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After 20 years, Gainesville still marked by Danny Rolling's murders


It was midnight in this emptied city, September 1990, when a part-time house-cleaner named Adam Tritt stopped his scooter at the 34th Street Wall.

He had no grand plan. Buy some paint. Leave a mark. The wall had long been a graffiti patchwork of outbursts, invites, happy-birthdays, will-you-date-me's — any message one's heart desired, given enough paint. Tritt unloaded his supplies near the center of the wall. His would be a memorial.

Within the last few days, five students had been brutalized and murdered in unspeakable ways. Students had fled in hysterics. The killer remained on the loose.

Tritt wasn't a student, but he had seen the candles and wreaths left outside the dorm rooms on the University of Florida campus. A friend there offered to help him build something bigger. The men went to Walmart and bought remainder paint, two brushes, a roller and a tray. Tritt's wife complained bitterly — the $11.25 in paint ate up half their week's grocery money.

They painted in the dark. As cars passed by, they ducked out of sight, just in case. When they had finished, they stepped back to take in the history they had made:

Big hearts. Five names. And one command — REMEMBER.

But Gainesville is a transient town. Every semester brings a class of new faces, and every year the city changes. Last month, the 20th anniversary of the murders passed quietly. Remembering, it turns out, isn't so easy.

• • •

It was just after noon on this busy campus, late last month, when Jim Larson walked to the back of a crowd gathered near Library West.

Twenty years had passed since the murders. To mark the date, volunteers had created a new memorial, tying white ribbons around five thin trees. Larson told a TV reporter he couldn't believe it had been that long. His sister was the first killed, stabbed to death when she was 17.

The organizers had done little to publicize the memorial, instead keeping it among locals and officials who had helped then and family and friends of the victims — Sonja Larson, Christina Powell, Christa Hoyt, Manuel Taboada and Tracy Paules. The fall semester had just begun that week. Many students were still finding their classrooms.

"I don't want them to ever forget," said Ann Garren, Hoyt's mother, after the ribbons had been tied. "This was a time that brought this city to its knees."

A passing student stopped outside the crowd and turned to Larson.

"What's going on?"

• • •

South of campus, at the colonial-styled complex of Williamsburg Village, killer Danny Rolling first struck at Apartment 113. Within the next three days he would move to two others: a small duplex in a wooded outcrop known to neighbors as "El's Ghetto" and the rundown Gatorwood Apartments.

For a time those units seemed cursed to sit empty forever, but over years the city changed. The wooded back yard of the duplex was paved over for the Estates, one of the city's largest complexes, famous for its pool parties. Gatorwood was bulldozed for luxury apartments replete with a "cybercafe" and poolside gourmet kitchen.

Apartment 113 was rented for a few semesters, then used as a model showroom, then locked up for lack of renters, said leasing agent Marti Stewart. It's vacant now, though they'd rent it if they could. Most renters don't care when Stewart tells them what happened. "They say, 'This happens anywhere,' " she said.

It was last asked about a few years ago, she said. A group of criminology students wanted a tour.

• • •

In 1994, after Rolling was sentenced to death, a judge opened the crime scene photos to the public. Clerks stored them in baby-blue binders at the Alachua County Courthouse, Room 113. The pictures ranged from the grisly to the mundane: a jimmied back door, a TV remote control, a woman's bloodied hand, a carton of Ben & Jerry's.

The photos, an Orlando Sentinel columnist mocked, became the "hottest ticket in town." About 125 people reserved a time with them within the first two days. The line for walk-ins stretched down the block. Housewives and teachers and out-of-town deputies came for the sight. Garren, the mother of Christa Hoyt, once 18, once an honors student, picketed outside the courthouse where strangers had seen images of her daughter's headless body.

"So," she shouted, "how were those photos?"

Last month there were two requests. A young assistant criminology professor asked to gather research for her course on serial killers, and a film crew from Ontario recorded evidence for the Discovery Channel. Suddenly the vault seemed surprisingly busy — the court staff had grown accustomed to about one request a year.

"I used to spend eight hours a day at 15-minute clips. . . . I cringe every time someone asks me to see those things," courthouse assistant clerk Richard Bryan said. "Once it faded from the memory of most folks around here, those (requests) kind of went away."

• • •

At any given moment there are 50,000 students on campus bowed to laptops, complaining about roommates, flirting. Few people talk about 1990.

"It's still kind of out there in the air, but it's a lot less known," said Joey Flechas, a student reporter for the campus paper, the Independent Florida Alligator. "There are definitely some people who don't know about it at all." He learned about the murders online. Others, he said, saw it on TV crime shows.

"While this awful event left an indelible mark on UF and the Gainesville community," university president Bernie Machen said, "the fact is, many University of Florida students have yet to celebrate their 20th birthdays."

There is little formal education into what happened then, besides what the students find themselves. The memorials make that easier. But the rest of the story?

"Maybe it's a good thing that some of the sharper images of that time have faded away," said David Kratzer, the director of the Reitz student union in 1990 and the associate vice president for student affairs today. "You can't live with the intensity of those events every day. They'll consume you."

• • •

Josh Townsend, a Gainesville High School student during the murders, spent $200,000 producing a schlocky horror film he called The Gainesville Ripper. Rolling is played by the star of local barbecue commercials. Townsend feverishly advertised last month's premiere at Gator Cinemas, posting hundreds of fliers downtown and on University Avenue.

"When I went around that weekend promoting it, 98 percent of people I talked to had no idea who Danny Rolling was," Townsend said. "I talked to 400 or 500 people."

The premiere was attended by 120 people, half of whom were on the guest list. There was no second showing.

• • •

Few have dared to touch Tritt's painting. For years, a Gainesville police officer named Sadie Darnell, aided by a group dubbed the "keepers of the wall," kept paint in her garage to touch up blemishes. When she gave up, a group of fraternity brothers took over. They repaint it every spring.

"It is sacred territory. It is a part of the fabric that defined Gainesville," said Spencer Mann, the spokesman for the Alachua County Sheriff's Office at the time of the killings. "Everything else on that wall is inconsequential. That one fixed space has true meaning."

The only one who seems to disagree is Tritt. The night the paint first dried, he gave it a week, tops. He was surprised to learn it's still there.

"You're actively keeping in front of you an act of murder. I don't really know that it's helpful to have it there," he said. "We love the wall, the fact that it's a monument to impermanence. I find it rather ironic that I managed to ruin it."

University of Florida student Andrew Pantazi contributed to this report. Drew Harwell can be reached at or (727) 869-6244.

After 20 years, Gainesville still marked by Danny Rolling's murders 09/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 24, 2010 4:49pm]
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