Gator Nation News

Lombardi and Darnell Remember the Gainesville Student Murders, 30 Years Later

Look for a complete story about the Gainesville student murders and their effect on UF and universities nationwide in the November issue of GATOR magazine.

Thirty years ago, the brutal slayings of five college students shattered the peacefulness of the Gainesville community and ushered in months of fear and chaos on the University of Florida campus.

Over four days in late August 1990, at the start of the fall semester, the bodies of five students – four from UF and one from then-Santa Fe Community College – were found in apartments along Archer Road.

It took nine months before the killer – a drifter and career criminal from Louisiana named Daniel Rolling – was named as a suspect, and five more before he was charged with the killings. Not until October 2006 would he receive his final punishment: death by lethal injection at Florida State Prison.

While the murders happened three decades ago, the memories of those tragic times linger. A 25-foot-long mural memorializing the victims – Sonja Larson, Christina Powell, Tracy Paules, Christa Hoyt and Manuel Taboada – still claims pride of place on the 34th Street graffiti wall, and it is continually repainted by members of UF Interfraternity Council. It is a touchstone for returning alumni, especially those from that era.

Two leaders during the crisis, President John Lombardi and Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, offer their remembrances.

— Barbara Drake


President Emeritus John Lombardi Reflects on Leadership and Loss Amid a Series of “Existential Shocks”

John Lombardi was just starting his first term as UF’s ninth president in August 1990 when five students were murdered near campus. His empathy and leadership brought together the Gator Nation. Today, Lombardi is enjoying retirement in Amherst, Mass., after a career in college administration.

Dear Gators,

It is always a challenge to relive difficult and painful experiences, and for all of us at the university, the memories, while perhaps less detailed a generation later, remain vivid.

The news of the first and subsequent murders came to us as existential shocks, for we all saw the university as a charmed space, open to a wide range of positive experiences and home to exceptional people. When confronted with the deaths, the university and community mobilized to support the students as the first priority, sustained by the recognition that law enforcement was investigating these crimes.

Exceptional leaders set aside whatever concerns were on their agendas to come together. In that vein, the university recognized it was important to support student decisions about whether to stay in residence, on or off campus, or return home.

Likewise, we adjusted schedules and requirements to let students make whatever decisions seemed best for them – to return to campus or to stay out for the semester — free of any concern about academic challenges. In the end, most students chose to return to campus after the [Labor Day] break and resume their lives, albeit with extra care and attention to security issues.

The university convened its senior administrative staff frequently to ensure that everyone had good information from all areas of campus life – from Student Affairs, to security, to Physical Plant, to academic operations – and to gather the best advices on how to manage through the continuing crisis. That allowed coordination and a cohesive approach that reflected the University of Florida’s clear sense of its responsibilities to its students.

Clear and frequent communication with students, faculty, staff and the public were also significant as we all worked through a crisis the dimensions of which we could not fully know at the time.

Many people showed exceptional leadership, but perhaps two can stand for the work of many. Dr. Art Sandeen, Vice President for Student Affairs, met with students and parents not only on campus but in all the major off-campus residence areas, helping them navigate through this difficult time. Mike Browne, Student Body President, also provided a critical perspective and strong leadership as events unfolded. He appeared frequently in meetings with students, often alongside Dr. Sandeen and others, and served as a powerful and effective student voice as we all worked through the process.

During the nine months of the police investigation, the campus and community operated as best it could with much heightened safety consciousness. Students learned to never walk alone, and those off campus paid much more attention to security issues. The campus police patrolled widely.

But for the most part, we operated as close to normal as possible, always fearing news of another murder.

Young people may not, in general, be particularly safety conscious, but during the crisis, most students paid close attention to recommendations about safe behaviors. Afterward, we reviewed off-campus housing for security issues related to locks and doors, and this greatly improved the safety conditions of off-campus student residences.

In retrospect, the most enduring impression is, of course, the unbelievably painful loss of life. While these losses triggered much campus and community support, and mobilized statewide assistance, no one who was there at the time can erase the sorrow of losing those students. And while some of the details of the response may fade from memory, the pain of their deaths remains with us forever.

Dr. John Lombardi

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell on Honoring the Victims – and Mispronouncing the Murderer’s Name

Lt. Sadie Darnell had been the Gainesville Police Department’s spokesperson for a year and a half when the student murders occurred in August 1990, foisting her into the national spotlight. Since 2006, Darnell has served as Alachua County Sheriff.

Sadie Darnell was a lieutenant and public information officer (PIO) for the Gainesville Police Department (GPD) when the five students were murdered in late August 1990. From Day 1 of the murders, Darnell was the official voice of the GPD and judiciously meted out information about the ongoing investigation to hordes of reporters. We interviewed her in July about the crisis. Here are parts of that interview.

What stands out to you about that first week of police work, starting August 26?

I vividly remember receiving the call when I had to respond in my capacity as PIO. I was advised it was a double murder of two young women. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was at the home of Norma, my twin sister. We were planning to have pizza for dinner, then watch “America’s Funniest Videos,” which is what we did as a family most Sunday evenings.

When I arrived at Williamsburg Apartments, there was little activity. I was briefed by the patrol officer there, which included a walkthrough of the crime scenes.

Due to my training, I knew what details not to release that might hinder the criminal investigation but were enough to inform the public. Only one local reporter responded that evening, reporter Ron Dupont from the Gainesville Sun. Dupont has the distinction of being the first to report on what would become a story receiving worldwide attention.

Had you ever experienced anything like that before?
No, I had never been a PIO for a serial murder case. I had previously covered a double murder, which occurred at a local restaurant during a robbery.
It became the crime story of 1990. How did you handle the media frenzy?

Because the murders happened in both GPD and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) territory, ACSO’s PIO Spencer Mann and I teamed up to manage the media coverage. At the peak, we were doing radio interviews as early as 5 a.m. and ending with television news coverage at 11:30 p.m.

We would hold two news briefings a day, usually around 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., with as many as a hundred reporters from all over the world. If there was breaking news, such as a search warrant or reports of another murder, we did “pool interviews,” which involved a representative from TV, radio and print media, each of whom had to agree to share their information to the others in their respective field. It was the only way to manage the volume of requests.

The killer never got the enduring fame he sought. What role did you, as PIO, play in that?

As a longtime crime-victim advocate, I knew the media tended to focus on the offender, to the point of glorifying them. The people who are most harmed tend to be forgotten. [In the case of Rolling], once the offender was identified, my personal way to disrespect him was to mispronounce his name when speaking to the media. [Darnell said Rawling rather than the preferred Rolling.]

With the assistance of Laura Knudson, then crime-victim advocate for the State Attorney’s Office, we guided the news attention toward personalizing each of the victims.

How did the 1990 murders shape your beliefs about how law enforcement should deal with the family and close friends of crime victims? Was interacting with the families hard for you?
The best approach is to ask the people closest to the victim how they want their loved one to be portrayed and how they want his/her story told. Laura introduced me to each of the family members. I was scared to meet them at first; I was concerned about doing or saying the wrong thing. I quickly realized my fears were not important. The important thing was to get to know them and [to understand] their son/daughter/brother/sister through their eyes – and that we be available to tell them as much as they wanted to know.
Initially you spent years touching up the mural at the 34th Street Wall. Why is keeping up this memorial so important?

I did make a personal commitment to maintain the Wall for ten years and kept the three colors of paint in my garage. However, many other anonymous “Keepers of the Wall” would repair it before I could get there. It was comforting to know there were others who felt the same responsibility.

When UF’s Interfraternal Council took over the task, it reflected how deeply UF staff and students were affected. Surviving family members were deeply touched to have a UF peer group honor and remember their children in this way.

What did our response to these crimes show about the UF and Gainesville communities?
For those of us who lived through that time, we experienced palpable fear and witnessed grief publicly exposed to the world. It has been said that during a community crisis, the community will either tear apart or come together. Our community was ‘field tested’ in a jarring, unexpected and horrific way, and we pulled together. UF President Lombardi made the decision to have Gator football start on schedule and for classes to resume. This became a key turning point for our community to begin to return to a “new normal.”