Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Rolling faces execution for murders of 5 college students

STARKE, Fla. -- Danny Harold Rolling, the state's most notorious serial killer since Ted Bundy, ate his last meal and met with his brother and spiritual adviser as he prepared to be executed Wednesday for the grisly hunting-knife slayings of five college students in 1990.

Rolling, 52, is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. Wednesday for the murders that threw the University of Florida into a panic as fall semester began in August 1990. Several victims' relatives plan to be in the execution chamber at Florida State Prison to watch.

Rolling was calm and cooperative ahead of the execution, Corrections Department spokesman Robby Cunningham said. He spent several hours Wednesday with his brother Kevin, and his brother's pastor Jim Wallingworth, officials said.

He was later moved to a cell a few feet from the death chamber, Cunningham told about 100 journalists outside the prison. Warden Randall Bryant was scheduled to read the death warrant listing Rolling's crimes and the reasons for his execution. Then Rolling would get a shower and a new suit and white dress shirt.

His final appeal was before the U.S. Supreme Court, where he was challenging the constitutionality of the chemicals used in Florida's execution procedure. But the high court has declined to intervene in two other Florida executions in which death row inmates used similar arguments.

The horror of Rolling's killings began when police officers found the bodies of the victims over a three-day period, one decapitated and posed, others mutilated and several sexually assaulted.

The spree touched off a massive manhunt, causing students to cower in fear and purchase weapons. Rolling was jailed for a supermarket robbery when investigators used DNA to link him to the killings months later.

Rolling pleaded guilty to the slayings in 1994, shocking the courtroom on the first day of his trial. "There are some things you just can't run from, this being one of those," Rolling told Circuit Judge Stan R. Morris, who accepted the pleas and found him guilty and later sentenced him to death.

He later told The Associated Press: "I do deserve to die, but do I want to die? No. I want to live. Life is difficult to give up."

The looming execution has reopened old wounds for some of the victims' families, including Dianna Hoyt, the stepmother of victim Christa Hoyt. She plans to be in the execution chamber.

"It is very hard for us to see someone else die," she said. "But, he deserves it."

Ricky Paules, the mother of Tracy Paules, will be joined by another daughter to watch: "If you see us crying, it is not for Rolling, but for Tracy."

The victims' families ran an advertisement Thursday in The Gainesville Sun, thanking the community for its support: "We hope you will remember August 1990 and the years that followed without any sense of community shame for what has happened here. You turned a blemish into a rose."
Rolling ate his last meal of lobster tail, butterfly shrimp, baked potato, strawberry cheesecake and sweet tea shortly before noon.

"He enjoyed his last meal. He ate every bite," Cunningham said.

Crowds of death penalty opponents and supporters were expected outside the prison, with possibly the largest turnout since Bundy's execution. He was suspected in the deaths and disappearances of 36 women across the country. He was electrocuted Jan. 24, 1989, in the same death chamber where Rolling will die.

That case was still fresh in the minds of many when Rolling's killings began the next year in roughly the same area as some of Bundy's.

The bodies of Sonja Larson, 18, and Christina Powell, 17, were found stabbed to death on a Sunday afternoon in 1990, in a town house just off the University of Florida campus. Hoyt, 18, whose decapitated head was left on a bookshelf, was found the next morning in her isolated duplex; and Paules and Manny Taboada, both 23, were discovered dead a day later at Gatorwood Apartments.

For months, a large task force of local, state and federal agents followed hundreds of leads and took blood samples from dozens of men. They did not know that Rolling was already behind bars in Marion County after robbing a grocery store.

Then authorities in Rolling's hometown of Shreveport, La., investigating a triple slaying that they believe he committed, suggested that police should check out the drifter and ex-con. The DNA left at the crime scenes in Gainesville matched genetic material police recovered from Rolling during some dental work.

Throughout the years, Rolling has insisted he was not as atrocious as many thought.

In a letter to the AP in 2002, Rolling wrote, "I assure you I am not a salivating ogre. Granted ... time's past; the dark era of long ago _ Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde did strike up and down the corridors of insanety."

Rolling, who often drew dark and sexual pictures, claimed he had good and bad multiple personalities. He blamed the murders on abuse he suffered as a child from his police officer father and his treatment in prison. He said he killed one person for every year he was behind bars.

He served a total of eight years in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi before the killings.

In his trips through north central Florida courts, Rolling twice sang gospel songs when he was sentenced. A tape of his own songs was found by investigators at a campsite in Gainesville where he stayed while committing the killings.

Rolling would be the 63rd inmate to be put to death since Florida resumed executions in 1979 and the third this year. He would be the 259th since 1924, when the state took over the duty from individual counties.

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