Prologue to the Second Edition
By Sondra London (2020)
“A biographer has no place on the stage,” as we learn from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Douglas Southall Freeman. “When he has made his bow to his audience and has spoken his prologue, telling what he will try to exhibit, it is his duty to retire to the wings, to raise the curtain and to leave the play to the actors.”
After writing the definitive history of George Washington, Freeman explained his philosophy that the biographer should provide no information beyond what his subject possessed “at a particular moment,” so as to take the reader into the past as it was when the life was lived, rather than to distort the historical record to conform to newly-formed standards and customs. And such is my purpose here.
Though I hesitate to say too much about my role in creating this work, there are some points I feel obligated to make, as the twenty-five years that have elapsed since the First Edition have wrought such significant developments in the sensibilities of our audience that I feel obligated to offer an apologia for republishing this work today, just as it was written in the nineteen-nineties, before the chilling effect of political correctness had became so prevalent.
Trigger warning: This book is not appropriate for the immature or tender-hearted reader. It will be most useful to one who is authentically prepared to step into the mind of this dangerous and disturbed man.
It was the first week of July in 1992 when I received the introductory letter from the high-profile prisoner who had been charged with five murders that were committed in 1990 in Gainesville, Florida.
Danny Rolling was housed at Florida State Prison next to a murderer called Bobby Lewis, and Bobby had shown him a script I had written about the time he had escaped from Death Row. Rolling wanted someone to help him tell the story of his life and crimes, and once he read the script I wrote about Bobby, he wanted that writer to be me:
Madam Sondra... Media Queen,
I had already collaborated with the ex-cop and prison auteur Gerard John Schaefer on a book of his homicidal musings called Killer Fiction. Having dated Schaefer as a teenager, I had set out on the project as a way of coming to terms with the fact that the wholesome kid I had hung out with had turned into a rogue cop, a serial killer, and now a hardcore convict. How could I know someone so well, I wanted to know, without knowing of their secret life of sex and violence? That was the mystery I set out to solve.
Let me introduce myself... I am Danny Rolling. I’m sure by now you’ve heard of me. Well... let’s get the ball Rolling. So to speak. I’m an artist and songwriter. How would you like to hear some of my songs? When I play guitar, guaranteed to please!
I have a cassette tape with my songs on one side. On the other is a taped farewell to my family. This tape has brought about quite a stir in the media. CBS News has tried all they can do to get their hands on it. How would you like to be the first?
Sondra... many people in the media have tried desperately to get an interview with me. I have refused all. Until now... I extend my hand... to you.
By now you should have already received the first chapter of a novel I’ve begun. If not, I wonder why? It was mailed to you weeks ago. I haven’t heard a word from you. Perhaps... you have had a hard time trying to see me? I don’t know?
My lawyer is Richard Parker. I don’t know if he will speak to you or not. I’ve only spoken to him twice myself. But when I do... I’m gonna give him the OK concerning you.
I must speak to you in person as soon as possible. If you can get through, I will speak to you. I have signed a paper preventing any audiences with the press or media. But I am willing to make an exception with you.
I can get you a copy of my cassette tape. Powerful stuff! Yes sirreeee... you betcha! It is one of the most unusual & entertaining cassettes you will ever hear. The ball is in your field. Do you want to play? Give me a holler if you do.
Till then, my hopeful friend, Danny Rolling
When I embarked upon my studies I contacted the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI asking for guidance. I was referred to Roy Hazelwood, and in mentoring me over the following years, the first and foremost instruction he gave me was: “Don’t tell him anything personal; he’ll use it as a weapon against you.”
Second was: “He is trying to get an emotional reaction from you. You mustn’t react, because the more indifference you show, the harder he will try to impress you and you will get more information from him.” That was how I was taught to manage Schaefer from the start, and I found Hazelwood’s advice invaluable when other prisoners began to bring me their stories.
FBI expert Robert Ressler coined the phrase “serial killer,” partly based on Schaefer, according to Whoever Fights Monsters:
In our road shows, when I used to display the slides and give the lecture about the organized offender Gerard John Schaefer, someone in my audience would accuse me of having taken the characteristics of that sort of offender right from the details of Schaefer’s case. That’s not so, but it is true that the patterns associated with the organized killer are starkly apparent in this instance.
Schaefer had gone to prison in 1973, so his brief flare of notoriety had expired by 1989, when I got him to open up to me about the murders – something neither Ressler nor anyone else had ever been able to do.
The years I spent working with Schaefer had given me the equivalent to a graduate-level education in serial murder. I was still naïve and idealistic when I started out but four years on, I had grown case-hardened, having learned more than I ever wanted to know about the dark side of the criminal mind.
I had read all the criminology textbooks assigned by Mr. Hazelwood, who patiently fielded my questions. He was always available to take my calls and was very helpful in guiding my independent studies. I met with him in chambers during a murder trial after he gave expert testimony. I granted him an interview for a study they were doing at the Academy, and in turn he granted me an interview, which is still posted to my website. I attended one of Mr. Hazelwood’s law enforcement seminars on the Sexually Violent Offender, and was graciously greeted from the podium as his special guest.
I read every true-crime book on the shelves. I corresponded with authors and professors, detectives and investigators, engaging in dialogues to clarify my understanding of their work. I broadened my personal contacts to include Gacy, Lucas, Toole, Jesperson, Reséndiz, Sells, Heirens, Rogers, Bowles, Wuornos, Mullin, Bianchi, Bittaker and Kearney, among the known convicted serial killers.
And yet the mystery of serial murder remained as elusive as ever. I was beginning to identify the baneful influences that could combine to turn an innocent kid into someone cruel enough and cold enough to commit the most heinous crimes, while maintaining a plausible presence in society long enough to get away with murder again and again. Fortunately for society, this level of criminal sophistication is still rare, so four years into my studies, when I was offered an opportunity to work with a cooperative accused serial killer, I considered myself fortunate, for I had so much yet to learn, and this one promised to answer my questions.
By the time Danny Rolling introduced himself to me, I was already freelancing stories to the daily national newscast A Current Affair.When I pitched a handful of stories to Steve Dunleavy, the legendary Aussie journo cut right to the chase: “Forget those other ones. Just concentrate like crazy on Rolling.” It still rings in my ear – that unmistakable voice, his Sydney accent sharp as a hatchet: “Remember, if you don’t have an exclusive, dahling, you don’t have a story.”
My work with Schaefer had started in 1989, sixteen years after his case had been in the news, so the story was already obscure by 1992, while the Gainesville student murders had been big news for two years. Rolling had only recently been charged, and the bewildered prisoner was overwhelmed at the volume of letters and telegrams coming in from authors and broadcast media, all beseeching him to give his story to them. But as soon as I had him under my spell, he forwarded all such correspondence to me. Defending my territory against the Fourth and Fifth Estates accounted for at least half the work I had to do in order to complete my stated mission: to debrief Danny Rolling on his criminal history and publish my findings.
My access to the newsworthy defendant was vigorously contested on all sides. For different reasons, the prosecution and defense both hated the influence I had over him. The Department of Corrections already had me “under investigation” since I had published the shocking stories Schaefer wrote about atrocities going on behind bars. He had even sent me an account of a prison murder he witnessed – eerily presaging his own murder, as he would fall by knife himself, years later in the same prison.
Though I was still largely unknown to the public, once Killer Fiction was featured in a front-page story in the Palm Beach Post, my name went out on the convict hotline. Prisoners all over the State of Florida were sending letters begging me to publish their stories.
By its very nature, it is bound to be fraught with difficulties to gain access to a high-profile inmate held in a maximum security prison. So the Department of Corrections quite readily found common cause with both the prosecution and the defense in declaring Ms. London to be persona non grata at any Florida prison, with a special ban on visitation with Danny Rolling.
My purpose in debriefing this highly dangerous offender was to get as much information from him as possible; to fact-check his stories against other sources; and to faithfully report my findings without distortion. Though I did develop a sympathetic working relationship with him, my allegiance was to the truth, and my purpose was to dig it out.
The canard that this interaction consisted of a romantic courtship was promoted in the process of media coverage. Whenever I granted an interview, I spent nearly all of the time talking about our work, but the only parts to be released to the public were inevitably coy tidbits that portrayed me as a foolish female, “soft on crime” and “looking for love in all the wrong places” – rather than a writer who was in the process of helping law enforcement solve multiple murders as well as crimes yet unknown – and producing not just bare admissions of guilt, but going in-depth on all aspects of the planning, perpetration, and consequences.
It is verboten for a properly schooled journalist to become involved in a story. It is considered outrageous for a journalist to form an emotional attachment to the subject of any story, especially when the journalist in question is a freelancer of the female persuasion, and the subject is a notorious serial killer.
The greatest challenge facing a journalist who is emotionally invested in a story is that emotions might obscure the truth, or prevent the journalist from speaking the truth.
Yes, the hurdles can be crossed, and yes, the true story can be accurately reported, but before you make that choice, you should know that the story might take over your whole life and define your identity for years. I’m not sure any story is worth that level of personal and professional commitment. There are always other stories waiting to be told, and it’s best to be free of attachments and available to work, instead of processing the consequences of that one story.
The late true-crime author Wilton Earle confided in me that becoming the close personal confidant of Pee Wee Gaskins while documenting his multiple murders had severely shaken him, and derailed his career progress in a form of post-traumatic stress.
And I recall how the late author Joel Norris experienced a breakdown during a trip with me to Florida. “It’s the serial killers, he cried. “Too many serial killers.”
I must agree with this conclusion of the common-sense dictum: You are free to get involved in your story, but it comes with a price. It is so difficult a challenge I would not recommend anyone else try it; success is exceedingly rare and there are multifarious ways to fail.
However, there is the bottom line on this particular case. I’m pleased to report that in twenty-five years there has not been one iota of information presented in this book that has been challenged as fallacious.
This book represents only one aspect of my work on this case. I compiled the authoritative research that forms the backbone of this story: My Rolling Case Chronology comprises five times more text than appears in this volume. Factual, sourced and dated, it was actually relied upon for reference by Rolling’s defense team, because it was more thorough and accurate than the one presented by the State.
And of the five other books on the case, this is the only one that actually gives the innermost thoughts of the killer, not just revealing the crimes he committed, both charged and uncharged; but letting us experience it all from inside his mind.
I was able to maintain an honorable and productive working relationship with my fractious co-author; defending against incursions on this exclusive story while under siege by rival journalists throughout four difficult years.
This book, then, constitutes the only authoritative original published source on Danny Rolling. So if you should happen to read anything that purports to describe the inner workings of the mind of this serial killer, you will know it was either unlawfully lifted from this book, or it was made up out of whole cloth.
The Making of a Serial Killer does not function like a straightforward true-crime-genre book. It is not offered as entertainment, nor is it a police procedural. It is a psychological study of extreme pathology that I chose to present in the killer’s own words.
As the executive partner in the collaboration, it was my editorial discretion to present the charming, amusing, and engaging aspects of Danny Rolling that I elicited right alongside the blazing pathology of his criminal side. One does not excuse the other; nor does one invalidate the other.
It is up to the reader to discern how both patterns can be generated by the same person, because that goes to the very heart of the phenomenon of serial murder itself: our inability to discern this subtle pathology.
The words by Danny Rolling that you read here were the outcome of an exacting and arduous interactive process that took years to complete. As his interlocutor, I encouraged my co-author to reveal every weakness, failing and cruelty, every shameful and embarrassing thought, dream and deed; to reveal the miserable, ugly parts of his psyche, so that something might be salvaged from the wreckage; so that we might learn to see the warning signs in ourselves and in others. That is the process that produced this book.
The pathological thinking is presented given the recognition that such thinking inevitably leads to prison. It’s what I call a toxic thought syndrome.
Even though my homicidal co-author writes with unrestrained glee about the glories of rape, robbery and murder, the reader is not being invited to join in by expressing the obscene sentiment; but rather to be schooled and chastened, by dwelling on the irredeemable devastation that Rolling assures us follows the adrenaline high of violent crime.
Despite all the disincentives, after four years the mission was finally accomplished, and in 1996 the First Edition of The Making of a Serial Killer was published by Feral House Books. The book fulfills the promise of the title by focusing on the factors that went into the making of this serial killer.
The contentious circumstances surrounding this work escalated to the level of a lawsuit filed against Rolling and myself by the State of Florida under the unconstitutional Son of Sam Law, to prevent us from writing this very book.
The stated purpose of the law is to forbid felons from profiting from “accounts of crime.” It was an egregious form of prior restraint. There was no book, only the expressed intention to write a book. And of course, I am not a felon, yet I was enjoined in the suit because my work involved publishing the confessions of the felon in question. My role was described as “unique and special.” That’s not a legal principle; it’s just another way of saying this lien had no basis or precedent whatsoever, neither in law nor in custom.
When Danny Rolling was executed in 2006, he had never received one cent from the “accounts of crime” at the heart of the law, which had already been declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in no uncertain terms, before this project was even contemplated.
I was dismayed when the Circuit Court found a way to sidestep the Constitutional challenge and rule against me, in an unprecedented ad feminem attack that has never been used against anyone else before or since.
The State of Florida seized my profits; I paid my court-ordered fees. The terms of the lien were thus satisfied, and the case was settled.
The new cover art features the Crazed Man, a self-portrait Rolling drew for me in a hand-made birthday card, rather than the stylized abstraction of the figure that appeared on the cover of the First Edition.
The original text of the First Edition is included here in the Second Edition, with additional illustrations, updates in the typography, and a preview of the new companion volume, which picks up where this Second Edition leaves off.
Beyond The Making of a Serial Killer explores the unintended consequences of the ill-conceived Son of Sam Law, and details the chilling effect that kept a prime suspect under a shadow of suspicion for decades, even though the real killer had confessed.
The new volume also includes illustrated stories and letters wherein the condemned man explores life and death, crime and punishment, justice and mercy.
And at last, the final confession to Danny Rolling’s initial homicide, the triple murder in Shreveport, Louisiana, is revealed in Beyond The Making of a Serial Killer.
AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK & KINDLE
THE MAKING OF A SERIAL KILLER 2D ED
RUNCIBLE TALES |
SONDRA LONDON DOTCOM
The True Story of the 1990
Gainesville Student Murders
in the Killer's Own Words.
Murder confessions & drawings
done on Death Row in Florida
during the early 1990's.