In today’s True Crime 101, Anna tells the real life horror story that inspired the film, Scream.
In March 1994, a struggling actor and screenwriter named Kevin Williamson became engrossed in a news program about a drifter who terrorized the town of Gainesville, Florida, with the murders of five college students over three days in August 1990. Finding himself spooked by the news, he sat down an wrote the screenplay that would be the movie Scream.
Danny Rolling was born in 1954 in Shreveport, Louisiana, to a 19-year-old mother named Claudia and a police officer named James, a decorated Korean War veteran who possibly suffered some combination of post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illness. Rolling revealed that his childhood was very traumatic and he and his brother and other suffered much abuse from his father.
Rolling turned to art and music for solace – his Christmas gift of a guitar at age 15 proved to be one of his happiest memories from adolescence. He also recalled these early years as a time when he developed multiple personalities as a “defence” from the nightmarish reality around him, with attempts at suicide failing to bring an escape.
Rolling joined the Air Force when he grew up but was discharged in 1972 after getting busted for drug possession, Rolling went to live with his grandfather and, for a time, found some stability through his church. He got married and had a daughter, but he eventually drove them away as he started to abuse the, the same way his father abused him.
Rolling took a turn for the worse after the divorce. He raped a woman who resembled his ex-wife and embarked on several armed robberies through the South, leading to his incarceration in Jackson, Georgia, in 1979. The 1980s brought more of the same for Rolling, who was in and out of jail in Alabama and Mississippi for armed robbery. His time in between stints in jail were spent traveling the country, stealing and occasionally forcing himself on women.
Back in Shreveport in November 1989, Rolling was fired from his job at a restaurant. That same night, he broke into a home to murder 24-year-old Julie Grissom, her eight-year-old nephew, Sean, and her 55-year-old father, Tom. These were his first murders and he later confessed to these crimes.
The following May, Rolling got into one final argument with his father. This time he pulled out a gun and shot James in the stomach and head. His father survived but lost the use of an eye and ear. Rolling then fled to Kansas and Florida, eventually arriving in Gainesville in 1990.
Gainesville, Florida is home to the University of Florida and is a college town. Most of the area centres around the University.
On arrival he set up a campsite in a wooded area behind the University of Florida.
In the early morning hours of Friday, August 24, Rolling broke into the apartment shared by 17-year-old university freshmen Sonja Larson and Christina Powell. Finding Powell asleep on the downstairs couch, he stood over her briefly but did not wake her up, choosing instead to explore the upstairs bedroom where Larson was also asleep. Rolling murdered Larson by stabbing her to death.
Rolling then went back downstairs, taped Powell’s mouth shut, bound her wrists together and raped and murdered her. Rolling posed the bodies in sexually provocative positions. He took a shower before leaving the apartment.
When police arrived to investigate the scene they were shocked by the savagery of the attack. One local reporter noted that it was the first time he had not been allowed directly in to see the crime scene and expressed concern after witnessing a seasoned officer he knew rush out of the house and vomit in the bushes. Police knew right away they were dealing with the most depraved sort of person imaginable and suspected that it wouldn’t be long until he struck again. They were right.
On August 25, 1990, a mere day after Sonja and Christina had been brutally slain, Rolling broke into the Christa Hoyt’s apartment, ransacked it for valuables, and waited for her to return. When she entered her apartment around 11 a.m. Rolling attacked her from behind, trapping her in a choke hold. As with his previous victims Danny taped her mouth shut and her wrists together before dragging her into the bedroom and raped and murdered her. He then decapitated her and posed her body.
On August 27, just two days after his prior attack, Danny broke into the apartment of Manny Taboada and Tracy Paules. Tabouda weighing over two hundred pounds, fought back but Rolling eventually subdued and killed him. Tracy, who came down to investigate the source of the noise that had awoken her and finds Danny as he was killing her roommate. She fled and locked herself in her room, but Danny broke down the door. As with his previous victims Rolling taped her mouth and wrists and raped and murdered her.
A deep paranoia fell over Gainesville once the public learned that it wasn’t just petite brunettes being attacked but that a large man had also been slain. It was clear that no one was safe from this monster. By this point the string of bizarre murders had attracted widespread media attention with scores of news outlets setting up shop in the quiet town and hounding students for ratings grabbing sound bites. The students themselves began taking extra precautions, from switching up their daily routine to studying and sleeping together in small groups. Some bought baseball bats and Mace and had extra locks installed on their doors and windows. Gun sales also soared as helicopters with searchlights scoured the city by night in search of a killer. Not everyone was so brave. Overwhelmed by the brutality and nonstop media coverage of the crimes some parents simply withdrew their children altogether from school or transferred them, since the murder spree began early in the fall semester.
A lengthy investigation ensued, with 6,500 leads and over 1,500 pieces of evidence. Initially, however, the police had very few credible leads to go on. They focused on a suspect named Edward Humphrey who was brought in due to having been evicted from the apartment complex where Miss Paules and Mr. Taboada lived as well as his history of erratic behavior. By all accounts Edward looked the part of the villain, his face having been horrifically scarred during a car accident where he’d attempted to run from a moving car. The media widely and repeatedly showed Edward’s terrifying visage. To make matters worse the murders instantly ended after Edwards was taken into custody. Despite a lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime scene police were certain that they had their man. They didn’t. It was later determined that Edward was mentally ill and he, along with another suspect who did not receive the same amount of media attention, were completely exonerated of all implications of being involved in the murders.
Around the same time Rolling, who’d been camping out in the woods with souvenirs from his murders and financing his killing spree with a string of brazen robberies, was captured near the very apartment complexes he’d been breaking into. Detectives didn’t know it at first but later discovered that the tape recorder Danny had been found with had several confessions and explanations for his grisly crimes. He also had blood from his victims, the roll of tape he’d used to bind and gag them with, and the screwdriver he’d used to pry open the door and windows of his victim’s residences.
With an overwhelming amount of evidence against him Danny was charged with several counts of murder in November 1990. In 1994, just prior to the start of his trial, Rolling pled guilty to all charges telling the judge, “there are some things that you just can’t run from.” He bragged that his motive for the killings was to become a superstar like Ted Bundy, who murdered coeds at the Chi Omega sorority at Florida State University. If he expected to receive any leniency for the admission of his terrible crimes, he was sorely disappointed. Instead he was sentenced to the death penalty on each and every count of murder he committed.
On October 25, 2006, shortly after he’d exhausted his final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the serial killer slash rapist Daniel Rolling was executed by lethal injection at the Florida State Prison. In a written statement given to detectives prior to his execution, Rolling confessed to the murders of the Grissom family in Shreveport. Up until his final moments Rolling showed no remorse whatsoever for his actions and refused to make any verbal statements or even offer an apology for his crimes to the relatives of his victims, many of whom showed up to witness his death. Danny refused to make eye contact during his execution humming gently to himself as he was strapped in and the lethal drugs were administered. Across the road from the prison, dozens of onlookers gathered into groups waiting for word that he had passed. It was the largest turnout for an execution in Florida since Ted Bundy. At 6:13 p.m. he was officially pronounced dead.