Evil among us: Three days that changed our city forever
By LISE FISHER
Sun staff writer
October 22. 2006 6:01AM
Newer residents would not recognize the Gainesville of fall 1990, when five college students were brutally slain in their homes and life in the city turned into a horror story overnight.Women - and men - were too afraid to walk alone after dark, certain they could fall prey to the killer.
A helicopter routinely buzzed overhead, shining a wary, watchful spotlight across the University of Florida campus. College students who had scrambled to find their own dorm room or apartment before classes started sought safety in groups, taking shifts sleeping and keeping guard over bolted doors and locked windows.
And everyone lived in fear, worried each time police sirens wailed that a murderer had struck again.There was an evil in the college town's midst.
And Gainesville had suddenly learned no place, no matter how quiet or out-of-the-way, is absolutely safe.For those who lived here at the time, it was a painful, depressing lesson and one that for some has been resurrected by convicted killer Danny Rolling's scheduled execution at Florida State Prison north of Starke Wednesday at 6 p.m.
"The week prior to the murders, things were on the up note around town. There was a brand new president at UF. There was a brand new football coach. I saw that up note turn into a grip of fear," said Spencer Mann, an investigator and spokesman for the 8th Judicial Circuit State Attorney's Office in Gainesville.Sixteen years ago, Mann was working at the Alachua County Sheriff's Office when officers began making the grisly discoveries.
Each day headlines reported another body had been found, another suspect had been named, or another slew of students had left UF, too frightened to remain in town.Sonja Larson, 18, of Deerfield Beach, and Christina Powell, 17, of Jacksonville, both UF freshmen, were the first to be found slain in their Williamsburg Village apartment on SW 16th Street on Aug. 26, 1990, the Sunday before classes were set to start.
The next day, officers located the body of 18-year-old Alachua County Sheriff's Office records clerk Christa Leigh Hoyt, of Archer, in the duplex apartment on SW 24th Avenue, where she lived alone.On Aug. 28, 1990, the bodies of Tracy Paules and Manuel "Manny" Taboada, both 23, high school friends from Miami, were discovered in their Gatorwood apartment off Archer Road.
The crime scenes were the worst he has ever seen, said Alachua County Sheriff's Lt. LeGran Hewitt, one of the officers assigned to a multi-agency joint task force investigating the killings.Each of the five students had been stabbed multiple times, sometimes as they struggled to overcome an attacker who surprised them as they slept or as they stepped into their apartment.
Three of the women were sexually battered. Some of the bodies had been mutilated and posed. One had been decapitated.Nine anxious months would pass after the killings before Rolling, a drifter and career criminal from Louisiana, was publicly named a suspect in 1991.And, although many college students returned to Gainesville about a week after the killings, others said it seemed like a lifetime before they felt safe in the city.
Media from around the state and world flocked to Gainesville, with then-CBS News anchor Dan Rather calling the city "perhaps the most dangerous place in America." Phone lines at law enforcement agencies registered thousands of calls from residents looking for information or offering tips, everything from reports that a boyfriend had behaved strangely to someone spotted wearing camouflage clothing.
Whistles and alarms were distributed to students. Concealed-weapon permit applications quickly rose in Alachua County. Then UF President John Lombardi told students who left town fearing for their safety they would be welcomed back without penalty., leaving professors trying to honor his promise.
Some people believed there was a Ted Bundy copycat on the loose, Mann recalled. A serial killer and rapist, Bundy had been executed in Florida the year before the attacks in Gainesville.Days after the bodies were discovered, officers were looking at several suspects, including a car salesman wanted in the mutilation-murder of his former girlfriend in Ohio. Also among them was a UF freshman, Edward Humphrey.
The 18-year-old had begun exhibiting bizarre behavior after he stopped taking medicine prescribed for manic depression and, when questioned by officers, implied he knew about the murders. Circumstantial evidence seemed to connect Humphrey to the slayings, such as a claim he had been romantically interested in one of the victims, dressed in military-type fatigues and went on late-night "reconnaissance missions" carrying a hunting knife.
In October 1990, Humphrey was convicted on a lesser charge of battery, after prosecutors alleged he had beaten his grandmother in Brevard County on Aug. 29, 1990. But he ultimately was dropped as a suspect in the Gainesville slayings.Still, some in Gainesville refused to accept Humphrey wasn't involved. Others speculated not one but two killers were stalking students. Just one person couldn't be responsible for the savage slayings, they reasoned.
Meanwhile, 10 days after the killings, Rolling had ended up in custody at the Marion County jail where he was being held on robbery charges. Then 36 years old, Rolling had a history of robbery and theft convictions and left Shreveport, La., shortly after he was accused of shooting his father, a retired police officer.
He was added to a list of suspects in the Gainesville slayings after Florida authorities learned he could be connected to a similar, triple killing in Louisiana. DNA evidence was gathered from Rolling, who had been jailed in September 1990, and compared to crime scene evidence.Hewitt, now with the Civil Bureau at the Sheriff's Office, interviewed Rolling at Florida State Prison near Starke where he first confessed to officers he was the killer.
In 1994, as jury selection began, Rolling entered a guilty plea to the slayings. "I've been running from first one thing and then the other my whole life . . .," Rolling said. "There are some things you just can't run away from, and this is one of those." The three-man, nine-woman jury unanimously agreed on the death penalty, a sentence later handed down by Circuit Judge Stan Morris.
Rolling, now 52, has been held at prisons in Bradford and Union counties during his years on Florida's Death Row. He has continued to draw and write poems, among them works that have made their way to online sites that sell collectibles from convicted killers.
Some thought Rolling's guilty plea, coupled with the heinous nature of his crimes, would speed up the appeals process."Five years," Mario Taboada yelled at the man who killed his brother, Manuel, in an Alachua County courtroom. "You're going down in five!"Instead, it was 12 years, about the average span of time for a death penalty appeal, before Gov. Jeb Bush signed Rolling's death warrant on Sept. 22.
Over the years, Rolling's lawyers have argued he should have been given a new sentencing hearing because it was impossible for an Alachua County jury, living in a community traumatized by the killings, to fairly hear the case.Questions over the state's lethal injection process have dominated the courts this year and have been at the heart of Rolling's latest appeals.
The U.S. Supreme Court had stayed one Florida Death Row inmate's execution in January to review if federal civil rights law could be used by an inmate to challenge the state's execution method. In June, the justices unanimously ruled lethal injection could be appealed as unconstitutionally cruel punishment and sent the case back to the lower courts.Weeks later Bush, who had halted executions while the appeal was before the U.S. Supreme Court, again started signing death warrants, saying he wanted to urge the courts to decide the case. Two inmates have since died by lethal injection.
Meanwhile, the state and federal courts have rejected arguments that lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.This week Rolling and his attorneys are waiting for a final decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.Rolling's "infamous notoriety" has some worried over what will happen outside Florida State Prison if he's executed.
Death penalty opponents fear the scene could turn into a circus, reminiscent of the 1989 execution of serial killer Ted Bundy when hundreds gathered and cheered at news of his death. Officers expect a crowd, especially since the prison is less than an hour's drive from Gainesville.But Bradford County Sheriff Bob Milner, whose office helps provide security during executions, said deputies don't expect problems.
Like the families of Rolling's victims, Hewitt sees the execution, set for Wednesday, as a long-awaited, last step in a lengthy legal process. Many have called for Rolling's death. But it won't bring closure, he said."I believe that it's the final process in the judicial system that is owed to us as the public," Hewitt explained. "People talk about closure. But I don't believe closure will ever happen. The only way it would make it better would be if we could put the loved ones with their families. They've lost loved ones and there's no closure to that."