America’s college campuses are viewed as safe places where young people have the opportunity to learn, create, and discover what kind of adults they will become. Every so often, though, violent acts remind us of the vulnerability of college campuses and the young adults who call them home.
In 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the top of a tower at the University of Texas and picked off 15 victims with a rifle. In 1978, one of the most infamous serial killers in history, Ted Bundy, savagely attacked five women on the campus of Florida State University, killing two of them.
But not all campus attacks are so widely known. You may find the story of Danny Rolling less familiar: Over a three-day period in August 1990, Rolling terrorized the University of Florida in Gainesville and brutally murdered five students.
Rolling was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1954 and, as is often the case with multiple killers, endured an abusive childhood, primarily at the hands of his police officer father. Rolling was constantly in trouble with the law as a youngster, and his lawlessness continued into adulthood: He was arrested for crimes ranging from robberies to spying on women getting dressed; he had trouble holding down a steady job; and he spent time in prison. In May of 1990, Rolling got into an intense fight with his father. During a physical altercation, Rolling's father lost his eye and ear.
Rolling then traveled to Florida, spending time in Tallahassee and Sarasota before ending up in Gainesville, where, in August, he pitched a tent in a patch of woods near the University of Florida. It was in Gainesville that Danny Rolling launched a murder spree, terrifying the large student population of the town.
On August 24, 1990, Rolling broke into an apartment shared by Christina Powell, 17, and Sonja Larson, 18. He murdered both young women with a hunting knife, mutilating their bodies and posing them lewdly before he left. The next day, Rolling broke into the apartment of 18-year-old Christa Hoyt. He burglarized her apartment and waited for Hoyt to come home. When she returned, Rolling attacked her, raping and killing the young woman. Rolling decapitated Hoyt, and left her severed head on a shelf facing her headless body.
On August 27, two days after the murder of Christa Hoyt, Rolling broke into yet another apartment in Gainesville, this one belonging to Tracy Paules and Manny Taboada, both 23 years old. Rolling struggled with Taboada, a 200-pound former high school football player, but eventually killed him, then raped and killed Paules. Like his other victims, Rolling posed Paules’ body. Students in Gainesville were understandably shaken by the deaths, and, with the killer still at large, fear was palpable in the town. The University of Florida shut down for a week, guns sales soared in Gainesville, and roommates slept in shifts and added extra locks to their windows and doors.
Meanwhile, Danny Rolling had left town. 10 days after his last murders, on September 7, police arrested Rolling in Ocala, Florida – about 40 miles from Gainesville. The officers in Ocala picked up Rolling for robbing a grocery store, and they had no idea they had a serial killer in their custody. Rolling sat in jail in Ocala until January 1991, when investigators from Gainesville started to look into prisoners who had been arrested in other parts of Florida after the student murders.
A dentist had removed one of Rolling’s teeth while he was in custody in Ocala. The Gainesville task force ordered a DNA test on the tooth and found that it was consistent with DNA evidence left at the scene of one of the murders in Gainesville. Rolling denied he committed the five murders, but, after more investigation, he was charged for the crimes. At the start of his trial in 1994, Rolling unexpectedly pleaded guilty to the Gainesville murders, telling the judge, “There are some things that you just can’t run from.”
Rolling bragged that his goal was to become a well-known serial killer like Ted Bundy, who had terrorized Florida (and many other states) over a decade earlier. He was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder and, after his trial, was sentenced to death for the murders in Gainesville. Investigators also believed Rolling had committed the triple murder of a family (which included an eight-year-old boy) in Shreveport in November 1989, but he was never charged with those crimes. While in prison, Rolling created many pieces of art, and he co-wrote a book about his life and crimes, titled The Making of a Serial Killer.
On October 25, 2006, at the Florida State Prison in Starke, Danny Rolling was executed by lethal injection. At the time of his death, he was 52 years old. Rolling was only one of many notorious killers to die or have been executed at the prison in Starke. The list includes Ted Bundy in 1989, Ottis Toole in 1996, and female serial killer Aileen Wuornos, the subject of the film Monster, in 2002.