Monday, October 23, 2006

Families brace for Rolling's death


Sun staff writer

Last month, the families of five slain college students got the news - convicted killer Danny Rolling's death warrant had been signed.

Some had sat through Rolling's sentencing 12 years ago, listening to the gruesome details of their loved ones' final moments. Year after year they politely and repeatedly answered questions from friends, the curious and the media, about the case, their relatives and Rolling's appeals even while trying to avoid speaking of him or saying his name. And, throughout it all, they wondered when and, sometimes, if the legal process that seemed to drag on and on would ever end.

Yet, while they say it is time, Rolling's pending execution at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Florida State Prison has brought even more emotion and another painful obstacle for the families to overcome.

"I'm at the beginning almost again where I could just start crying at the drop of a hat," said Dianna Hoyt, 62, Christa Hoyt's stepmother.

Officers found the body of the 18-year-old Newberry High School graduate at her Gainesville apartment on Aug. 27, 1990. Rolling had broken into her home and lain in wait for her to return.

In 1994, Rolling pleaded guilty to killing Christa Hoyt and four other Gainesville college students - Sonja Larson, 18, of Deerfield Beach, Christina Powell, 17, of Jacksonville, Manuel "Manny" Taboada, 23, of Carol City, and Tracy Paules, 23, of Miami - in August 1990.

Louisiana authorities also say Rolling was their only suspect in the 1989 stabbing deaths of three Shreveport residents, Julie Grissom, 24, her nephew Sean Grissom, 8, and her father, Tom Grissom, 55.

"There's nothing that is ever going to bring closure to it. Nothing will ever make me get over Christa's death," Dianna Hoyt said. "I guess I just want it to be over with and then just try to start all over again."

She said she doesn't hate Rolling, and angry doesn't capture her feelings either. "It's that he did a wrong. The other thing is it is the law of the land," she explained about Rolling's execution.

Carrying out his death sentence will give Dianna Hoyt one thing.

"It brings a peace of mind that he can no longer visualize these monstrous works and think about them again and get any type of joy or satisfaction out of them," she said. "I think of his mind as a videotape and it needs to be burned. It just needs to be destroyed."

While Rolling's life has continued in prison, he has outlived relatives of the students he killed.

Christa Hoyt's father, Gary Hoyt, died in 2000 at the age of 63. Jim Larson, Sonja Larson's father, died of colon cancer in 1996 when he was 67.

His wife, Ada Larson, 68, believes the stress and sorrow over their daughter's death hastened her husband's demise.

At first, Ada Larson said she didn't want to attend Rolling's execution. But now she thinks she should "see it through," for her daughter. "I'm certainly not joyful or anything. I thought it's about time. It's past time," she said.

She just wishes her husband could have been there with her.

All of the families of Rolling's victims plan to have relatives at the prison when he is executed. Some have traveled from out-of-state. Some will be witnesses. Prison officials also have said that others, relatives who do not want to watch the execution but want to be at the prison, will be provided with an area where they can gather and be together.

The unusually high number of relatives of Rolling's victims who want to witness the execution has posed a problem for the prison system.

A corrections spokeswoman last week said that the prison system is working to accommodate all of the families, including relatives in the Louisiana case, as they would do at any execution. She would not provide details about how many or who are listed as witnesses.

But some relatives said they have been told each family could only have a limited number of witnesses. One area law enforcement source also said he was told that extra seats may be added.

A list of witnesses, among them victims' family members, government and legal representatives and media, is set before each execution. At most recent executions, there were more seats than witnesses in the room.

Tracy Paules' sister Laurie Lahey, 42, said she plans to witness the execution.

"I'm not looking forward to it. I have to do it for my sister. It's the last thing I can do for her," Lahey said. There won't be closure. But, she said, "Justice will be served. We don't have to know that he's around anymore."

Lahey said there won't be the paperwork the families have received every time there's a new development in the case or another Rolling appeal. "The annoyance of him will be gone too," she said.

One member of the families who has regularly spoken about the case won't witness the execution. Mario Taboada, 45, Manuel Taboada's brother, said he will come to Gainesville this week but others from his family will be witnesses.

"I asked myself the question, 'Would any good come from me witnessing the execution,' and I really could not come up with an answer," he said.

He also said he doesn't want to hear what Rolling has to say in his final statement.An inmate set for execution is allowed to make a final statement in the execution chamber in front of prison officials and witnesses before the death sentence is carried out.

"I don't want to subject myself to any cynicism or sarcastic remarks that he may make," Mario Taboada said. "Sometimes the best way to get back at somebody is to ignore them."

Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or

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