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August Marks 25th Anniversary of Danny Rolling Murders

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Sonja Larson. Christina Powell. Christa Hoyt. Tracy Paules. Manuel Taboada.

Those five names have graced the graffiti-laden 34th Street wall since 1990 when five  college students were brutally murdered.

That August in Gainesville, four University of Florida students and one from Sante Fe College were butchered in a series of crimes that garnered worldwide attention and changed the fabric of the city forever.

The white apartment building south of the UF campus, the first of three gruesome murders scenes, still stands today. It is the only building to survive 25 years of memories following the horror of Danny Harold Rolling.

This summer marks 25 years since Rolling terrorized Gainesville and those five lives were taken. Such a monumental murder case left its mark on the college town, even if a large portion of its current student population wasn’t even born.

Rolling eventually confessed to raping several of his victims, killing three other people in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, and attempting to murder his father in May 1990. In total, Rolling confessed to killing eight people.  He was executed in 2006 at the age of 52.

A memorial marking the 25th anniversary will be held on the UF campus this month to remember the victims. As time has passed in a city where students come and go, the events of 1990 seem to have withered away. Memorials like this one are a good way to keep the memories alive.

While much has changed in the last 25 years, some things in Gainesville remain constant reminders of the five lives taken too soon.

The portion of the 34th Street wall dedicated to the five victims of the 1990 Gainesville student murders. This mural does not get painted over and is one of the lasting memorials of the murders 25 years ago. Photo by Alex Maminakis.  Audio: Spencer Mann discusses his thoughts on the 25th anniversary of the student murders and reflects back a bit on his time spent working the case, as well as what the 25 years since it happened have meant for him and the city of Gainesville.
The portion of the 34th Street wall dedicated to the five victims of the 1990 Gainesville student murders. This mural does not get painted over and is one of the lasting memorials of the murders 25 years ago. Photo by Alex Maminakis/WUFT News

Williamsburg Village Apartments, on Southwest 16th Street, where roommates Larson and Powell were killed, is the only apartment complex remaining from the murders.  Hoyt, Paules and Taboada were also found dead inside apartments, but those have since been leveled and built upon.

Melissa Burgess, the property manager at Williamsburg Village, was surprised it has been 25 years but could not comment on the topic of the murders. According to Burgess, the management that operates Williamsburg Village is trying to distance itself from the events of 1990.

Burgess also could not comment on whether Apartment 113, where Larson and Powell lived, is currently occupied. However, the Tampa Bay Times reported in 2010 that it had been vacant for quite a while.

Unforgettable

Spencer Mann can recall the events of August 1990 like they were yesterday. A lieutenant and spokesman with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office at the time, he visited each of the three murder sites firsthand.

“I can vividly recall (the scenes) in my mind right now, and that’s tough,” Mann said. “For several months I’d have bad dreams about it, and I ended up going to a counselor.”

The 59-year-old is now retired. He spent 17 years working for the Alachua County Sheriff’s office and another 15 as the chief investigator at the state attorney’s office. Mann investigated numerous death cases over his career, but he said the scenes Danny Rolling left behind in Gainesville were too gruesome to forget.

“(I have) been to a lot of deaths over the years, but these clearly were the most horrific ones I’d ever seen,” Mann said.

One person Mann worked closely with on the student murder cases was Sadie Darnell, presently Alachua County Sheriff. Darnell was a sergeant and spokeswoman for Gainesville Police Department in 1990.

Darnell declines to talk about the murders today. Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, Art Forgey, said in a statement:  “After the 10 year anniversary of the student deaths, Sheriff Darnell and many of the other officers who worked this horrific crime scene made a decision to ‘move on’ and not to focus back on the crimes or the related press and media.”

The statement goes on to say “Any additional focus on Danny Harold Rolling only serves to ‘glorify’ him and we certainly don’t want to do that.”

Twenty five years later, Mann, who witnessed Rolling’s execution, is still sharing his story and said the Gainesville student murders are something he’ll never forget. He can’t. The case played too big a role in his career and in his life.

“It doesn’t seem like 25 years,” he added. “There are some things that you will never forget, and that obviously is one set of cases that I will never forget and has always had lasting impact.”

But as monumental a case as this was for Mann and the city of Gainesville, many students who attend UF know little to nothing about the student murders. With Gainesville being such a transient city, events and occurrences seem to come and go.

Kemi Thomas, 21, is a senior at UF. She never heard of the Gainesville murders or Danny Rolling before and was both surprised and frightened to learn about what happened 25 years ago.

“Wow, that’s scary. No one’s ever told me since being here,” Thomas said. “They don’t tell you that at Preview.”

That lack of recognition today of what shook the city of Gainesville 25 years ago is what Mann said makes anniversaries and memorials less well-known and publicized.

“When an anniversary comes up and there’s a remembrance here, it’s not as well attended because nobody truly knew it happened,” Mann said.

UF will be holding a memorial for the 25th anniversary of the student murders on Tuesday, Aug 25th, at the Baughman Center on campus, said Mary Claire Whelan, coordinator of budget and operations in the Dean of Students Office.

Mann said it’s always important to remember the victims. He does every time he drives by the 34th Street wall and sees the names painted in white.

Mann said he’s had people tell him they would prefer to forget the horrible events of 1990 rather than hold onto those memories, but he knows there’s no running away from it.

“People deal with it in different ways, but it is part of the fabric of Gainesville, always has been always will be,” Mann said. “Some people remember it and some people don’t have a clue what I’m talking about.”

About Alex Maminakis

Alex is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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One comment

  1. Jessica Marr ʚϊɞ

    I was too young to remember but I have been told that even my dad was scared when he heard about the murders.

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