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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

‘You will never be forgotten’: Community remembers murder victims over 30 years later

The community reflects on how the Gainesville Ripper still affects Gainesville with the release of the new “Scream” movie

A mural on the Southwest 34th St. graffiti wall for the victims of the 1990 "Gainesville Ripper" murders is seen on Wednesday, Jan. 12.
A mural on the Southwest 34th St. graffiti wall for the victims of the 1990 "Gainesville Ripper" murders is seen on Wednesday, Jan. 12.

“Remember 1990.” 

Visitors approach the short phrase painted in bold, red font along the 34th Street graffiti wall and leave white roses in translucent vases. 

A paint-splattered plaque resting on the ground with the words “You will never be forgotten” serves as a reminder of the brutal killings that took place 32 years ago. 

Five Gainesville college students were murdered in their apartments along Archer Road in August 1990, and three of them were brutally assaulted by a man dubbed “The Gainesville Ripper.” The Florida Department of Law Enforcement caught the murderer after a nine-month-long search where he, Danny Rolling, was executed by lethal injection in 2006.

The 25-foot mural serves as a memorial for the victims: Sonja Larson, 18; Christina Powell, 17; Christa Hoyt, 18; Manuel Taboada, 23; and Tracy Paules, 23.

Former and current Gainesville residents relived the fear that rocked the city and the hundreds of students and families that left following the murders. Thirty-two years later, they reflect on the evolving economic climate and the city’s improved safety precautions. 

The popular “Scream” franchise — of which the fifth installment released on Friday — took inspiration from the events that transpired in Gainesville. The fictional horror series grossed more than $600 million in global revenue and has revisited the big screen for nearly 30 years.

The first “Scream” movie, released in 1996, became the highest-grossing slasher film in the world until the release of 2018 “Halloween.”

Repairing the memorial

Adam Byrn Tritt, the 57-year-old artist behind the work, had one word for the film series: horrible.

“They should be putting a portion of the profits into something that will make sure this doesn't happen again,” he said. “If they're borrowing from misery they need to pay misery back.”

Tritt, who has published nonfiction novels and poetry, was a Gainesville resident during the murders, although he didn’t know any of the victims personally.

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Following the 10-year anniversary of the memorial, Tritt said he was asked to return to help repair the memorial. By 2000, the paint was chipping and fading. 

Tritt, former Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell and one of the victim’s family scrubbed away at the paint and applied a new coat. 

Tritt, who lived in Gainesville for 13 years, said it was hard enough living there prior to the gruesome murders.

“To me it signifies a time and a place where I liked living, and that is now gone,” he said. “Gainesville that was in the ’90s doesn't exist anymore.”

‘An indelible mark on this community’

Carol Gordon, a 70-year-old Gainesville resident, has been a member of the community since the 1980s. 

She worked for a private attorney in downtown Gainesville at the time of the murders. 

For the months when the suspect roamed the streets uncaptured, Gordon remembers feeling stressed, overwhelmed and unsafe.

In order to escape the tragedies, she visited her mother in Miami for three to four days. 

“Although I was not a student, I fit the profile of most of the women that he attacked,” Gordon said. “I was pretty nervous and I left town.”

When she returned, the suspect had been arrested. 

After returning to Gainesville and continuing to live in the city, Gordon reflected on the lasting impact of the murders in Gainesville. 

“We are a community,” she said. “I mean, that's one thing I fell in love with about Gainesville was the sense of community.” 

Gina Hawkins, executive director of Keep Alachua County Beautiful, was a UF graduate student studying food and resource economics at the time of the murders. 

Hawkins, 62, has been a resident of the Gainesville community since 1984. She called the memorial an “iconic artwork in Gainesville.” 

“For me, it's a touchstone for the special events in people's lives and memories of events,” Hawkins said of the 34th Street wall. “It's a way for people to mark special events and sometimes traumatic ones.” 

Hawkins said living in Gainesville following the killings was stressful. She invited female friends who lived on their own into her home because they were so worried. 

“It was palpable. You could just feel the tension in your body, just knowing all this was going on,” she said. “One murder after another — it was just horrible.”

Students buddied up when leaving the house and locked their windows and doors, Hawkins said. 

“When students were murdered, it was personal for me,” she said. “When people send their children to school here, it's our responsibility to keep them safe … we need to protect the families and their feelings about what happened.” 

Although on-campus safety has improved since the murders, gun violence within the city has spiked, Hawkins said. Gainesville has seen a 26% jump in gun-related crimes that resulted in injury or death since 2019. 

“That tragedy left an indelible mark on this community,” Hawkins said. 

The murders have stayed with Hawkins. Even now, she hopes people will be more aware of their surroundings, who they interact with and take safety precautions.

Contact Alexis at Follow her on Twitter @Alexis_Carson99.

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Alexis Carson

Alexis Carson is a third-year journalism major and staff writer with the Avenue. In her free time, she loves watching horror movies and going to concerts.

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