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Danny Rolling killed five in Gainesville 27 years ago this week

Published Aug. 23, 2017

The following story appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on October 26, 2006, the day after Danny Rolling was put to death. Also included are photos covering the period from the time of the murders to the day of Rolling execution.

Rolling Executed

By Chris Tisch, Tamara Lush and Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler

Times Staff Writers

STARKE – The drab brown curtain between killer and survivors opened at 5:59 p.m. Wednesday. Danny Rolling lay on a gurney.

A prison official asked Florida's most notorious serial killer since Ted Bundy if he had a last statement. Rolling responded with a twangy hymn, apparently self-penned.

"He who flung the stars into heavens above, created the oceans, mountains, eagles and doves," he sang. "None greater than thee, Oh Lord, none greater than thee."

Family members of his eight victims - five in Florida and three he was linked to in Louisiana - clutched each other, rolled their eyes or shook their heads.

One family member later called it "a waste of time."

When Rolling paused after two minutes, the prison staff cut off the microphone.

Rolling's mouth began moving again as if to sing, but it was too late. The fluids began pumping into his arm. His mouth went still, then his chest.

At 6:13 p.m., the man who terrorized Gainesville 16 years ago, was pronounced dead.

Rolling only briefly looked in the witness room, into the eyes of Ricky Paules, the mother of Tracy Paules, whom Rolling killed in her Gainesville apartment. Rolling confessed to killing her and four other college students - Christa Hoyt, Sonja Larson, Manuel Taboada, and Christina Powell - during a three-day rampage in August 1990.

Later, outside the prison, the families of Rolling's victims said they were relieved he was gone. They urged people to forget Rolling, but remember their loved ones whom he had so savagely killed.

(Times files)

Tracy Paules was a 23-year-old Political Science major at UF. She was looking forward to law school.

(MELISSA LYTTLE | Tampa Bay Times)

October 25, 2006 - Tracy Paules' mother Rickie Paules, brother Scott Paules and sister Laurie Lahey.

(Times files)

Tracy Paules was a 23-year-old Political Science major at UF. She was looking forward to law school.

(MELISSA LYTTLE | Tampa Bay Times)

October 25, 2006 - Tracy Paules' mother Rickie Paules, brother Scott Paules and sister Laurie Lahey.

"Our pain will never go away, but this evil man has gone away now," wrote Ada Larson - mother of Sonja - in a statement handed to the media after the execution. "He will no longer gain sympathy from those who have befriended him while in prison. He will no longer be able to draw his illicit and weird drawings. He will no longer be housed, fed and taken care of on our expense. ... He could not die 8 times, as would have been more just. His life does not equal the lives he took."

(Times files)

Sonja Larson was an 18-year-old University of Florida freshman.

(AP Photo/Alan D. Byrd)

August 29, 1996 - Ada Larson, mother of Sonja Larson

(Times files)

Sonja Larson was an 18-year-old University of Florida freshman.

(AP Photo/Alan D. Byrd)

August 29, 1996 - Ada Larson, mother of Sonja Larson

Dianna Hoyt, Christa Hoyt's stepmother, called the day "surreal."

"We all have very fragile emotions right now. It's just a rollercoaster ride," she said. "We need to try to relax and live with our memories and be at peace with that."

As for Rolling's singing in the death chamber, she said, "I didn't appreciate his song. I didn't understand how he could sit there and sing about angels watching over him."

(Times files)

Christa Hoyt was an 18-eyar-old student at Santa Fe Community College

(AP Photo/Alan D. Byrd)

August 29, 1996 - Diana Hoyt, stepmother of Christa Hoyt.

(Times files)

Christa Hoyt was an 18-eyar-old student at Santa Fe Community College

(AP Photo/Alan D. Byrd)

August 29, 1996 - Diana Hoyt, stepmother of Christa Hoyt.

Scott Paules, the brother of Tracy Paules, said that people should remember the victims, not Rolling's performance in the moments before he died.

(Times files)

Christina Powell was a 17-year-old University of Florida freshman.

(Times files)

Manuel "Manny" Taboada was a 23-year-old Architecture major at UF.

(Times files)

Christina Powell was a 17-year-old University of Florida freshman.

(Times files)

Manuel "Manny" Taboada was a 23-year-old Architecture major at UF.

"It didn't mean anything," he said. "Quite honestly, it was a waste of time."

According to prison officials, Rolling was calm during his final hours. He ate a last meal of lobster, butterfly shrimp, a baked potato, strawberry cheesecake and sweet tea before noon. He met Wednesday morning with his brother and a pastor, then met with a spiritual adviser in the afternoon.

Shortly before 6 p.m., more than a dozen family members of Rolling's victims crowded into the witness room. The room normally holds 24 chairs, but prison officials nearly doubled it for this execution. Forty-seven people packed the small room, which isn't much larger than a medium-sized conference room.

The state attorney from Gainesville, Bill Cervone, was there, as were some of his staff. Twelve members of the media attended, as did five corrections staff members.

After the curtains opened, Rolling went into his song, continuing for five verses and choruses. One of the lines quoted a verse from Corinthians.

After Rolling had taken his final breath, family members walked out quietly, showing little emotion.

At the University of Florida, no vigils for the victims were planned, though some students did leave flowers and a candle at a wall that still bears the victims' names 16 years later.

(DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times)

October 25, 2006 - Jonathan Samonas, 19, of Coral Springs, touches one of the painted hearts on a painted wall memorializing victims of the Gainesville murders moments after hearing that Danny Rolling was pronounced dead on Wednesday. The University of Florida student and a friend had repainted the memorial wall, on 34th Street, in Gainesville, two months ago after it had been vandalized. "I realized what time it was so I decided to come out and pay my respects," Samonas said. Rolling was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering UF students Christa Leigh Hoyt, Sonja Larson, Tracy Paules, Christina P. Powell and Manuel Taboada in August, 1990.

(DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times)

October 25, 2006 - Jonathan Samonas, 19, of Coral Springs, touches one of the painted hearts on a painted wall memorializing victims of the Gainesville murders moments after hearing that Danny Rolling was pronounced dead on Wednesday. The University of Florida student and a friend had repainted the memorial wall, on 34th Street, in Gainesville, two months ago after it had been vandalized. "I realized what time it was so I decided to come out and pay my respects," Samonas said. Rolling was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering UF students Christa Leigh Hoyt, Sonja Larson, Tracy Paules, Christina P. Powell and Manuel Taboada in August, 1990.

Lauren Marks, 23, a UF law student, left the flowers at the wall painted with the victims' names. She found out Wednesday from her parents that Tracy Paules was her childhood babysitter.

"It was pretty shocking and kind of disturbing," Marks said. "She was wonderful and caring. She was part of my family."

UF library archivist Joel Buchanan, 55, was a financial aid administrator at the time of the murders. Wednesday afternoon, as he walked past five memorial trees planted on campus shortly after the murders, he wondered why there were no vigils or gatherings planned in Gainesville to honor Rolling's victims.

"I think it's because people didn't want to bring back that unpleasantness," Buchanan said. "But we can't forget them. It did happen. Something should have happened here on campus today, because those students were just like the students walking around here today."

Outside the state prison in Starke, 40-plus miles from Gainesville, the execution did not attract huge crowds of celebrators and protesters like the execution of Bundy in 1989, when people popped champagne bottles and drank beer.

Still, about 200 people gathered in the field across the street from the death chamber.

About half stood on one side, near a sign that said "supporters." The other half stood near a sign that said "Opponents." They were separated by their views on the death penalty and a row of Florida Highway Patrol cruisers.

Denise Fox, 41, of Gainesville, held a sign that said, "Finally ...Kill!!! The Killer!"

"He has been given more rights than the victims," said Fox, who said she is a passionate anti-fur activist and a vegetarian. "I feel strongly that he should die."

People on both sides used religious arguments to bolster their views. Harry Kenner, 49, of Palatka held a sign quoting Genesis, a passage about bloodshed. Kenner was in Gainesville during the time of the 1990 murders.

"It dawned on me that some people are capable of doing the most horrific things," he said. "If anybody deserves the death penalty, it's Danny Rolling. He doesn't need to be among the living."

Two Catholic priests led prayers in a circle of death penalty opponents; they also held a sign painted with a crucifixion that said, "All human life is sacred." At 6 p.m., they sang Kumbayah.

The anti-death penalty demonstrators acknowledged that Rolling's execution is a difficult one to oppose.

"If the death penalty were applied fairly, it would be for people like Danny Rolling," said Amy Jo Smith, 67, of Gainesville. Smith is a Unitarian Universalist who travels to the prison to protest executions.

Still, she said, "He's still a person. No matter how heinous his crimes were, for us to do the same thing - to kill him - it doesn't make sense."

At about 6:18 p.m., word that Rolling was dead filtered through the crowd.

The supporters of the death penalty clapped for a few seconds. The opponents sang Amazing Grace.

(MELISSA LYTTLE | Tampa Bay Times)

October 25, 2006 - While waiting with a group of supporters for the death penalty outside of the Florida State Prison, Elizabeth Hartnett, 43, and Beverly Pomeroy, 47, raise their fists in celebration after the clock struck 6 p.m. Wednesday, signaling the execution of Danny Rolling.

(MELISSA LYTTLE | Tampa Bay Times)

October 25, 2006 - While waiting with a group of supporters for the death penalty outside of the Florida State Prison, Elizabeth Hartnett, 43, and Beverly Pomeroy, 47, raise their fists in celebration after the clock struck 6 p.m. Wednesday, signaling the execution of Danny Rolling.

(MELISSA LYTTLE | Tampa Bay Times)

October 25, 2006 - "I've been praying all day," said Meghan Dandrea, 22, of Rockledge, Fla. She was one of 45 from the diocese of Orlando who came to the Florida State Prison to oppose the death penalty, on the day Danny Rolling was being executed by the state. "It's hard to be this close to death," said Dandrea. "He's a human being, and I believe in the dignity of life. That dignity is not being upheld today."

(MELISSA LYTTLE | Tampa Bay Times)

October 25, 2006 - "I've been praying all day," said Meghan Dandrea, 22, of Rockledge, Fla. She was one of 45 from the diocese of Orlando who came to the Florida State Prison to oppose the death penalty, on the day Danny Rolling was being executed by the state. "It's hard to be this close to death," said Dandrea. "He's a human being, and I believe in the dignity of life. That dignity is not being upheld today."

A few minutes later, everyone walked away, silent.

(Times files)

August 28, 1990 - Two Found Dead -- Law enforcement officials investigate the deaths of a man and woman who were found at a student apartment complex in Gainesville, Fla. Tuesday. Law enforcement authorities said they did not know if these deaths were related to the earlier slayings of three young women in the college community. Police said Monday that the deaths of the three women were linked.

(Times files)

August 28, 1990 - Two Found Dead -- Law enforcement officials investigate the deaths of a man and woman who were found at a student apartment complex in Gainesville, Fla. Tuesday. Law enforcement authorities said they did not know if these deaths were related to the earlier slayings of three young women in the college community. Police said Monday that the deaths of the three women were linked.

(Times files)

August 28, 1990 - Moving Out -- Two unidentified residents of the Gatorwood apartment complex in Gainesville, Fla., move their belongings move their belongings out after the discovery of two slaying victims on Tuesday. The double slaying makes a total five victims discovered in a three-day period. In the background is a Florida Department of Law Enforcement van.

(Times files)

August 28, 1990 - Moving Out -- Two unidentified residents of the Gatorwood apartment complex in Gainesville, Fla., move their belongings move their belongings out after the discovery of two slaying victims on Tuesday. The double slaying makes a total five victims discovered in a three-day period. In the background is a Florida Department of Law Enforcement van.

(V. JANE WINDSOR | Tampa Bay Times)

August 29, 1990 - Students were able to call home and assure loved ones they were safe on phones set up at Butler Plaza.

(V. JANE WINDSOR | Tampa Bay Times)

August 29, 1990 - Students were able to call home and assure loved ones they were safe on phones set up at Butler Plaza.

(BRIAN BAER | Tampa Bay Times)

August 29, 1990 - University of Florida students listen somberly at a meeting called by UF President John Lombardi to offer safety tips.

(BRIAN BAER | Tampa Bay Times)

August 29, 1990 - University of Florida students listen somberly at a meeting called by UF President John Lombardi to offer safety tips.

(Times files)

August 30, 1990 -- Miami attorney Gary Marks embrace a man outside a Coral Gables funeral chapel during a visitation for Tracy Paules. Paules, 23, and longtime friend Manuel Taboada were found murdered Tuesday in the Gainesville apartment they shared. Paules worked at Mark's law firm.

(Times files)

August 31, 1990 - Memorial Grief -- Sonja Larson's boyfriend comforts two of her high school classmates at a memorial service for the slain co-ed in Pompano Beach Thursday. Sonja was one of five University of Florida students found slain near the campus in Gainesville last weekend.

(Times files)

August 30, 1990 -- Miami attorney Gary Marks embrace a man outside a Coral Gables funeral chapel during a visitation for Tracy Paules. Paules, 23, and longtime friend Manuel Taboada were found murdered Tuesday in the Gainesville apartment they shared. Paules worked at Mark's law firm.

(Times files)

August 31, 1990 - Memorial Grief -- Sonja Larson's boyfriend comforts two of her high school classmates at a memorial service for the slain co-ed in Pompano Beach Thursday. Sonja was one of five University of Florida students found slain near the campus in Gainesville last weekend.

(Times files)

August 31, 1990 - Taboada Funeral -- Pallbearers carry the casket of Manuel Taboada during his funeral held Friday Morning in Miami, Fla.. Taboada was one of the five victims murdered in Gainesville, Fla.

(Times files)

August 31, 1990 - Taboada Funeral -- Pallbearers carry the casket of Manuel Taboada during his funeral held Friday Morning in Miami, Fla.. Taboada was one of the five victims murdered in Gainesville, Fla.

(Times files)

September 1990 - In Loving Memory of "Miss Sonja"

(Times files)

September 1990 - In Loving Memory of "Miss Sonja"

(Times files)

November 19, 1992 - Wall at UF with names of murder victims.

(Times files)

November 19, 1992 - Wall at UF with names of murder victims.

(FRASER HALE | Tampa Bay Times)

February 15, 1994 - Gainesville, FL - After the guilty plea by serial murder suspect Danny Rolling, Mario Taboada, the brother of a victim, talks to the media.

(FRASER HALE | Tampa Bay Times)

February 15, 1994 - Gainesville, FL - After the guilty plea by serial murder suspect Danny Rolling, his fiance Sondra Londo leaves the courthouse.

(FRASER HALE | Tampa Bay Times)

February 15, 1994 - Gainesville, FL - After the guilty plea by serial murder suspect Danny Rolling, Mario Taboada, the brother of a victim, talks to the media.

(FRASER HALE | Tampa Bay Times)

February 15, 1994 - Gainesville, FL - After the guilty plea by serial murder suspect Danny Rolling, his fiance Sondra Londo leaves the courthouse.

(Times files)

March 9, 1994 - A juror in the sentencing phase of the Danny Rolling murder trial wipes away tears after looking at graphic photos of victims Manuel Taboada and Tracy Paules Wednesday, March 9, 1994, in Gainesville, Fla. The jurors are helping decide if Rolling, who confessed to the murders of five college students on the day his trial was to start, should spend life in prison or die in Florid's electric chair.

(Times files)

March 9, 1994 - A juror in the sentencing phase of the Danny Rolling murder trial wipes away tears after looking at graphic photos of victims Manuel Taboada and Tracy Paules Wednesday, March 9, 1994, in Gainesville, Fla. The jurors are helping decide if Rolling, who confessed to the murders of five college students on the day his trial was to start, should spend life in prison or die in Florid's electric chair.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

March 10, 1994 - State Attorney Rod Smith shows the jury Danny Rolling's ski mask Thursday, March 10, 1994, at the Alachua County courthouse in Gainesville, Fla. Danny Rolling, who pleaded guilty to killing five college students in 1990, allegedly used the mask during a bank robbery and the student murders.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

March 10, 1994 - State Attorney Rod Smith shows the jury Danny Rolling's ski mask Thursday, March 10, 1994, at the Alachua County courthouse in Gainesville, Fla. Danny Rolling, who pleaded guilty to killing five college students in 1990, allegedly used the mask during a bank robbery and the student murders.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

March 24, 1994 - Ricky Paules, left, mother of Danny Rolling murder victim Tracy Paules, with her daughter Laurie Paules Lahey, center, and Ricky's husband George Paules, as the death sentences are read Thursday morning, March 24, 1994, in Gainesville, Fla. A jury recommended that Rolling should die for the murders of five Gainesville college students in 1990.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

March 24, 1994 - Ricky Paules, left, mother of Danny Rolling murder victim Tracy Paules, with her daughter Laurie Paules Lahey, center, and Ricky's husband George Paules, as the death sentences are read Thursday morning, March 24, 1994, in Gainesville, Fla. A jury recommended that Rolling should die for the murders of five Gainesville college students in 1990.

(AP Photo/Gainesville Sun, John Moran)

April 20, 1994 - Circuit Judge Stan Morris delivers the death penalty to Danny Rolling at the Alachua County Courthouse Wednesday, April 20, 1994.

(AP Photo/Gainesville Sun, John Moran)

April 20, 1994 - Circuit Judge Stan Morris delivers the death penalty to Danny Rolling at the Alachua County Courthouse Wednesday, April 20, 1994.

(AP Photo/Gainesville Sun, John Moran)

April 20, 1994 - Just after Danny Rolling was sentenced to death Wednesday, April 20, 1994, victim brother Mario Taboada jumped to his feet and yelled across the courtroom at Rolling that he would be dead within five years. "Justice is beyond these walls," Taboada said. After a bailiff was ordered to remove Taboada, he said, "We have the last say. We will prevail."

(AP Photo/Gainesville Sun, John Moran)

April 20, 1994 - Just after Danny Rolling was sentenced to death Wednesday, April 20, 1994, victim brother Mario Taboada jumped to his feet and yelled across the courtroom at Rolling that he would be dead within five years. "Justice is beyond these walls," Taboada said. After a bailiff was ordered to remove Taboada, he said, "We have the last say. We will prevail."

(AP Photo/Alan D. Byrd)

August 29, 1996 - Ada Larson, center, mother of Sonja Larson, and Diana Hoyt, right, stepmother of Christa Hoyt, both slain by confessed killer Danny Rolling, sit in on oral arguments by lawyers appealing Rolling's sentencing at the Florida Supreme Court Thursday morning, Aug. 29, 1996, in Tallahassee, Fla.

(AP Photo/Alan D. Byrd)

August 29, 1996 - Ada Larson, center, mother of Sonja Larson, and Diana Hoyt, right, stepmother of Christa Hoyt, both slain by confessed killer Danny Rolling, sit in on oral arguments by lawyers appealing Rolling's sentencing at the Florida Supreme Court Thursday morning, Aug. 29, 1996, in Tallahassee, Fla.

(AP Photo/Don Edgar)

February 17, 1998 - Ricky Paules, left and husband George Paules, parents of Tracy Paules, killed by confessed killer Danny Rolling, are all smiles as the Senate Criminal Justice Committee breaks up after unanimously voting to confirm electrocution as Florida's method of execution Tuesday, Feb. 17, 1998, in Tallahassee, Fla. The bill also names lethal injection as the next best execution method should the court ever rule electrocution as cruel and unusual punishment.

(AP Photo/Don Edgar)

February 17, 1998 - Ricky Paules, left and husband George Paules, parents of Tracy Paules, killed by confessed killer Danny Rolling, are all smiles as the Senate Criminal Justice Committee breaks up after unanimously voting to confirm electrocution as Florida's method of execution Tuesday, Feb. 17, 1998, in Tallahassee, Fla. The bill also names lethal injection as the next best execution method should the court ever rule electrocution as cruel and unusual punishment.

(MELISSA LYTTLE | Tampa Bay Times)

October 25, 2006 - Friends and family of the victims of the Gaiensville murders, including Tracy Paules' mother Rickie Paules, her brother Scott Paules and her sister Laurie Lahey (from left) wait to speak to members of the media following Danny Rolling's execution Wednesday.

(MELISSA LYTTLE | Tampa Bay Times)

October 25, 2006 - Friends and family of the victims of the Gaiensville murders, including Tracy Paules' mother Rickie Paules, her brother Scott Paules and her sister Laurie Lahey (from left) wait to speak to members of the media following Danny Rolling's execution Wednesday.

Tim Rozgonyi

Twitter: @timrozgonyi

e-mail: trozgonyi@tampabay.com

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