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After guilty plea in Fla. slayings, killer faces death or life term


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- After his startling guilty plea yesterday to the 1990 killings of five college students in Gainesville, serial killer Danny Harold Rolling now faces a fight for his own life.

"These crimes warrant the death penalty," State Attorney Rod Smith said.

Rolling, 39, already sentenced to five life terms for other robberies and holdups, calmly admitted yesterday that he killed the students, evoking an image of a cornered outlaw who suddenly becomes contrite.

"Your honor, I have been running from first one thing, then another all of my life. Whether from problems at home, or with the law or from myself," Rolling told Circuit Judge Stan Morris. "But there are some things that you just can't run from, and this is one of them."

The sentencing phase of Rolling's trial begins today, with the selection of a jury that will recommend if the Louisiana habitual criminal gets the electric chair or life in prison without possibility of parole for 25 years. Under Florida law, Judge Morris will have the final say.

The end of the trial was sudden and unexpected, in sharp contrast to an investigation and legal proceedings that have dragged on for 3 1/2 years, dimming some people's memories of the absolute fear in Gainesville during the beginning of the 1990 fall semester.

In three consecutive days, five bodies of students were found murdered . Thousands of students fled. The University of Florida virtually shut down for a week.

More than 180 police officers were assigned to the manhunt, the largest in Florida history .

Rolling decided to change his plea out of "consideration" for the victims' families, said his lawyer, Public Defender Rick Parker. "He thinks that it is the right thing to do."

But Gainesville task force officers suggested another motive:

"It wasn't for any gallant reason," said Lee Strope, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent who helped direct the investigation. "In the grand jury, he was very uncomfortable seeing the pictures. He didn't want to go through another trial. He was deeply embarrassed. He didn't want to look at the families' faces."

The crime scene photos show two of the victims posed provocatively and the horrifying image of a headless corpse.

A psychologist who has followed the case from the start saw a similar reason. "There are two factors in the murders: control and power," said John Philpin.

"Now, faced with the state in control, presenting all this information about these crimes, he would have lost control. Now, there won't be as many unpleasant facts, facts about his secrets, his sexual behavior, to be presented."

Rolling's victims were Sonja Larson, 18, of Deerfield Beach; Christi Powell, 17, of Jacksonville; Christa Hoyt, 18, of Gainesville; Tracy Paules, 23, of Miami; and Manny Taboada, 23, of Miami.

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