In June 1992, Danny Harold Rolling, the mysterious singing drifter facing trial in the gruesome 1990 mutilation murders of five college students in Gainesville, asked me to help him present his story.
In May 1993, he sent me a series of images ¬ a teddy bear with a noose around his neck; a teddy bear on a guillotine; and a masked teddy bear brandishing a knife ¬ that reveal more about the mind of this accused serial killer than anything I have seen to date.
Inside the big. bad convict that Ted Bundy’s death-row cellmate called “the most dangerous man I’ve ever known,” is a helplessly trapped little child clutching his Teddy.
The droll, cuddly face of Little Danny’s Teddy registers dismay as the noose tightens around his neck. His eyes pop open with surprise and his soft arms stick out rigidly with shock.
The next day, just like a bad dream, a variation of the same drama recurs. This time Teddy’s doomed little face expresses his desolation as he contemplates the guillotine poised over his pinioned neck. His arms droop in resignation to his fate.
Just another day like every other day in the life of the Rolling Teddy. Little Danny felt guilty as far back as he could remember. After awhile it seemed he was always about to be punished. No matter how hard he tried to please, he could never get it right, never be good enough to be cherished the way his precious Teddy was.
For Little Danny, Teddy’s pitiful plight is all too real. It’s with Teddy that Little Danny portrays the dramas he endures every day. He shakes Teddy and threatens him: “You'd better behave! Or you will be punished... to the maximum extent! IT’S THE LAW!”
Little Danny loves his Teddy, because he remembers when he was just like him ¬ before he had to grow up. Teddy is a sweet, affectionate little guy, and he tries so hard to be good. But for some reason he’s always getting into some scrape or another, and when he docs, the punishment isn’t pretty.
It doesn’t take that much to make sure a little guy is death-row-bound by Teddy’s age. Maybe it’s the cruel words spat out behind gritted teeth; a brain-jarring shake or blow to the head; silence, a snarl, or a quick smack. If you keep it up day after day, sooner or later it happens: the soul-murder, when the light of life in the soul winks out.
And so, Little Danny plays out the drama of his childhood, except it’s Teddy who’s got to pay for Danny’s mistakes. Thank God Danny still has his Teddy to take the heat... even if he has to conjure him up with paper and pen.
In this deadly pas de deux, we find out why Teddy is on Death Row. When we first met Teddy, all we could see was that he was condemned. Since a certain mystery remained, we extended him the benefit of the doubt After all who could ever believe a guy as sweet and cuddly as a teddy bear could possibly be living a secret life of gleeful violence on the side? But now there’s no doubt Our cozy, familiar little friend has gone bloody mad. The deliberate glint in his hooded eyes, the mischievous grin on his face tell us Teddy’s been a bad boy.
The fenced-in yard is left behind; Teddy’s gone out of bounds all the way tonight. He’s dressed appropriately for the role of a night-stalker, in basic bandito black trimmed with a tasteful prison-bar border. The bandanna whose darkness he uses to mask his sunny identity allows his criminal personality to emerge.
The dramatic scene is observed by a three-quarters moon. But there’s no jolly smile, no roly-poly man-in-the-moon. Stripped of its traditional hazy glow, the sole witness to Teddy’s dark deed is exposed as the harsh, unforgiving cratered hunk of stone it really is. The dark side of the moon is distinctly visible, just as the dark side of Danny’s own mind becomes visible as he exposes its curiously disturbing imagery.
Teddy’s brandishing a Ka-Bar military hunting knife, a weapon Danny has enthusiastically described as “deadly, sharp and huge.” When found in Gainesville, a similar knife caused quite a stir among investigators.
His choice of victims poses a challenge. When a teddy bear kills a chicken, it shameful, or is it funny? Is Teddy a bloody murderer, or just a recreational hunter?
And as we move up the food chain, where do we draw the line? At exactly what point does it become a crime to kill?
Even when the victims of violent crime are people, there is still a pecking order in public sympathy for them, along with a corresponding lust for vengeance against their slayers. While the entire state of Florida went into shock over the slayings of the five Gainesville college students in 1990, during the same time, the slayings of 21 Miami women went unnoticed. What’s the difference?
The Miami victims were black crack-whores with no more socially-recognized value than chickens. The 21 victims were just as powerless and unattractive, just as lacking in money, family and social position, just as black, as their accused slayer, a virtually unknown serial killer named Charles White.
The victims of the Gainesville slayings, on the other hand, were the personification of all we hold dear. Since We the People feel that these murders are more deplorable, therefore we want the accused slayer to suffer to the maximum extent.
Ironically, even Danny Rolling wants his young daughter to be safe and secure. He wants her to grow up, attend college and fulfill her potential. Even someone convicted time and again of robbing that security from others cherishes the notion that a home is a castle where we are always safe from harm.
And if perchance a maniac dressed in black takes a knife to that cherished notion, it restores our sanity to know that he’s confined in steel as hard as his deadly weapon and stone as cruel as the unsmiling moon, to contemplate his own lost dreams of innocence.
Danny Rolling has come face-to-face with the Grim Reaper to be sure, but isn’t there still some spark of recognition of his essential humanity from those who want to see him dead? As unimaginable as it may seem, the truth remains: within the accused slayer of the Gainesville coeds is a sweet little guy as lovable and familiar as a mischievous teddy bear.
This story by Sondra London appeared in Folio Magazine, in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1993, before Danny Rolling was sentenced to death for five murders. Rolling was executed by lethal injection on October 25, 2006 in Florida.