Gainesville reaches 30th anniversary of student murders

A row of five palm trees on the western edge of the University of Florida campus with the names of the 1990 murder victims in Gainesville.
A row of five palm trees on the western edge of the University of Florida campus with the names of the 1990 murder victims in Gainesville. (AP photo/John Raoux)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – In late August 30 years ago, Sadie Darnell was seen in news photographs and videos around the world.

She was a Gainesville Police Department lieutenant who served as the agency spokeswoman when five college students were murdered and mutilated and was a daily presence in the news.

Now, after losing her bid for a fourth full term as Alachua County sheriff, she joins more law enforcers from that time who are finishing their careers with deep memories of the crime and the role they played in finding and prosecuting the killer.

At other anniversary points of this pivotal tragedy, the Gainesville community has gathered for vigils or services of commemoration. This time, with the coronavirus pandemic preventing that, the anniversary might seem overlooked.

The University of Florida stopped anniversary recognitions, such as tolling the carillon bells of Century Tower five times, after the 25th anniversary. There are lasting reminders on campus, however. There are also five palm trees planted in the median near the wall in memory of the students, as well as five trees on campus near Library East.

But for many who were in Gainesville in August 1990, the passage of decades has not erased the memory of the days when residents were too afraid to go outside, bought guns and, for some students, fled town.

“I don’t think Gainesville’s ever been quite the same,” said Rod Smith, the Eighth Circuit state attorney at the time. “There was a certain innocence about Gainesville. People wouldn’t lock their doors. It was a very different place. When something like that happens, it forever changes that time and all the times that follow.”

A Louisiana drifter named Danny Rolling wandered into Gainesville and fatally stabbed four UF students and one from Santa Fe College over three days starting on Aug. 24, 1990.

Students and the public at large were in absolute fear. It gradually subsided when the killings stopped, but uncertainty continued to rile the public until Rolling was eventually charged in November 1991. He has been executed.

New students to Gainesville might see the memorial of trees and placards in the median of Southwest 34th Street south of Second Avenue and not realize who it’s for.

Or they might see the center panel on the graffitied wall beside the road and not realize it is a sacred spot.

But with enough time in Gainesville, they learn.

The victims were Christa Leigh Hoyt, an 18-year-old Newberry High School graduate attending Santa Fe College with plans to go to UF; and four UF students — roommates Sonja Larson, 18, of Deerfield Beach, and Christi Powell, 17, of Jacksonville; and roommates and high school friends from Miami Manuel Taboada and Tracy Paules, both 23.

Thirty years is a long time, and the anniversary coincides with some events that are closing a part of the era.

In addition to Darnell possibly leaving law enforcement — she did not respond to an interview request for this story — Chief Assistant State Attorney Jeanne Singer is retiring. Singer was brought back to the office from private practice by Smith to help with the prosecution.

State Attorney Bill Cervone, who managed the office during the time, is retiring. So is current Chief Circuit Judge Jim Nilon, who was a prosecutor on the case.

But still, the case is vivid for them.

“I like to think that there isn’t evil, but that case, that was like nothing I have ever been involved with,” Singer said in a recent interview. “I still can call up at a moment’s notice in my brain the photographs. They are just so vile, so evil. But even in that case we saw hope and love and compassion in those families. It’s amazing.”

Some who had key roles in the investigation and prosecution have died including GPD Chief Wayland Clifton, Sheriff Lu Hendery and Public Defender Rick Parker.

“Several have passed away. The rest of us are at the ends of our careers. I don’t know that anybody really has any contact with the families anymore,” Cervone said.

Smith said the murders are not something he thinks about regularly. But memories will float into his head.

“Sure, it fades a little bit. But it doesn’t seem as if 30 years have passed,” Smith said. “It’s been part of the lives of so many people. Yes, it happened so long ago, but it’s not something you forget during the course of your lifetime.”