The Legacy Of Danny Rollings

(Or: What you won't read in the books)

Written on: 3/21/96
Updated on: 3/23/96

In the fall of 1990, just when the semester started at the University of Florida, a young woman's body was discovered in her apartment. Rumors flew that she had been killed in a grotesque and brutal fashion. In the next few days, another four bodies were found. Gainesville had its first serial killer.

Presented here is my own retrospective on those events, as I experienced them as a lifetime resident of Gainesville. This may contain some small factual errors such as with dates, as my memory is of course not perfect. This is only in rough chronological order, so please don't rely on this as a proper timeline of the Gainesville Murders.
I will try and refine this document in the future, adding more details from research, and hopefully some images. 


Discovering

In 1990, I was living at home with my mother while trying to get my life together (I.E. get a job or get back into school). My mother worked for the Division of Housing at the University of Florida. Obviously, the beginning of Fall semester is a busy time, so she tended to work extra hours the few weeks before classes started.

On the very first day of classes, a Monday, news reports came in about the discovery of a body in a local apartment complex. Details weren't fuzzy, because the Gainesville Police Department wasn't allowing anyone near the scene of the crime. This encouraged the belief (later proven essentially true) that a girl had been almost literally slaughtered in her own apartment.
This was not the first murder to occur in Gainesville. It's hardly an idyllic and perfect town, and some rather bizzare murder cases have originated here. But the timing of the discovery, and the reaction of the police brought the story to the forefront of the local news media.

Over the next few days, several more bodies were discovered, both female as with the first, and in their own apartments. And one of the slain was rumored to had been beheaded, though the police representative refused to say confirm or deny initially. Later it proved true (Danny Rollings killed her, then cut her head off and arranged the corpse and head in a sick sort of display).

In just three days, five seperate bodies were found. Four of them were young women, all college students, all burnette's with a petite build. The fifth body was that of a young man, who was apparently slain with his girlfriend when discovered by the murderer. All five had been killed in an exceptionally violent and grotesque fashion. 


Panic

My mother started working extra over-time. Parents who had children attending the University of Florida were calling the Department of Housing in droves, trying to find out if their kids were safe. Many parents were demanding that the school send their children home. My mom had to deal with more than a few upset folks, and of course some of the students were calling as well by this time.
Side note: My wife had, at that time, just started at UF. I hadn't met her. She's a short burnette who chose to remain in Gainesville and at UF during these events, even though her parents wanted her to return home.

Gainesville began to boil, figuratively. I would try and call my mother at work to pass on a message, and would get a recording saying "All circuits are busy right now". The phone company, Southern Bell (now known as BellSouth) made a major media announcement, begging people to not place any calls to Gainesville unless it was absolutely vital, due to the strain on the systems. Spots started appearing on CNN and other national news shows about the murders.

It's hard to describe how I felt. I didn't know any of the victims personally, or even by reputation. I wasn't a UF student (though one of the murdered was actually a Santa Fe Community College student, which I now attend). But turning on the news and seeing Peter Jennings mention the tragedy had a chilling effect. It added a distant, unreal aspect to something that was already extreme.

During that first week, the amount of rumors and gossip floating around Gainesville was so thick you could fold it up and sell it as manure. There were claims that the murderer was an escaped convict, an escaped mental patient, that more bodies had been found (many people were confused by initial news reports on exactly how many murders had been discovered), and so on. A good friend of mine told me that a nursing student friend of hers claimed the bodies had been brought to the hospital she worked at, and one of the female victims had been pregnant and that the fetus had been ripped out of her body. This of course later proved to be totally false. None of the female victims had been pregnant. 


Coping

The new president of UF, Dr. John Lombardi, handled the situation expertly. This was his first big semester at UF and he proved himself worthy of high respect by giving priority to the safety of the students, offering truely heartfelt condolences to the families of the murdered students, and in general doing a fantastic job dealing with a very stressful situation.
Many students left town, fearing for their safety, even though the murders had not occured on campus (to my knowledge, no human being has ever been murdered on UF campus). By the end of the week, Gainesville was oddly empty of its usual 30,000+ student population, as only a small percentage remained. Many wondered if the University would need to close for the semester. But while some students never returned, most came back after less than a week. The due date for fees was pushed back, an unusually rare move for UF.

The Holiday Inn that's on the corner of University Avenue and 13th Street, literally catty-corner to UF campus, had its parking lot jammed with dozens of news trucks and vans from all over the country. I counted 23 at one point. It wasn't unusual to see one or more driving around town near the police station, the courthouse, or near the apartment complexes where the murders occured.

Security was on everyone's mind. People were snatching up alarm systems, locks, pepper spray. When I went with a good friend of mine (Chris) to the local Sears, we noticed odd gaps in the hardware section: They had sold out of most of their padlocks, combination locks, and hasps.
It became common to see people walking around with baseball bats, staffs, and other heavy, blunt instruments. It was accepted as legitimate, and the local police pretty much encouraged it. UF's usual policy about weapons on campus was never overturned of course, but it wasn't being as strictly enforced.
During this time (somewhere within the second to third week after the murders), I went to Albertson's late one night. To protect myself I carried along a heavy tire iron. Not only did the cashier not even blink, but she nodded at the heavy iron bar and said "Keeping safe?". "Yep," I replied. I was not the only person going out at night, but everyone I saw was exclusively male.
Sales of handguns, shotguns, and rifles went through the roof. Literally thousands of guns were sold during that first month. Even the NRA got interested in the situation.

The UF administration did a lot of short-term stuff to increase security. Patrols of the University Police Department were stepped up. Free "riot" whistles were distributed by the Student Goverment for everyone to wear (the idea being you could call attention to yourself if attacked). The Student Nighttime Auxilluary Patrol (S.N.A.P. escorts people on and off campus at night who request the service) was working overtime. Someone made up a bunch of flyers and put them all over campus:

Don't lose your head!
Call S.N.A.P. Instead!
(phone number)

I still have one of those flyers somewhere.

Because all of the victims were short, burnette, and young the police issued stern warnings that women that fit that description should be extra careful, stay with companions as much as possible, report any strangers following them, etc. My friend Chris and his wife had a good friend (I'll call her Jill) who happened to look similar to several of the victims. She wanted us to go with her to the mall so she could get some hair dye to change her hair color. As it turned out, one of the first suspects in the murders, Edward Humphries, had been harassing her on occasion before the murders. However, Humphries turned out to be innocent of the murders (though not other crimes). Even so, Jill was obviously a bit frightened and freaked out by the situation, and the police did consider calling on her as a witness during the hearings to judge Humphries possible involvement. 


Investigation

The local police department was heavily involved with the murder investigation from the beginning. However, much of the work done was shared with others. Florida state Governor Lawton Chiles ordered in the Florida Highway Patrol after the first week or so from the murders, to both assist in trying to find the killer, as well as easing the minds of the residents. For the next few months, FHP cars were visible all over Gainesville, almost more common then our own local police.

One incident involving the FHP was that of fingerprinting. The Patrolmen were making numerous routine stops for traffic violations (even the most trivial sort), then asking the drivers if they would mind being fingerprinted. This was done in the hope that the killer would just be driving around town. Instead, it blew up in the FHP's face, as the media and many others harshly criticized them. The Governor's office ordered an immediate stop to the practice.

Of course, the FBI also got involved, especially when it started to look like there might be a connection between the Gainesville Murders and other killings in the South. Rollings is still suspected in some of those crimes, but he was convicted on the Gainesville Murders, to which he did eventually confess.


Last Modified: October 5th, 1996

Jeff The Riffer aka Jeff Mercer / riffer@afn.org