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Fears eased by arrest in Gainesville

By mid-afternoon Saturday, more than 24 hours after the murders of two University of Florida students, investigators were not making great headway. They were sure the killings were not connected to the unsolved serial murders of five students last August. But that was all they were sure about.

They had no suspects. No motive. No reason to think this investigation wouldn't drag on, too.

Then the call came _ the kind of break detectives hope for, but can't count on.

Lt. Spencer Mann, spokesman for the Alachua County Sheriff's Department, said a local merchant realized one of his employees had done some work for the two victims the day they died.

What followed was a quick chain of events _ routine police work, Mann called it _ that led to an arrest and an early morning press conference that, perhaps, lets Gainesville sleep a bit easier today.

By 9 a.m. Sunday, Alan Robert Davis, a 29-year-old carpet cleaner, stood before a county judge, and two murders that had rekindled fears of serial killings past suddenly appeared simpler if no less tragic.

Police said they had evidence and a confession. Davis, they charge, strangled Carla Marie McKishnie, 22, of Brandon, and Eleanor Anne Grace, 20, of Fort Myers. But police have said little else.

Answers to what could have driven a reliable carpet cleaner who was loved by his wife and four stepchildren to suddenly murder two of his customers will have to wait, police say.

But the picture of how police closed in on Davis was clearer.

When detectives were told Davis had cleaned the victims' carpets, they simply added his name to the list of people to talk to as they tried to reconstruct the victims' last day.

"We just went out to interview him," Mann says. "He wasn't considered a suspect at the time."

Detectives found Davis Saturday evening cleaning carpets at an apartment complex in southwest Gainesville, not far from the Casablanca West condominium complex where the women were murdered.

Detectives asked Davis a few questions, Mann said, but had no immediate reason to suspect him. They asked Davis to accompany them to the sheriff's office so they could continue the interview in private, a routine step in sensitive cases, Mann said.

"We still didn't see him as a suspect," Mann said, "but then boom, late last night he confessed."

A prosecutor said Sunday that Davis told investigators he became enraged after one of the women sprayed him with mace.

According to State Attorney Len Register, Davis said he knocked Grace unconscious after she sprayed him. Her roommate then came to her aid.

Davis said he strangled McKishnie, then choked Grace to death, Register told the Gainesville Sun.

The paper said the women had been given the mace by their parents for protection.

Investigators would not say what led Grace to use the mace.

Within the last year, Davis had cleared land a half mile or so down a dirt road in a woods northwest of Gainesville.

He moved his wife of three years and her children from a previous marriage into a mobile home there.

Relatives said Davis was a good father, caring for the children as though they were his own. That, in part, is why they find the charges against him unbelievable.

Cheryl Parrish, Davis' sister-in-law, said Davis and his wife Tammy had been planning to re-stage their wedding because the children had not been able to attend the first ceremony.

"They loved him," Parrish said. "They called him Dad."

If Davis did kill, Parrish said, "he had to be provoked real bad because he's not a violent man."

Parrish's husband, Terry Redemsky, says he never saw Davis lose his temper. Davis was arrested in 1989 on a charge of resisting arrest with violence, but Redemsky said Davis told him the arrest stemmed from a misunderstanding when he mistook a police officer for a mugger.

"I don't care if they say he confessed to the killings," Redemsky says. "I don't believe it. They had to coerce him or something. I don't believe it till I hear it from the man himself."

As news of the murders raced through town Friday, Parrish said Davis told family members he had cleaned the victims' carpets before their deaths.

"He said he was there and he talked to the blond one and she was alive when he had left," Parrish said. "I just don't believe he could've done it."

If police have an explanation for what specifically spurred the violence, they aren't sharing it. But they have charged Davis with first-degree murder, indicating they believe Davis clearly intended to cause the women's death.

Neither of the women showed signs of sexual molestation.

Mann wouldn't comment on whether Davis was experiencing any problems, but Sandra White, Davis' neighbor, said Tammy Davis told her she had just recently taken her children back from foster care. White didn't know why the children were in foster care.

Word of the arrest, announced at a 2 a.m. press conference Sunday, brought relief to a city that has seen more than its share of trauma in recent years.

In 1989 UF student Tiffany Sessions, also a Casablanca resident, disappeared while jogging and has never been found.

Last August, five students were stabbed to death and three of them were mutilated. Two suspects are in custody but have not been charged in those killings.

For a time Friday's killings appeared to share some elements with last August's murders.

University officials quickly reactivated student support programs first used last August and bolstered security on campus.

After Davis' arrest was announced, UF officials expressed relief and were again reminding students to remain vigilant.

Art Sandeen, UF's vice president for student affairs, said the murders had renewed concerns about off-campus security.

"I'm not sure that any kind of security service we offer on campus could have prevented what happened here," Sandeen said.

Residents living in and near the West Casablanca complex say the arrest came as a great relief, but carried a lesson of renewed safety.

Bettina Scovill, 25, a former UF student, said Rainbow International Carpet Dyeing and Cleaning _ Davis' employer _ did a lot of work at the Casablanca complex.

She said the arrest relieved tension that built last fall as those killings remained unsolved.

But the relief felt by Gainesville residents is not complete. These deaths were a reminder of the continuing vulnerability of students in the populous but often isolated off-campus housing complexes.

The deaths, too, leave three families in turmoil.

Two families are burying beloved daughters. Another family is suddenly separated from a son, husband and stepfather.

As she walked to the Alachua County Courthouse Sunday morning, a frail, elderly woman was trying to be strong amid a throng of reporters.

When asked if she knew Alan Robert Davis, she suddenly leaned against a friend. Trembling and crying, she could say only "Yes, he's my son."