Grisly Gainesville Ripper
On August 20 1990, the beautiful university town of Gainesville, Florida was ranked as being the thirteenth best place to live in the United States by Money magazine. By the end of the following week, American papers had renamed the town “Grisly Gainesville” after the bodies of five young students had been discovered brutally murdered and mutilated as they slept in their apartments. One weekend of savagery by one man transformed the excitement and anticipation of the beginning of a new semester into terror as hundreds of students fled, not knowing if and when he would strike again.
One week later the media reported that the police had their number one suspect in custody, which launched an ordeal of nightmarish proportions for Edward Humphrey and his family. His was the classic example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Emotionally disturbed with a long history of strange behavior and violent emotional outbursts, he had seemed to police and the many witnesses to his antics, to be a prime suspect. With no evidence to hold him, the authorities somehow succeeded in stretching the limits of the law and had him locked away while they built their case around him. Before they could, the real killer was found.
Daniel Harold Rolling had moved on after the murders in Gainesville and was eventually arrested for armed robbery in Ocala, Florida. It would be some time before he would be linked to the murders, and it would be longer still before Edward Humphrey’s name would be cleared.
Daniel Rolling’s story tends to confirm the idea that the environment in which they spend their formative years encourages the development of serial killers. It would be impossible to know the account of Rolling’s childhood and not feel compassion for the child who was abused, beaten and bullied by an over-bearing and disturbed father. It would be impossible not to feel anger toward his mother who time and time again refused to take any action to protect her own son. But Daniel Rolling was not a child when he brutally murdered five young people at the threshold of their lives. Were the psychological scars from his childhood so deep that he was unable to control his malevolent impulses? Was the man who had come to be known as “The Gainesville Ripper” merely a victim of the brutality of his past? Should he have been treated with leniency or should he have felt the full weight of the law? These were the questions that a jury of twelve and one judge had to answer in 1994 when Danny Rolling was to be sentenced for five murders.
A Town’s Terror
It was 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 26, 1990 when the Gainesville Police Department first became involved in the series of murders. Thirty-five year-old officer Ray Barber had been about to sign off at the end of his shift when the communications officer called him on his car radio. There was a complaint about loud music. Not unusual for this time of the year. The new semester was about to begin and the kids were celebrating, had been all weekend. The second message gave him no more concern than the first. It was a signal 64 – a call to assist a citizen. Both were routine, he would stop by on his way home.
When he drove into the courtyard at the Williamsburg Village Apartments, the maintenance man was there to meet him. As Barber got out of his car, the man told him that he had a couple of anxious parents wanting him to open their daughter’s apartment as they couldn’t get her to answer the door. Unwilling to take responsibility himself he had called the police.
Barber was initially unconcerned as he received dozens of calls about “missing” kids, who usually turned up unharmed with no idea of the anxiety they had caused. It was only when the parents, Frank and Patricia Powell, told him that their daughter Christina, 17, had known they were driving over from Jacksonville that morning and had not been seen by anyone since early Friday morning, although her car was still parked nearby, that Barber began to feel uneasy. This feeling increased when the Powells told him that Christina’s roommate, Sonja Larson, also 17, had not called her mother the day before as arranged.
Reluctantly, the Powells agreed to wait outside the building as Barber and the maintenance man went up to the girl’s second-floor apartment. His bangs on the door produced no result, so Barber attempted to open the front door using a master key, but for some reason it wouldn’t work. Breaking one of the glass panes, while not allowing him to open the door, which was dead-bolted, released a strong and unpleasant odor from within the apartment. As soon as the door crashed open under the force of the two men, Barber saw the bloodied naked body of a young woman posed grotesquely on a bed with her arms above her head. He found another young woman on the stairway down to the lower level of the apartment. Both women had been stabbed repeatedly, mutilated and deliberately positioned for maximum shock effect.
Back downstairs, the Powells anxiously waited for word from Barber. As soon as they saw his face and averted eyes they knew there would be no good news. Their first instinct was to go to their daughter, but Barber knew it was better for everyone if they didn’t. He called in the double homicide asked for someone from the Alachua Crisis Center to help the parents.
Desperate for Details
Within minutes back-up had arrived, as many as twenty law enforcement personnel, including Chief of Police Wayland Clifton. Following closely on their heels was the media. Lieutenant Sadie Darnell was given the task of being media spokesperson. All she could tell them was that two young women had been murdered after someone apparently forced their way through the door, some time between 11:30 p.m. August 23 and 4: 00 p.m. August 26.
Long before the first headlines could be printed, word of the murders had spread through the Williamsburg Village Apartments. Although the police had not publicly released their names, the crowds that had gathered were soon whispering that the girls were freshmen, one from Palm Beach and the other from Jacksonville. No one knew them. All wondered how this could have happened without anybody hearing anything. One neighbor would recall that he had heard someone showering and playing loud music early on Friday morning, it was George Michael’s ‘Faith.’ Then there had been a loud banging sound; he assumed that the girl’s had been hanging pictures on the wall.
Spectators watched as a young woman walked from her car toward the building where the two victims had been found. She had been out of town over the weekend and had heard nothing of the day’s events. When she approached the door to her building the uniformed officer on duty asked her name. When she told him it was Elsa Streppe, he called a plain-clothes officer over. Referring to a notebook, the two men talked in whispered tones. Elsa was escorted from the scene and taken to the Alachua County Crisis Center. Once inside she was told that her roommates, Christina Powell and Sonja Larson had been murdered. She almost collapsed from the shock. It was some time before it struck her just how closely she had come to meeting the same fate as her two friends.
As police continued to work into the night, questioning other residents, checking for fingerprints and other clues, further details of the crimes began to circulate, one of the girls had been mutilated somehow, something to do with her breasts. The fear and panic began to spread as the story traveled beyond the apartment block to the rest of the community.
Before police had even finished packing up and sealing the area they were called to another site where they were awaited by deputies Keith O’Hara and Gail Barber from the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.
Gail Barber had spent the earlier part of the evening with her husband, Ray Barber, after he had made the gruesome discovery of Christina and Sonja’s bodies. She would have liked to stay with him longer but she was on the roster for the midnight shift. She hadn’t been on long before dispatch had called to ask them to drop by Christa Leigh Hoyt’s apartment, just in case. Eighteen-year-old Christa worked the midnight shift as a records clerk at the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. She hadn’t arrived for work and wasn’t answering her phone. It was 12:30 a.m.
Gail knew Christa well and was sure that there would be some logical explanation for why she hadn’t called in. The chances of two people from the same family being present at two separate murder discoveries in such a short space of time would be just too coincidental.
When O’Hara and Barber knocked on Christa’s front door and there was no answer, they were almost relieved. She’s probably left for work already, they told themselves. Then they saw her car, an older model Nissan Sentra, parked nearby. They knocked again, and then tried the door. It was locked. Hearing the noise, manager Elbert Hoover came out to investigate. The three of them went out to the back of the apartment. Hoover knew something was wrong the moment he saw that the gate had been damaged and the chain-link fence was down. As O’Hara and Barber went further into the backyard, they told Hoover to wait around the front for them. Once they established that there was no one in the yard, they tried the glass sliding door. It was locked from the inside.
They noticed that the bamboo shades over the door did not reach to the floor. They bent down on their hands and knees to peer under the curtain. Through the beam of the flashlight they could see what appeared to be a naked body seated on the edge of the bed. It was bent over at the waist with a small pool of blood at the feet, which were still clad in shoes and socks. They came to the shocking realization that the body didn’t have a head.
The two officers ran back to their patrol car to notify the station. It was 1:00 a.m. Moments later the first of the investigating team had arrived. Barber and O’Hara quickly briefed Sergeant Baxter and Lieutenant Nobles, telling them that they had heard water running in the apartment. As there was a strong possibility that the killer was still inside, O’Hara and Barber were told to take up positions around the outside of the apartment, while Baxter and Nobles waited for more back-up to arrive. It was half an hour before they were ready to enter the building.
When they entered through the front door they moved slowly, ready for anything. The bathroom was first. They could hear the drip, drip of the shower but there was no one there. There were bloodstains on the floor of the shower. When they left the bathroom they saw Christa’s lifeless head facing them, propped up on a bookshelf in the bedroom. In the bedroom, they saw the headless corpse of the once beautiful Christa, sitting at the end of the bed. On the bed next to her were her two nipples. Barely able to breathe, they checked under the bed and in the closets. Confident that the killer had long gone, the two officers made their way back outside.
As they walked out into the courtyard they saw that the Gainesville Police Chief, Wayland Clifton, had arrived from the Williamsburg Village Apartments, along with many of the other officers. Although they had no jurisdiction in this area, they needed to know for sure whether the murders were in any way linked.
With the preliminary examination completed it was time for the body to be moved. Alachua County’s chief investigator gave the order. Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw next. One of the officers let out a low growl when Christa was laid back. Apart from the breast mutilation, she had been carefully sliced from the breastbone to the pubic bone.
Task Force Formed for Danny Rolling
It was soon clear that the three murders were definitely linked. At both scenes, underwear were missing. A knife with a four-to-six inch blade had been used on all three girls, and the use of adhesive tape for restraint was evident, although it had been removed. At both scenes there were body parts missing.
As Sheriff Lu Hindery walked towards his car the crowd of reporters, which had gathered while he was inside Christa’s apartment, met him. In answer to their barrage of questions, he told them some of the gruesome details, before getting into his car to drive back to the station. By the afternoon, the information available to the press was being strictly controlled. Already much of the most vital information was well known, and where facts were missing, fear and fertile imaginations had filled in the gaps.
The early stories in the local Gainesville Sun were gruesome even without embellishment. Newspapers were being sold as quickly as the shelves could be filled. Even without the headlines, the news was sweeping through the college community. The students, who could all identify with the victims, felt vulnerable. The viciousness of the crimes and the idea of a knife-wielding killer lurking in their midst only added to their fear. Christa’s murder meant that the killer may not have known his victims and they were chosen opportunistically. They didn’t even attend the same school. Christina and Sonja were freshmen at the University of Florida, while Christa was a sophomore at Santa Fe Community College. Anyone could be next.
First thing that Monday morning, Sheriff Lu Hindery, of Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, and Wayland Clifton, of Gainesville Police Department, conferred and set the wheels in motion to create a combined task force. It was to include top crime-scene technicians and investigators from both departments, along with representatives from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Highway Patrol, and ten of the top criminal behavioral specialists from the FBI. The task force was to be headed by three men: Lieutenant R.B. Ward was appointed by the GPD; Captain Andy Hamilton represented the ACSO; and Special Agent J.O. Jackson represented the FDLE.
Panic Grips Gainesville
On Monday night, the first press conference was held. Police attempted to reassure the public and put to rest some of the more frightening rumors that had begun to circulate, but due to the necessity of keeping many of the crime-scene details under wraps, there was little they could say to re-assure the frightened community. The fact was that three young women had been brutally murdered inside their apartments, probably by the same killer, who was still out there somewhere. There was little that could be said to make the situation less frightening.
The Gainesville phone lines were jammed as students called home to reassure parents of their safety, and parents phoned their children just to hear the sound of their voices. Callers from all over the country called the GPD, wanting to know whether it was true that there was a serial killer on the loose. Students, fearful of returning alone to their apartments, banded together, with as many as ten or twelve people staying together in the one apartment. No one walked alone at night, or during the day for that matter. Young women were wary of any young men they did not know, how could they be sure that the killer was not a fellow student. Nobody could be sure.
The panic and fear reached its zenith the next day, Tuesday, August 28, when two more bodies were found. This time one of them was male. Now it was not only the women in Gainesville who feared for their lives. Being male or having a male close by no longer offered anyone a sense of security.
Tracy & Manny
The victims were Tracy Inez Paules and Manuel R. Taboada, both 23 years old. Friends since high school, they decided to share the two bedroom ground-floor unit at Gatorwood Apartments when Manuel (Manny’s) previous roommate had moved out. Manny, a six-foot-three-inch athlete, weighing over 200 pounds, seemed to Tracy’s parents a good choice as a roommate. With Manny in residence, Tracy’s parents would not have to worry so much about their daughter living off-campus. They were wrong.
It had been 7 o’clock on Tuesday morning when one of Manny’s friends, Tommy Carrol, arrived at Gatorwood Apartments to check on Manny and Tracy at the request of a mutual friend who was living out of the area. Khris Pascarella had been trying to contact Manny by phone since Sunday and was concerned that they were still not answering. He called the manager and arranged for someone to meet Tommy to check the apartment. She sent Christopher Smith, her maintenance man.
When Tommy told Christopher that there had been no answer to his knocking, he took out his master key and opened the door. They didn’t need to enter to see what had happened. Tracy’s naked, bloodied body was lying in the hallway between the two bedrooms. Sitting on the floor above her head was a dark-colored bag. Christopher slammed the door shut and locked it. When he returned five minutes later with the police, the door was unlocked and the bag was gone.
Sergeant Alan Baxter and other investigators from the ACSO who had worked on the crime scene at Christa’s apartment were present here as well. There were no mutilations this time; perhaps the killer had been interrupted before he could complete his sadistic plans. Tracy was found with a towel placed under her hips and her hair was wet. Manny had been found in his bed where his attack had begun and ended. From the wounds on his arms the police concluded that he had put up quite a struggle before his death.
With the discovery of the fourth and fifth bodies, Gainesville came under the spotlight of the national media. Soon comparisons were being made. The killer’s penchant for young college students brought back memories of Ted Bundy, Florida’s most notorious serial killer. Bundy had been sent to the electric chair only the year before, after he was convicted of a series of murders of young college students in the Tallahassee area during 1978. One report highlighted the similarity between the Gainesville killings and the world’s most infamous killer, “Jack the Ripper.” Stories about “The Gainesville Ripper” quickly became the media’s latest draw card, guaranteeing soaring sales records.
The police were soon inundated by calls, thousands of possible suspects were identified. Ex-boyfriends and husbands were named as strong candidates. Anyone who had behaved ‘strangely’ was likely to be reported. All of them had to be checked and crosschecked for any possible links to the killings. One name seemed to be coming up again and again. It looked like the police had their first real suspect in a strange young man by the name of Edward Lewis Humphrey.
A Red Herring
When Officer Lonnie Scott of GPD had told her superiors about her neighbor, Edward Humphrey, they had already had a number of similarly strange reports from the many people who had come into contact with him over the summer period.
The manager of Gatorwood Apartments, where Tracy and Manuel had been murdered, reported that Humphrey had been asked to leave after he fought with his roommates, who said he was weird and walked in his sleep. When the maintenance man and the manager had attempted to make him leave he had become violent and thrown a chair at them. He had also been trouble when he had lived in the opposite apartment block, going into people’s apartments uninvited and, when they dared to lock him out, he would peep through the curtains to get their attention.
In early August, Edward was in trouble again. He was arrested in Ordway, Colorado for disorderly conduct. His car was confiscated and he was held in custody for 24 hours until his grandmother Elna Hlavaty came to rescue him. She returned him to Gainesville and found him an apartment.
The police were quickly able to gather many reports of Edward’s violent behavior towards his grandmother as the pair moved around town in search of an apartment. The numerous other independent reports about Edward made to the police included harassment and arguments and one instance where he produced a penknife at a fraternity house when they tried to stop him from coming in.
Edward Humphrey was definitely a strange character who, police believed, could possibly be the killer. The investigation began to focus heavily on Edward as the prime suspect, beginning with their surveillance of Edward’s every movement. As he drove back to his grandmother’s home in Indialantic on August 28, police helicopters hovered overhead. On October 30 Edward gave the police an opportunity to place him in custody.
“Number One Suspect” in Custody
He had a violent argument with his grandmother that ended in him striking her. His mother called the police, who convinced Elna that she must sign a complaint charging aggravated assault. Humphrey was immediately arrested and taken to Regional Medical Center for treatment. FBI agents arrived soon after and their interrogations began. He was questioned extensively for twenty-four hours without an attorney. When the public defender assigned to Edward arrived, he was sent away. The agents told him that he would not be needed as no arrest had been made in regard to the Gainesville killings, as there was no evidence. He was there only on the assault charges. Although Edward’s grandmother dropped the charges against her grandson that night, he continued to be held.
The next morning the police reinstated the assault charges and Edward was sent to Brevard County Jail at Sharpes. Bail was set at $1 million, for a minor assault charge by a first time offender, and Edward awaited his trial, set for October. Almost as soon as his arrest was made, the media blitz against Edward began. A mugshot of Edward was printed and all reports implied that he was the Gainesville killer. When police reported that Humphrey was a good suspect, the media headlines declared him as “Number One Suspect.” The police did nothing to set the record straight with the media despite the fact that they still had as many as a dozen other suspects. Interestingly, the only name that was released to the media was Edward Humphrey.
With no evidence to link Humphrey to the Gainesville killings, it took the police four days to convince a judge to grant a warrant to search Humphrey’s person, apartment and car. They also wanted to search the Hlavaty house as Humphrey may have left some clues there. The warrant finally granted, they spent several hours at Humphrey’s apartment where nothing was found which they could use as evidence. They had the same result at Elna Hlavaty’s home where police had descended at 9:00 a.m. on the same day. Elna had not been home when they arrived so a locksmith was called and the warrant read to an empty house. The elderly woman was so distressed when she arrived home to find police ransacking her house that an ambulance was called.
Despite the complete lack of evidence to link Edward to the killings, the police continued to view him as their prime suspect. When there were no more murders after his arrest they became more convinced, along with the media. The public perception that the police had their killer quickly spread. Students who had fled in terror, returned and gradually people stopped traveling and living in large groups. Interest in the murders began to wane and on 12 September 1990 the story did not appear on the front page for the first time since the murders were first announced.
In October, Edward Humphrey was sent to trial on the assault charges. Although his grandmother testified that Edward had not struck her, Edward was sentenced to 22 months in Chattahoochie State Hospital where most of the inmates were convicted murderers. He was not released until September 18, 1991 and was still considered a suspect until after Danny Rolling, the real killer, was sentenced in 1994. Up until this time his name was never officially cleared, nor did he receive any public apology for the pain and anguish caused to him and his family.
The Serial Killer
As the police began their surveillance of Edward Humphrey on August 28, 1990, the real killer, Daniel Harold Rolling, narrowly escaped arrest on bank robbery charges. He had been with Tony Danzy near the woods on Archer Road, near where Christa Hoyt had been murdered. Rolling had made a campsite on the afternoon of the first murders. He had been on the way back to the campsite with Danzy, a new friend who supplied him with drugs, when the police had noticed them. Danzy stopped to wait for the police but Rolling ran. As the two officers pursued Rolling they came upon his campsite. Here they found a number of items which would later link Rolling to the five murders, but at this time the only item that caught the attention of police was a bag of cash covered in pink dye. The perpetrator of the robbery of the First Union National Bank on the previous day had been identified. Unfortunately he was not suspected as the “Gainesville Ripper” and his belongings were stored away in case they caught him later.
When Danzy and Rolling met the next day, Danzy threatened to call the police. Rolling was on the run again and made plans to leave the area. With no car and no money he set about acquiring them the only way he knew how. He burgled the apartment of student Christopher Osborne where he stole the keys to Christopher’s 1978 Buick Regal and drove toward Tampa. There he burgled several houses but failed to achieve anything except to leave a trail of evidence, including fingerprints and hair, to help the authorities convict him. He was almost caught as he departed from a convenience store robbery, but managed to run into the woods, once again eluding capture, but his luck was about to run out.
Rolling stole another car and headed for Ocala where he attempted a daring robbery of a Winn Dixie supermarket during the peak of Saturday afternoon crowds on September 8, 1990. While he forced the manager at gunpoint to empty the office safe, the store’s bookkeeper was on her way back to work. She phoned the police when she learned at the entrance to the supermarket that they were being robbed. The police were well on their way by the time Rolling left, heading to his get-away car. The store manager, Randy Wilson, had followed Rolling as he left the shopping center and was able to tell the police exactly where he was. As Rolling backed out of the parking area, the police were already in pursuit and a high-speed chase began. When Rolling crashed his car he fled on foot into a nearby office but as he left through a rear door the police were waiting for him. He made one last attempt to escape their clutches but it ended in failure and he was arrested.
Three days after Rolling’s arrest on September 11, 1990, the “Gainesville Ripper” story was dropped from the front page for the first time. The community of Gainesville, no longer under threat, wanted to forget the horror of that gruesome week of murder. On October 10, the day Edward Humphrey was convicted of the assault charges against his grandmother, Rolling sent his mother a Christmas card from the Marion County Jail, where he was being held, awaiting an indictment for the Winn Dixie robbery and the many burglaries he had committed prior to his arrest.
From the moment of his arrest, Rolling had passively accepted his fate and been totally co-operative with police and prison authorities, but, on 1 January 1991, he revealed another side to his personality. In a fit of anger he ripped a toilet from its mounting and threw it across the day-room. Believing that there was a lot more to Danny Rolling than initially thought, his defense attorney, Victoria Lisarralde, asked for psychological tests and moved to withdraw the guilty plea on Rolling’s armed robbery charges.
An Important Lead
Meanwhile in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana authorities, responding to a Gainesville task force request for reports of similar crimes to the five they were investigating, noted the marked similarities between the Gainesville murders and a triple homicide which had occurred in Shreveport in November 1991. They also noted that a Daniel Harold Rolling, wanted in Shreveport for the attempted murder of his father in May 1990, was being held at the Marion County Jail. The link seemed flimsy to the task force until they were told that the Shreveport killer had cleaned his female victim with a blue-green liquid soap and deliberately positioned the body for maximum shock effect. It was then pointed out to the task force officer that all of the information was available in the FBI VICAP report. When these reports, received by the task force on October 16, 1990, were re-examined it was revealed that this important link had somehow been overlooked.
The Shreveport and Gainesville murders were compared and showed many more startling similarities. Both killers had shown knowledge of police investigative techniques by thoroughly cleaning the crime scenes; solvents were used to clean the victims’ bodies, thereby eliminating clues; duct tape, a good source of fingerprint evidence, was used to bind the victims and was then removed from the scene; both killers used a similar means of forced entry; both used the same kind of knife; both raped and mutilated their victims and finally, both killers displayed the bodies of their victims in a notably gruesome and dramatic way. The similarities were too strong to ignore and the investigation of Daniel Rolling began in earnest.
It began with an inquiry, by Special Agent Dennis Fisher, with the Marion County Jail about the status of prisoner Daniel Harold Rolling. They were informed that he was being held on two charges, one armed robbery and one grand theft auto. There were also two holds on him from other law enforcement agencies; one from Shreveport for an attempted second-degree murder charge, and another from Hillsborough County, Florida for grand theft auto. Fisher requested that it be noted on Rolling’s file that the Gainesville task force be informed if Rolling should leave the Marion County Jail.
The next step led to the discovery of the most significant link between Daniel Rolling and the Gainesville student murders. The task force re-examined every crime that had occurred in the area during the time of the murders. When the robbery of the First Union National Bank on August 27, 1990, the day Christa Hoyt’s body was discovered, was reviewed it was found that the culprit had abandoned his campsite in the woods and the Alachua County police held his belongings in storage. The items included bedding, a gun, a ski mask, a cassette tape deck and a screwdriver.
When the laboratory tests of the items were returned to the task force it was difficult for the officers involved to contain their excitement. Seventeen matches, between the screw-driver and the pry marks at the entry points of the three murder scenes, was confirmed, and a pubic hair, found through the vacuuming of the campsite, was found through DNA matching technology to belong to Christa Hoyt. A final, thorough search through all of the bank robber’s belongings revealed his identity. A cassette tape, which had last been recorded on the night of the first murders, began with the words “… this is Danny Harold Rolling out under the stars tonight.” The tape was a farewell tribute to Rolling’s parents and ended with the words “… Well, I’m gonna sign off for a little bit. I got somethin’ I gotta do…”
The “Gainesville Ripper”
The most important evidence needed to confirm that Daniel Rolling was the “Gainesville Ripper” was a DNA match with body fluids found at the crime scenes. To achieve this end Rolling was moved from his cell while prison officials collected a number of his personal belongings and his bedding. One of Rolling’s teeth, extracted by the prison dentist only the day before, and hair left when Rolling had his haircut, were also included in the items sent to the FDLE in Ocala.
Concerned that these items might be ruled as inadmissible in the future, State Attorney, Len Register, insisted that new blood and hair samples be taken from Rolling with a warrant. Another warrant was issued for all of Rolling’s personal belongings. Once all the necessary evidence was collected it was shipped to the FDLE laboratories in Jacksonville. The test results provided a few days later irrefutably established the link between Daniel Rolling and the three Gainesville murder scenes.
It did not take the media long to learn of the task force’s new prime suspect and the stories revealing Daniel Rolling’s checkered past began to proliferate. Every aspect of his life came under public scrutiny; his childhood with an abusive father and submissive mother; his daughter from his marriage that had ended in divorce; his problems in school since the third grade; his dismissal from the Air Force for drug and alcohol problems; his arrest for voyeurism during his three year marriage; the eight years spent in prison on a number of robbery charges; the shooting of his father during an argument and his subsequent flight to Florida, until his arrival in Gainesville. As reporters from all over the country delved into Rolling’s past, so did the task force. By the time the case was ready to go to court police had collected over 3000 items of evidence.
As Rolling awaited the grand jury hearing to determine whether he would be indicted on the Gainesville murder charges, he was brought before court on a number of other charges. In July he was indicted for both the First Union National Bank robbery and the Ocala Winn Dixie robbery. For the latter he was found guilty in August 1991 and given a life sentence in September. During September and October he was found guilty on a string of burglary, stealing and robbery charges. By the time the grand jury began hearing evidence in the Gainesville murders case, Rolling was already facing four life terms. During this time, Rolling attempted to commit suicide several times but he never succeeded and he lived to face the grand jury.
The weeks leading up to Rolling’s indictment had been a time of continual harassment of the Hlavatys and Humphreys by the media. Edward had still not been cleared of any suspicions against him and speculation that he and Rolling had worked together in the murders continued to abound. During the course of the grand jury hearing the Hlavatys and Humphreys remained barricaded in their home, vainly attempting to avoid reporters who remained camped outside of their home. The last straw came for Elna when a reporter ran up to the house, pounded on the front door and demanded that she answer his questions. Angry, she went outside to confront him. In the midst of their heated argument, Elna suddenly turned pale and began gasping for breath. Moments later she died of a massive coronary.
Two days later the Humphreys attended their grandmother’s funeral. During the wake they were informed that the grand jury had indicted Daniel Rolling on five counts of murder, three counts of sexual battery and three counts of armed burglary in the Gainesville case. Ed Humphrey had not been named in the indictment; his innocence, which his grandmother had fought so hard to uphold, was finally recognized.
Love at Last
In May 1992, Rolling was sent to Florida State Prison and placed in the psycho ward because of his many suicide attempts and a number of episodes of violent behavior. Here, apart from his prison duties, he spent his time exercising, drawing, writing songs and writing letters. In June he began to correspond with Sondra London, the self-proclaimed “media-queen” of inmate literature. She earned her living by publishing the art and writings of killers, especially those on death row. Although London and Rolling’s relationship began as a business deal, they were soon publicly proclaiming their mutual love. The prosecution confiscated their letters and excerpts soon appeared in the Gainesville Sun, revealing London’s attempts to get Rolling to write explicit details of the murders. Despite her many denials that profit was her motivation, she had copyrighted all of the drawings and letters Rolling had sent her and Rolling had signed an exclusive contract with her. London also made many media appearances including the “Geraldo” show in which she shared the London-Rolling love story.
When Rolling’s parents, and many others, expressed their concern that London was using Rolling to her own advantage, Rolling was the first to come to her defense. In a letter he wrote on February 23, he wrote “I love her and it cuts me deeply to know there are people out there who have caused her pain because she finds something in Danny Rolling to love.” He even went so far as to declare his love for London at one of his pre-trial hearings, and then suddenly began to sing a song he had written for her.
Danny Rolling Confesses
Throughout the time prior to his trial Rolling had trouble keeping his mouth shut and many inmates made contact with the investigating team to relate stories of Rolling’s “confessions,” which fluctuated between penitent admissions of sin to bragging, depending on his mood. He formed a friendship with inmate Bobby Lewis, known as the only man to have escaped from Florida’s death row. Rolling knew that escape was the only way he would ever get out of prison. Even if he wasn’t convicted for the Gainesville murders, Rolling knew that Lewis could prove a helpful friend. In time Rolling told Lewis all about the murders in explicit detail. He admitted that he had decided to kill while he was in prison during the eighties, long before he came to Gainesville. He acknowledged that he had a bad side, which he couldn’t always control but blamed his father’s abuse and neglect, sexual abuse he experienced in prison and his ex-wife for this. Together Rolling and Lewis planned for Rolling to fake suicide in order to stay in the same ward, and then later escape.
His escape never took place and on January 31, 1993, Rolling informed the Gainesville investigators that he wished to confess, through Bobby Lewis. During the three-hour confession, Rolling did not answer any of the investigators questions directly but confirmed the answers given by Lewis on his behalf. Through Lewis, Rolling effectively confessed to planning and committing the five murders in Gainesville. He also told them that he had originally planned to kill eight people while in prison and that he would “…clear up the Shreveport homicides… after the Gainesville murders [trial]…” Rolling also shifted all responsibility for the murders onto an evil side of his personality that he called “Gemini.”
While happy with Rolling’s confession, the investigators didn’t buy the “evil Gemini” aspect of his story, as they knew from their investigations that Rolling had watched the movie Exorcist Part III during the week of the Gainesville murders. The killer in this movie, known as Gemini, had decapitated and disemboweled a female victim. An attempt to recover the murder weapon in the location that Rolling had described, through Lewis, during his confession was unsuccessful.
Soon after the confession Lewis was moved from the ward, causing Rolling to feel betrayed by Lewis. In Rusty Binstead, Rolling found a new confidante but this time instead of only telling Binstead the details he wrote them down in a letter. He gave the original to Binstead with instructions to take a copy and then return it to him. Instead, when Binstead returned to his cell he told the man in the next cell to wait five minutes then call out “Shakedown.” When he did, Binstead flushed his toilet to make Rolling believe that he had flushed the letter down the toilet.
Three weeks before the trial was scheduled to begin, Rolling asked for a meeting with his attorney, Public Defender C. Richard Parker. During this meeting Rolling expressed his desire to plead guilty. Parker attempted to convince his client that although there was a great deal of primary evidence against him and his videotaped confession had damaged his case, there was still a strong case for mitigating factors against a death sentence. If Rolling would maintain his not-guilty plea Parker would attempt to use Rolling’s life story of abuse and the many psychiatric evaluations which established Rolling’s mental illness. By pleading guilty, Parker warned, the likelihood of receiving a death sentence was much stronger, and it would leave no opportunity to have a conviction overturned in an appeal. He would only be able to appeal the sentence. Despite the warnings, Rolling was determined to go ahead with the change, admitting that much of the reason was that he didn’t want the crime scene photographs to be shown. Parker asked Rolling to take the three weeks before the trial date to think about it.
The week before the trial, Rolling signed a three-page plea-form at the Florida State Prison, which effectively made his new guilty plea official. Just in case, Parker met with Judge Stanley R. Morris to inform him of his client’s plea and request that it not be announced until February 15th when jury selection began. The only person to be informed of Rolling’s decision was prosecutor Rod Smith.
Danny Rolling Pleas Guilty
In the courtroom on February 15 there were very few members of the public or the media. The families of the victims were all present but no one from Rolling’s family was there; his mother, suffering from cancer, was too ill to attend. The only person present to support him was his fiancée, Sondra London. None were expecting this stage of the proceedings to be of any great moment and the court settled in quickly. Rolling’s announcement that he would be pleading guilty was received with shocked silence in the courtroom, while outside the reaction was explosive as the media converged upon the courthouse to get the latest word as the courtroom emptied. Daniel Rolling had taken sole responsibility for the murders of the five young students, all that needed to be determined by the jury, that was finally selected nine days later, was whether he would receive the death penalty or not.
Danny Rolling in court
It was the responsibility of the jury to weigh in the balance the aggravating factors presented by the prosecution and the mitigating circumstances presented by the defense. According to Florida law there were 11 possible aggravating circumstances, at least one of these needed to be proved by the prosecution for the jury to determine that the death penalty was warranted. The defense had no restrictions on what evidence it could use as mitigating factors, its success would be determined by whether the jury believed that they were strong enough circumstances to outweigh the prosecution’s case. Only seven of the twelve jurors needed to be in agreement to make a recommendation to the court and it was then up to the judge whether or not he would accept it.
Opening arguments began on Tuesday March 7, 1994. The prosecution claimed that it would be successful in proving 5 of the 11 possible aggravating circumstances laid down by the law:
- The crimes were cold-blooded and premeditated
- The crimes were committed during sexual battery
- The crimes were particularly heinous, atrocious and cruel
- The offender had a prior history of felony convictions
- The crimes were committed for the purpose of escaping detection or avoiding arrests, particularly in the cases of Sonya Larson and Manuel Taboada.
The defense would attempt to prove the following mitigating circumstances:
- The perpetrator suffered mental illness at the time of the crimes
- The crimes were committed under extreme stress
- The perpetrator grew up in an abusive household
- There was a history of drug and alcohol abuse
- The perpetrator showed remorse.
The Trial of Danny Rolling
If Rolling had hoped that a guilty plea would save him from the shame of having the details of his crimes made public he was sorely disappointed. State Attorney Rod Smith had no intention of leaving out any of the details of Rolling’s crimes as he presented his death penalty case. One by one he brought forward the state’s evidence against Rolling: the DNA matches with semen found at three of the sites; items found at Rolling’s campsite including the screwdriver, duct tape and a pair of black pants stained with Manuel Taboada’s blood; a handwriting match from a note found at one of the scenes; the many details of the murders and the crime scenes told to inmates by Rolling; proof of Rolling’s purchase of a Ka-Bar knife matching the one that was used in the murders; the handwritten confession given to Rusty Binstead by Rolling and finally the videotaped confession Rolling made to investigators through Bobby Lewis.
Smith then presented the long list of Rolling’s violent crimes, which alone constituted a strong mitigating factor. In total Rolling was held responsible for eight counts of armed robbery and one count of attempted robbery, one count of armed bank robbery and two counts of aggravated assault of a police officer, committed over four states. To further confirm in the jury’s mind that Daniel Rolling was a violent and sadistic killer who knew exactly what he was doing, Smith described in detail how Rolling tortured his victims. How he had told them everything he planned to do to them before he killed them, adding to the horror and fear they were already experiencing before they died. Proving that these crimes were committed during sexual battery and were particularly heinous and cruel.
Smith told the jury that the evidence he had presented established beyond every reasonable doubt that Daniel Harold Rolling was guilty of all of the crimes alleged in the indictment and only the death sentence could respond to the horror Rolling had created.
The difficult task of proving to the jury that, despite the nature of his crimes, Daniel Rolling did not deserve to die, was given to John J. Kearns, recognized in 1986 as the state’s outstanding public defender.
To support their case, that Daniel Rolling, a victim of constant physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father during his childhood, was mentally ill and not accountable for his actions, the defense team presented numerous relatives and friends and a barrage of psychiatrists who had spent a total of fifty hours evaluating Rolling. The first witnesses, neighbors and family members who had been witness to Rolling’s formative years, laid the foundation for the defense case but the videotaped testimony of Rolling’s mother, Claudia Rolling, proved to be the most revealing and humanizing.
Talking to both John Kearns, for the defense, and Jim Nilon, for the prosecution, Claudia Rolling told the story of her family and her eldest son’s life.
The Making of a Monster
She had married James Rolling in 1953 when she was nineteen in Georgia. She had become pregnant with Daniel only two weeks later, much to James’ disgust. During the course of her pregnancy, James had struck her a number of times. She left him for the first time while she was still pregnant, moving to her parents’ home in Shreveport but he followed her there and they continued the marriage.
After Daniel was born on May 26, 1954, James’ attitude toward fatherhood did not improve. Even when Daniel was tiny, James would yell at him. The first incident of physical abuse occurred when Daniel was crawling age. Instead of crawling he would pull himself along on his bottom with one leg. His father was infuriated by this behavior and one day he grabbed Daniel by his foot and shoved him along the hallway, bouncing him as he went.
When Daniel was four and his brother Kevin was three, Claudia again left James and moved to Columbus, Georgia. She and James had been arguing because James kept turning the television off as Claudia was watching it. The argument had ended when James punched her, cutting her lip. They remained separated for six months until Claudia succumbed to James’s pleadings and promises and they got back together again. They lived in Columbus for four years until Claudia again left James because of his violent behavior. He was soon back again and they moved to Shreveport.
Claudia described the relationship between James and his two young sons and her feeble attempts to protect them. She would try to ensure that the boys had already had their dinner before James came home, as he would constantly abuse them for imagined transgressions – they didn’t sit properly, or didn’t hold their cutlery properly, he even insisted that they breathe a certain way. The children would come to the table in fear if James was at home. Apart from verbal abuse, James would physically punish his children. Sometimes he would punish them with a belt and other times he would make a fist and grind his knuckle into the tops of their heads. Whatever the punishment, he would insist that they not cry out, under threat of further punishment.
The abuse was directed mostly at Daniel and was a constant part of his life, with the verbal abuse occurring daily and the “whippings” at least once or twice a week. As the boys grew, they became more aware of their father’s violence toward Claudia but their own fear of their father prevented them from helping. They would beg Claudia to leave James and never return, but she didn’t. The boys were not allowed birthday parties and Christmas was always spoiled by James’s abusive behavior.
One Christmas, when Daniel was in third grade, the violence was particularly bad so Claudia packed up her boys and the Christmas tree into the car and left, but of course she did not stay away long. Soon after Claudia had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for some time. During that year Daniel became very ill and was away from school a great deal, his teacher told Claudia that it would be best for the child if he repeated the year. She also recommended that Danny receive counseling for his nervousness and personality problems. He never received that counseling. Instead his father berated him for his failure.
A Downward Spiral
Claudia then related how Danny had attempted to commit suicide. He was in his early teens and had just started his first job. His father told him he couldn’t go back to work because his grades were bad. Danny had been so upset that he ran from the house, his father followed close behind him. In the backyard James began to beat Danny, holding him up against the shed wall, when Danny ducked away from one of his blows, James’s hand went through the window cutting him severely. While James went to the hospital, Danny went to the bathroom to clean himself up. He had been in there some time before Claudia went in to check on him. He was gone. He had written on the mirror in lipstick, “I tried. I just can’t make it,” and left through the window taking a razor blade with him. He told his mother later that he had tried to cut his own wrists but just couldn’t do it.
The stories of abuse and violence continued, James, a police officer, had even thrown his son in juvenile hall for a couple of weeks during his mid-teens because Daniel had been drinking beer with a neighbor. The relationship between Daniel and his father did not improve as Daniel approached adulthood, and Daniel’s problems became manifest. In 1971 he joined the Air Force but was discharged because of serious drug and alcohol problems. He married O’Mather Halko in 1974 but despite the birth of a daughter, the marriage lasted less than three years. He was devastated for some time afterwards and the situation living at home with his father had not improved, so Danny had left home and begun to wander. Claudia did not hear from him until after his arrest for armed robbery in Montgomery and Columbus. Danny had told her that he had hoped that during the robbery he would be shot. He had tried to commit suicide but once again had not been able to go through with it. During the time he was in prison he attempted to escape twice but was re-caught. His return home saw no improvement, and he soon moved on again.
In Mississippi, Danny was again arrested and imprisoned for armed robbery. The first time Claudia went to see him he had seemed very distressed and very thin, but on her second visit the change in him was astounding. He had put on weight and was bodybuilding; he seemed to have learned to cope with life in prison. In 1988 he was back home again. Again he had trouble finding work and he was almost constantly depressed. When he did find work he was usually fired a short time later, the longest he lasted was two months.
Claudia then described the situation when she last saw her son. She had just got home from work and could tell that something had transpired between father and son, as they were both very tense. As she talked to Danny, he put his foot on the bench to tie his shoelace, when his father walked into the room he began yelling at him but this time Danny didn’t just take it. Instead he challenged James to do something about it. James went to the back of the house and returned with his gun. Danny ran out the back door with his father in pursuit. Claudia heard three shots outside and thought that her son was dead when her husband returned alone. When Danny returned to the house Claudia did not see a gun in his hand. The last thing she saw was James holding his gun. She covered her eyes before the gunshots began, and then without looking, fled to her bedroom. There were five shots fired and then silence. She thought that both her husband and son must be dead. When she returned to the kitchen she found James. He was lying on the floor, still conscious, despite a bullet in his head. She called the police. James survived the shooting but she did not see Danny again until after his imprisonment in Marion County Jail.
Verdict in the Danny Rolling Trial
Claudia’s testimony had given the jury much to consider. Was Daniel Rolling’s childhood trauma enough to absolve him of full responsibility for his later actions? Their dilemma was not helped much by the testimony of three psychiatrists. All agreed that, as a result of his father’s abuse and his mother’s failure to protect him from it, Daniel Rolling had a severe personality disorder and functioned at the maturity level of a fifteen-year-old, but, under cross-examination conceded that he did not suffer from multiple-personalities and was aware of the criminality of his actions during and after the murders. It would take the jury almost two days to resolve these issues and make a determination. The jury had decided that Daniel Rolling should receive the death penalty on all five counts.
It was now up to the judge to review the aggravating and mitigating factors and make an independent judgment, taking the jury’s recommendation fully into account. He would announce his final judgment on April 20, 1994 after giving all parties concerned, the victims’ families, Rolling’s family and Danny Rolling himself, an opportunity to state their case to him personally.
In the meantime on March 30 the Shreveport Police cited James Rolling for the “simple battery” of his wife during a domestic dispute. On the same day, Rolling confessed to the triple murder of the Grissom family in Shreveport.
The day of sentencing finally arrived, three and a half years after the murders were committed. Judge Morris, aware that any grounds for appealing the sentence could come from what he said, measured his words carefully. One by one he reviewed all of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances that had been presented during the trial. He noted all aspects of Rolling’s history and the findings of all of the doctors, disputing none. He agreed that Rolling functioned at a considerably immature level and that his personality disorder did impair his ability to conform to the requirements of the law, but, it was not at a level which could be considered by the law as being substantial. He found that Rolling’s disorder was a non-statutory mitigating factor and gave it only moderate weight. Judge Morris found, as did the jury, that the aggravating factors far outweighed the mitigating and ordered that Daniel Harold Rolling be sentenced to death for all five victims.
Rolling was sent to the state prison in Starke, where he would be on death row until the customary appeal process was exhausted, and then he would be executed.