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"Remember August 1990"

‘ALL IS WELL’: Gainesville murder victims remembered after 25 years

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  • 5 min to read

Pictured is a plaque below the mural on the 34th Street wall. The part not covered by debris reads "You will never be forgotten."

In front of the wall, there’s a plaque.

It’s a square of quiet permanence, almost completely hidden under a layer of matted grass.

Weathered bronze on a paint-spattered sidewalk next to Southwest 34th Street, it accompanies a 25-year-old expanse of black paint.

Both carry five names — one etched in bronze and the other painted in white.

Sonja Larson. Christina Powell. Christa Hoyt. Tracy Paules. Manuel Taboada.

The wall commands: Remember.

The plaque promises: You will never be forgotten.

This week reopened a grim chapter of Gainesville’s history from 25 years ago, when five students were murdered in their college town in August 1990 — a chapter unknown to most current UF students.

"A grip of fear"

August 1990 was supposed to be the start of a new era at UF.

About 36,500 students came to campus ready for the start of another year. John V. Lombardi was getting ready for his first semester as the university’s ninth president. Steve Spurrier was preparing for his first season as the Florida Gators head football coach, the start of a dynasty.

But any sense of optimism quickly turned to terror on Aug. 26.

The Sunday before classes were set to begin, the Gainesville community learned that UF freshmen roommates Sonja Larson, 18, and Christina Powell, 17, were found dead and mutilated in their apartment just south of campus.

Within 48 hours, 18-year-old Christa Hoyt, a Santa Fe Community College student, and two more UF students — Tracy Paules and Manuel Taboada, both 23 — were killed as well.

"Each of them was unique, special and brought such promise to our world," Sheriff Sadie Darnell said during a memorial service Tuesday. Darnell was the spokeswoman for Gainesville Police Department in 1990. "They were murdered. There are no words to explain why."

Gainesville had a serial killer on its hands, a man later identified as Danny Harold Rolling. Arrested in Ocala on a burglary charge about two weeks after the murders, he was connected to the murder crime scenes by DNA sampling in November 1991. Rolling pleaded guilty to all five murders on Feb. 15, 1994, and was sentenced to the death penalty on March 24, 1994. He was executed via lethal injection on Oct. 25, 2006.

While the college town tried to comprehend what had occurred, students arriving at UF were now scared for their lives.

Some left town, never to return. Others packed into residence halls and apartment buildings — sometimes as many as 20 people in a room — and took shifts staying up through the night.

"It really felt like a grip of fear," said Spencer Mann, a former lieutenant for the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office and the office’s spokesman in 1990.

Dan McFaul, an 18-year-old freshman in 1990, remembers sleeping in a friend’s home after the attacks. Armed with a baseball bat, he said he slept on the couch with one eye open.

"It was a very deep concern that kind of percolated your whole body," he said. "I don’t think I’ve felt it since."

McFaul, 43, now knows the doorway to his former home in Regency Oaks Apartments faces the woods where Rolling was camped out, knowledge that would have made him reconsider staying in Gainesville.

"Sometimes you just reflect on it," he said. "For folks my generation, this was emblazoned in their memories."

As the case developed, Mann said it was pertinent the community knew that serial killings usually were not immediately solved.

"We almost had to prepare people mentally that we were in this for the long haul," Mann said, "so get ready just as we’re ready."

Lombardi wasted no time making sure UF was ready.

Lombardi wrote in an email that he, along with Student Body President Michael Browne, Vice President for Student Affairs Art Sandeen and other members of administration, ensured they took all security measures possible.

Browne held open meetings for students to voice their concerns.

Students were told they would not be penalized for missing class or going home.

The lounge areas of residence halls became bedrooms for students who lived off campus and were afraid to sleep in their own bed.

And while UF ran business as usual, Lombardi said that looking back, everything was far from ordinary.

"The campus community probably never returned to normal (that semester)," Lombardi said, "as the trauma and shock of the terrible events remained constant in everyone’s mind. … Everyone who was there at the time carries a permanent and painful memory of those days."

But Browne said it was through those tough times that UF became united.

"There was so much uncertainty," Browne said, "but just to see so many people drop everything for safety and the well-being of people was incredible."

In Memoriam

Inside the Baughman Center on Tuesday afternoon, five bouquets of white flowers sat in a semi-circle at the front of the chapel.

The five families, with white ribbons pinned to their chests, embraced each other and the law enforcement who supported them 25 years ago. Together they sat on one side of the chapel, holding hands and tissues as they remembered their loved ones.

"I’m very much humbled to be in the presence of so many of the family members who experienced this tragedy," UF President Kent Fuchs said during the service. "You answered your grief and pain with love and compassion for our students."

But tears began to fall when two parents, Dianna Hoyt and Pat Powell, stood to remember their lost children.

Powell spoke of her daughter Christi and her family’s recovery, thanking members of the Gainesville community for their support.

"The festering has disappeared, and there is a little scar," she said, her hands shaking slightly. "But that scar does not interfere with carrying on with our lives. Our family will never forget, but we are healed and everyone is living a good, normal life.

"All is well."

A place for remembrance

When Adam Byrn Tritt created a mural on the Southwest 34th Street wall remembering the five students, his intention was to give those grieving a temporary sanctuary to mourn.

"We thought it’d last a week or two maybe," Tritt, now 51, said. "Things never last more than a week (on the wall)."

But today, 25 years later, the mural still remains, the lone constant on an ever-changing wall.

34th Street Wall

Pictured is the mural on the 34th Street wall remembering the five students killed by Danny Rolling. Adam Byrn Tritt, one of the mural’s creators, did not expect it to last longer than a couple weeks.

Once maintained by Darnell and other members of the community, the UF Interfraternity Council has maintained the memorial since 2000, applying fresh coats of paint several times a semester.

"I want to be able to commemorate and respect the families and the students affected by the murders," said Kason Green, 21, who helps paint the wall as IFC president.

The industrial and systems engineering fifth-year said he feels it is important that the IFC maintain the wall so students are aware of the tragic events in 1990.

"I can’t see us stopping," he said. "I have every intention of passing it down to my successors."

When Hoyt stood during the memorial service, she spoke of the wall as a cherished remembrance.

"This is keeping the memory of our children alive, and that means so much for us," she said.

"Everyone can see the shrine, and something of our children lives on through the wall."

Manny Taboada’s brother, Mario, said the wall carries just as much meaning for his mother.

"She shows off the wall like someone shows off their kids," he said after the ceremony.

Living Life

It was hard at first for Taboada to visit Gainesville. But it has gotten easier.

"I don’t think of Gainesville in a negative connotation," he said. "To me, this feels like it’s my brother’s home.

"I’d like to believe they’re perpetual students here."

Besides the wall, there are other tangible memories of the five students throughout Gainesville. Across the street from the wall, five palm trees bear their names and scholarships have been established in their honor.

"Whether people like it or not, it’s part of Gainesville’s historical fabric," Spencer Mann said. "It’s there. It’s not going to go away."

To Mann, the 1990 Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, current students should know about the 1990 student murders to remind them to exercise basic personal safety.

"None of these victims in these cases did anything wrong," Mann said.

"They were living life the way it is."

While a serial killer coming to town can’t be predicted, it’s not impossible to prepare for.

Jen Day Shaw, UF associate vice president and dean of students, said UF does exercises every semester to prepare for the unknown.

"Whatever it is," she said, "we practice what resources would we need, where there are gaps, how do we communicate."

For Taboada, there’s a different request for students.

"Enjoy life," he said. "Enjoy every minute."

"My brother did."

Contact Emily Cochrane at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @ESCochrane

Contact Jordan McPherson at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @J_McPherson1126