February 16, 2016

Terror in Gainesville, Part 1

Photo courtesy of www.theexaminer.com


Prior to the summer of 1990, Gainesville, Florida was a stereotypical southern town, with loads of small town charm.  Pretty homes and oaks are everywhere; Gainesville is very much a university town heavily dependent on the University of Florida.  School pride can be seen everywhere, from the businesses that are kept afloat during the school semesters thanks to hungry and thirsty college students to the school's colors and the mascot - - the Gator - - being liberally used throughout the town.  Gainesville has its share of drunk and disorderly calls, thefts and even rapes but murder is rare.  As late as August of 1990, it wasn't uncommon for people in town to leave their doors unlocked.


Rival and neighboring city Tallahassee had achieved a level of unwanted notoriety in 1978 when serial killer Ted Bundy, sitting in cold Ann Arbor, Michigan, selected Florida as his next destination.  He chose Tallahassee thanks to its proximity the water, allowing the more landlocked Gainesville to avoid that fate.  Gainesville was just fine with that slight, preferring to be known as the birthplace of Gatorade and the hometown of musician Tom Petty and actor River Phoenix. 


August 1990 was the start of another school year.  The summer months in Gainesville are quieter than the rest of the year, with a great majority of the University's students returning home, leaving apartments vacated and bars and restaurants half full.  It gives Gainesville a sleepy, laid back atmosphere until the cars begin arriving with parents dropping off new students for their first year in college and away from home.


Sonja Larson
Sonja Larson, 18, and Christina Powell, 17, were like so many thousands of other students that August.  Both had graduated from high school the spring before and were coming to the University as incoming freshmen.  They had met during the summer semester while staying on campus in a dorm.  With a third roommate, they had rented a townhome style apartment at the Williamsburg Village Apartments, off campus but only four blocks from the school.  


Sonja and Christina, both the youngest and "babies" of their families, were outstanding softball players.  After attending a magnet school in her hometown of Deerfield Beach, Sonja, an Honors student, planned to major in education.  Christina had graduated from a Jacksonville Episcopal high school and as she excelled in Bible study, planned to major in theology.


Christina Powell
They both arrived in Gainesville on Friday, August 24.  They spent most of the day unloading their cars and then taking a trip to the local WalMart to buy items for their new home.  They had dinner together at a Chili's and then stopped at a convenience store so that Sonja could use the pay phone to call her mother.  Their home phone had not yet been hooked up and this was before cell phones.   The girls' plan was to get up on Saturday morning to continue with their unpacking and organizing and find jobs.  Their third roommate and Christina's parents were due to arrive on Sunday. 


Neighbors later reported hearing George Michael's "Faith" blasting from the apartment on Friday morning and a shower running around 6 a.m. on Saturday but could recall little else about their new neighbors.


Sonja had promised her boyfriend she would call him.  That call never came.  Christina's parents tried calling throughout that weekend before arriving on Sunday as planned.  Their knocks went unanswered; they called the police.


The police would find Sonja and Christina in their new apartment, both dead from stab wounds.  It appeared they had died sometime on Friday evening or early Saturday morning.  As if killing them hadn't been degrading enough, their killer had posed their bodies in lewd positions. 




Archer, Florida is about fifteen miles southwest from Gainesville, a tiny city that spans less than seven miles.   It's a relatively poor city perhaps best known for being where musician Bo Didley would die in 2008. 


Christa Hoyt
In 1990, eighteen year old Christa Hoyt, an Honors student, was attending Santa Fe Community College with the goal of joining the FBI to work in forensics.  Until mid-August she had shared a duplex apartment with a roommate; the roommate moved out amicably a week prior to Christa's murder. 


Christa was a cautious and dependable girl.  She was safety conscious and would never open her door to a stranger.  She worked in the records department of the Alachua County Sheriff's Office and was scheduled to arrive around midnight that Saturday evening, August 25.  Because she was so reliable,  her tardiness was quickly noticed.   By 1 a.m. her co-workers had notified the local police to make a welfare check.  What would greet them would be the stuff of nightmares and leave no doubt that Gainesville had an evil presence in its midst. 




With the news of a third murdered female being discovered in twenty-four hours, panic began to set in.   Parents called their children repeatedly, some insisting they return home for the semester.  Stores in Gainesville ran out of deadbolts, baseball bats, mace, stun guns and handguns.  Students remaining at the school buddied up, gathering in groups to sleep in shifts.   Female students asked male friends to stay with them, believing the presence of a man or men would dissuade the killer.


Tracy Paules
Tracy Paules was one of those females who, while very frightened by the news of the murders, felt safe with her friend and roommate Manuel Taboada.  Manny, 23, was a former football player, a burly 200 pound six footer who claimed the woman in his life was his cat, Sasha.  He and Tracy, also 23, had known each other back home in the Miami area and elected to go to Gainesville together.  Manny wanted to become an architect while Tracy had dreams of becoming an attorney.  While there had never been any romantic feelings the two, these friends were devoted, with a deep respect and love for each other.  They shared a residence at the Gatorwood Apartments, an older somewhat rundown complex, located on Archer Road about a mile from campus. 


Manny Taboada
On Monday evening, August 27, Manny had just started a bartending job at the neighboring Bennigan's and arrived home late.  Tracy was on the phone, chatting with a friend about the murders, and noted his late arrival.  Manny headed to bed just after 2 a.m., unaware that a killer was watching him and Tracy. 


The next day a friend dropped by to see Manny and Tracy and discovered their bodies.  Manny was dead in his bed; Tracy lay in the hallway, posed as Sonja Larson, Christina Powell and Christa Hoyt had been.  Both had been killed with vicious stab wounds.


Fear permeated every corner of Gainesville.  Students fled the city in droves, some never to return.  If the killer could overpower Manny Taboada, no one was safe.  The University cancelled classes as news crews and media from around the nation descended on Gainesville.   Gainesville, the little town that had managed to evade Ted Bundy more than a decade earlier, was now home to the Gainesville Ripper.

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