Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Killer's Grip

October 15, 2006


A Killer's Grip


The Tampa Tribune

The news hit late on a sweltering Sunday night in August.On the eve of the fall semester of 1990, two young women - college freshmen- had been attacked and killed in their apartment, blocks from theUniversity of Florida campus.

The next morning, 36,000 students arrived at their first classes of theschool year. Chatter about the slayings soon turned into panic: Another victim - another young woman - was found mutilated in her tiny, off-campusduplex.

What had appeared to be a random attack was now a killing spree.Focus shifted. Academics didn't matter. Friends rushed to call one another.Anxious parents reading the news back home did the same, wanting to heartheir child's voice. Apartments designed for two or three became bunkhousesfor friends worried about sleeping alone.

The next day's arrival was shouldered with fear and sadness. Theannouncement of two more stabbing deaths - this time a 23-year-old woman andher burly male roommate - brought screams of disbelief.

Five found dead in 48 hours.Professors canceled classes. Parents who called just a day before drove toGainesville, insisting their children come home until the killer was caught.A safety forum turned ugly as 1,200 students demanded more information sothey could defend themselves. Customers mobbed a local gun shop."People, they just wanted something to get someone off their back," saidHarry Beckwith, owner of a Gainesville gun shop for 50 years. "Guns, stunguns, ray guns, Taser guns, anything.

"The terror that enveloped Gainesville 16 years ago has faded. UF is vibrant,boasting more than 50,000 students.

The murders are memories: The victims

today are primarily known as five stark names listed on a landmark graffitiwall. News these days is about tuition and the football team's return tonational dominance.The killer, 52-year-old Danny Harold Rolling, awaits execution Oct. 25 forthe five murders, three rapes and three burglaries that launched the largestcriminal investigation in state history.

Raw emotional wounds that neverquite healed are opening again for those who remember how this Louisianarobber with a passion for melodramatic poetry and crooning country tunesterrorized a town and frightened an entire state.

Keeping The Memories AliveMost students on campus today were in preschool in 1990. To them, themurders of Sonja Larson, 18; Christina Powell, 17; Christa Hoyt, 18; TracyPaules, 23; and Manuel Taboada, 23, are historic, memorialized around town.That's why Hoyt's stepmother returns to campus every year. In amatter-of-fact lecture to journalism students,

Dianna Hoyt recounts learningabout Christa's murder, rape and decapitation in news reports. She showschildhood pictures of her bright, petite stepdaughter nicknamed "Glowworm.""This could be my mom or my stepmom in here," Professor Kim Walsh-Childerssaid the students often say after Hoyt's lecture. "That could have been me."That connection and the youthfulness of the five victims are reasons

Floridians were gripped by the case, said Rod Smith, the state attorney whoprosecuted Rolling.They were all-American kids from Miami, Jacksonville, Deerfield Beach, CarolCity and Archer. They dreamed of being architects and lawyers. They workedon the high school yearbook, played in the band.

Four of the five victimswere students at UF, the state's flagship university with a long roster ofalumni with memories of their days in Gainesville. The other was a studentat Santa Fe Community College."There was a sense of the magnitude of this loss. You were losing the bestand the brightest," said Smith, who recently returned to a private lawpractice in Gainesville after serving as a state senator and running forgovernor.

Clyde Taylor, a Tallahassee lawyer who represents Rolling in his federalappeals, comes from a long line of UF graduates. While Taylor's client waskilling, Taylor's younger daughter - a slight, attractive brunette - hadjust returned for her junior year."I had a pretty hectic trial practice, but I remember it very clearly,"Taylor said. "I remember we talked about her coming home. I think she evencame home for the weekend."Despite the fear, Taylor said he never wanted vengeance.

"I'm a defense lawyer," he said. "I just don't think in those terms."Taylor said the death penalty should be reserved for those who makeconscious decisions to kill, such as armed robbers who try to eliminatewitnesses.Rolling was found competent to stand trial, but Taylor said he doubts hisclient was sane while killing.

In The WoodsThree days before police discovered Rolling's first crime scene, the careerrobber set up camp in a wooded area near campus. At night, he wanderedaround nearby apartments, peering in windows, looking for the perfectvictims.Petite, brown-haired women were the ones he wanted most, ones who resembledhis ex-wife.

His attacks were quick, repeated stabbings with a K-bar knife;three rapes; mutilation, including the decapitation of Hoyt. Each time, hemeticulously cleaned the scene, leaving few clues.Rolling stayed at his wooded hideout as the terror he created was revealed.He robbed a First Union Bank and broke into a student's apartment, where heate a bowl of oatmeal and swiped the keys to a Buick Regal.Tampa was his next stop.

Two days after stealing the Buick, he broke in toan apartment in West Tampa and a home off Busch Boulevard, taking cameras,watches and making long-distance calls to his mom in Shreveport, La.After he robbed a Save N' Pack grocery at Fowler and Nebraska avenues,Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies fired 19 bullets at Rolling as heescaped. He stole another car before heading to Ocala, where he was capturedafter robbing a Winn-Dixie.

The career robber was behind bars just 12 days after the first bodies werefound. The Ocala police had no idea Rolling was the man who had terrorizednearby Gainesville.The SearchThe search for the serial killer was cumbersome.

Fear lingered overGainesville as students and the city slowly returned to their routines.For two years, a task force of 150 investigators from local, state andnational agencies followed more than 4,400 leads.Florida newspapers provided nearly daily updates on information leaked aboutsuspects, including tips tied to student Edward Humphrey, who was nevercharged in the case.Five months went by before anyone realized the bumbling robber and car thiefsitting in a Marion County jail might be the madman responsible for thekilling spree.

After a tip that Rolling was a suspect in three slayings inhis hometown of Shreveport, the task force in January 1991 placed a note inRolling's jail file: "Notify us if he's ever released."Rolling marked his convictions for the Tampa and Ocala crimes creatively. Hecrooned self-penned country tunes and issued rambling statements tocourtroom audiences. Judges in those cases sentenced him to life in stateprison.

Rolling was in prison by November 1991, when a Gainesville grand juryindicted him in the murders. The relief felt throughout Gainesville camewith a price, as the community was forced to relive gruesome details formore than two years before jury selection began in State of Florida v. DannyHarold Rolling.

"I look at it as being the beginning of the end, of sorts," Powell's uncle,Jim Cullinane, said at the time. "It's something that will never end for theparents."Murders As PaybackDetails about Rolling's crime spree trickled out, making front-page newsthroughout the state.

Across Florida, people learned how this onetime churchbus driver murdered the five young victims, how he provocatively posed thewomen's bodies.Former prosecutor Smith said recently that the Gainesville murders were theone time Rolling controlled his life.Rolling, who says his father, a police officer, physically abused him as achild, attributes his crimes to an evil alter-ego named Gemini.

He saw the crimes as his chance to star in and direct three vignettes ofhorror, Smith said. He said the eight slayings - five in Gainesville andthree in Shreveport - were payback for eight hideous years he spent inprisons in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi for robbery. Rolling has said hecommitted the Shreveport slayings but has never been tried."Danny did it because it was the only thing he was good at, the only thingthat didn't make him ordinary," Smith said.

Rolling confessed details about the student murders to fellow inmates - newsthat leaked a year before the trial. The fear that once transfixed thecommunity evolved into a collective sadness and a recognition of innocencelost.No one expected Rolling's guilty plea on the first day of jury selectionFeb. 15, 1994."Your honor, I have been running from first one thing and then another allmy life," said Rolling, then 39. "Whether from problems at home or with thelaw or from myself.

But there are some things that you just can't run from,and this being one of those."Two months after Rolling's statement and a unanimous jury recommendation,Circuit Judge Stan Morris told a packed courtroom that Rolling would die inthe electric chair, the state's method of execution at the time. Rolling'sdefense of moderate mental illness triggered by his dysfunctional childhoodwasn't enough. He became No. 338 on Florida's death row.

The victims' families, some of whom were escorted out of the courtroombecause of their emotional outbursts, said afterward that they wantedRolling to understand the terror he had inflicted.

"We're not barbarians, but I want him to fear for his life," said LaurieLahey, Paules' sister. "I want him to sit there and think, 'Oh my God. I'mgoing to die,' just like the kids did."A Quiet Few Years

Since 1994, Rolling's time behind bars has been unremarkable. Other than amention in a few obscure books and cable documentaries, the Gainesvillestudent murders have faded from attention.That was the intention of prosecutors and the victims' families, whopersuaded Florida courts to prevent Rolling from making money from books orother items related to the killings.

Those precedent-setting laws stillstand.Rolling's notoriety isn't even among the upper echelon of serial killers,said Steve Egger, a criminology professor at the University of Houston. Hispersona pales in comparison with more charismatic killers, such as TedBundy, who killed at least 25 women - including several Florida StateUniversity coeds - during a four-year spree in the 1970s.

The Rolling case's most compelling issues in the past decade have beenconstitutional. The traditional series of appeals to overturn Rolling'sdeath sentence were exhausted a year ago, and Gov. Jeb Bush in September setan execution date.Death warrant appeals will continue until his execution.

Rolling's attorneys are hoping to prove that lethal injection is cruel andunusual. Their arguments have been shot down by the trial court and areexpected to be heard by the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday.Rolling's lead attorney, Baya Harrison III, said he doesn't hold much hopefor a reprieve.

Rolling, Harrison said, is realistic about his slim chances."When a guy pleads guilty," Harrison said, "it just takes the heart out ofany post-conviction appeal."If Florida's high court rejects the argument,

Harrison plans to appeal tofederal court.

Walsh-Childers, who taught her first UF classes the week the Gainesvillestudents died, hopes no one forgets the suffering of the five victims andthe loss still felt by those who remember the terror of 1990."I hope we don't ever get so jaded that the deaths of five young people inone week doesn't fill us with horror," she said.

Reporter Thomas W. Krause and researcher Michael Messano contributed to thisreport.---

Source : Tampa Tribune (Reporter Mary Shedden can be reached at (813)259-7365 or

1 comment:

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