In 1990, a quiet college town in Florida was terrorized for three days by a serial killer. A killer that would later be the inspiration for the character Ghostface, from the movie Scream. This is the story of the Gainesville Ripper.
May 26, 1954
Daniel Harold Rolling was born to James and Claudia Rolling in Shreveport Louisiana. Little Danny was an unexpected baby, as his father often let him know during his childhood. The Rollings had been married just two weeks before 19 year-old Claudia became pregnant. James, a police officer, never wanted children. He was a cruel and abusive father who constantly told Danny he was “an unwanted accident” James even once had his young son put in handcuffs by his fellow officers and taken away in a police car for no other reason than to scare him. Instead, he helped create a monster.
Eleven year old Danny had witnessed his father’s abuse all his life. Abuse of Danny. Abuse of Claudia. It all bled together. Danny tried to escape his dark reality in many ways. He learned how to play guitar and was a prolific song writer. But it wasn’t enough. He began to drink in an effort to self medicate, and at age 11 Danny had become an alcoholic. It was around this time that he witnessed his mother slit her own wrists after an intense fight with his father. She recovered, but it wasn’t just her arms that would carry the scars of this event.
Four years later, at age 15, Danny slit his wrists in an earnest attempt to kill himself. He left a message scrawled in Claudia’s lipstick on the bathroom mirror: “I tried. I just can’t make it”
Like his mother before him, he recovered physically. Danny soon began sneaking out of the house at night and staying in the wood, where he would watch other families as they lived their lives. Like Josef Fritzl from episode one of this season, his voyeurism quickly crossed the line from innocent curiosity to sexual motivation.
Danny had no power in his home life, but as he watched girls showering and undressing, he fantasized about violently controlling them. He began acting out and soon had a growing rap sheet. His crimes ranged from voyeurism to robbery.
The socially awkward teenager dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Air Force. Danny continued to drink heavily, smoked pot and took LSD.
He was diagnosed with a personality disorder by an Air Force psychiatrist before being discharged for his drug use and stealing a bicycle.
With few options available to him, Danny returned to Shreveport. He began attending a Pentecostal church where he met Omatha Halko. Omatha was a petite brunette -Danny was smitten.
The two were married in 1974. A year later, their daughter, Kiley was born.
Omatha filed for divorce. After three years, she had had enough of Danny’s abuse, alcoholism, unemployment and sexual impotence. Nobody could blame her. Nobody, but Danny. He was infuriated and blamed Omatha for their failed marriage.
Danny Rolling became a vagabond, travelling from state to state and committing armed robberies to support himself. After a string of such robberies in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana, police finally caught up to him in Columbus, Georgia. Rolling had just robbed a Winn Dixie supermarket of $956 and was arrested when leaving the area. He was sentenced to six years in prison, where he lifted weights and boxed. Although he was powerful and an intimidating fighter, Rolling was abused by both guards and fellow inmates, damaging his already fragile psyche even further.
Rolling was released from prison, and hitchhiked his way across the country. He would settle with relatives, until 1985, when he was again arrested for holding up a Kroger supermarket in Clinton, Mississippi. He received a four year sentence this time.
Saturday, November 4, 1989
Danny was fired yet again- this time, from his job at Poncho’s- a Mexican restaurant.
That evening, Tom Grissom was grilling hamburgers for his 24 year-old daughter Julie and his 8 year-old grandson, Sean. The tranquility of Julie’s childhood home was shattered when an intruder entered the house and brutally attacked her family. He stabbed Tom and Sean to death, before moving on to Julie. He bound her wrists in tape and stabbed her in the stomach before turning her onto her stomach and raping her. When detectives arrived, they found the corpses posed. Julie’s body had been laid on a bed, with her long sandy blonde hair carefully fanned out from her head. Her legs were spread and she had bite marks on her breasts.
Julie had recently broken up with her boyfriend, Hal Carter. The two had been very much in love from all accounts, but couldn’t agree on a time frame for marriage. Supposedly, that was what split them apart. Hal Carter immediately became the prime suspect, but police couldn’t gather enough evidence to try him.
In reality, Julie had been stalked by Danny Rolling. Rolling would watch her as she worked at Dillard’s Department Store. She seemed happy. Her family seemed happy. He didn’t like that. The family had been murdered by Rolling, but Hal Carter would remain the suspect for years after Julie’s death, and Rolling would continue down his dark path.
November 20, 1989
Christa Hoyt lived in Archer, Florida- just 12 miles from Gainesville, with her father Gary, and step-mother Diana. She was eager to move out and live on her own. In fact, she had counted down the days to November 20th- her 18th birthday – in anticipation. It was just a few days later that she packed her black Chevette up and ventured out on her own. If you knew Christa, you wouldn’t be surprised that her car was black. Everything was black if Christa had a say in it. Her clothes, the flowers on her birthday cake. Even her prom dress. Well, before her mom secretly sewed her a blue dress instead, much to Christa’s dismay.
One might think she was a rebellious teenager that just wanted to get away from her parents. Despite appearances, this was not the case. Christa had a plan, and was willing to work for it.
Danny and James Rolling had a heated argument that turned violent. Danny ended up shooting his father in the stomach and face. James would survive the shooting, but it cost him an ear and eye. Rolling took a bus from Shreveport to Sarasota Florida, eventually ending up in Gainesville.
Rolling was excited at the prospect of a college town. He had set up camp in the nearby woods with a tent and supplies he bought at a Gainesville Walmart.
Sonja Larson was starting her second semester at the University of Florida or UF, in Gainesville, Florida. The 18 year-old elementary education student was frustrated that she wasn’t able to stay on campus. Along with her mother, Ada, she went apartment hunting and settled on an apartment complex called the Williamsburg Village. Ada hated that Sonja wasn’t on campus, even though her apartment was just four blocks from the University.
After visiting her parents in Deerfield Beach, Sonja made the four and a half hour drive north to Gainesville. Cell phones weren’t common at this time, and her apartment landline hadn’t been connected yet, so she used a payphone to let her mom know she had arrived safely. Ada felt worried after she hung up, but chalked it up to normal parental concern.
Thursday, August 23, 1990
Sonja went shopping at Walmart with her roommate and fellow UF freshman, 17 year-old Christina Powell. They were buying items for their new apartment on what should have been a fun, relaxing night leading up to the weekend before the new semester started. What they didn’t know was that Danny Rolling was watching them as he shoplifted a screwdriver, duct tape and gloves. He left the Walmart and waited for the young women in the parking lot. Rolling followed them to their apartment, where he watched them through their window.
Friday, Aug. 24, 3:00 AM
Now dressed in a black outfit, ski mask and gloves, Rolling quietly broke into the sleeping teenagers’ two floor apartment. Christina was asleep on a couch downstairs. Rolling crept through the house to assess his environment. He saw Sonja asleep upstairs, then went back downstairs where he taped Christina’s mouth shut so her screams wouldn’t wake her roommate. He then stabbed Christina multiple times with a Marine Corps K-Bar knife until she was dead.
Rolling walked back upstairs. He woke Sonja up by taping her mouth shut, then binding her wrists together behind her back. He cut her clothes off with the knife stained by her roommate’s blood, before brutally raping her. He then rolled her onto her stomach and stabbed her over twenty times in the back. He then posed both nude bodies in sexual positions. Before staging the bodies, Rolling mutilated them so badly that the police needed dental records to confirm their identities.
23 year-old Tracy Paules also attended the University of Florida, where she studied political science. When she spoke to her father, George Paules, on the phone that night, he joked that he was glad she was out of the house, as it freed up more space for him. Their family home was in Miami, about 330 miles south of Gainesville. She was spending the weekend with her new boyfriend, Khris Pascarella on his parents’ Merritt Island home, which was about halfway between Miami and Gainesville.
She ended the phone call by saying “I love you, Daddy”. Those were the last words she would ever speak to him.
Saturday, August 25
Just a day after killing Sonja Larson and Christina Powell, Rolling would strike again.
Christa Hoyt was loving life as an eighteen year old. She was attending Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville while working as an overnight clerk at the Alachua County Sheriff’s office. A fitting job. Like so many of us, Christa had an interest in criminology. In fact, she wanted to make it her career and studied chemistry in the hopes of becoming a crime-lab technician.
She lived alone in a duplex. Her former roommate, Bridgette Toombs, had moved out just the week before. Danny Rolling had been watching Christa. He used a screwdriver and knife to pry her sliding glass door open while she was out of the apartment. Rolling ransacked the place, looking for cash and valuables.
Christa arrived home around 11AM. She opened the door and entered the apartment. She had no idea that a murderer was waiting behind the door. Rolling put her in a chokehold before taping her mouth shut and binding her wrists together.
He then dragged her into the bedroom, where he raped her. Rolling then made Christa lay face down on the floor and stabbed her repeatedly in the back. This attack was so ferocious that Christa’s heart was actually ruptured by Rolling’s knife.
Sunday, Aug. 26
After not hearing from her daughter for two days, Ada Larson was certain something was wrong. That fear intensified when Christina Powell’s parents called Ada. They told her that there was no answer when Christina’s brother and sister visited the apartment and repeatedly knocked on their door. It was 4PM when Ada contacted the police to conduct a welfare check on Sonja and Christina.
It was 11PM when a Sheriff from Broward County showed up at Ada and Jim’s doorstep. The seven agonizing hours of waiting had culminated in this visit. He didn’t give them any news. Instead, he asked them to call the Gainesville Police Department. Ada knew immediately that her worst fear had come true. She screamed as Jim made the call, and confirmed it.
Meanwhile, Tracy Paules had returned to her apartment in the Gatorwood complex after visiting her boyfriend, Khris. Tracy lived with her long time friend, Manny Taboada, a 6’2, 200 lb architecture student. When Tracy called her mother, Ricky, to let her know she was back at the apartment, Ricky urged her to stay close to Manny for protection. By this time, Ricky had heard that two young women were found dead in the area and was concerned for her daughter’s safety. Tracy took her mother’s advice to heart. Later that night, she talked to her friend, Lisa Buyer, for hours on the phone. Lisa would later say that Tracy was worried about the killer that was on the loose in her area. Lisa told Tracy to be careful, and hung up right before midnight.
Monday, August 27
It was 1:00 AM. Christa was an hour late for her midnight shift. She was a reliable employee, so shift supervisor Kim Norman became concerned when she wasn’t able to reach her. Norman requested that a deputy be sent to Christa’s Gainesville duplex to check on her. What the deputy found there would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Christa’s body was posed on the bed, as the others were before her. But Rolling had descended even further into the depths of his depravity. Her torso had been cut open. Her nipples had been cut off. She had been decapitated. Rolling placed her severed head on a bookshelf, posed to appear as if it was looking upon Christa’s mutilated body.
While investigators swarmed the gruesome crime scene that was Christa Hoyt’s apartment, Danny Rolling continued his murder spree. He broke into Tracy and Manny’s apartment, again using a screwdriver and knife. He first found Manny, who was asleep downstairs. Rolling stabbed Manny, but was surprised when Manny fought back. The two powerful men struggled until Rolling stabbed him again and killed him.
The sound of the fight woke Tracy up; she ran downstairs to see what was going on. When she saw Rolling standing over her bloodied friend, she ran back upstairs and locked herself in her bedroom. Like a scene out of a horror movie, Rolling broke down the door, taped Tracy’s mouth shut and bound her wrists with tape. He then raped her, rolled her onto her stomach and stabbed her several times in the back.
By Monday afternoon, news of the murder of Christa Hoyt had spread. It was around this time that Rolling entered the First Union bank, just a half mile away from Christa Hoyt’s apartment, wearing a ski mask and brandishing a gun. After robbing the bank, he fled to the campsite he had set up in the wooded area near the UF campus.
After hearing about the third deadly attack, Khris Pascarella was worried about his girlfriend, and called Tracy several times throughout the day. When evening came and he still hadn’t heard from Tracy, Khris called her over and over again, his concern growing exponentially with each failed attempt.
Tuesday, August 28
A maintenance worker used his key to enter Tracy and Manny’s apartment, where he first discovered Manny’s body lying where he was killed. He then saw Tracy Paules, posed like the women Rolling had killed before her.
Gainesville was gripped in a communal panic. Police issued statements that offered little solace. They had few leads and no suspects. In fact, they weren’t even sure if they were dealing with one killer or two.
Students began changing their schedules and routines; they bought guns, baseball bats, mace and extra locks for their doors and windows. They studied in groups and even slept in groups. Some students transferred, while others withdrew from UF entirely. Helicopters flew overhead at night, using a spotlight in the hopes of catching the murderer before he could strike again.
The killings had become national news and the typically quiet city of Gainesville had become a hub of various news outlets that canvassed the area looking for sound bites. The paranoia and panic worked in Rolling’s favor, at least at first.
That night, police were following a lead on the bank robbery when they stumbled upon Rolling’s campsite in the woods. There they found the stolen money, the ski mask and gloves used in the robbery. They also found something they weren’t expecting; the screwdriver used to break into the victims’ apartments, a tape recorder, and the blood stained black karate pants he wore during the murders. There was nothing tying Rolling himself to the crimes, or the camp site. At least, nothing that the police picked up on.
Police wrongly arrested Michael John Martin for the First Union Bank robbery. He was found camping in the same woods as Rolling, and bore a physical similarity to him. He would remain in jail for three months before being released.
Less than a week after the campus murders began, a prime suspect had been identified. 18 year-old Ed Humphrey was a UF freshman from Indialantic, Florida. To the hysterical locals, he fit the profile of the man they were looking for. He exhibited strange behavior and the scars on his face from a car accident gave him an intimidating visage. He was also in the wrong place at the right time. Humphrey had lived in, and been evicted from, the same apartment complex where Stacey Paules and Manny Taboada lived. He had been accused of battering his 79 year-old grandmother in Indialantic after arriving there from Gainesville and was arrested.
The case against Humphrey was bolstered by the fact that the murders stopped after he was taken into custody. There was no physical evidence to tie him to the murders, but the circumstantial evidence led police to believe Humphrey was the killer now known as the Gainesville Ripper.
While Humphrey was wrongfully jailed, Rolling was burglarizing area homes. He broke into UF student Christopher Osborne’s apartment, and after availing himself of food and other amenities, stole Osborne’s tan Buick Regal.
He would go on to break into over a dozen other homes before finding what he was really looking for. A gun. In this case, it happened to be a .38 caliber revolver.
Unsure of who the killer was, the families of the five students killed in Gainesville were left with nothing but anguish and the need for justice. Sonja Larson’s mother, Ada said “I’m going to grieve for a long time. Right now, I’m mostly angry. I want the killer to die.” A sentiment that was shared by Tracy Paule’s mother, Ricky, who said “Tracy had a bright future, and he took it all away. I’ll pull the switch. I’ll slit the throat, whatever. I’m ready. No mother should have to outlive her children.”. Manny Taboada’s brother Mario resisted the understandable desire for vengeance. He said “At first I thought if I had the guy in front of me and I could make him suffer, I would. Now I don’t think I would do it. I started thinking why would someone do this? And then I thought, somewhere down the line, they weren’t loved.
Rolling entered a Save & Pack supermarket wearing a ski mask and gloves and brandishing the stolen revolver. He demanded the cashiers open their registers and put the contents into brown paper bags. They complied, and Rolling ran to the stolen Buick Regal in the parking lot. Unbeknownst to him, two officers were dining at a nearby restaurant when they received the call of a robbery in progress. They were on the scene before Rolling had a chance to pull out of his parking space. Still, he managed to get away and was on the lam for the next six days.
Rolling kept a low profile by his standards. He was still in Tampa when he broke into another home, and ate Reynaldo and Patricia Rio’s food while they slept in the next room. He then stole their silver Mustang and headed north. He made it to Ocala before running out of food and cash.
Rolling held up Winn-Dixie supermarket in Ocala, and just as before, the police were called while the robbery was in progress. Officers were soon in pursuit of the silver mustang described by witnesses. Rolling gave chase, but unlike his previous robbery, this time he wouldn’t get away.
The Gainesville Ripper was now in police custody, but nobody knew it yet. Ed Humphrey remained the prime suspect for the murders.
Trish Jenkins was a Marion County public defender charged with defending Danny Rolling for the Ocala Winn-Dixie robbery. Jenkins called Gainesville-based Forensic Psychologist Harry Krop with a concern about Rolling. While reviewing his case, she felt he exhibited signs of serious physical and mental health problems. She described him as disturbed and possibly psychotic. Krop made the trip to Ocala to visit Rolling. When they met, Krop assured Rolling that the evaluation was confidential and would only be shared with Rolling’s attorney.
Rolling talked to Krop about the failed robbery attempt. Krop noted that Rolling seemed very emotionally distraught and surmised that there might be more on his mind than the robbery. But after four hours of conversation, Krop was convinced of Rolling’s competence to stand trial and got up to leave. As Krop began to exit the room, Rolling stopped him. He asked the psychologist if the confidentiality of their conversation extended to other crimes he had committed. Krop informed Rolling that it did, unless what he told him posed a future threat. Rolling said “There is no threat. The murders already happened.”
The two men spoke for three more hours. Rolling was brutally honest with the details of the murders. While Rolling felt relieved afterwards, Krop felt emotionally drained. He was now in an impossible predicament. Legally, he couldn’t break Rolling’s confidence. Krop could lose his license to practice if he did. But what if Rolling was released? The blood of any future victims would be on Krop’s hands as well. What of Ed Humphrey? Krop now knew he was innocent, but could be railroaded for a crime he didn’t commit.
Krop weighed his options. He considered making an anonymous call to the police, but ultimately decided to sit on the information for the time being. Krop continued to meet with Rolling and spent 500 hours with him in the weeks leading up to the trial.
During the months following his arrest, Rolling was linked to several other armed robberies and would stand trial for multiple counts related to those crimes.
Investigators finally listened to an audio tape that was among the confiscated evidence from Rolling’s campsite. He had used the tape to record an audio diary as well as songs he had written. He went into detail about the crimes he’d committed and recorded individual messages to his family members. He also gave his full name.
As if the taped confession wasn’t damning enough, investigators ran DNA tests on evidence that linked Danny Rolling to the crime scenes. Rolling was identified publicly as the prime suspect in the Gainesville murders.
Rolling was indicted by a Tallahassee federal Grand Jury on charges of robbing the First Union Bank in Gainesville.
Rolling was handed down a life sentence as a habitual offender for his Winn-Dixie robbery in Ocala.
Ed Humphrey was released from prison after 13 ½ months of incarceration. He was still not officially cleared of the Gainesville killings at this point.
Rolling received three life sentences plus 170 years for robbery, assault and burglary in Tampa.
With overwhelming evidence against Rolling, he was indicted by a Gainesville grand jury on charges of first-degree murder, burglary and sexual assault.
May 21, 1992
Another sentence of life in prison was handed down to Rolling for the Gainesville bank robbery.
In a failed suicide attempt, Rolling hanged himself with a bedsheet in his Florida State Prison cell.
Rolling initially plead not guilty to the five murders, three rapes and three burglaries in Gainesville. It would be over a year and a half before his trial would begin.
February 10, 1994
Just days before his trial, Rolling surprised everyone and agreed to a guilty plea. It was five days later that the guilty plea was revealed in open court. It was then that he told judge Stan Morris “There is much I’d like to say, Your Honor, about our world and beliefs. However, I feel whatever I might have to say is overshadowed by the suffering I’ve caused. I regret with all my heart what my hand has done. I have taken what I cannot return. If only I could bend back the hands of that ageless clock and change the past. Ah, but alas, I am not the keeper of time, only a small part of history and the legacy of man’s fall from grace. I’m sorry, Your Honor.”
There would be no leniency for Rolling.
A jury was selected to help decide Danny Rolling’s fate; another life sentence, or death by state execution.
Jurors heard the tape Rolling had made hours before the killings began, with his confessions and songs that detailed violent fantasies. With his confession and DNA evidence connecting him to the murders, Rolling’s fate was sealed. The jury recommended the death penalty for each of the five lives he took in Gainesville. The judge agreed, and sentenced Danny Rolling to die.
October 25, 2006
After exhausting his final appeal earlier in the month, Daniel Harold Rolling was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at Florida State Prison at 6:00PM
The witness room to the execution chamber that typically held 24 chairs was filled with forty-seven people as loved ones packed in to watch Rolling die. When the brown curtain separating Rolling and the witnesses opened at 5:59 PM, the killer was revealed, laying on a gurney.
When asked if he had a last statement, Rolling sang part of a song he had written. The words were “He who flung the stars into the heavens above, created the oceans, mountains, eagles and doves. None greater than thee, Oh Lord, none greater than thee.”
Rolling sang for two minutes. When he paused, the microphone was cut off by prison staff, to the relief of many in the witness room.
The execution process had begun. Rolling opened his mouth as if to sing again, but fell silent. His whole body went limp. It was now 6:13 PM. The Gainesville Ripper was pronounced dead. He was 52 years old.
Hundreds of people had gathered in a field across from the prison. Half were there to protest capital punishment, half were there to support it. When word of Rolling’s death reached them, the supporters clapped, while the opponents sang Amazing Grace.
The Making of a Serial Killer by Sondra London and Danny Rolling