In The News: Danny Rolling
With the Danny Rolling execution next week, I wanted to feature an article about him. His execution is set for October 25th.
A killer is born
Psychologists say dad’s cruelty led to the murders
By DREW HARWELL
Before he brutally murdered five college students at the beginning of UF’s 1990 Fall semester, people knew little about Danny Rolling.
He had been a quiet boy with a soft Southern drawl and sad, drooping eyes. Women thought he was charming and gentlemanly. He enjoyed playing guitar and sang in a church choir.
Few knew of his abusive childhood, his suicide attempts or his sadistic fantasies.
And then his knife fell, carving a place in history for him as the Gainesville Ripper.
The horror began quietly in 1954 when James Rolling and his 22-year-old wife, Claudia, were married. James had just returned from the Korean War and begrudgingly went job-hunting in the river town of Shreveport, La.
Two weeks after their marriage – and although James didn’t want to – the couple conceived a child. They named him Daniel. Daniel Harold Rolling.
During Claudia’s pregnancy and after Rolling’s birth, James beat his wife. His brutality pushed her to leave with her newborn child, but she returned not long after in an attempt to save her marriage.
A scarred son
Escape would become a method of survival for Rolling.
“Running was his defense mechanism,” said Harry Krop, a psychologist who would spend 500 hours with Rolling after the murders. “It was his only way to avoid major conflicts.”
Claudia loved Rolling dearly but felt too young and powerless to defend him against his father. She reserved her motherly caresses for Rolling only when her husband wasn’t around, fearing James’ punishment.
When Claudia gave birth to her second son, Kevin, a year after Rolling, the rules tightened and the beatings worsened.
No shoes inside. No sitting on the furniture. Keep quiet. Hold your fork correctly.
If Rolling didn’t breathe correctly, his father – now working as a police lieutenant – would whip him with a belt or grind his knuckles into his head. And if he cried, he was hit harder.
Krop said one of the most hurtful rules for Rolling was not being allowed to sit at the dinner table with his father, who had banished him to the kitchen.
Rolling sometimes snuck out while his father was eating and wandered the neighborhood. He gazed into the windows of families eating dinner together and imagined he was eating with them, laughing with them, being loved by them.
Krop said this abuse would scar him for life.
Emotional immaturity. Avoidance. Poor impulse control. Sadistic fantasies. For now, they were just the quirks of a young boy who got beatings when he wanted love. Over time they would develop into forces that would push him to kill.
Claudia and her two sons ran away again. They left James and the house three times but always returned not long after. Rolling was 8, 9 and 10 when they fled, and he pleaded to his mother not to go back to the father who abused them.
Claudia would later tell the court in her son’s trial that, at this age, Rolling was being beaten once or twice a week.
When he failed the third grade, faculty members urged his parents to let him receive counseling, citing his inferiority complex and aggressive tendencies.
But his father decided Rolling’s treatment would be more violence. He never went to counseling.
He was 11 when he began to play guitar, writing and singing his own songs. Krop said playing the guitar was something Rolling felt good at and satisfied with. He wanted to be a songwriter, attract women and become famous.
Also about this time he developed a drinking problem. What he couldn’t get from friends, he stole.
“He used it for avoidance, escape,” Krop said. “It was self-medication for the emotional pain he was experiencing.”
When the family fell asleep one night, Rolling snuck out of the house and spent several nights in nearby woods. He spent his time fantasizing of violence and control.
Twenty-four years later, he would set up campsites in the woods near his victims, and his sadistic fantasies would become real.
His voyeurism, which began innocently as he watched other families, became sexually motivated. He was caught peeking in windows to watch girls shower and undress.
Rolling was 15 when he slit his wrists. He had seen his mother do the same only four years earlier after an argument with his father.
“I tried,” he scrawled on the bathroom mirror in his mother’s lipstick. “I just can’t make it.”
His father had told him that he would be dead or in jail by 15.
Rolling almost proved him right.
A failed father
After Rolling dropped out of high school in 1971, he enlisted in the Air Force, where he excelled in his course work but drank heavily, smoked marijuana and used LSD.
An Air Force psychiatrist diagnosed him with a personality disorder, and he was discharged for drug problems and stealing a bicycle.
He returned to Shreveport, a town and a life he had run away from just months ago, and began to attend King’s Temple United Pentecostal Church. It was there he met O’Mather Halko, a petite dark-haired woman who Rolling believed was an answer to his prayers for companionship. The two married in 1974 and had a daughter, Kiley, a year later. Their marriage would only last three years, and he drank, couldn’t keep a job and suffered from impotence.
Despite his faults, Rolling was enraged when Halko filed for a divorce in 1977. (Rolling would later say his ex-wife looked like 18-year-old Christa Hoyt, his sixth murder and the most violent: He would stab the freshman through the back, cut off her nipples and place her severed head on a bookshelf.)
Rolling became a drifter. He committed armed robberies in Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia. The police caught him as he left a Columbus, Ga., Winn-Dixie supermarket with $956 in stolen cash, and he was sentenced to six years in prison.
There, he lifted weights, boxed and took pride in his power. Inmates sometimes called him “psycho” after watching him fight. Krop said the guards and inmates cruelly abused him, adding to the wounds inflicted by his father.
After his release, he hitchhiked across the country, stopping with relatives who would take him in. In 1985, Rolling held up another supermarket and was arrested.
During a conversation with his defense attorney, Arthur Carlisle, Rolling presented a bizarre alternative to returning to prison: He would let them cut off his hands. Rolling was sentenced to four years in a Mississippi jail for armed robbery.
“Rolling had impulse-control problems: basically, not really thinking through the consequences of his actions,” Krop said. “He was very emotionally immature.”
Rolling returned in 1988 to Shreveport after being paroled. On Nov. 4, 1989, Rolling was fired from his job at a Poncho’s restaurant. Rather than taking the rejection quietly – as he had done so many times before – he lashed out at his manager for leaving a couple dollars off his paycheck, and threatened violence.
That night, he killed for the first time.
Julie Grissom, 24, was raped and murdered. Her father, Tom Grissom, and his 8-year-old grandson Sean, were also killed. Three generations of the Grissom family, stabbed to death.
Rolling positioned Julie’s body with her legs spread and hair carefully fanned onto her bed. She was discovered with tape marks on her wrists and bite marks on her breasts. His arranging of his victims’ corpses would become his signature.
Rolling had watched Julie as she worked at a Dillard’s department store in Shreveport’s South Park Mall. Krop said on the night of Rolling’s first murders, his voyeurism and sadistic fantasies escalated into reality.
“Rolling couldn’t stand the idea of their family being happy,” Krop said.
It would only be several months before he killed again.
Rolling wasn’t hiding his anger and frustration any longer. During an argument at his parents’ home, he shot his father in the stomach and head. His father lived. Rolling ran.
Rolling’s love-hate relationship with his father would continue to affect him months after the shooting. In the nights before his Gainesville murders, he recorded messages that both cursed and forgave his father.
“His father had been … emotionally and physically abusive to him when he was younger, yet Rolling continues to say, ‘I love him,'” psychiatrist Robert Sadoff would later say.
Rolling fled Shreveport and took a bus to Sarasota before finally ending up in Gainesville. Krop said he was excited at the prospect of a college town. He set up a campsite in woods near Archer Road with a tent and a mattress he had bought at a Gainesville Wal-Mart. It was at this store that he had seen his first two victims: two UF freshman girls, Sonja Larson, 18, and Christina Powell, 17, buying things for their new apartment.
They were several aisles over as he walked through the checkout with a stolen screwdriver, roll of duct tape and two pairs of gloves. After shopping, he followed the girls to their Williamsburg Village apartment.
He watched through their window as they washed dishes. In his black outfit, ski mask and athletic gloves, he waited until 3 a.m. before he crept up to their second-floor apartment.
Sixteen steps up the cracked white staircase, and the horror began.
“Your honor, I’ve been running from first one problem and then another all my life,” he would later say to Judge Stan Morris.
“But there are some things you just can’t run from, and this is one of those.”