied a request to review Rolling's death sentence, all that was lacking was a death warrant, which Bush could have signed a few months ago, Smith said.

Smith stopped short of saying that Bush sat on the warrant to avoid executing Rolling while Smith was running for governor.

"I think it's past time for this matter to be brought to closure," Smith said. "It's time for his rendezvous with death."

Bush couldn't be reached for comment Friday night. The governor's spokeswoman, Alia Faraj, said the timing had nothing to do with politics.

Bush also signed an Oct. 18 death warrant for Arthur Rutherford, who had avoided his execution while the federal courts considered an appeal of whether lethal injection was cruel and unusual punishment.

Faraj said the timing of Friday's warrants had more to do with the case of Clarence Hill, whom the state executed Wednesday after last-minute court maneuvering.

"The governor did not plan to sign any executions until the Hill case was cleared by the courts," Faraj said.

For George Paules, Tracy's father, the politics don't matter.

"We don't much care if they burn him, stick him or hang him, as long as they kill him," he said Friday.

Rolling's silence

Rolling, who also is suspected in three killings in Louisiana, has never fully explained why he killed the students.

He reportedly once told an inmate that he planned to kill eight people, one for every year he had spent behind bars in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.

He also said he decapitated one of his victims to terrorize the community. He wanted to become a criminal superstar and "the world's greatest rapist," he said.

During his numerous appeals, Rolling admitted that he deserved to die.

"But do I want to die? No," he said. "I want to live. Life is difficult to give up."

Times staff writer Joni James and researchers John Martin, Angie Drobnic Holan and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Graham Brink can be reached at brink@sptimes.com or 727 893-8406.