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Double Crossed
Sonja Larson
by death
When Jim Larson lost his sister at the hands of a murderer, he thought that was the kind of thing that happened to other people. But seven years later, when his wife was abducted and killed, the twice-stricken man was almost unable to reason at all.
Carla Larson
Sonja Larson, Steve Larson’s sister, was one of five students killed in Gainesville by Danny Rolling in 1990.
[High school yearbook photo]
When Steve Larson’s 30-year-old wife, Carla, was killed by John Huggins in 1997, it was a déja vu of horror.
[Photo: AP]

By TWILA DECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 1999


ORLANDO -- When people are touched by murder, the horror of it plows through their lives like a freight train and fades into the distance, leaving the survivors to piece their lives together, cope with the sadness and at least try to heal.

But Jim Larson knows that the horror doesn't always travel in a straight line. That the worst thing imaginable can circle around and tear through a survivor's life again.

In 1990, a serial killer named Danny Rolling, a drifter who claimed he was possessed by demons, stabbed to death Larson's younger sister, Sonja, and her roommate in their apartment.

They were two of five Gainesville students mutilated by Rolling over three days that August, not only terrifying the small Florida college town but the entire nation.

Jim Larson was so horrified by details of the crimes that at one point during Rolling's trial, he curled into a ball on his hotel room floor and sobbed. "I actually kind of lost it," he says.

family photo
Shortly before Sonja was killed, the Larson family gathers for Christmas. Back row, from left: Jim Larson’s father, Jim Sr.; his future wife, Carla; and Jim. Front row, from left: Jim’s brother-in-law, Mark Devitt; his sister Beth Devitt; his niece, Ivy; and his sister Sonja. [Family photo]
Larson says he might not have ever moved from that spot had it not been for his wife, Carla.

Carla cradled him as he cried, sat at his side during the rest of the trial and convinced him that although evil had touched his life it did not infest the entire world.

Then, in June 1997, while buying grapes and strawberries during her lunch break at a Publix near Walt Disney World, Carla Larson was kidnapped, driven to a remote field, strangled and buried in a shallow grave -- and Jim Larson had to face down a murderer, again.

This time, the killer was John Huggins, a career criminal turned born-again Christian who killed Carla while vacationing in the Orlando area with his own wife and their children.

Larson says that his sister's murder left him enraged, but his wife's murder has left him numb.

It's as if Rolling already had wrung all the spirit out of him.

"I was so angry at Rolling I could have killed him myself," says Larson, 38, who is raising his 21/2-year-old daughter, Jessica, alone.

"With Huggins I don't know what to feel. It's like I am so angry about all of this I am not angry."

Rolling has been on Florida's death row for most of the decade, and on Friday a judge will decide whether Huggins, 36, will join him there.

If the judge follows a jury's recommendation and sentences Huggins to death, it would place Huggins and Rolling within shouting distance of each other at Florida State Prison in Starke and leave Larson with a bizarre distinction.

As a family member of their victims, Larson would be entitled to watch both men die in the electric chair for two separate crimes -- something he plans to do.

Larson says he realizes that some people see what has happened to him as the criminal equivalent of lightning striking twice. He is baffled, however, about why it struck him.

"When Sonja's death happened, I thought this kind of thing happened to other people," he says. "Then, it happened to Carla. I just can't figure out why us. It's not like we're bad people."

Larson says he is trying to go on living for his daughter's sake but sometimes, when he really misses Carla, he thinks about a story they were told while on their honeymoon in the Grand Cayman Islands.

They had gone below the surface in a submarine when they saw an angel fish through the window. The tour guide told them that angel fish mate for life and when one dies, the other sinks to the bottom and dies, too.

"I think about that sometimes," he says, his eyes filling with tears. "But I know I have to go on. Jess is here and I have to think about her."

together
Happy and in love, Jim and Carla Larson enjoy some relaxation together shortly before Carla’s death. [Family photo]
The one

Jim and Carla met in their hometown of Pompano. Jim was a member of the ground crew for the Goodyear blimp and Carla was in high school

He was six years older than Carla, but he decided to wait for her because she was something special.

She had beautiful long blond hair, an infectious smile, intelligence and ambition.

She had gotten the construction bug from her father and wanted to become a construction engineer, a career track rare for a woman.

"She could have done anything she wanted to do," Jim says. "I always did what I had to do to get by in school, but she had the smarts."

While Carla attended the University of Florida in Gainesville, the couple dated long-distance.

In a letter Jim read to jurors at Huggins' trial this month, he explained the exact moment he realized he wanted to spend forever with Carla.

"One night Carla and I were sitting on a bench outside her dorm room. We were just talking. Carla got up to do something. She walked a few steps and turned around and looked at me," he told the jurors. "It was just a moment. But when our eyes met, it was as if our souls touched one another. I smiled back at her. I felt so good my eyes filled with tears. I loved her so much. We set our wedding date for Dec. 1, 1990, after her graduation from college."'

Sonja's death

As Carla was finishing up at the University of Florida, Sonja, who wanted to be a teacher, enrolled as a freshman.

Jim and Carla helped Sonja move into her apartment.

When Carla graduated, she gave Sonja her water bed, the same bed Sonja was sleeping in when she was attacked by Rolling.

"I checked the (apartment) to make sure it was safe, but they were upstairs and if you were going to pick a door to break into, (theirs) didn't seem like it would be the one," he says.

Jim and Sonja, who was 11 years younger, had gotten closer as she had matured into a young woman.

They would eat dinner when he was in town visiting Carla. He says his warmest memory is of the Christmas they spent together before her death.

"We were all on the couch -- Carla and me, Sonja and (another sister) Beth -- watching the Little Mermaid," he says. "It was just a really nice time."

But in August 1990, everything changed when he got a call telling him that there had been some sort of accident and his sister was dead.

Jim says he will never forget arriving in Gainesville after Sonja's body was discovered.

Rolling is believed to have followed Sonja and her roommate, Christina Powell, home from the Wal-Mart where Rolling had bought a tent. "There were satellite trucks everywhere and the police had to sneak us in to avoid the press," Jim says. "I felt like it was a movie. It wasn't real."

Death haunts marriage

Jim and Carla married four months after Sonja's death. But instead of being happy about the wedding, Jim couldn't shake thoughts of his sister, who would have been a bridesmaid.

"Sonja's death changed me," he says. "You see things differently after something like that. You're colder. Her death really was the most horrific death that anyone could imagine."

Rolling had watched Exorcist III before the killings, a movie in which a woman's body is mutilated. He claimed that he was controlled by two spirits, "Gemini" and "Ynnad," or Danny spelled backward.

After their wedding, the couple moved to Atlanta, where Carla worked for Centex Rooney Construction Co. and helped design a county jail.

Jim says he spent the first few years of his marriage in a deep depression. He vacillated between hating God for letting someone so young die such a horrible death and wondering if God even existed. He says he's still not sure how he feels about faith.

"That was the bad Jim," he says of that time in Atlanta. "(Carla) wasn't happy with me."

He says Carla was eager to have a child, but he couldn't see bringing one into a world that had people as evil as Rolling in it.

Eventually, he says, Carla persuaded him to get counseling and work through his grief.

After Carla completed the jail project in 1995, the couple moved back to Pompano for a short time and, Jim says, his spirits began to lift.

They went on a camping trip to Colorado, where he decided he would be a father, after all.

"That's where I think Jessica was conceived," he says.

After they returned from the trip, Carla's company gave her a choice. She could work on a project in Miami or in Orlando.

The couple settled on Orlando, where she would help build the Coronado Springs Resort and Convention Center at Walt Disney World and he would work for Home Depot.

"We picked Orlando because we thought it was safer," he says.

The couple bought a cute, mint-colored bungalow in Orlando's College Park neighborhood. They did everything they could to make sure Carla was safe.

They got a Rottweiler, installed a home security system and bought a Ford Explorer with air bags and automatic locks.

photo
Jim Larson comforts his sister, Beth Larson Devitt, as she reads a poem during Carla’s memorial service. [Times files, 1997]
Goodbye

The morning of June 10, the day Carla disappeared, couldn't have been a more perfect one, Jim says

They made love the night before. Then, as he left at 5 a.m., Jim says, he kissed his 30-year-old wife on the cheek as she slept and told her he loved her.

They had grown closer, he says, since their trip to Colorado and Jessica's birth, which had been difficult because the tiny blond baby was breech.

Jim says he had finally been able to put Sonja's death behind him.

They were adding onto their house, a master suite that Carla had designed, and Carla, who had always been religious, was shopping for a church for them to join. They also were trying to have another baby.

"I had been a lot more lovey-dovey since Jessica was born," he says. "It was like after Jessica was born I loved Carla even more. It was unbelievable."

After dropping Jessica off at day care at about 7:30 a.m., Carla left for work.

During her lunch break, some of her co-workers directed her to a nearby Publix so that she could buy some fruit. When she was gone for more than an hour, her co-workers began to worry.

They called Jim to ask if she had a doctor's appointment that she might have forgotten to mention. He says he knew something was wrong.

"Carla would always tell people where she was going," he says. "Even with me, I would catch hell if I didn't call and say I was going to be home late."

At first, Jim says, he thought she might have taken Jessica and left him. He searched his mind for some sort of clue that she was unhappy.

But he says he soon ruled that out when he called to check on Jessica and she was still at day care.

He then left work, picked up Jessica, drove home and called the police.

During the next two days, police and friends searched for Carla and her missing white Ford Explorer while Jim walked around in a daze. It was all too familiar.

The news reporters and police investigators who had become commonplace during Sonja's death had returned, and so, he says, had the horror.

For some reason, though, Jim says he was different this time around.

"It's like the first one made me angry and the second one calmed me down," he says.

In the beginning, some people even suspected Jim of killing his wife because he seemed so emotionally flat in interviews with reporters.

Callers flooded an Orlando talk radio show, accusing him on air of killing Carla. A lawyer who knew Jim eventually put a stop to the calls by threatening to sue the station.

"My neighbors would come to me and tell me what they were saying about me on the radio," he says. "But really that was the least of my problems."

Police questioned him, too. They gave him a polygraph and asked him whether he loved his wife. Jim says he did everything he could to cooperate.

"I didn't want them wasting their time on me," says Jim, who was quickly ruled out as a suspect.

On June 12, while searching a field near the Publix, two of Carla's co-workers stumbled upon her nude body face down in sandy scrub.

Carla had been strangled, wrapped in a beach towel and partially buried. Investigators identified her body, which had decomposed in the summer heat, from dental records.

Huggins, a Sanford landscaper and career criminal, soon emerged as the prime suspect after police got a tip from his wife.

Angel and John Huggins had been vacationing in the area to try to patch up their marriage. The couple and their children, a total of five between the two of them, had stayed in a motel across from the Publix the day Carla vanished.

Angel Huggins told police that her husband was gone at noon that day and returned sometime later, sweaty and nervous. Huggins also had been seen driving a Ford Explorer that had been crudely spray-painted black.

Police found Carla's jewelry, including her pear-shaped diamond engagement ring, in the Melbourne home of Angel Huggins' mother.

After Huggins' arrest, several ministers who knew him said that he was incapable of such an act.

Huggins had become a Christian and volunteered on at least five missionary trips to Haiti to help run clinics and build churches and schools. One minister said he was a "gentle giant," and another said he was anointed by God, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

But police knew better, and this month a jury agreed, convicting Huggins of first-degree murder, kidnapping, carjacking and robbery. It recommended the death sentence.

Jim Larson says he can't help but think about what must have gone through his wife's mind in her final minutes of life. He says he fears she thought about what Rolling did to Sonja and the other Gainesville students. Even from death row, he says, he fears Rolling was causing more pain.

"There was nothing worse than what happened in Gainesville, and Carla knew this," Jim says. "She sat there during the trial and heard every word of it. She knew how bad it could get. Even if she thought about it for a second that was too long."

Moving on

* * *

Jim says he misses the little things about Carla, her smile and her thriftiness.

She would clip coupons to stretch their money. She could go into the kitchen and scrape together a dinner with hardly anything in the cupboard.

He says he even misses the things that used to bug him, like how she would insist that he wash out the Ziploc sandwich bags and use them again.

"I think about that every time I throw one away," he says.

"She gave so much. I never really realized the extent of it until she was gone."

Single parenthood has put financial pressures on him, he says. People have offered help, so he has set up a trust fund for Jessica's education. Contributions can be made in Jessica Larson's name at any NationsBank.

Jim also has started to date. He met Brenda Benson, 34, when she came into the Home Depot one day and told him to call her if he ever needed to talk.

Benson knew what Jim was going through to some extent, because her husband was killed the same year as Carla in a freak accident when a tree fell on his car.

Jim says he's not sure, given the circumstances of its beginning, that the relationship will work out. But he's hopeful.

He has taken Carla's pictures down from the walls to make his girlfriend more comfortable and to reassure her that he is trying to move on. Jessica, who had just turned 1 when her mother died, is a little confused by it all, he says.

She was too young to remember Carla and calls his new girlfriend, who has long blond hair like Carla, Mommy.

The other day, he says, during Huggins' trial, someone must have told Jessica at day care that her mommy was in heaven.

"She said, "My mommy's up there' and pointed at the sky," Jim says.

Jim plans to tell Jessica one day about her mother's and aunt's deaths -- when, maybe, she can better understand it all.

"How can you explain this to a 2-year-old?" Jim says. "I am having trouble understanding it myself."

 

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