WESLEY CHAPEL — A sense of terror jars Jan Soran awake in her bed. She can't remember the details of the nightmare, but she knows where they originate.
Twenty-seven years have not erased what she saw. How could they? Sometimes she thinks it might all be over, that she has found a level of personal happiness to match her professional success. And then she has another nightmare.
Lately, she blames the book, Relentless Reality. She's glad she wrote it, but the process has freshened old wounds and insecurities. That's okay, she says, if it gives hope to others in desperate situations.
"Things do eventually get better,'' she says, strolling through her modern kitchen, past her fancy pool and pictures of friends having fun — past pictures of the young mother she lost.
• • •
Until July 10, 1985, nothing seemed outwardly unusual for the Rooney family of Seminole. Robert and Paula had married 16 years earlier when he served in the Air Force. Now he was a lieutenant with the Indian Rocks Beach Fire Department and she owned a candle shop. They lived in a nice house on a cul-de-sac with Paul, 14, and twins David and Jan, 12.
On July 9, Paul worked at the candle shop and joked with his mother and employees, according to published reports. He went with his parents to a house they were having built on the intracoastal waterway. Paul and his brother played with a soccer ball. Paul, one of the smartest kids at the private Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg, joined in conversations with the builder about furnishings.
That night, per tradition, they dropped by the fire station to visit Robert as he began the late shift. Jan didn't make it because she was spending the night with a friend two houses down. Paula called her husband at 12:30 a.m. to say good night.
About eight hours later, Jan awoke and walked home. She wanted to have breakfast with her mother before leaving for a YMCA summer camp. It seemed odd that the family van wasn't in the driveway. The front door was locked. Jan peered through the kitchen window and saw her mother on the floor. She squeezed through an opening in the garage door and found her mother dead, shot once in the face. Jan called her father and as he raced home, she discovered David's body in a bathroom. He, too, had been shot in the head.
The van was missing, and authorities soon learned that Paul had driven it to Seffner, parked near a convenience store and shot himself in the head.
At the candle shop, an employee found a note from Paul addressed to his dad and Jan.
"I know sorry isn't right, but I'm sorry I messed up your lives,'' he wrote. "I didn't really mess up mine anymore, now that I'm dead.'' On the back of the note in what seemed an afterthought he added, "I didn't want to kill Dave, but he could hear me kill mom, so he had to go.''
Twelve hours after the murders, Robert Rooney talked to reporters in his living room.
"You've got to try not to psychoanalyze Paul,'' he said, "but to try to think of all the things that may have brought him to this point . . . an accumulation of little things that after a while became too much to handle. The only thing I can believe is that it built to such a height that he just struck out. Why he chose to take it out on his mother, I just don't know.''
At a memorial service, Paula, David and Paul lay side by side in open caskets. More than 300 people attended burial at Serenity Gardens in Largo. Boy Scouts from David's troop saluted.
And then the story disappeared. Authorities declared the case cut and dried. Any motive for Paul's rampage went with him to the grave.
• • •
Jan Soran understands that even after almost three decades, many people in the Tampa Bay area remember the crime. "I know they must wonder whatever happened to that little girl who found her mother and brother dead,'' she said.
For years, she retreated. Her father moved them into the new house, away from her neighborhood friends. Six months after the murders, he married a woman who had an 8-year-old daughter. "We didn't get along,'' Jan said. "I pretty much stayed in my room. We didn't talk about my mother or brothers. Dad would say, 'Get over it.' We didn't visit the cemetery. He was never home, either at the fire department or at the hospital where he worked as a medic."
She attended Seminole High for two years but redistricting sent her to Largo High as a junior. She didn't have many friends but enjoyed the relative anonymity. She joined the swim team and the Latin Honor Society. She graduated in the top 10 percent of her class in 1990 and headed to the University of Miami with plans to be a doctor. Her grandmother, Virginia Leonard, provided financial support.
"I wanted to get far away from home,'' she said. "People didn't know me or what had happened. I felt like if I told them, they would judge me, maybe think if her brother could do that, what might she be capable of doing?''
She consulted psychiatrists, "but I didn't get much out of the sessions. When I told my story to one doctor, she started saying, 'Oh my God, oh my God this is so terrible,' and I felt like I was counseling her.''
She switched majors from pre-med to business and graduated. She followed a boyfriend to Ohio and earned a master's in public administration at the University of Akron but her personal life was a shambles. She left the boyfriend and later married another man. They divorced in two years.
In 2002, she returned to Florida and rented a condo on St. Pete Beach. She prepared tax returns and built a three-bedroom home in Seminole, five minutes from the house where she lived as a little girl. For the first time since the murders, she visited the cemetery. She spoke to her mother, apologized to David for not being there that morning. She cursed Paul.
"I thought I'd be helping myself,'' she said, "but emotionally it was too much.'' She thought how strange Paul could be, how she and David made fun of him. Paul was a bookworm with few friends. They called him a "nerd'' and "geek.''
Jan got a master's in business administration at Webster College and spent years in key positions at banks in Tampa. She bought a house in Wesley Chapel and on March 17, 2007 married a man she had met on an Internet dating service, Rick Soran.
"He's been my salvation,'' said Jan, now 40. Rick Soran travels for Boar's Head, setting up distribution partners.
She hasn't attempted to talk to her father in more than 20 years. In her book, her resentment of him dominates several chapters, starting with the murder scene when she describes him coming home and ignoring her.
Robert Rooney retired from the fire department in 1986, worked in real estate and moved to a small town in northeastern Georgia in 1992. He retired as a cabinet maker. Few people in Georgia know details about his life in Florida, he said, and he rarely returns. He said he was not surprised at his daughter's portrayal of him.
"I drove her to Miami, helped her move in and everything seemed okay,'' he said. "We went to a football game. Then just out of the blue, she shut down. It was something she perceived, but I just don't know.''
He had not seen the book but expressed dismay that Jan published graphic pictures from the crime scene. Jan explained why: "Until you see the pictures, you can't understand what a 12-year-old walked into.''
Rooney said he thinks every day about the family he lost — including the one member who survived that July day in 1985.
"Jan is still my daughter and I'll always love her,'' he said. But he doubts he'll see her again. He figures writing the book probably helped her deal with a trauma that never goes away.
"I'm sure it has something to do with it,'' Rooney said. "She was just 12 years old. I mean, come on.''
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Bill Stevens at [email protected] or (727) 869-6250.