A community that stays together, heals together: People remember Gainesville student murders 30 years later

One resident reflects on his time feeling fear as a Santa Fe student in 1990 but now feels grateful his community kept one another safe.
Published: Aug. 24, 2020 at 11:44 PM EDT
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (WCJB) -It was a crime with an impact that spanned the country thirty years ago. The murder of five students in a span of four days in Gainesville changed not only student life but residents as well.

An unknown attacker later identified as Danny Rolling struck fear in the hearts of students and their parents as they packed up and fled. Although, many did not have that luxury.

Five students: Sonja Larson, Christina Powell, Christa Hoyt, Manuel Taboada and Tracy Paules. All taken too soon, murdered by Rolling in August of 1990, as they furthered their education at Santa Fe College and the University of Florida.

Former State Attorney Rod Smith said, "the pain of this will not go away, it will slowly dissipate as time passes."

Smith was in charge of prosecuting Rolling who was sentenced to death by lethal injection in 1994 and executed in 2006. "A trial was conducted, it was conducted here, it was conducted well and take a certain pride that our community could."

Smith added that he was satisfied with the sentencing and remembers the families he fought for as strong people. "I never thought of it as vengeance, I always thought of it not as revenge, not avenging what you can't avenge, but seeking justice as it should be implored and we did that."

Students from the University of Florida and Santa Fe college left parts of Gainesville a ghost town as Smith and law enforcement officers worked to bring justice to the families of the five victims.

But what about those who couldn't leave town, who called and still do call this college town their home?

“Near the University of Florida as well as the west side of Gainesville because it’s where those murders happened, fear kind of did set in if I was going on that side of town.” Chris Reid was born and raised in East Gainesville, started at Santa Fe College in 1990.

Thirty years later Reid added, "and so you move forward with grace and with love."

Now doing just that in the town that raised him, Reid teaches for Alachua County public schools and plays a part in helping the community heal. "And you band together as a community and I think that's what we tried to practice and preach."

More needs to be done in Reid’s eyes as he said, “we failed in many areas and I think in a lot of areas we also succeeded because you begin to surround yourself with like-minded people.” People who could be counted on in a city’s hour of agony.

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