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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Twenty-five years ago, the brutal murder of five college students shattered the tranquility of this college town and threw the University of Florida campus into a panic the like of which has not been seen here since.
Students starting fall semester classes this week may be largely unaware of this horror that occurred before most of them were born, but the marks of those dark days of 1990 surround them.
"We are probably a safer town than we ever were, but that came at some expense because we lost our sense of innocence and security before that," said Rod Smith, a private attorney who as state attorney successfully prosecuted serial murderer Danny Rolling and got him the death penalty.
The Gainesville student murders forever changed the way local law enforcement handles big crime and treats victims and their family members. It also set a blueprint for how the university deals with campus emergencies that have been adopted by other institutions of higher learning.
Over a three-day period in late August 1990, police discover the mutilated bodies of five college students at the southwest edge of the UF campus. Classes were canceled. Students fled for their parents' homes or crashed at the home of friends. Gun sales went up. People changed the locks on their doors.
Four of the victims were UF students. One, a young woman who grew up in nearby Archer, attended Santa Fe Community College (now Santa Fe College).
Hundreds of law enforcement officers from several agencies converged in a massive investigation that led to the arrest months later of Rolling, who pleaded guilty in 1994 to avoid trial and was sentenced to death. His execution by lethal injection was carried out in 2006.
The case has stayed with Smith for years.
"You never forget a trial of that magnitude," Smith said. It was one of the first major cases to be broadcast on Court TV.
While Smith was a state senator in Tallahassee from 2001 to 2006, people would introduce him as the man who prosecuted Danny Rolling, even though he avoided making references to it himself.
He could also count on students in the law class he taught at UF asking if he had tried the Gainesville student murder case, although that question hasn't been asked recently.
"The last few years I haven't heard that question," Smith said. "People in law school today were not alive then."
The crime forever changed those involved in the investigation, particularly the ones who worked the crime scenes where the mutilated bodies of the victims had been arranged for effect.
"Most of us go through life never expecting to be a victim," Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell said. "This jarred our reality, realizing today that a serial murder happened within Gainesville and Alachua County."
Darnell, who was the media's main point of contact for the Gainesville Police Department in 1990, said an event of such magnitude either tears a community apart or brings it together.
"I think we are a stronger community because of it," Darnell said. "Instead of hunkering down and hiding, our community pulled together, and looked out for each other."
Driving home from work, she recalled seeing every light on in every home, and remembered grocery baggers walking shoppers to their cars.
Darnell has received a lot of media requests for interviews over the years because of the notoriety of the case, and talking about the crime and fielding questions from the media became taxing and time-consuming. She and others involved in the investigation decided 10 years ago they would not comment on the crime, saying that it was time to "move on," she said.
They felt that talking about Rolling glorified him somehow, she said, and it's painful for the family members who survived the loss of their loved ones.
The case made Darnell more aware of the role law enforcement needed to play interacting with surviving family members. "Law enforcement tends to resist getting on a personal level with the victim or surviving members because they are fearful," Darnell said. "Once they will engage in that level with a person who's been traumatized, it's rewarding, and they get better at it. We are truly about providing service to those that have been harmed."
Rolling never achieved the sort of notoriety he wanted, the "superstar" status of Ted Bundy, Smith said, largely because of the law enforcement community's efforts to keep the focus on the victims and their families.
"They were bent on making this different," Smith said. "We were not going to allow anyone to make this man the centerpiece. I take my hat off to people who don't want to talk about it anymore and don't want to glorify his memory."
The attacks left a permanent mark on campus, too. The university developed "an extensive crisis plan" after the slayings, said Linda Gray, who was UF's public affairs director at the time. Now retired, Gray continued to give her crisis plans to hundreds of people as a consultant.
Twenty-five years later, that plan is also still in effect at UF, said Jen Day Shaw, dean of students.
"It has influenced tons of people, looking out for each other," Shaw said. "I've worked on a lot of campuses and as big as UF is, we've done a great job."
Shaw, who got her master's degree in 1990 and began her career, has seen a lot of tragedies and their impact on college campuses, including the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, where Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at the university, shot and killed 32 people.
"There is more of that fear that the world is not a safe place anymore," Shaw said. "It is not so much a college campus as the world in general."
The Gainesville student murders are part of a continuum of school attacks in America that began with an Ohio school bombing in 1927 through Columbine and then through the Newtown massacre, said Larry Barton, a professor of risk management at The American College in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and a professional threat assessor who also teaches at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.
What these killings have in common is a perpetrator suffering from some form of mental illness, and they are often grievance collectors, Barton said.
"What has haunted many of us with regard to Rolling is not knowing what his grievances were," he said. "It was pre-internet, pre-social networking, and the universities in general didn't really have the resources to deal with severe mental illness."
A lot has changed because of Rolling, Barton said, most notably the Clery Act, a federal requirement that colleges and universities must report all crimes committed on campus or in its vicinity.
"The incident in Gainesville was one of many reasons Congress passes the Clery Act," Barton said. "The president of every college has to sign an affidavit for every crime on campus — so that the student applicant to the university knows whether there is a higher crime rate and how well that institution is managed."
The president and two top administrators at Eastern Michigan University were fired in 2007 for not reporting the killing of Laura Dickinson by another student as a murder.
Today, universities have better means of communicating when an attack occurs on campus, better mental health services for students and the Tarasoff rule that allows psychiatrists, lawyers, clergy and others to break confidentiality rules if someone has made a direct threat to themselves or someone else.
Florida is cited among the five best prepared states in the country for identifying students at risk, he said, thanks largely to how UF responded to Rolling and other campus crimes.
Police at the University of Central Florida thwarted a plot last year by one student who planned to assassinate another student. "It's a stark reminder that these issues have not gone away," Barton said.
As a new semester was beginning this time last year, a mysterious, tall, hooded stranger brutally attacked and tried to rape several women on and near the UF campus, triggering a ripple of panic through the community.
Administrators responded immediately by increasing police patrols at night, adding more Student Nighttime Auxiliary Patrol vans to pick up students, and more routes on campus to reduce student wait time to a maximum of 5-7 minutes. "We ramped up immediately," Shaw said.
These days, faculty and staff are more concerned about things like acquaintance rape and underage drinking. Students today for the most part have no idea who Rolling was or what he did — unless a professor brings it up or makes a class assignment of it.
"Students today weren't alive then. Rolling is not real to them. It's historical and doesn't have a lot of impact," Shaw said. "We talk about things happening right now that resonate more."
Spencer Mann, the former Alachua County sheriff's spokesman in 1990 and a retired investigator for the State Attorney's Office, assigns the Gainesville slayings as part of the applied fact-finding class he teaches at the UF College of Journalism and Communications.
"Because none of them were born when it occurred, what a perfect assignment as far as trying to find facts for what was out there," he said. "Most students didn't know or have a clue how much impact that had, not only in Gainesville but around the entire state of Florida."
Information from: The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, http://www.gainesvillesun.com
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