Crime History: Danny “The Gainesville Ripper” Rolling’s Gruesome Spree

At first, nothing seemed out of the ordinary at the University of Florida in late summer 1990. That status would change, however, fast and irrevocably, at the hands of a drifter named Daniel Harold Rolling. Between August 24 and August 27, Rolling committed crimes at UF so appalling that he is still remembered, with chills, as “The Gainesville Ripper.”

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Over that four-day span, Rolling murdered and mutilated the bodies of five victims in their apartments on the southwest edge of the university’s grounds. The deceased, four of them UF students, were Christa Leigh Hoyt (18), Sonya Larson (18), Tracy Paules (23), Christina Powell (17), and Manuel Taboada (23).

Rolling killed incoming freshmen roommates Larson and Powell first, on August 24, raping and stabbing the teens before leaving their corpses in sexually suggestive positions. When he was done, he ate a banana and an apple from their kitchen.

The next day, Rolling raped and stabbed Hoyt, but then he cut her nipples off and severed her head, positioning it on a shelf to appear as though it was looking at the body.

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Even though the slayings grabbed national media attention and set off a wave terror, Rolling was able to break into the apartment of Taboada and Paules on August 27, slaying the former while he slept, stabbing him more than 30 times, before fatally attacking the latter. Except for Taboada, the victims were each described as small-framed white females with brown eyes.

Understandably, students panicked. A legitimate madman loomed on the loose. Many simply fled from the school. Others loaded up on personal security items and took to sleeping in shifts. Classes shut down for a week. The investigation garnered over a thousand pieces of evidence as authorities pursued thousands of leads. In January 1991, the trail led to Rolling, who was cooling his heels in an Ocala County jail on an unrelated burglary charge.

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Danny Rolling mug shot [State of Florida Corrections]

Danny Rolling mug shot [State of Florida Corrections]

Rolling initially denied any involvement. DNA evidence proved otherwise. At Rolling’s case headed to court in 1994, lawyers argued as to whether the accused was a cold, calculating killer, or a victim of mental illness.

Authorities determined Rolling suffered from antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and paraphilia (i.e., intense sexual attraction to atypical objects). Rolling also claimed he to be possessed by demons. Still, it appeared that Rolling carefully and calculatedly planned the five murders.

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The night before the trial was set to begin, Rolling pleaded guilty to all charges. The jury then only needed to decide whether to recommend the capital punishment or life in prison without possibility of parole. They chose death.

A judge officially sentenced Rolling to die in the electric chair. A series of failed appeals up to and including the Supreme Court extended Rolling’s life to October 25, 2006, and changed his method of execution to lethal injection. His last meal was sumptuous, consisting of lobster tail, butterfly shrimp, baked potato, strawberry cheesecake, and sweet tea. He sang a gospel hymn from the gurney, as he was awaiting the end.

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In the weeks before he got that final shot, the 52-year-old Rolling reportedly admitted to three unsolved 1989 murders in Shreveport, Louisiana, wherein an invader took the lives of William Grissom (55), his 24-year-old daughter Julie (24), and her son Sean (8). He never officially confessed, but he wrote of the event with knowledge that only the guilty party could possess.

Read more:
Orlando Sentinel
The Gainsville Sun
New York Times
The Gainsville Sun at the 25th anniversary of the murders

Main photo: Danny Rolling mug shot [State of Florida Corrections]