AN author who was once engaged to the Gainesville Ripper has reflected on her relationship with the man who killed five students over four days during the summer of 1990 in an exclusive interview with The Sun.
Sondra London, now 74, was in her early 40s when she received a letter from Danny Rolling, an inmate at Florida State Prison, in June 1992 asking her to tell his story to the world.
Sondra London, now 74, was in her early 40s when she began corresponding by letter with the Gainesville Ripper, Danny Rolling[/caption]
Rolling killed five students across fours days in a sickening murder spree near the University of Florida campus in August 1990[/caption]
The victims killed in the Gainesville murders are pictured above[/caption]
At the time, Rolling was awaiting trial for the murders of five students across four days in Gainesville, Florida in late August 1990 – a brutal spree of killings that terrorized the raucous college town and would later go on to inspire the horror movie series Scream.
The career criminal, who blamed his violent outbursts on traumas he suffered during his childhood, reached out to London after reading a screenplay she’d sent to his cellmate, fellow killer and crook Robert “Bobby” Lewis.
“I guess you know who I am,” London remembers the letter reading. “I really like that thing you wrote and I want you to write my story. I want you to be the one to do my story.”
London told The Sun that it wasn’t unusual for her to receive such letters at the time. The freelance reporter and writer said her letterbox was regularly flooded with requests from the incarcerated, asking her to immortalize them in literature.
She had recently published a book called Killer Fiction, a collection of short stories, drawings, and other works of Gerald John Schafer, a former police officer who claimed to have killed more than 30 women between 1966 and 1973.
London had dated Schafer for a year in high school and was inspired to write the book after reading Ann Rule’s “The Stranger Beside Me”, which detailed Rule’s friendship with the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy.
Aware of Rolling’s crimes, London began exchanging letters back and forth with the killer over the next several months.
During those correspondences, London told The Sun that she and Rolling both “gradually developed feelings” for one another.
“It took about eight or nine months before we became more personal,” London said.
‘SERIAL KILLER GROUPIE’
Rolling eventually professed his love for London in a letter, she added, and often sent her poems gushing about the way she made him feel.
While the feelings were mutual, London claims her priority was not persuing a romantic relationship with Rolling but instead writing a book about the crimes he’d committed, but not yet confessed to.
Across a period of several months, London had tried to arrange a visit to meet Rolling in person but claims to have been routinely denied by prison officials.
“They kept changing their reasons for not allowing me to see him,” she said.
“Eventually, I was told ‘we’ve been denying your application because your friendship isn’t leading to marriage.’”
With that, London said she wrote to Rolling and eventually the pair decided to get married to navigate the loophole.
“Then they came up with another twist, saying we could get married but not in person,” she said.
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London and Rolling continued exchanging letters and remained engaged to be married.
Eventually, London received a call from a friend of hers at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who had arranged a “special visitors pass” for her to meet with Rolling face-to-face.
“Everything was very exciting,” she remembered.
Recounting her first impression of Rolling, London told The Sun: “I thought he was a real cornball.
“My first impression is that he must be some kind of yokel,” she added, a term meaning an uneducated and unsophisticated person from the countryside.
“I learned later that Danny had very little sense of who he really is, so for him to manifest he has to put on a costume of some kind.
“I thought he was crazy, [and] schizophrenic probably.”
London’s recollections of her first meeting with Rolling today differ greatly from the version of events she offered in various accounts to local media at the time.
In an interview with ABC6 in 1994, she told host John Donovan: “When I was brought into the prison and introduced to Danny behind glass, all of a sudden I found myself responding to him in a physical way – and I was not prepared for that.
“My ears went red … It’s a physiological response and this is why I had to admit that I love him.”
In her 1993 book, Knocking On Joe, London went into further detail of her “physiological” reactions to Rolling, remembering him as a “gorgeous hunk” and a “dangerous pussycat.”
“I approached my meeting with Danny thinking I was prepared for anything. But there was one thing I was not prepared for. I had no idea what a fine-looking man he is today,” an excerpt of the book reads.
“Instead of the broken and dejected loser I’d seen on TV … standing before my hungry eyes was one gorgeous hunk of man.
“I’m sorry, folks, but it’s the truth. My Maximum Man stands an imposing 6 2” with muscles out to here. His color is bright, his youthful skin is glowing, his hazel eyes are clear … and so is his head.
“The news footage publicized the courtroom image of him stumbling about awkwardly, stupefied by Thorazine and seeming lost in his own body. But now my ‘dangerous pussycat’ strides across the floor with a languid power and instinctive grace that makes me highly aware that I am a woman, and this is a man.”
When reminded of these accounts, London admitted to The Sun that she was initially taken aback by Rolling’s looks and what she described as his “athletic” frame.
“Every time you saw him on TV or in court he was miserable and pitiful,” she said. “But met I met him he looked so athletic and appeared to be in good health.
“He looked in fine shape and was very attractive.”
In the lead-up to Rolling’s trial, his relationship with London became the subject of a media circus.
His true crime-author girlfriend would routinely be labeled a “serial killer groupie”, with family members of Rolling’s five victims accusing London of trivializing and making a mockery of their children’s deaths.
London was eventually prohibited from seeing Rolling again after she announced in February 1993 that she had obtained rights to all of Rolling’s writing, art, songs, and other works. Prison authorities said she had misrepresented herself in gaining access to him in the first place.
Still, the pair’s strange relationship raged on.
During a resentencing hearing for an unrelated robbery charge in September that same year, then 39-year-old Rolling serenaded London, 45, in front of the courtroom.
Before Circuit Judge Thomas Sawaya pronounced a sentence for the robbery conviction, he gave Rolling the opportunity to speak.
Instead of addressing the court, Rolling said, “Sondra, they might keep you from me, but I want you to know they can’t stamp out the love and affection that I have for you in my heart.”
He then proceeded to sing a song he composed for London, which included the lyrics, “Just tell me, baby, what were my words, as all my tears run together, baby, just like rain.”
Rolling once serenaded London with a love song in the middle of a court hearing[/caption]
London is seen on news footage from the time smiling and staring lustfully over at Rolling[/caption]
She twiddle a ring meant for him around her finger that she was wearing on a necklace[/caption]
Rolling’s crimes were the inspiration behind the Scream horror movie series[/caption]
As he sang, London is seen on news footage from the time bitting her bottom lip and staring lustfully over at Rolling.
She wore a chain around her neck with a ring intended for Rolling that she twiddled between her fingers during the impromptu performance.
The following February, Rolling penned a gushing letter to the Washington Post, proclaiming that his love for “Sondra runs as deep as the Amazon River … and just as wild!
“She is an extremely exciting woman! My feelings for her … are my feelings. Just the mention of her name sends my heart racing to her! She is without a doubt … my soulmate and I thank God above for sending her my way
He also voiced frustration at not being able to physically touch London.
“We are desperately reaching for each other daily across miles of red tape cast before us by faceless foes,” he wrote. “We are denied even the simplest of human rights. To just hold hands and speak to each other during a simple visit.”
CRITICS CALL SHAM
Despite their frequent public proclamations of love, not all bought the idea that London was acting with sincerity, charging instead that she was using and exploiting Rolling for her own financial gain.
One skeptic was Don Maines, an officer with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who investigated the Gainesville murders and helped place Rolling behind bars.
In an interview with The Sun, Maines said: “I was familiar with her, but nobody had a use for her. She was there under some crazy pretense of writing a book and trying to get Danny’s story out.
“I think she was just trying to try to come up with this information so that she can write a book and make some money.
“I don’t think she had any intention of being with him, because this female had a history of this with other inmates on Death Row.”
Maines added: “I can’t explain what Sondra’s motivation were or understand her, but it is my understanding that this wasn’t unique for her.”
The media shared similar skepticism, with ABC’s John Donovan telling London – on account of her having “exclusive” access to Rolling – it sounded as though she was acting as his agent, rather than a journalist seeking to tell his story.
“I don’t care what it sounds like,” she hit back.
When asked if his view was false, London said: “I will not respond. Hello!”
She later told the Post: “I could have exploited him without pretending to love him.
“It wasn’t necessary to get the story. I already had the story. Once it happened I was only honest enough to admit it.”
Reflecting three decades on, London played down the romantic component of her’s and Rolling’s relationship, insisting to The Sun that her primary focus was writing the book.
She said she “never” considered their relationship romantic because “there was nothing romantic about it.”
“We were working closely together, and you’ll find that many people that worked together on a project develop personal feelings,” she attempted to explain.
“That’s how it happened’ It didn’t happen because I was ‘looking for love in all the wrong places.’”
Instead, London said she and Rolling simply shared a “human connection.”
She continued: “I would describe my emotions as more maternal than anything else. I learned about his childhood and how he came to be.
“The emotions I felt were … I just wished I could have had access to that little boy to protect him from what was happening to him.”
THE MAKING OF A SERIAL KILLER
Danny Rolling was born in Shreveport, Louisianna in May 1954 to 19-year-old Claudia Rolling, and decorated war vet James Rolling, who’s believed to have suffered from PTSD and other mental illnesses.
Rolling claimed to have suffered severe mental and physical abuse at the hands of his father throughout the majority of his childhood.
In London’s book, The Making of a Serial Killer: The Real Story of the Gainesville Murders, which was published in 1996, Rolling told London he developed multiple personalities as a child to defend himself from the abuse.
As a teenager, he enrolled in the Air Force but was hastily ejected in 1972 for drug possession.
He found stability for a time after marrying a woman named O’Mather Halko, with whom he had a daughter, but the pair broke up after he started to exhibit the same abusive behaviors his father had inflicted on him as a child.
After their divorce was finalized, Rolling raped a woman who resembled his ex-wife and went on an armed robbery spree across the South.
Danny Rolling was born in Shreveport, Louisianna in May 1954[/caption]
He was put behind bars in Jackson, Georgia in 1979, and spent the next decade in and out of prisons across Alabama and Mississippi for various robberies and other similar crimes.
Rolling had returned to Shreveport by 1989 and found stable work in a restaurant.
He was abruptly fired from his job in November 1989, and the same evening, 24-year-old Julie Grissom, her eight-year-old nephew, Sean, and her 55-year-old father, Tom, were all murdered inside of their home.
The crime would go unsolved for more than a decade before Rolling admitted to the triple murder on his death bed in 2006.
Rolling remained in Shreveport until May 1990, when he got into an argument with his father and shot him in the head and stomach.
James Rolling survived, losing the use of an eye and an ear. His son skipped town shortly before a warrant was issued for his arrest.
THE GAINESVILLE RIPPER
For the next few months, Rolling drifted through Kansas and Florida before arriving in Gainesville in August, just as thousands of students descended on the college town in anticipation of the fall semester’s commencement.
He set up a barren campsite behind the University of Florida campus and, within days, would commence on a brutal murder spree, claiming five young lives in just four days.
Rolling’s first victims were claimed on the night of August 24, when he sneaked into the home of UF freshmen Christina Powell, 17, and Sonja Larson, 18 at the Williamsburg Apartments complex.
He found Powell asleep on the downstairs couch, standing over her briefly before making his way upstairs.
There he found Larson sleeping in her bed. He taped her mouth shut to stifle her screams, before raping her and stabbing her to death.
Rolling then went back downstairs, taped Powell’s mouth shut, bound her wrists together behind her back and threatened her with a knife as he cut her clothes off.
He then raped her and forced her face-down onto the floor, where he fatally stabbed her five times in the back.
Rolling posed the two girl’s bodies in sexually suggestive positions. He then took a shower inside the apartment before leaving.
The gruesome discovery wouldn’t be made for another two days when Powell’s parents stopped by their daughter’s place after growing concerned that they couldn’t get ahold of her.
When nobody answered the door, the parents contacted building management, who advised that they should wait for the police to arrive.
Inside, Lason was found nude and lying on her back on her bed. Her legs were draped over the side of the bed, with her hands above her head and her hair fanned out.
Powell’s body was found in a similar position downstairs.
There was evidence that both girls had been bound with duct tape at some point, but the killer—who wedged a screwdriver into the front door jamb to break in—had taken it with him.
The teenagers’ bodies had also both been mutilated.
Sonja was the first of the students attacked by Rolling[/caption]
Christa Hoty, an aspiring cop, was the third victim[/caption]
Manuel Taboada and Tracey Paules were Rolling’s final victims[/caption]
Within eight hours of the discovery, police would find a third body – that of 18-year-old Christa Leight Hoyt, a Santa Fe Community College student who was found dead in her apartment about two miles away
Hoyt, an aspiring police officer, had failed to show up for her midnight shift at the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, where she was a part-time records clerk, causing concern among her colleagues.
The teen had been stabbed to death, sexually assaulted, mutilated, and then decapitated by her killer.
Her severed head was placed on a shelf in her bedroom, facing her body which was propped up on the bed.
The Gainesville Ripper would strike for a third and final time on August 27, killing two 23-year-old UF students, Manuel Toboada and Tracy Paules.
Toboada, a former high school football player, had attempted to fight off Rolling but was overpowered and ultimately stabbed to death.
During the struggle, Paules, a pre-law senior, had run to her bedroom and locked the door. However, Rolling was able to breakthrough.
She reportedly asked Rolling, “You’re the one, aren’t you?”, to which he responded, “Yeah, I’m the one,” before binding her wrists, raping her, and stabbing her to death.
PANIC DESCENDS ON COLLEGE TOWN
Then Gainesville Police Chief Wayland Clifton told reporters that investigators believed the murderers had been carried out by one or two suspects, but no arrests would be made for months.
Without a suspect in custody, fear the ripper would strike again spread across Gainesville like wildfire, causing students to return home in droves, while some of those who stayed reported sleeping with steak knives under their pillows.
Police investigated more than 6000 leads, sifted through 18,000 items of evidence, and identified 657 different potential suspects.
An 18-year-old UF freshman named Ed Humphrey was initially identified as a person of interest in the case.
Humphrey, who suffered from mental illness, had a number of scars across his face and was known to hang around campus at night dressed in military fatigues and wielding a knife.
But DNA evidence found that the Gainesville Ripper had a different blood type to Humphrey and he was never charged in relation to the murders.
Soon after, Cindy Juracich, who had been traveling through Florida at the time of the Gainseville murders, contacted police to say the killings reminded her of an unsolved triple murder in her hometown of Shreveport.
Rolling’s campsite behind the University of Florida is seen above[/caption]
He forced his way into his victim’s homes via backdoors using a screwdriver[/caption]
She gave the name Danny Rolling, whom she’d gone to high school with, as the likely culprit behind both murder sprees and urged police to investigate him.
By the time police located Rolling, he was already in prison in Marion County for a robbery he’d committed at a supermarket 10 days after the bodies of Paules and Taboada were found.
Investigators matched his DNA to evidence found at the crime scene.
Then on November 15, 1991, he was charged with five counts of first-degree murder.
Rolling initially claimed to be innocent and spent the next three years corresponding with London via letter.
Then suddenly, before his trial was due to get underway in 1994, he unexpectedly pleaded guilty to all charges.
He claimed his motive was to become a “superstar” like Ted Bundy and blamed his sickening acts on an evil alter-ego he had called Gemini.
Rolling was sentenced to death on April 20, 1994. He was executed 12 years later via lethal injection.
London and Rolling’s relationship came to an end following the release of their book in 1996.
However, she said the pair remained friends right up until his death.
Even today, London says she still has “the strongest feelings for Danny of respect and gratitude because I put him in a very difficult probably impossible position and he fulfilled my demands.”
Denying once again that she used Rolling for financial gain, London added: “I told him he couldn’t talk to any-f**king-one and he did it – and I know how hard that was for him to do.
“At certain points, I was like, ‘Oh god, it’s cruel to him for you do this, just let him go’ – but I had to get that book finished.
“Once it was finished he was free. That was our deal.
“He never lied to me. He never disrespected me. He was never vulgar. He never tried to manipulate me. He showed me the greatest respect and to his dying day he stood by that and he never turned on me.”
At the time of Danny’s execution almost 17 years ago, London said she didn’t shed a tear for her former fiance.
“I’ve worked with several people who were executed,” she said. “So whenever someone that I know is being accused, I just take the day off, I don’t tune into anything and I just take care of myself and comfort myself and indulge myself and just tune out from it all.
“That’s what I did when that happened with Danny and I made it through fine.”
‘I DON’T MISS HIM’
When asked if she missed Rolling, London said that she didn’t, asking: “What’s there to miss? He was a book and I finished the book.”
She later added: “I don’t miss Danny. [But] I wish every now and then there was stuff I could say to him or ask him. But, I’m 74 and most people I know have died and you get used to it.”
London, who describes herself as a spiritual person, said two of the questions she would like to ask Rolling are, ‘What’s it like to be dead?’ and ‘Why haven’t you visited me?’
She explained that during their writing of “The Making of A Serial Killer”, Rolling made a promise that he would come to visit her after his death if he was able to.
However, in the 17 years since his death, no such posthumous visits have occurred.
“Either he’s just dead and he’s dead, and that’s it,” London said, “or the conditions of his afterlife are such that he’s unable to contact me.
“Either way, he’s gone to me and he won’t be able to answer any more of my questions.”
Sondra London has recently re-released The Making of A Serial Killer, which is available for purchase on Amazon.
A second volume of the book will be released later this year.
Sondra says she doesn’t miss Danny Rolling[/caption]
Supporters of the death penalty are seen outside of Florida State Prison during his execution in 2006[/caption]