Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
When a killer brought chaos to the University of Florida over the course of three days in 1990, the city of Gainesville responded with heightened security steps: Door locks were reinforced. New alarms were installed around campus. Walking escorts were provided to students who wanted one if traveling after dark.
Still, students remained on edge as several of their friends and fellow classmates had their lives ripped away by an unknown killer, later learned to be Louisiana drifter Daniel “Danny” Harold Rolling. In total, Rolling—who was branded “The Gainesville Ripper” before his identity was known—murdered five young adults, all of whom lived along the same road. Four were UF students; one attended neighboring Santa Fe Community College.
[Rolling’s crimes and victims is the subject of an episode of First Blood, available to stream in the A&E app now.]
These were Rolling’s Florida homicide victims: On August 24, 1990, UF freshmen Sonja Larson, 18, and Christina Powell, 17, were raped and stabbed. A day later, Christa Hoyt, 18, was raped, then decapitated. Her head was left on a shelf, turned toward her body. On August 27, UF students Tracy Paules and Manny Taboada, both 23, were surprised at home by the madman. They fought back, but were overpowered.
The names of the students have been memorialized on a panel of the quarter-mile long 34th street graffiti wall in Gainesville created by local artists. The panel says: “Remember 1990.” Visitors to the wall still leave flowers nearby.
A Campus on Edge
“This killer had a style about him,” Don Maines, a retired investigator for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and a 1973 UF graduate, tells A&E True Crime. The crime scenes, with victims left in suggestive poses, were orchestrated “to shock” the first person to stumble on them, he says.
“He would draw the victims to the edge of the bed and then leave them in a spread-eagle position as their final resting place,” Maines says.
During Rolling’s rampage, anxious students began to sleep with knives in their beds. The state dispatched troopers and agents to the campus from every arm of law enforcement.
Maines, then part of that group of on-campus law enforcement, would eventually connect the Gainesville crimes to the murders of three members of a Shreveport, Louisiana family the year before.
The tip that finally cracked the case came from a woman who phoned in to the Crime Stoppers hotline in November 1990.
Cindy Juracich, of Shreveport, Louisiana, was traveling through the Florida panhandle when she heard about the university deaths. Her mind turned to a man she knew from her hometown church.
Juracich, who went by Cindy Dobbin at the time, had socialized with Rolling until he began making some comments that made her uncomfortable. In an interview, she told ABC News Rolling had told her then-husband that he liked “to stick knives in people.”
Florida authorities, at this time, were holding a suspect on an assault charge: a UF freshman named Edward Humphrey. It eventually came to light that Humphrey’s blood type wasn’t a match with the DNA evidence obtained from the Florida victims.
With the hotline call in mind, investigators set out to locate Rolling. It didn’t take long: He was in jail, in Marion County, about 40 miles from Gainesville. He had been arrested for robbing a supermarket, little more than a week after Paules and Taboada were slain.
Danny Rolling had “a chameleon-like quality,” says Rod Smith, the former state’s attorney who secured the death sentence against the murderer in 1994. Smith, like Maines, also attended UF.
“I learned this from other people who had known him, including women who had dated him,” Smith tells A&E True Crime. “Believe it or not, he had a dating life that was not abnormal.”
Danny Rolling’s Abusive Childhood
Those details aside, Rolling’s childhood was violent. He was raised in Shreveport, the son of a city cop. Defense witnesses later testified that James Rolling was verbally and physically abusive to the boy from the time he was an infant, including beating him when he just started crawling. (Rolling later shot his father in the stomach and head on his way out of Louisiana; James Rolling survived, but lost an eye.) His mother had suicidal tendencies.
Rolling later married O’Mather Halko, but the union collapsed after the couple had a daughter. Halko would resurface to testify at her ex-husband’s trial—for the prosecution.
A series of armed robberies landed Rolling in prisons around the South on multiple occasions. Around the time he lost his last job, he killed three members of a family in his hometown, changed his identity to “Michael Kennedy Jr.” and made his way to Florida.
His trial for the student murders began on February 15, 1994. It was expected to last six weeks, and include information from nearly 7,000 task force reports totaling 100,000 pages, according to the Miami Herald.
Instead, Rolling admitted to the student murders on the very first day.
A jury still had to be seated for the trial’s penalty phase. The defense argued mitigating factors in an effort to stave off the death penalty. Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Sadoff testified during the trial that Rolling believed he had an alternate personality named “Gemini” who was responsible for the murders. Rolling had seen the movie The Exorcist III shortly before the murders. In the movie, an evil spirit by the same name was blamed for murders and other violent crimes.
Claudia Rolling, Danny’s mother, testified for her son. Asked why she never left her violent husband, she said it would have driven him “off the deep end.”
From a legal perch, Smith had what he needed. Rolling’s confession had taken away any doubt an innocent man stood accused: “So I said, ‘If we have the death penalty—and we do—then if this case doesn’t meet the criteria for it, I’d hate to see the one that did,'” he recalls.
The jury recommended five death sentences for Rolling. He sat on death row for more than a decade, frustrating the family members of his victims.
“I’d like to refer to Danny Rolling in the same tense as my brother—the past tense,” Mario Taboada, of Miami, said in a 2005 interview with the Gainesville Sun.
Danny Rolling’s Execution
In an interview with the Associated Press, Rolling reflected on his impending execution. “I do deserve to die, but do I want to die? No. I want to live,” Rolling said. “Life is difficult to give up.”
On October 25, 2006, Rolling was executed by lethal injection, singing a hymn in the final minutes of his life. He was 52. It was the most high-profile execution in Florida since serial killer Ted Bundy was executed in 1989.
Before dying, he gave a pastor a written note confessing to the 1989 triple murder of Julie Grissom, 24; her nephew, Sean, 8; and Julie’s father, William, who went by “Tom,” 55, in Shreveport, Louisiana.
In 1994, aspiring screenwriter Kevin Williamson took loose inspiration for his first movie from the events on campus: the slasher flick “Scream,” which became, and remains, a successful franchise. (The villain in the film wears a Halloween mask that resembles a screaming ghost, and according to Rolling’s last known survivor, Janet Frake, Rolling wore a mask when he attacked her, though it was a black ski mask.)
While the Florida public has its graffiti wall, former state’s attorney Smith, now in private practice, also has a visual reminder of the time: photos of the five victims, which hang on the wall of the state attorney’s office. Smith says he makes it a point to look at them when he visits his old workplace.
“Within a second or so, I feel that immediate sadness, realizing that will be them, forever,” he says. “Just pictures of those children, who, for no reason that we can ever rationalize, became the victims of a serial killer.”