Image: Danny Harold Rolling
AP file
Danny Harold Rolling, during his trial in February 1994 in Tampa, Fla., is scheduled for execution on Wednesday.
updated 10/20/2006 5:38:07 PM ET 2006-10-20T21:38:07

The terror started late on a Sunday afternoon in August 1990, just before the fall semester began.

A police officer, summoned by worried parents, discovered the first two bodies in an apartment near the University of Florida campus. Freshmen roommates Sonja Larson, 18, and Christina Powell, 17, were fatally stabbed and sliced up with a razor-sharp KA-BAR hunting knife.

Just after midnight, before the news of the gruesome killings had a chance to take hold, Christa Hoyt, 18, a Santa Fe Community College student and sheriff’s office employee, was found mutilated in her apartment, her severed head placed on a shelf.

The next morning, UF students Tracy Paules and Manuel Taboada, both 23, were found slaughtered in the apartment they shared nearby, plunging the laid-back college town into a full-fledged panic.

Students fled, neighbors huddled together for protection, residents armed themselves. Innocence was lost. Many lives were changed forever.

The manufacturer of this nightmare was a drawling police officer’s son and career criminal from Shreveport, La., named Danny Harold Rolling. After a dozen years on death row, the now 52-year-old Rolling is preparing to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Florida State Prison in Starke.

Criminal 'superstar'
Thousands of UF students have come and gone since Rolling arrived on a Greyhound bus, pitched a tent in the woods near campus and set out to become, as he would say later, a “superstar” among criminals.

But those students and residents who lived through the worst chapter in the city’s history locked away indelible memories that are surfacing again as the execution date nears.

“It was terrible, because it was an event that unfolded day by day,” recalled Larry Reimer, a minister whose United Church of Gainesville offered shelter to frightened college students. “We didn’t know the magnitude of it until we were in the middle of it. To wake up each morning to news that another young person was found dead was terrifying.”

As the body count rose, Gainesville Police Chief Wayland Clifton called for help from the FBI, the Florida Highway Patrol and other agencies. By midweek, heavily armed officers were ubiquitous on the streets, and helicopters with searchlights a nightly reminder that a serial killer was still on the loose.

UF President John Lombardi canceled classes for the week, and the world’s media descended on Gainesville to cover the story.

“What was interesting was how quiet the student areas got,” said Ronald Dupont Jr., who was attending UF and working as a night police reporter at The Gainesville Sun. “A lot of people left town, and a lot of people were holed in their homes genuinely afraid. It turned the town from a happy-go-lucky college town into almost like a wake.”

All of campus life affected
Steve Spurrier was preparing for the first game of what would be a storied football coaching career at his alma mater when the murders shook campus.

“It was a terrible time in Gainesville,” said Spurrier, now head coach at the University of South Carolina. “We actually allowed a lot of our older players to stay where their girlfriends were because of it. Maybe football helped (the healing), but it was certainly one of the worst tragedies that ever happened in Gainesville.”

The focus of the task force first fell on a UF student who was unfortunate enough to go off his psychotropic medication and begin acting strangely around town after the slayings. He was eventually cleared.

Meanwhile, Rolling robbed a bank and stole a car before leaving Gainesville the day after the last bodies were discovered. Belongings he left at the campsite in the woods would eventually link him to the slayings.

Rolling’s name first came to the attention of investigators because he was suspect in the similar mutilation slayings of three people back in Shreveport (he later confessed, but was never prosecuted).

But it would be December 1990 before they would find him sitting in the Marion County jail a half hour south of Gainesville, awaiting trial for robbing a grocery store there. DNA confirmed he was the killer.

Rolling pleaded guilty as trial began on Feb. 15, 1994. In the penalty phase, jurors rejected arguments that he should be spared because of an abusive father, unhappy childhood and history of drug use and mental illness. Judge Stan R. Morris sentenced him to die.

Execution will be watched
Dianna Hoyt, Christa Hoyt’s stepmother, said Rolling’s execution has been eagerly awaited by the victims’ families. Some will be inside the prison to witness it.

“What he did was so horrendous, how he tortured our children,” Hoyt said. “I think this man can still find enjoyment from that. I just need his mind put to sleep. I don’t need him thinking about it anymore.”

Sadie Darnell, who was the police department’s media spokeswoman at the time and developed enduring friendships with the victims’ families, said Rolling’s execution still matters, even if it also provides him more of the notoriety he sought.

“It does not symbolize closure for any of the family members. Retribution, though, is important because it represents that our society is holding that person accountable,” said Darnell, now a candidate for Alachua County sheriff.

Today’s UF students may know the names of the victims because they’re painted on a panel on the edge of campus, a memorial that fraternities took responsibility for preserving.

Besides being part of the university’s history, said Christopher Bucciarelli, president of the UF Interfraternity Council, it’s a reminder — “for everyone to be careful and to be safe.”

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