October 25th, 2012 Headsman
During the first week of classes in August 1990 at the University of Florida’s city of Gainesville, five college students were brutally murdered during a terrifying burglary-rape-murder spree.
On this date in 2006, serial killer Danny Rolling finally paid for the murders.
“The face of evil in our community” and Florida college towns’ most infamous serial killer since Ted Bundy made the FSU Chi Omega sorority his last port of call, Rolling was a 26-year-old with sociopathy born of an abusive home life. (Here’s a pdf profile of the guy.)
After shooting his hated father in the face — the Shreveport, La., policeman lost an eye but lived — Rolling headed east to Florida. He would later say that he aspired to become a “superstar” criminal — just like Bundy.*
Little did anyone know that Rolling was already a murderer. Only after his grisly turn in Gainesville was he linked back to a theretofore unsolved 1989 Shreveport triple homicide that saw a man, his daughter, and his son stabbed to death. Rolling had posed young Julie Grissom for investigators.
It was a signature behavior the Gainesville police were about to know all too well.
Out of nowhere, the horror murders leaped onto Florida front pages: 18-year-old Sonja Larson and 17-year-old Christina Powell, stabbed to death on August 24, 1990 (Larson was raped, too): both girls’ bodies theatrically posed.
The very next day, 18-year-old Christina Hoyt raped, stabbed to death, and decapitated — the severed head positioned as if scrutinizing its former torso.
Terrified students began taking what protective measures they could against the hunter in their midst, but just two days later 23-year-old Tracy Paules was raped, knifed, and posed … after Rolling also killed the boyfriend that she had staying over for safety.
Arrested soon thereafter on an unrelated burglary, Rolling’s campsite turned up the evidence linking him to the Gainesville Ripper’s predations. Superstardom was on the way: Rolling’s murders helped inspire the Wes Craven slasher classic Scream.**
When the much-delayed case finally came to trial in 1994, Rolling unexpectedly pleaded guilty without any deal to avoid the death penalty. Why dilute his infamy by denying it? “There are some things you just can’t run from, this being one of those,” Rolling told the judge in his singsong drawl.
Maybe had he come of age just a few years later, the Gainesville Ripper might have scratched that itch for notoriety holding forth on the coming age of new media channels instead of butchering humans.
Certainly Danny Rolling, arranger of mutilated corpses, had the character of a performer; recordings of his own renditions of folk songs were among the artifacts police recovered from the killer’s campsite. Later, in prison, Rolling became a prolific death row artist and his “murderabilia” art can be found for sale on the Internet.
A few books about (and by) Danny Rolling
Whatever charms people perceived in Danny Rolling have understandably been lost on those who survived the victims. And Rolling’s wicked “superstardom” remains yet a sensitive subject in Gainesville, where many residents still remember those days of panic the Gainesville Ripper sowed in 1990.
Memorial to Danny Rolling’s victims painted on Gainesville’s 34th Street Wall. Image (c) hecht 801 and used with permission.
* There was a more direct link between Bundy and Rolling as well: (non-death-row) murderer Bobby Lewis, who became Bundy’s friend while the latter was in prison, later also befriended Danny Rolling, even acting as a go-between for Rolling’s dealings with investigators.
** There’s also a 2007 (posthumous to Danny) horror film directly about the Gainesville murders.
Also on this date
- 2014: Reyhaneh Jabbari
- Feast Day of Saints Crispin and Crispinian
- 330 B.C.E.: Philotas, Alexander the Great Companion
- 1769: Nicolas de Lafreniere and four others for the Louisiana Rebellion
- 1415: French prisoners at the Battle of Agincourt
- 2007: Five young men