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Gainesville honors students killed 25 years ago

August marks 25th anniversary of murders committed by Danny Rolling

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The names of five students brutally murdered in August 1990 still grace the graffiti-laden 34th Street wall: Sonja Larson, Christina Powell, Christa Hoyt, Tracy Paules and Manuel Taboada.

The five students were remembered during a memorial service Tuesday afternoon at UF's Baughman Center. Family members of the victims spoke, as did university President Kent Fuchs and Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell.

"I just think it's very nice of Gainesville to have a service like this," said Patricia Powell, mother of Christina, who was from Jacksonville. "I know a lot of the people who lived here in Gainesville at the time were affected, too, as well as the official authorities like the police and attorneys."

The slayings of four University of Florida students and one from Santa Fe College over a four-day period garnered worldwide attention and changed Gainesville forever. 

Danny Rolling's DepartmentofCorrectionsphoto
Danny Rolling's DepartmentofCorrectionsphoto

Danny Rolling was arrested 10 days after the last murder, which terrorized the community as students were returning to campus. 

UNCUT: Video from August 1990 crime scenes

Rolling eventually confessed to raping several of his victims, killing three other people in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, and attempting to murder his father in May 1990. In total, Rolling confessed to killing eight people.

Rolling was convicted in the killings and put to death at Florida State Prison in 2006.

Time 'has dulled the pain a little bit'

A portion of a graffiti mural on Gainesville's 34th Street wall remains dedicated to the five victims as a lasting memorial.

Only one of the murder scenes where Rollings committed the murders still exists: a white apartment building south of the UF campus where 17-year-old university freshmen Sonja Larson and Christina Powell were found stabbed to death on Aug. 24, 1990.

Five students were killed near the University of Florida campus over four days in August 1990.
Five students were killed near the University of Florida campus over four days in August 1990.

The next day, Rolling killed Hoyt, 18. Her body was found propped up, her severed head perched on a shelf across the room.

Two days later, Rolling killed roommates Tracy Paules, who was from St. Johns County, and Manuel Taboada, both 23.

Rolling remained at large until Sept. 8, when he was arrested after a botched robbery of a Winn-Dixie in Ocala.

Patricia Powell said that when she was told her daughter that had left for college only days earlier was killed, she didn't believe it. When it finally did click, "The anger got to me."

She and family members of the other four victims sat through Rolling's trial in 1995.

"It was disgusting to look at him," Powell said. "They have DNA evidence against him; he really didn't stand a chance. When the trial started, they brought him forward, he started talking like a poor little whimpering fellow, lost soul, and started confessing. He was so sorry and acting so pitiful, but he was just putting on an act."

When Rolling was executed, Ricky Paules was sitting on the front row and met eyes with Rolling as he took his last breath.

"I have learned to live without Tracy physically," Paules said. "I've learned to do that, but it's painful. I try not to think about that because of the pain that comes to me. I think of her in my mind and talk to her every night."

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Family members said that time has helped them heal, but they still get emotional when speaking of their loved ones.

"I've been using the term wounded, because wounds usually heal," Patricia Powell said. "The festering disappears. There's still a little scar, but that scar doesn't interfere with carrying on with your life."

"Twenty-five years later ... it has dulled the pain a little bit," Tracy Paule's brother, Scott Paules, said. "Time does do some healing."

Ricky Paules remembers the last time she saw Tracy. It's a happy memory, but it always brings back the pain.

"I waved goodbye as she pulled out of my driveway," he said. "She said, 'No tears.' I said, 'OK. See you.' I stood there and watched the car go down straight, then she backed the car from the street back up. She got out of the car, and we started hugging and crying. That was it."