Updated Dec. 12, 2005, 12:56 a.m. ET
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — He was born the son of a police officer, but caused carnage that would send a small college town into a frenzy.
When five coeds from three area schools were discovered brutally murdered in four days, Gainesville students went from routine class schedules to toting baseball bats around campus and sleeping twenty to a dorm room.
The hysteria came to an end when Danny Harold Rolling admitted brutally killing five students, raping three of them.
But while Rolling confessed to being the "Coed Killer," a jury was left to decide whether he would face the death penalty or life in prison.
The Coed Murders
Christina Powell, 17, was majoring in architecture at the University of Florida so that she could one day design housing for the poor. She and a roommate, 18-year-old Sonja Larson of Deerfield Beach, lived in an off-campus apartment.
On Aug. 26, 1990, Powell's parents grew concerned when they hadn't heard from their daughter in three days. Unable to reach either girl at the apartment, they drove from their home in Jacksonville only to discover their daughter's mutilated body. She had been stabbed five times in the back.
Upstairs, Larson, an aspiring teacher and award-winning artist, lay naked and covered in blood. She, too, had been stabbed to death.
Rolling broke into the house, first killing Larson as Powell slept on a couch on the first-floor. He then hunted Powell, but unlike Larson, raped Powell before murdering her.
Rolling moved onto Santa Fe Community College, waiting for his next victim inside her apartment. Before Christa Hoyt, 18, returned home, Rolling moved a large bookcase into her bedroom.
When she got home, he caught her in a chokehold, taped her hands and mouth, and raped her. He decapitated her and gutted the rest of her body. A deputy from the local sheriff's office found Hoyt's head placed on a shelf in the bookcase.
Hoyt had worked in the sheriff's office as a records clerk and the deputy was dispatched to her apartment when she failed to show up for work. The grisly discovery was made a day after Powell and Larson's bodies were found.
Two days later, two more students turned up dead — only this time, one victim was male. Manuel Taboada, a 23-year-old former high school football star enrolled at Santa Fe Junior College, was sleeping when Rolling crept into his bedroom. As Rolling attacked Toboada with a knife, a struggle ensued between the two men, alerting Toboada's roommate, Tracy Paules. Paules, also 23, confronted Rolling in an effort to save her friend, but ultimately both coeds lost the battle against the killer. Toboada died trying to fend off Rolling, who then raped and murdered Paules.
Within four days, Gainesville was transformed from a college town into a ghost town. Many students left campus and never returned. Business fell off by more than half. Women slept 20 to a dorm room. Students lined up at dormitory pay phones armed with baseball bats and kitchen knives.
Zeroing in on a Killer
In Florida's most costly investigation, police had taken blood and hair samples or fingerprints from more than 1,000 men. They even had a suspect in custody when the focus of the probe turned to Rolling, a career criminal arrested for robbing a supermarket just weeks after the murders.
By the first week in September, Danny Rolling became the prime suspect in the crimes. Rolling soon confided in cellmates, offering them vivid details about the slayings and mutilations that only the real killer would know.
Rolling was indicted in November on five counts of murder and three counts each of rape and armed robbery. But by that time, he had already been serving several life sentences for armed robbery.
Even if Rolling, a career criminal, never committed the horrific murders, he would be serving a total of four life sentences plus 243.3 years behind bars for a slew of armed robbery convictions. With life in prison a certainty, Rolling confessed to the crimes.
"I've been running from first one problem and then another all my lifebut there are some things you just can't run from," Rolling told Judge Stan Morris as he pleaded guilty, "and this is one of those."
Rolling's attorneys contend that their client suffers from schizophrenia and shouldn't be put to death. His mother, Claudia, has claimed that Rolling was abused by his father as a boy. At one point, Rolling was wanted in his native Louisiana for the attempted murder of his father. Rolling has a record stretching across four states for armed robberies dating back to the late 1970s. His criminal career was peppered by numerous escapes from prison, but he was always promptly recaptured.
The Rolling case popped up in court again in 1997, when the killer and his fianc Sondra London, were sued by the state for proceeds made from the sale of the killer's story to the media.
The state charged that couple was in violation of the Florida Civil Restitution Lien and Crime Victim's Remedy Act of 1997, better known as the "Son of Sam" law which states that a person cannot profit from his or her crimes.
During the penalty phase of the murder trial, London had covered the case for The National Enquirer, a supermarket tabloid, and later sold a series to The Globe. The couple were also advanced money for a book they were to co-write, The Making of a Serial Killer.
The state alleged that London's personal relationship with Rolling bars claims of being "objective reporter," which would otherwise have entitled her to the money.
London maintained that her personal relationship was irrelevant, and asked the court to find the statute unconstitutional as a violation of free speech.
In 1999, the Circuit Court ordered London to give $15,000 to the victims' families, though the students' relatives have scoffed at accepting the award, one victim's mother calling it "blood money."
On March 24, 1994, a jury of nine women and three men recommended a death sentence for each of the five murder counts. Though the ruling was a unanimous vote, only a seven-vote majority was required to vote for the death penalty.
One month later, Judge Stan Morris accepted the jury's recommendation and sentenced Rolling to death.