Twenty-five years after a series of grisly murders rocked the University of Florida, South Florida residents who lived through the nightmare recall the events that paralyzed a city and forever changed lives.
Jennie Sherrick had just finished moving into Broward Hall, a six-story, red-brick dorm in the center of campus at the University of Florida, when the phone rang. It should have been one of the most exciting days of her life; Sherrick, 18, only months removed from graduating with the class of 1990 at Deerfield Beach High School, was about to start her freshman year at college.
But the pre-semester buzz that typically filled the late-summer air in Gainesville had been replaced by an ever-growing sense of shock and terror.
The day before Sherrick had made the 305-mile drive from her home in Lighthouse Point, police had discovered the bodies of two UF students, both freshmen. They had been savagely murdered, their mutilated and naked bodies arranged in a demented tableau inside their off-campus apartment.
Sherrick answered the phone. It was her friend from Florida State University calling to make sure she was safe. News of the murders had quickly spread to Tallahassee and beyond, prompting concern from friends and family that, within days, would become full-blown hysteria.
“One of the victims went to Ely and lived in Pompano,” the FSU friend said.
Sherrick began thinking. Ely High School? Why did that ring a bell?
“It’s Sonja Larson. Do you know her?”
Sherrick’s face went white. She had roomed with Larson a few months earlier at UF’s freshman “Preview,” a mandatory multiday orientation for entering students and their parents.
Sherrick hung up the phone and slumped to the dorm floor. She pictured Larson’s beautiful, angelic face. She recalled how quickly she bonded with the petite brunette, also 18. Sherrick, admittedly shy, didn’t know anyone at Preview, but the outgoing Larson introduced her to one of her friends from Pompano Beach.
She remembered that Larson, the youngest in her family, was planning to study science and pre-engineering in the hopes of becoming a teacher.
As they said their goodbyes that May, the two girls promised to reconnect once school started. Sherrick was thinking about that goodbye when the news finally sunk in.
She raced down the hall of her dorm to the communal bathroom and vomited into a toilet. It wouldn’t be the last time that the memory of Sonja Larson would have such a profound impact on Jennie Sherrick’s life.
Killer on the Loose
Prior to the summer of 1990, any discussion of campus murders in the state of Florida began and ended with Ted Bundy. As part of his seven-state killing spree between 1974 and 1978, Bundy broke into the Chi Omega sorority house at FSU and murdered two women—Lisa Levy, 20, and Margaret Bowman, 21—before assaulting two others, who both lived. That same night he brutally attacked a fifth FSU student at her apartment; she also survived.
It took seven hours in July 1979 for a jury to convict Bundy of those two murders, along with three counts of attempted first-degree murder. Along with two death sentences for those slayings, he would receive a third for killing a 12-year-old Lake City girl. Before his execution via the electric chair on Jan. 24, 1989, Bundy would confess to 30 murders; most experts believe that total is on the low side.
It had been roughly 18 months since Bundy’s remains had been cremated in Gainesville when a 36-year-old transient named Danny Rolling walked into a local Walmart on Archer Road to purchase a tent for his makeshift camp in a nearby wooded area.
It was there, on Aug. 23, 1990, that Rolling spotted Larson and Jacksonville native Christina Powell, only 17. He followed the girls to their Gainesville townhouse community, Williamsburg Village. Larson and Powell carried their purchases into unit 113; it was their first night in the apartment.
After pulling on a ski mask and a pair of gloves, Rolling broke into the back stairwell and entered the townhouse, where the two girls were fast asleep, Powell on the downstairs couch and Larson in her upstairs bedroom. Rolling went first to Larson’s room, where the young girl had fallen asleep amid boxes of unpacked clothes and household items. He duct-taped her mouth, stifling her screams, and repeatedly tore at her flesh with the 4-inch blade of his KA-BAR hunting knife. When she was later found, dental records had to be used to confirm her identity. Rolling then walked down the stairs and into Powell’s room; he forced her to perform oral sex on him and then raped her before stabbing her in the back five times with the same knife.
On Aug. 26, amid concern from the parents of Powell and Larson after not hearing from their daughters, authorities found the girls’ dead bodies. Early the next morning, yet another horrifying discovery was made inside an apartment on Southwest 24th Avenue. Nineteen-year-old Christa Hoyt, a student at Santa Fe Community College, had been similarly butchered but with a ghastly post-murder twist.
Rolling, having spotted Hoyt through her window the day before toweling off after a shower, broke into her empty apartment through a rear sliding-glass door and hid behind a bookshelf. When Hoyt returned home, Rolling ambushed her. He covered her mouth and bound her wrists together with duct tape before cutting off her clothes with his KA-BAR knife. He then sexually assaulted Hoyt before stabbing her to death.
Rolling wasn’t finished. He decapitated Hoyt and butterflied her remains from the chest to the pelvis. He then placed the naked, headless body in a seated position, and set the severed head on a bookshelf, arranging it as if the head was looking at the body. Before leaving the scene, Rolling set mirrors around the body to magnify the visual effect of the carnage.
A city already crippled with fear was rocked yet again the following day, Aug. 28, when the bodies of Tracy Paules and her roommate Manuel Taboada, both 23 and both from Hialeah, were found slain inside their Gatorwood Apartment unit.
Rolling first found the sleeping Taboada, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound former high school football player, in his bedroom. After an intense struggle, Rolling finally subdued Taboada by stabbing him more than 30 times. He then set his sights on Paules, sexually assaulting and then killing her.
In the span of some 48 hours, five college students (four of them from UF), all 23 or younger, had been murdered and mutilated inside their off-campus apartments.
Though Rolling would be arrested in early September for armed robbery of a Winn-Dixie in Ocala, it would be another 14 months before authorities charged him with the killings. In the meantime, a UF freshman battling mental illness, Ed Humphrey, would be targeted as a suspect after being arrested in late August following an altercation with his grandmother in Brevard County. The scar-faced teen who collected knives would spend 14 months in prison, but it turned out he was guilty of little more than not taking his medications.
Even with Humphrey behind bars, the normally serene, idyllic college town filled with ranch-style homes and moss-covered live oak trees was on edge. The killings had stopped, but was the killer still on the loose?
As far as residents and students were concerned, he was. The sale of deadbolt locks skyrocketed. So did Mace, baseball bats and anything that could be used as a weapon.
For more on the Gainesville murders, pick up the July/August issue of Boca Raton magazine.