Danny Rolling: A Strange Serial Killer, Terror on Campus

Our case last week was the story of the racially motivated lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. This week, we meet Danny Rolling. Over four days in 1990, Rolling struck terror into the hearts of students in the college town of Gainesville, Florida.

Danny Rolling

You could hardly call Danny Rolling’s childhood idyllic. His father was a Shreveport, Louisiana policeman who regularly abused his family. He told Danny from a young age that he was an unwanted child. During Danny’s teen and young adult years, he was arrested several times for robberies and once as a peeping Tom.

Danny Rolling in 1991
Danny Rolling in 1991

In May 1990, a family fight led Rolling to try to kill his father. The senior Rolling lived but lost an eye and an ear. August 1990 found Rolling in the college town of Gainesville, Florida, home of the University of Florida. It was there he committed the series of crimes that earned him the sobriquet of “The Gainesville Ripper.”

Danny Rolling Goes on a Killing Spree

It was Friday, August 24, 1990. In the early morning hours, Rolling broke into the apartment shared by Sonja Larson and Christina “Christi” Powell. Both were 17-year-old freshmen at the University of Florida. Leaving Christi asleep on the downstairs couch, he went upstairs where he taped Sonja’s mouth shut and stabbed her to death. She died trying to fight him off.

Sonja Larson, Danny Rolling's first Gainesville victim (Daytona Beach News-Journal)
Sonja Larson, Danny Rolling’s first Gainesville victim (Daytona Beach News-Journal)

Back downstairs, he woke Christi and taped her mouth shut as well. He then cut her clothes off, raped her, and stabbed her in the back five times. He posed both women’s bodies in sexually provocative positions, took a shower, then left.

Christi Powell (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)
Christi Powell (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)

One day later, on August 25, Rolling pried open a sliding glass door to break into the apartment of Christa Hoyt. Christ, an 18-year-old honors student at Santa Fe Community College, was not home. However, Rolling waited for her in the living room. When she returned, he subdued her with a chokehold. Then he taped her mouth shut, cut off her clothes, raped her, and stabbed her in the back. Rolling left, but discovering his wallet missing, returned to make sure he hadn’t left it in the Hoyt apartment. While he was there, he decapitated her body and placed the head on a shelf facing the corpse. He wanted to add to the shock of whoever discovered the dead woman.

Christa Hoyt’s high school graduation portrait (findagrave.com)

The Final Gainesville Murders

The final murders in Gainesville occurred on Monday, August 27. By then, the story of three murdered coeds had sparked terror in Gainesville. Since it was early in the academic year, some students withdrew while others transferred to different schools. Those that stayed took extra precautions.

The University of Florida campus in Gainesville, Florida (Tampa Bay Times)
The University of Florida campus in Gainesville, Florida (Tampa Bay Times)

Precautions weren’t enough for 23-year-old Tracy Paules. That Monday, Rolling pried open the glass door to the apartment she shared with Manny Taboada, also 23. He found Manny asleep in one of the bedrooms and, after a struggle, killed him. Investigating the commotion, Tracey encountered Rolling. She tried to barricade herself in her bedroom but Rolling broke down the door.

Manny Taboada (Daytona Beach News-Journal)
Manny Taboada (Daytona Beach News-Journal)

Once inside Tracy’s bedroom, Rolling repeated his previous pattern. He taped her mouth shut, cut off her clothes, and raped her. Then he turned her face down and stabbed her in the back. Although he posed Tracy’s body suggestively, he left Manny’s body alone.

Tracy Paules (Daytona Beach News-Journal)
Tracy Paules (Daytona Beach News-Journal)

Danny Rolling Faces the Music

Rolling ended up in jail after robbing a supermarket in Ocala, Florida. While there, investigators received a tip that he might be involved not only in the Gainesville murders but three in Louisiana as well.

From the evidence locker, they retrieved a cassette tape player. Police found the tape player at the makeshift campsite where he had been living. Police also found audio diaries that alluded to the Gainesville murders.

Danny Rolling on trial for murder (Jacksonville.com)
Danny Rolling on trial for murder (Jacksonville.com)

Rolling was to go to trial in 1994, nearly four years after the murders. He claimed his motive was to become a “superstar” like Ted Bundy (who also operated in the Gainesville area). But before the trial started, Rolling unexpectedly pled guilty to all charges. Pleading guilty didn’t buy him anything; he received the death penalty.

Epilogue

The State of Florida executed Danny Rolling with a lethal injection on October 25, 2006. Shortly beforehand, he confessed to three additional murders in Louisiana.

Rolling is said to be the inspiration for the 1996 slasher film, Scream.

Like many notorious cases, this one spawned several true crime books. One of the earliest is Mary Ryzuk’s The Gainesville Ripper. Shortly after Rolling’s execution, Sondra London released The Making of a Serial Killer, a book she wrote with his participation. A second edition appeared in 2020. A more recent treatment of the case is J.T. Hunter’s A Monster of All Time.

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