Between Friday, August 24 and Monday, August 27, 1990, in Gainesville, Florida, a 36-year-old man by the name of Danny Rolling brutally murdered five college students: Sonja Larson, age 18; Christina Powell, age 17; Christa Hoyt, age 18; Manny Taboada, age 23; and, Tracy Paules, age 23. He stalked his victims from the adjacent trees and entered their apartments through both open and locked doors. He bound them, raped them, tortured them, stabbed them, mutilated them and, in one case, beheaded his victim. He positioned their bodies, staged the crime scene, then left without being noticed. Each of his victims were petite, caucasian, brunettes except his fourth; a young man, 6’3″ and weighing over 200 pounds. He was stabbed 31 times. Danny Rolling was apprehended ten days later on September 7th. My story occurred on Friday, August 31.
I lived in Gainesville for two years from 1989 to 1991. I attended the School of Journalism at UF but left college early and took a job at Shands Hospital, about a quarter mile from where the first two murders took place. In the summer of 1990 I moved to the Duck Pond area of town into an old apartment at 207 NE Boulevard, about two miles from work. It was quirky and pretty. It had two doors and nine windows with old tiled countertops, a farm sink, wood floors, a huge space heater in the living room and a pedestal sink in the bathroom. The complex consisted of three small buildings in the shape of a “U”, each with four units. There was a rundown courtyard in the middle that few people used. My apartment was upstairs on the corner closest to the intersection of NE Boulevard and NE 2nd Avenue. I usually parked on 2nd, next to the field on the other side of the road.
The news had spread fast and many people left town. The crime scenes were gruesome and, apparently, there were very few clues and no signs of breaking and entering. At the time, no one seemed to know who, why or how. People speculated that it was a medical student or, perhaps, a doctor because of the autopsy-type incisions. Suspicion of butchers, cops or paramedics surfaced. Everyone began traveling in pairs or groups and no one in their right mind slept alone. I immediately packed a bag and bunked in with friends from my hometown, about ten of us or so. The boys stayed downstairs and the girls, upstairs. We all slept together in one bed. It was such a scramble at the time, everyone trying to keep up with their school and work responsibilities while coordinating their schedules to never be alone, inside or out.
The following Friday, August 31, I went home after work. I had no clothes left and there were things I had to get done. My birthday was the following day and the group had planned to go out together in town. I decided I would stay alone that night, if only to catch my breath from the constant companionship of a houseful of people. No one ever thinks, even if they’re afraid, that anything will actually happen to them. It was surreal. People were in disbelief; kind of running around blind, trying to hold on to the monotony of their normal lives. I was no different.
I parked my small truck like usual, gathered my bags from a week away from home, and quickly headed to the apartment. There were two stairwells that led to each of the upstairs apartments. One from the street and one from the courtyard. I always used the one from the street. I made sure to load up so just one trip would be necessary. I unlocked the door, went inside, and locked the door immediately behind me. I stood for a moment and wondered if anyone was in there already, listening to the silence. I went from space to space checking everything. Due diligence was done and I began to relax back in my own place. The sun had set and I was in for the night.
It was about 8:30 when I heard a light tapping at the door, the one from the street. My body just froze. I mean, it stiffened. I wasn’t expecting anyone and it was kind of late for a spontaneous knock. I silently moved toward the door and looked through the peephole. There was a man standing to the side, kind of shifting on his feet. As aggressively as I could muster, I called through the door, asking who he was. He mumbled. I told him I couldn’t hear him. He said he was looking for someone and could I help him. I told him I was calling the police and he should leave immediately. He came closer to the peephole, but with his head hanging. All I could see was the top of his head, moving from side to side. Every single hair on my body was up and I felt absolute terror. His demeanor was chilling, calm and persistent. He wasn’t leaving. He stood there, now silent, as if contemplating a move. I screamed out that I was calling the police, but my voice was shaking and, no doubt, sounded unconvincing. I watched the door for movement and was caught off guard by the sound of his steps going back down the stairs and back out to the street. I ran to the phone and called the police when a loud banging and commotion came from the other stairwell, the one from the courtyard. It was my neighbor running up the steps, screaming for me to stay inside and lock the doors. I heard her door slam and lock. In no more than a few seconds, I heard steps in the courtyard stairwell and realized he was coming up the other side. I simply stood there, shaking. Tears were streaming down my face as I thought about the killer’s preference for petite brunettes and the coincidental names of two of the victims, Christina and Krista. My name is Christine, I was 115 pounds and I was brunette. Something evil was lurking outside my door and I felt it down into my bones. Suddenly, somewhat unnaturally, this person seemed to turn back down the stairs and, again, there was silence. Maybe a minute passed and dogs started barking from down in the courtyard and I heard voices. Again, someone was coming up the stairs, but, this time, it was Gainesville Police. I opened the door and just bellowed. The officer stepped inside while another went across the hall to the neighbor’s apartment. With both doors open, we each recounted the event, hearing each other’s sobs. The man had walked up from behind my neighbor as she was coming through the courtyard and then followed her into the stairwell. She told the officers he was tall, white and didn’t say anything. They stayed with us while other officers were downstairs with canines. Unable to find anyone, they eventually left.
I stayed alone that night, as did my neighbor. I kept remembering the top of his head with thinning, light brownish hair, and the bobbing. I will never know who stood opposite me on the other side of the door that night, and I will never forget the feeling of being close to something that seemed so purely evil.
Danny Rolling was executed at Florida State Prison on October 25, 2006.