Gainesville Ripper Student Murders: Over Two Decades Later
Hope Plevy walked into class at Nova Southeastern University in August of 1990 with a weird feeling in her gut. Little did she know that two of her good friends had just become Danny Rolling’s next victims.
Danny Rolling was a serial killer who terrorized Gainesville in August of 1990 by killing five college students who were about to start their fall semester at the University of Florida and Santa Fe.
This month marks the 27th anniversary of the killings that shook the Gainesville community.
Sonja Larson, Christina Powell, Christa Hoyt, Tracy Paules and Manuel Taboada were the five victims whose lives were cut short by Rollings. He was put to death in 2006, but the slayings still affect Gainesville to this day.
Plevy, a UF law school alumna, was best friends with Tracy Paules and Manuel Taboada, who Plevy referred to as Manny. Plevy spent her last semester in law school as a transient student at NSU when the murders occured.
Plevy, who was 25 at the time, met Paules through an ex-boyfriend while she was in grad school and Paules was an undergrad. Plevy then met Taboada through Paules because they were roommates and friends from high school.
“She (Paules) was an exceptional person to know,” said Plevy. Plevy described Paules as a fun, selfless and bubbly girl with a heart of gold.
Paules wanted to room with Plevy for the fall semester, but Plevy was unsure if she was staying in Gainesville or doing a semester back home at NSU, leaving Taboada and Paules to become roommates.
Plevy said she heard about the first few murders while at NSU and recalls having a gut feeling that something was wrong that day.
“I was acting really weird that day and kind of felt all this anxiety in me, and I didn’t know why,” she said. “Something just didn’t feel right.”
Later in the day, she spoke with a mutual friend of Paules and shortly afterward heard her two friends announced on the news. Plevy followed the trial closely and described Rolling as a crazy guy.
“He was just off the wall with the things he would say,” she stated.
She said it felt like living in a horror movie. Plevy described Gainesville as being like a ghost town after the murders because so many people left. She said it was very scary in the beginning, especially since no one knew who he was, where he was or if he would strike again.
To this day, Plevy still won’t live on a first floor in any neighborhood she lives in and hasn’t visited Gainesville much since.
After the murders, Plevy lost several other people she was close to, but the brutality of the murders still haunt her in a unique way.
Fast-forward 20 years. Andrea Pedata, a UF Alumna (2015), first heard about the murders in her intro criminology class.
“We discussed serial killers, and one of the questions they asked was if everyone knew who Danny Rolling was,” said Pedata. “Maybe 25 percent of the lecture hall of over 300 students raised their hands.”
Pedata said even she was surprised that she hadn’t heard of him until her class mentioned it.
“Whether people believe it or not, it’s something that has impacted the community,” she said. “It’s a shame that we live in the world we live in, but a lot of people are blinded to the truth.”
Pedata said that UF has changed a lot since then, but she believes that it needs to be talked about more often. She explained that everyone should be prepared in case it was to ever happen again in the future.
Jean Anderson, a retired resident of Newberry since 1978 was on her way to work when she heard the first report. At that time, Anderson was a Senior Clerk at UF in the College of Nursing. She said her initial reaction was “what a waste of a young life.”
Anderson explained how everyone became more aware of their surroundings and the people in them.
“Our son and a group of his friends set up a nightly patrol (here in Newberry) to help ensure the young people were OK and nothing looked out of place,” she said. The biggest change that occurred in Anderson’s environment was her work place.
“The faculty set up plans to help the students cope,” Anderson said.
Students were allowed to go home to their parents as long as they let Anderson know when they were leaving, and they were requested to call Anderson when they arrived home safely.
“The law enforcement community in Alachua County is one of the most caring and compassionate personnel,” she said.
The tragedy is still very prominent in people’s lives, as shown on the 34th street wall.
“I do believe this tragedy made the Gainesville and the surrounding areas more aware of dangers or the possibilities that can happen.”