tampabay.com

That year of fear

Gainesville students might not remember Danny Rolling. But in 1990 the city was consumed with fear in the killer's wake. Rolling is to be executed on Wednesday.

By Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler
Published October 24, 2006


GAINESVILLE - That fall, the killer loomed over everything.

He was there in the guns and knives students carried, in the way they answered their doors armed with baseball bats. He was in the living rooms where young women huddled together at night, terrified of sleeping alone.

The city's fears escalated with the body count: five students in less than 48 hours, in a college town lauded for its "safe streets."

"Everyone just wondered who would be next," says Tampa lawyer Joseph Touger, 36, a University of Florida student during the murders.

The fear lingered for more than a year as authorities closed in on Louisiana drifter Danny Rolling. Even after they charged him with the murders, people said their city would never be the same.

But all these years later, as the state prepares to execute Rolling by lethal injection, his name draws blank stares from many students.

"Danny Rolling?" asks marketing student Jackie Query, 20. "Who is that?"

Rolling is the serial killer who, barring a last-minute stay, will be executed Wednesday night. His death will come 16 years and 9½ weeks after he pried open the door of the Williamsburg Village apartment where 17-year-old Christina Powell and 18-year-old Sonja Larson slept.

For the victims' families and law enforcement officials involved in the case, Rolling's execution will be "a resolution," says retired Gainesville police Capt. Sadie Darnell, who remains close to the victims' families.

But for the majority of students, Wednesday will be much like another day.

They'll be thinking about classes, football, parties - just like students did in the days before the murders began.

* * *

In August 1990, Gainesville brimmed with excitement. UF had a new president, John Lombardi, and a new football coach, Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier. Its academic reputation was on the rise. Money Magazine had just named Gainesville the 13th best place to live in the country.

"This was a pristine Southern town," says Darnell, 54, a Gainesville native.

Thousands of students poured into the city, preparing for the start of fall classes.

Powell and Larson, both freshmen, had just moved into Apartment 113 of Williamsburg Village, a small complex tucked near the woods southwest of campus.

On Aug. 20, a Sunday afternoon, a police officer and a maintenance man found their bodies, naked and mutilated inside their apartment.

Nine hours later and 2½ miles away, authorities found Santa Fe Community College student Christa Hoyt, 19, dead inside her SW 24th Avenue duplex apartment. She had been raped and decapitated, her body posed, her head placed on a shelf.

A day later, police found the bodies of Tracy Paules and her roommate, Manny Taboada, inside Gatorwood Apartments Unit 1203.

The first three victims were female, brunet, small. But Taboada was 6-foot-1, a former high school football player who weighed more than 200 pounds.

"When they found Manny, that changed the whole thing," says Art Sandeen, UF's vice president for student affairs during the murders. "It's not like anybody was safe. At the time it was just, 'You can't believe this is happening.' "

As news crews and state and federal investigators arrived, hundreds of students fled for home. A few hundred never returned. Many who stayed were paralyzed with fear.

"They felt their mortality," said 22-year UF employee Sharon Blansett, now assistant director of campus housing.

Students armed themselves, refusing to go out after dark. They called their worried parents several times a day on phone banks set up on campus. Sororities and apartment complexes hired full-time security guards. Students slept with knives under their pillows.

Rumors swirled: Was there a sixth body? Was the killer a Ted Bundy copycat? Did he pose as a pizza delivery man? A cop?

Investigators quickly identified one suspect, a UF student, only to rule him out later. It would be more than a year before a grand jury indicted Rolling, already held in a series of robberies and burglaries from Gainesville to Tampa.

By the time Rolling confessed to the murders in 1994, the signs of his terror were fading. Young women ran alone at night again. Football, not murder, consumed students' thoughts.

"Gainesville is a city that reinvents itself every four years, when you get a new generation of students," says Touger, the Tampa lawyer. "Talk of the murders turned to ... 'The Gators are passing and winning.' Pretty soon it was at the back of our minds and out of it."

* * *

It's different for longtime residents, who still mark time with "before the murders" and "after."

They drive by the Williamsburg Apartments and Gatorwood, now used for firefighter training, and they remember what happened there.

They drive by the 34th Street wall, where students post "Happy Birthday" and "Fall Rush" messages, and they know the story behind the framed section painted in black, white and red.

Sonja Larson

Christina Powell

Christa Hoyt

Tracy Paules

Manuel Taboada

Remember 1990.

When 1997 UF graduate Michael James returned this year to get a master's degree in civil engineering, he noticed the wall memorial remained just as it was when he left Gainesville nearly a decade ago. He mentioned it to another, younger student.

"He said, 'Oh, I wondered what that was for,' " says James, 38, of West Palm Beach. "Students don't know. That whole sense of caution and paranoia that was here back then is gone."

Most students take for granted the changes made after the murders, such as improved campus lighting.

Williamsburg Village residents don't understand why management now uses Apartment 113 as a model rather than rent it out. They assume the security alarms in each apartment have always been there.

"People worry about petty theft," James says, "not some gory mutilation."

Monica Doyle, 25, a dental student from Fort Lauderdale, has lived in Williamsburg Village for four years. When she moved in, she heard about two students being murdered in the apartment complex, but didn't think much of it. She still doesn't.

"It's not like I worry about walking from my car to my apartment," she says. "I think I'm in the mind-set that nothing can happen to me."

Darnell says it's good that life is peaceful again. But she will never forget what happened. It is in her nightmares. It is in her Police Department office, where she keeps pictures of the victims and Christmas cards from the slain students' relatives.

The victims' relatives plan to attend the execution Wednesday. Ada Larson, the mother of Sonja Larson, will travel to Starke from Ohio today. Frank Powell, the father of Christina Powell, also plans to witness the execution.

Ricky Paules, the mother of Tracy Paules, has decided not to talk about the execution or her daughter's killer any longer. "I don't want to do any more interviews," she said, apologizing. "It's been too many years."

Darnell understands why the families will be there, but she says Rolling, 52, deserves to die alone. Just him and the needle that stops his heart.

"I would love him to walk into that room and have no one there watching," Darnell says. "So he sees that no one cares about his life."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Tamara Lush contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes or 813 226-3403.