The Truth Behind Our Obsession With True Crime Stories
Horror movies, terrifying as some might be, are usually escapist fare, reassuringly not real. Far-fetched even.
But some real-life crimes are as nasty as anything the most imaginative storyteller could dream up. In Kevin Williamson‘s case, it was one of those especially haunting cases that planted the seed that became his script for Scream, the hit 1996 teen slasher flick that liberally sprinkled the old horror tropes with comedy and meta commentary on the genre itself. The Wes Craven-directed blockbuster starring Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette spawned a now five-film franchise, with it’s-been-long-enough-so-we’ll-call-it-Scream-again opening in theaters Jan. 14.
And what’s scarier than gruesome, psychotic movie behavior that’s rooted in reality? Though the characters and setting for the “Woodsboro Murders” were all his own, Williamson’s creativity is said to have been piqued by a 1994 episode of ABC News’ Turning Point about the serial killer dubbed the Gainesville Ripper.
That may feel like ancient history now, the original Scream itself 25 years old. But when the show aired, Danny Rolling had just been sentenced to death for his grisly murder spree.
“What is it that makes someone able to descend into such inhumanity?” former Florida state senator Rod Smith, the prosecutor who secured a death sentence for Rolling, muses in the new Discovery+ special Scream: The True Story, which delves into the possible driving forces behind the killer’s unfathomable acts.
Though it took months to find him, it took just a glance at the first crime scene for authorities to know they had a monster on their hands.
“I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that anybody that commits homicide using mutilation is a pretty sick individual and it’s somebody we want to get off the streets very badly,” Alachua County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Spencer Mann told the Washington Post in August 1990, the discovery of five bodies in three days already attracting national attention.
The first gruesome scene was uncovered on Sunday, Aug. 26, after Christina P. Powell‘s parents, unable to reach her on the phone, showed up at the off-campus apartment complex where their 17-year-old daughter lived with fellow University of Florida freshman Sonya Larson, 18. Classes were scheduled to begin the next day. When no one answered the door, either, they asked a maintenance worker to let them in, but the building manager said they should wait for police to arrive.
“When [the officer] went in, I followed him in the apartment and I saw the young lady on the bed…and I just turned around and walked out,” Betty Curnutt, the manager, recalled to ABC News in 2020. “My maintenance man, unfortunately, ran down the stairs screaming, ‘Oh my God,’ and came out and threw up. And the sad, sad part about it is that we had the parents behind us on the stairs.”
Powell had been raped and stabbed to death, her mutilated, partially clothed body lying on the living room floor. Larson was in an upstairs bedroom, nude and “lying back on the bed with her feet on the floor and her hair fanned out,” journalist John Donnelly, who covered the story for the Miami Herald, remembered to ABC News.
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. Investigators guessed they had likely been dead between 48 and 72 hours when they were found.
MELISSA LYTTLE | Times
Eight hours later, on the morning of Monday, Aug. 27, sheriff’s deputies found 18-year-old Christa Leight Hoyt dead in her apartment about two miles away from the first crime scene after the Santa Fe Community College student and aspiring law enforcement officer didn’t show up for her midnight shift at the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, where she was a part-time records clerk.
The scene was chillingly similar, but Hoyt had been decapitated as well as stabbed, sexually assaulted, mutilated and posed lying on the bed with her feet on the floor. The first deputies at the scene were also friends from work.
“These police officers knew Christa,” her stepmother Dianna Hoyt told ABC News. “They told [her dad] Gary she died right away from the first stab, which was the truth…but there were many hours before that.”
Tracy Paules and Manuel R. Taboada, both 23 and friends since high school, were found dead in a ground-floor unit at the Gatorwood Apartments, another student-friendly complex, on the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 28. Defensive wounds indicated that Taboada, who was enrolled at Santa Fe City College and planned to study architecture, had tried to fight the killer off before he was stabbed to death. Paules, a pre-law senior majoring in political science at University of Florida, was posed on the living room floor. She had been raped and there were traces of tape of her wrists and mouth, as well as soap on her lower body.
“We have every reason to believe the murders are probably all connected to one suspect or two suspects,” Gainesville Police Chief Wayland Clifton told reporters.
Anyone who’d been around then couldn’t help but think about serial killer Ted Bundy, whose cross-country reign of terror only came to an end after he’d beaten two Florida State University sorority sisters to death and killed a 12-year-old girl in the course of a month in 1978. He was executed in Florida on Jan. 24, 1989, having confessed to 30 murders. His many female admirers aside, roughly 2,000 people gathered to cheer outside Raiford Prison the night he was put to death.
“That’s what we’re all saying—it’s another Ted Bundy on the loose,” Jana Walters, an 18-year-old UF freshman, told the Washington Post. “Some sicko.”
AP Photo/John Raoux
Authorities tried to reassure the thousands of UF Gators and other residents of the city, known for its raucous college scene but also heralded by Money Magazine earlier that year as the No. 13 best city to live in in the country, “safe streets” being among its highlights, that there was no reason to panic. Still, countless freaked-out students left town, Mom and Dad’s house once again looking inviting.
The university dutifully extended the deadline to add and drop classes to Sept. 7, postponed tuition due dates and offered off-campus residents a chance to move at least temporarily into a dorm, where there was increased security. UF’s Student Nighttime Auxiliary Patrol recruited dozens of new volunteers, and Santa Fe Community College instituted its own campus security program.
Students could also call home from school using several new toll-free hotlines rather than pay expensive long distance charges.
And so the most terrifying fall semester ever began, detectives on the hunt for a serial killer and students afraid to go anywhere alone. Or be home alone. Or sleep through the night. Every strange noise prompted a call to the police. Some young women started keeping steak knives by their beds. Gun and Mace sales went up. People wondered if there wasn’t one, but two killers on the loose, figuring all that carnage probably couldn’t be the work of just one person.
“There was no precedent for this scale of tragedy, at least in my experience,” Art Sandeen, vice president of student affairs at the time, told the Gainesville Sun in 2005. “Parents and students didn’t know what to do.”
A double murder occurred in early September in Melrose, Fla., about 17 miles away. Unrelated, but it scared the crap out of everybody all the same.
AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, John Moran
“The week prior to the murders, things were on the up note around town,” Spencer Mann, formerly with the sheriff’s department and by then an investigator for the 8th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office, recalled to the Gainesville Sun in 2006. “There was a brand new president at UF. There was a brand new football coach [Steve Spurrier, who led the Gators to a national championship in 1996]. I saw that up note turn into a grip of fear.”
Gainesville attorney Rod Smith told the publication in 2010, “It would be hard to replicate today how out of hand it got for a few days.”
And in the days, weeks and months after Larson, Powell, Hoyt, Paules and Taboada were killed, everyone was a suspect as law enforcement from all over Florida swarmed the city.
Well, not everyone, but a later tally put the number of names on investigators’ radar at one time or another at 675.
A multi-agency task force conducted hundreds of interviews, sifted through 18,000 pieces of evidence, ran DNA samples and tracked the flood of tips phoned in by those who were sure they had crossed paths with the killer.
Some investigators thought they had, too, naming a suspect barely 48 hours after the last two bodies were found, an 18-year-old UF freshman who had been seen wearing fatigues and walking around campus in the middle of the night with a hunting knife.
It wasn’t until January 1991 that Danny Rolling, a 37-year-old drifter and career criminal from Louisiana—already a person of interest in a 1989 triple-murder—popped up on their radar. And it wouldn’t be several more months before it was publicly known that there was a prime suspect.
But at least authorities had no trouble finding him, as he was already in jail.
Read the second part of this story on Oxygen.com.
Scream opens in theaters Friday, Jan. 14. Scream: The True Story is streaming on Discovery+.
(Originally published Oct. 9, 2021, at 5 a.m. PT)
For more true crime updates on your need-to-know cases, head to Oxygen.com.