Danny Rolling was executed in 2006 after he confessed to killing five students in Gainesville, Florida.
Chris O'Meara/AP
Danny Rolling was executed in 2006 after he confessed to killing five students in Gainesville, Florida.

Story highlights

A serial killer struck the University of Florida campus in 1990

Five students were killed in days, sending fear rippling across the city

CNN's Sara Sidner was a freshman at the university when the killings occurred

The university is dealing with a string of attempted assaults on women over the past two weeks

CNN —  

The string of attacks at the University of Florida in the past two weeks has sparked terrible memories of a week in August 1990 that sent a tsunami of fear through the student population and the city of Gainesville.

Unlike the most recent attempted assaults around campus, the victims in 1990 didn’t have a chance. For five students that year, assaults ended in dismemberment and death.

The first attack happened the Sunday before school started. Gainesville police were called to check on two students in their apartment. When they arrived, the scene horrified them.

Both Christina Powell and Sonja Larson had been stabbed to death, one of them mutilated, her body posed in a sexually explicit manner.

Within 72 hours, five students were fatally stabbed, the crime scenes staged for dramatic effect.

Police soon surmised Gainesville had a serial killer in its midst and it appeared University of Florida students were his targets.

I was a freshman back then and remember students being pulled out of school by their parents, who feared their children would be the killer’s next victim.

The killer was entering students’ apartments, usually through sliding glass doors, as people slept. Police said he was likely stalking his prey and was very meticulous, staging crime scenes and cleaning them up to avoid detection. There was a sense that no one was safe at night.

Every day the killer roamed free and gruesome details surfaced, a wave of fear swept across the city. Gun stores began selling out, students traveled in groups or left campus entirely. The university even offered to reimburse tuition for those too afraid to return.

Eventually, we all learned and memorized the names of the five students killed: Sonja Larson, Christina Powell, Christa Leigh Hoyt, Tracy Paules and Manny Taboada.

After Taboada was killed, fear increased, because it became clear men would not be spared and were just as vulnerable.

By the time the killer was caught and about to go to trial, I was nearing graduation.

It happened that as a student journalist working at the university television and radio station, I ended up covering the trial. I was among those allowed to view the crime scene photos that were entered into evidence. I have never been able to get those scenes out of my head. The worst: a picture of a victim’s body on a bed with her severed head staring down from a bookshelf. It is the stuff of nightmares. They were haunting, purposely theatrical photos that were pornographic in nature due to the positioning of the bodies. All of them seemed to be scenes from a horror film too gruesome to make.

“I was here then,” University of Florida Vice President of Student Affairs Dave Kratzer said of those difficult days in 1990. “This community came together, unified and I really think that the closeness that was forged during that terrible time really is what you are seeing today.”

This is a campus that never forgets.

Long after serial killer Danny Rolling confessed to the killings and was executed by the state in 2006, a memorial to the five students he killed remains.