2006: Danny Rolling, the Gainesville Ripper

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.

He also personally illustrated The Making of a Serial Killer, a book about his crime spree that Rolling co-authored with Sondra London — a true crime author who fell in love with her subject.

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.

On this day..

11 thoughts on “2006: Danny Rolling, the Gainesville Ripper

  1. To all :It is not until you have someone that you love murdered you will never know how one feels, I have a strong faith in God, My mom was murdered bludgeoned to death with a hammer she fought hard to stay alive many defensive wounds, and elderly woman at that, the handy man bludgeoned her head with claw end of hammer and also the other end he was so mad that the hammer snap off while doing this so it was with much force. Reality is my mom would have given him the money he stole from her as well as her car had she known this is what he wanted, i found her by myself a few days later what an experience., I forgive the man that killed her, or i would be a prisoner to this and could not get any peace. Forgiveness is an everyday process. Do i believe in the Death Penalty? The Bible states and eye for an eye, also says there is a time to kill. I cannot judge other comments but I can say it is a painful process that the victims families go through in loosing a loved one to a traumatic experience that of a murder. This man has been on death row for about 18 years, all appeals denied for him. HE has no more appeals. He was to be up for execution this year. The jury recommended 10-2 death and the judge enforced the death penalty now they are saying it has to be what jury recommends and so many mitigating factors as well and i believe another rule.He fits all the criteria for execution, but i have no idea if it will happen. I believe he was given a fair trial and the evidence was all there he had no remorse and still says he is innocent, i have written this man, as usual the victim knows the perpetrator he was a friend of our family??r. IT is not up to me what they do. But when he killed my mother for the money and her car he knew what he was doing and we are accountable for our actions. So I pray no one would have to go through this with their loved one, But what if the shoe is on the other foot you have put your shoe on the other foot and walk a mile in their shoes then you may understand how some feel and if it happened to your daughter mother sister, son, dad or brother, and or any loved ones then you may be more understanding of what others may be going through. This may be closure for some So you should ask yourself what if this was me maybe opinions in regards to the death penalty would change i do not know all the answers but do know the pain i have had since the day in late August i found my beautiful mom who never got to see her grandchildren graduate from high school or see her great grand children it is a painful journey folks when you loose your mom like this she is your best friend. You are never the same again but in raising five children i had to move on it has affected my one son in a bad way and he has never gotten over it. IT has been devastating to all of my family. But i have i just trust God for hope, peace and understanding of what transpired that day and why?. Blessings to all of those and esp for those whom have experienced this nature of a victim of a crime May the good Lord bring your hearts peace daily. A part of me will always be missing for she died at the expense of another no one has a right to take and innocent persons life I will never understand the mind of a killer. Some are on drugs and I guess they alter your mind and create monsters out of people everyone reacts differently to drugs. It is is just a hard position to be in and answer if you believe in the death penalty until you have experienced a traumatic loss such as this…. Again Blessings and PEace to all.

  2. I’m not sure who compiled The “Life Events” of Danny Rolling, but they left out a lot of information. Danny worked at Holsum Bakery in Shreveport, La. while I was a Production Foreman on Samford Avenue. He was by all accounts a normal, GOD fearing person. He talked about GOD quite a bit, and was really a nice person. Danny was cleaning a “Bun Rolling Machine” one night, and had a towel in the top. The cylindrical roller was turning at the time, and it pulled the towel and Danny’s hand inside. Danny had two or three of the ends of fingers cut off on one hand.

  3. Just because somebody disagrees with you, Kevin, they are not necessarily confused, uninformed, simple-minded, or, as you have often said of me, delusional. Your comments are nothing more than a personal attack.

  4. Dear JCF:

    “Execution just lets loose our invididual evils to merge into collective state-sanctioned homicide. If we want less violence in our society, just say NO MORE EXECUTIONS!”

    You are exceedingly confused. You have no idea what drives people to murder, or apparently, why the average person never commits murder. You have an exceedingly simplistic view of morality in general, and you know nothing of truly wicked individuals who need to be relieved of their breath.

  5. “May we never give up the right to execute the evil among us”

    Oh, I’m all for executing evil: I try to execute the evil within me everyday.

    I conscientiously object to executing HUMAN BEINGS, however: human beings, who are ALWAYS a mixture of good & evil, to those who know them best.

    Some of us have evil from which society should be PROTECTED (i.e., imprisonment or secure mental hospitals). That doesn’t require killing. Execution just lets loose our invididual evils to merge into collective state-sanctioned homicide. If we want less violence in our society, just say NO MORE EXECUTIONS!

    • I have an idea. How about we release ALL of your best friends, keep ’em alive and move you in to take care of them? Two birds with one stone. You bleeding hearts get your do gooder fix, and there’s one less idiot in the world!

  6. I agree JCF. According to trial testimony, Rolling came to Florida to kill so he could become a “criminal superstar.”

    When Ted Bundy asked attorney John Henry Browne in what state people would most likely be executed, Browne’s answer was that, “It’d probably be Florida now.” Journalist Richard Larsen questioned whether Ted Bundy went to Florida “to play his thrilling drama on the most ominous of stages.” Bundy’s interviews with Dr. Ronald M. Holmes, Professor Emeritus of Justice Administration at the University of Louisville, verified Larsen’s suspicion when Bundy “said that the reason he went to Florida was that he knew Florida had the death penalty, and if he was caught for his crimes he would be executed. He added ‘the greater the risk, the greater the thrill.’” Michael Mello, internationally recognized authority on the death penalty and capital punishment issues, believed that, beyond the risk attraction, “if caught, he [Bundy] wanted the celebrity of a high-profile trial and execution.”

    Dr. Katherine van Wormer, who studied suicide-murder (suicide by capital punishment), says “Within prison and without, there are certain disturbed individuals—mostly men and mostly whites—for whom the prospect of execution was highly appealing.” She cites “22 cases of murderers in the U.S. who killed in hopes of getting themselves executed.”

    States with capital punishment put their citizens at risk by attracting killers.

  7. May we never give up the right to execute the evil among us, once they’ve been convicted in a court of law and had the proper appeals. This is both good and fair, and to not do so is a slap to the face of the families of the victims.

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