“Our pain will never go away, but this evil man has gone away now,” says the mother of Sonja Larson, one of the killer’s victims.
By CHRIS TISCH, TAMARA LUSH and SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VANSICKLER
Published October 26, 2006
STARKE — The drab brown curtain between killer and survivors opened at 5:59 p.m. Wednesday. Danny Rolling lay on a gurney .
A prison official asked Florida’s most notorious serial killer since Ted Bundy if he had a last statement. Rolling responded with a twangy hymn, apparently self-penned.
“He who flung the stars into heavens above, created the oceans, mountains, eagles and doves,” he sang. “None greater than thee, Oh Lord, none greater than thee.”
Family members of his eight victims — five in Florida and three he was linked to in Louisiana — clutched each other, rolled their eyes or shook their heads.
One family member later called it “a waste of time.”
When Rolling paused after two minutes, the prison staff cut off the microphone.
Rolling’s mouth began moving again as if to sing, but it was too late. The fluids began pumping into his arm. His mouth went still, then his chest.
At 6:13 p.m., the man who terrorized Gainesville 16 years ago was pronounced dead.
Rolling only briefly looked in the witness room, into the eyes of Ricky Paules, the mother of Tracy Paules, whom Rolling killed in her Gainesville apartment. Rolling confessed to killing her and four other college students — Christa Hoyt, Sonja Larson, Manuel Taboada, and Christina Powell — during a three-day rampage in August 1990.
Later, outside the prison, the families of Rolling’s victims said they were relieved he was gone. They urged people to forget Rolling, but remember their loved ones whom he had so savagely killed.
“Our pain will never go away, but this evil man has gone away now,” wrote Ada Larson — mother of Sonja — in a statement handed to the media after the execution. “He will no longer gain sympathy from those who have befriended him while in prison. He will no longer be able to draw his illicit and weird drawings. He will no longer be housed, fed and taken care of on our expense. … He could not die 8 times, as would have been more just. His life does not equal the lives he took.”
Dianna Hoyt, Christa Hoyt’s stepmother, called the day “surreal.”
“We all have very fragile emotions right now. It’s just a rollercoaster ride,” she said. “We need to try to relax and live with our memories and be at peace with that.”
As for Rolling’s singing in the death chamber, she said, “I didn’t appreciate his song. I didn’t understand how he could sit there and sing about angels watching over him.”
Scott Paules, the brother of Tracy Paules, said that people should remember the victims, not Rolling’s performance in the moments before he died.
“It didn’t mean anything,” he said. “Quite honestly, it was a waste of time.”
According to prison officials, Rolling was calm during his final hours.
He ate a last meal of lobster, butterfly shrimp, a baked potato, strawberry cheesecake and sweet tea before noon. He met Wednesday morning with his brother and a pastor, then met with a spiritual adviser in the afternoon.
Shortly before 6 p.m., more than a dozen family members of Rolling’s victims crowded into the witness room. The room normally holds 24 chairs, but prison officials nearly doubled it for this execution. Forty-seven people packed the small room, which isn’t much larger than a medium-sized conference room.
The state attorney from Gainesville, Bill Cervone, was there, as were some of his staff. Twelve members of the media attended, as did five corrections staff members.
After the curtains opened, Rolling went into his song, continuing for five verses and choruses. One of the lines quoted a verse from Corinthians.
After Rolling had taken his final breath, family members walked out quietly, showing little emotion.
At the University of Florida, no vigils for the victims were planned, though some students did leave flowers and a candle at a wall that still bears the victims’ names 16 years later.
Lauren Marks, 23, a UF law student, left the flowers at the wall painted with the victims’ names. She found out Wednesday from her parents that Tracy Paules was her childhood babysitter.
“It was pretty shocking and kind of disturbing,” Marks said. “She was wonderful and caring. She was part of my family.”
UF library archivist Joel Buchanan, 55, was a financial aid administrator at the time of the murders. Wednesday afternoon, as he walked past five memorial trees planted on campus shortly after the murders, he wondered why there were no vigils or gatherings planned in Gainesville to honor Rolling’s victims.
“I think it’s because people didn’t want to bring back that unpleasantness,” Buchanan said. “But we can’t forget them. It did happen. Something should have happened here on campus today, because those students were just like the students walking around here today.”
Outside the state prison in Starke, 40-plus miles from Gainesville, the execution did not attract huge crowds of celebrators and protesters like the execution of Bundy in 1989, when people popped champagne bottles and drank beer.
Still, about 200 people gathered in the field across the street from the death chamber.
About half stood on one side, near a sign that said “supporters.” The other half stood near a sign that said “Opponents.” They were separated by their views on the death penalty and a row of Florida Highway Patrol cruisers.
Denise Fox, 41, of Gainesville, held a sign that said, “Finally …Kill!!! The Killer!”
“He has been given more rights than the victims,” said Fox, who said she is a passionate anti-fur activist and a vegetarian. “I feel strongly that he should die.”
People on both sides used religious arguments to bolster their views. Harry Kenner, 49, of Palatka held a sign quoting Genesis, a passage about bloodshed. Kenner was in Gainesville during the time of the 1990 murders.
“It dawned on me that some people are capable of doing the most horrific things,” he said. “If anybody deserves the death penalty, it’s Danny Rolling. He doesn’t need to be among the living.”
Two Catholic priests led prayers in a circle of death penalty opponents; they also held a sign painted with a crucifixion that said, “All human life is sacred.” At 6 p.m., they sang Kumbayah.
The anti-death penalty demonstrators acknowledged that Rolling’s execution is a difficult one to oppose.
“If the death penalty were applied fairly, it would be for people like Danny Rolling,” said Amy Jo Smith, 67, of Gainesville. Smith is a Unitarian Universalist who travels to the prison to protest executions.
Still, she said, “He’s still a person. No matter how heinous his crimes were, for us to do the same thing — to kill him — it doesn’t make sense.”
At about 6:18 p.m., word that Rolling was dead filtered through the crowd.
The supporters of the death penalty clapped for a few seconds. The opponents sang Amazing Grace.
A few minutes later, everyone walked away, silent.