Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Doing in the Damnable: Danny Rolling's Goodbye

*****[I've tacked on an update at the end.]

I left Gainesville, Florida just after Christmas, 1989, to move to Orlando. The wife and kids joined me six months later, in June of 1990. It had been my home for twenty-four years, and it's still hard not to think of it that way, as one of those places I need to get back to, but I don't, of course. I've had a lot of homes in life, and have learned to leave them all and live with it. I read somewhere recently that Gainesville was voted one of the most desirable places to live. For one year back in the early 70's it was voted an All-American city. (I don't know who does the voting for these honors.) It also claimed another honor sometime during that 70's-80's decade: the per capita murder capital of the country.

Today, Danny Rolling, also known as the Gainesville Ripper, is scheduled to leave his home as well, permanently. His current residence on earth is the Florida State Prison in Starke. I guess they'll lethally inject him, so that he falls painlessly asleep like a euthanized animal. It's customary to take notice of the formally sterilized and comfortable conditions of a murderer's execution as opposed to those under which his victims were made to perish. It makes one long for the return of Old Sparky, the electric chair that delivered many thousands of merciful volts to the killer's system, but which on one occasion lived up to its name when it sent sparks flying and smoke billowing from a prisoner's head, thus leading to its replacement by the more soothing deathbed gurney. Our search for ever quieter means of doing in the damnable seems to bespeak a bad conscience. When Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad in 1977, one of the rifles contained a blank round so that no one of the shooters could know that he had put a bullet through a man's heart. Maybe someday we'll be able to hypnotize a man to death and do away with even the tubes and bottles, the white-coated physician executioners giving way to a professional corps of killer Kreskins: when I snap my fingers you will not wake up.

About two months after my wife and kids left town, near the beginning of the university's fall semester, on August 26, 1990, to be precise, a Gainesville police officer was called to the Williamsburg Village apartments by the complex's manager. Christina Powell's parents couldn't get their daughter to answer the door and they wanted it opened. The parents waited downstairs as the officer, Ray Barber, went up to the second floor apartment, banged on the door and got no answer. The manager's master key wouldn't work, so Barber broke a window pane, which action

released a strong and unpleasant odor from within the apartment. As soon as the door crashed open under the force of the two men, Barber saw the bloodied naked body of a young woman posed grotesquely on a bed with her arms above her head. He found another young woman on the stairway down to the lower level of the apartment. Both women had been stabbed repeatedly, mutilated and deliberately positioned for maximum shock effect.

The other dead girl was Sonja Larson, Christina's roommate. Both girls were 17 years old. A third roommate, Elsa Streppe, showed up later at the crime scene. She had been out of town for the weekend. She was escorted to a crisis center and there informed of her friends' demise, at the hearing of which news she collapsed in shock.

Around one A.M., as the police were finishing up with this crime scene, they were called to another one by Sheriff's deputy Gail Barber, wife of officer Ray. She had gone to Christa Hoyt's apartment to check on her because 18 year old Christa was a conscientious records clerk at the Alachua County Sheriff's department and she hadn't shown up for work. So Gail and her partner, Keith O'Hara, knocked on Christa's door and, getting no answer, went round back to try the sliding glass door. It, too, was locked, but

they noticed that the bamboo shades over the door did not reach to the floor. They bent down on their hands and knees to peer under the curtain. Through the beam of the flashlight they could see what appeared to be a naked body seated on the edge of the bed. It was bent over at the waist with a small pool of blood at the feet, which were still clad in shoes and socks. They came to the shocking realization that the body didn't have a head...The two officers ran back to their patrol car to notify the station...When they entered through the front door they moved slowly, ready for anything. The bathroom was first. They could hear the drip, drip of the shower but there was no one there. There were bloodstains on the floor of the shower. When they left the bathroom they saw Christa's lifeless head facing them, propped up on a bookshelf in the bedroom. In the bedroom, they saw the headless corpse of the once beautiful Christa, sitting at the end of the bed. On the bed next to her were her two nipples...One of the officers let out a low growl when Christa was laid back. Apart from the breast mutilation, she had been carefully sliced from the breastbone to the pubic bone.

On August 28, two more bodies were found, those of roommates Tracy Paules and Manuel R. Taboada, both 23. They were all cut up, too. Tracy and Manny were not shacked up lovers, just best friends. Manny was about 6 foot 3 and reputedly "athletic"; Tracy felt safe with him, and her parents less worried about her. He did put up a struggle, for his arms were covered with defensive slash wounds. I'm not sure that all of the details of what Rolling did to these people have ever been printed or made public. Several newspaper articles frankly admitted that they had more details but that they were not "fit to print."

I used to indulge a minor fascination with real life crime stories, an amateur psycho-sleuth trying to figure out what goes on in the diabolical mind, but after encountering enough of them I gave it up because nothing would come to me. The pleasure that someone like Rolling got from doing what he did to Christa Hoyt doesn't exist in my universe, as far as I can tell, and thanks be to God. The attributes of a woman that make you, the normal man, want to enfold her in your arms and treasure all with your lips, he wants to cut to pieces.

Danny Rolling had a rotten childhood during which his insides got all bent and twisted. You can read about it here. Saith one narrative:

Daniel Rolling's story tends to confirm the idea that the environment in which they spend their formative years encourages the development of serial killers. It would be impossible to know the account of Rolling's childhood and not feel compassion for the child who was abused, beaten and bullied by an over-bearing and disturbed father. It would be impossible not to feel anger toward his mother who time and time again refused to take any action to protect her own son. But Daniel Rolling was not a child when he brutally murdered five young people at the threshold of their lives...

Yeah, that big "but". Rolling's lawyers, of course, tried to use the story to diminish his capacity. But when in court prosecutor Rod Smith "described in detail how Rolling [had] tortured his victims... had told them everything he planned to do to them before he killed them," the jury's sympathy was likewise somewhat diminished. I assume they got to look at crime scene photos as well. They returned with a unanimous verdict of death, when in Florida only a majority is required.

It was many months after the murders - and after Gainesville had emptied itself of many thousands of terrified students - before Rolling was finally found to be the killer. He was already in jail on another charge, an armed robbery in Marion County 30 minutes to the south. In the meantime, another man with a history of mental problems had been falsely accused and cleared. It later became apparent that Rolling was probably also responsible for a triple homicide committed in his hometown of Shreveport not long before the Gainesville spree. As the evidence got organized to the point of overwhelming, Rolling eventually confessed, first to a fellow inmate and finally to the right people, the ones who could put him on death row. While there, he had some time to kill. He began corresponding with death row groupie Sondra London, fell in love, and eventually got married. The artist in him also emerged. You can see some of it here and even buy a piece if you want. (I don't know if the site belongs to London.) The most expensive is an oil painting for $3900. I don't think you'll be hanging it in the living room though.

I'm not much interested in how their minds work anymore, but remain moderately spellbound by the tragedy of a soul made in God's image - born for no other reason but to love and be loved by Him and, in time, to return to Him - coming so to hate creation that he must annihilate its life-bearing vessels, the women. If that childhood theory is true, being starved of love leaves a hole in the soul that must be filled by something.

And there I go theorizing again, to no effect. There's nothing to do but to hold a man responsible for what the hole gets filled with. I have no temptation toward sympathy, and any who do should temper it with the memory of those college-age kids who would today be in their thirties:

Christa Hoyt
Christina Powell
Sonja Larson
Tracey Paules
Manny Taboada

If events proceed as scheduled, that bent and twisted thing inside Danny Rolling will likely soon find a place where at last it feels right at home.


He's gone now, and according to the Miami Herald he went like this:

While restrained in a gurney, Rolling turned his head and briefly gazed with pale blue eyes at the mother [Ricky Paules, mother of Tracy] of one of his five victims, then sang in a haunting Louisiana drawl of angels, mountains and, in a reference to St. Paul, of seeing ``through a glass now, darkly.''

For three minutes, as the lethal-injection drugs were about to pump into him, Rolling chanted the refrain, "None greater than thee, Oh Lord. None greater than thee." He continued to sing or speak in the windowed chamber after the microphone was cut.

Never once did he mention sorrow nor regret for his deadly Gainesville rampage 16 years ago that snuffed out five young people. Nor did he sing of the pain it caused, or ask for forgiveness.

And also from the Herald: "His victims were stabbed so hard with his U.S. Marine Corps-style KBAR knife that their chipped and slashed bones were later shown to the jury...Rolling posed his mutilated victims in sexually provocative positions and kept body parts as trophies."

One has to imagine being a parent to any of these five children, and in my reading I have tried to keep my focus on them (the parents and the children), perhaps not always successfully, but in doing so one comes away with a terrible feeling of the endless sadness pervading their lives, rippling outward seemingly forever to engulf, nearly to drowning, so many others who swam in the ocean of the victims' lives. You read of brothers and sisters whose sleep is now plagued, even to this day, by nightmares; of personalities changed, of hearts scarred by a thirst for revenge, of empty gestures and platitudes which the survivors repeat to themselves in ritualistic fashion for the sake of the merest comfort. And there are the sweet gestures as well, like the friend of Sonja Larson who named her daughter in her honor. Even law enforcement personnel are still haunted, like Sadie Darnell, who, as police department spokeswoman, was once a fixture on my television screen. Ten years after the event she admitted to an interviewer that

"It's the cumulative amount of horror that haunts people..." but time hasn't dimmed her bad dreams. "I had a nightmare about it again, just last night," Darnell says. "For
whatever reason, I was thinking about those photos..."

Other names and faces I'd thought gone forever return, like Lu Hindery, the sheriff, and Wayland Clifton, chief of police and once a member of my parish till they opened a new one on the west side. A further and very modest sampling:

From the Independent Florida Alligator, a student paper in Gainesville, remarks from Diana Hoyt, Christa's stepmother:

"That day in August changed everything in our lives, how we would think and live from that day forward. (Her father) could not accept the pain and literally died of a broken heart before he could ever see this day... It's the stress that did it," she said. "Back in 1990, one thing (TV news) would like to do is show the body bags coming out of the apartments. My husband, he would see them and say, 'there goes my little girl, there goes my little girl' and start crying."

And from Ada Larson, Sonja's mother:

"I want to see her again when I die. I want to be with her so much. It won't be over until I die. It really won't be." Ada Larson thinks about her murdered daughter every day and dreams about her almost every night...The actions of her daughter's killer stirred Ada to call him "the epitome of evil." They also shook her faith.

"I have not received any insight from God," Ada wrote. "My only hope is that I will see Sonja in heaven."

Sixteen years after Sonja's funeral, Ada is still asking the same questions she did at the beginning. She wonders why her daughter had to die the way she did.

And from Ricky Paulus, Tracy's mom:

"I want to hear her voice again, even though I know what it sounds like," she wrote. "To hear her say 'hi Mom" or "hi dudette.'" She also yearns to tuck her daughter into bed, to sit and watch TV with her, to exercise with her, to laugh, to cry and to tell her daughter how much she loves her. Ricky misses being able to see her daughter dress up for a night out and to see her beautiful face.

But most of all, Ricky misses hearing her daughter say, "I love you, Mom."

Ricky believes in heaven, but for killing her daughter, she believes Danny Rolling will never make it there. "He's going to hell," she said. "He'll burn in there. What's left in his soul, anyway."

After the announcement of Rolling's execution date, George [Paulus] passed on a statement through his wife: "We don't much care if they burn him, stick him or hang him, just so long as they kill him."

Another narrative of the crimes is available here, from out of which leaps a familiar refrain: "The jury that sentenced him to death saw just one album of photos. Some details are too gruesome to ever repeat, even in court."

And that's about all the sadness (concerning parents bereft of children, that is) that I can take for a few days.


TS said...

I have no evidence, but it SEEMS like there are fewer serial killers now than there were in the 60s & 70s, during the Son-of-Sam, Jeffrey Dahmer era. Maybe cause for hope? Or maybe they're just getting caught sooner. Of course back in the '70s we never had the school shootings we get now. Beyond frightening.

Steven said...

Dear Bill,

These are the "tough cases" that try even a hard-and-fast anti-death-penalty agitator like me. Naturally I will pray for the repose of the soul of Rolling and even for clemency that he probably does not deserve and will not get.

But I think about it, and his crimes are only more exterior than my own. To how many people have I done the same thing in my mind--while driving, while dealing with recalcitrant clerks and IT d'espece d'idiots? No, I've never done it physically, nor would I ever be tempted to in anything like my right mind. But here is a man who gave way to the flaw that is in all of us and who was sucked down into darkness, dragging as many people as he could take with him. It's dreadful, it's horrible, and what will happen to him is probably deserved in some way. And yet, what is fixed by it? How is anything balanced or made whole?

On the other hand, the ravening beast within me says, quite distinctly, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." There is part of me that would like him to be dealt with as he dealt. And therefore, I retreat to the merciful teaching of the Church and beg for mercy myself. My reaction to things like this show me just how far I am from the grace of God.



William Luse said...

You're a good guy, Steven, so I'll leave the praying to fellows like you, and refrain from disagreeing too heartily except to say that for me this is not a tough case. It's an easy one. is a man who gave way to the flaw that is in all of us... Uh, I hope you're wrong about that... and who was sucked down into darkness... Nah, he wasn't sucked down, he jumped.

And yet, what is fixed by it? How is anything balanced or made whole?

Maybe nothing. Maybe if someone like Rolling has any hope of salvation, a portion of his torment has been relieved, some time in purgatory taken off. But I've never understood punishment as a tool for 'fixing' something, rather, above all, as a debt to be paid for a transgression. As to the balancing, any perfection of it can only be had in the next life. In the meantime society and the victim's relatives get some sense of cathartic release, of justice meted out, however imperfectly, and of the comfort that comes with a knowledge of civilized solidarity, that my fellow citizens value the lives of my loved ones enough to punish the killer fully.

I am less interested in the question of what is fixed by it, than in another: What harm has the criminal done? To which concern I might post an update.

Steven said...

Dear Bill,

No. I think my point was that I am not a "good guy." If I were I would be taking you to task for everything said here and I find I cannot because there is too much of me in agreement with what you say.

And part of my point is that in such cases the punishment really should fit the crime. Cruel and unusual punishment aside. That's my barbarous heart with only the thinnest overlay of civilization that the Church can give it.

But I will pray for him because such lostness can only be redeemed by prayer and our Lord promised, "Such as these can only be overcome by much prayer." And such as these continue to haunt the world today--their warped insides masked by outward normality.

We do disagree on the balance redressed--I tend to think we push more toward his side when we do these things. But, as with you, I can't too strongly disagree. Church teaching recognizes the validity of the death penalty in certain cases (I'm not sure this fits JPtG criteria--but then not many would) and if there were a case that certainly merited societal release from a menace, this is one of them.

So, were I a better person, you'd have a stronger disagreement. As it is, I pray, not just for Rolling but for myself that I feel no sadness at this loss and so I have once again judged myself. Lord have mercy on me and on him.

Well written, and well done Bill, and now I have to make my way to confession.

Steven said...

Oops! No closing,

As always, I wish you



William Luse said...

...I am not a "good guy." If I were I would be taking you to task for everything said here... So if you were less conscious of being a sinner, you'd do the right thing? But it is that awareness that allows you to pray for him at all. Repeat after me, "I am nothing like Rolling. I am a good guy, I am a good guy..." and I find I cannot because there is too much of me in agreement with what you say. Maybe that's not because you're a sinner, but because I'm right (it happens, you know):~), and when you agree with the right, you're a good guy.

I tend to think we push more toward his side when we do these things. I tend to think this pushes towards a moral equivalency between the two acts - Rolling's and the state's - when in fact they are morally polar opposites.

...I feel no sadness at this loss and so I have once again judged myself. Give yourself a break. There are so many others worthy of your sadness, like the walking wounded he left behind.

Anonymous said...

Dear Bill,

What can one say of such kindness as you offer except, thank you. You are most gracious.



William Luse said...

I've never been called that before. Let me digest it.

smockmomma said...

if i may, i say good riddance to bad rubbish. to hell with all of the rollings of this world. our sweet steven may have missed his calling as an amish believer, but us catlix are better for it.

William Luse said...

You need to get in the habit of saying what's on your mind.