A Killer on the Campus
University of Florida senior Tracy Paules called her suburban Miami home on Friday night, Aug. 24, and talked to her father, George. “I was joking around with her,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Boy, am I glad you’re out of here! Now I can get my parking space back, and I don’t have to walk through a bunch of s—-in the bedroom.’ ” With the memory, George wrings his rough stonemason’s hands and begins to cry. “Then I said. “I love you, Tracy,’ and she said, ‘I love you, Daddy.’ I liked her to call mc Daddy.” It was the last time George Paules would ever talk to his daughter.
Tracy, 23, a political science student looking forward to law school, spent that weekend visiting her new boyfriend. Khris Pascarella, at his parents’ home on Merritt Island. “She told me she loved me,” Khris recalls, “and when she told me, I had a feeling I have never felt before.”
When Tracy returned to the Gatorwood Apartments in Gainesville Sunday evening, she dutifully called her mother, Ricky. Ricky, a softball coordinator for the Dade County Parks and Recreation Department, had heard about the discovery of two young women’s bodies near the university that afternoon. She warned her daughter to stay close by her burly, 6’2″, 200-lb. roommate, Manny Taboada, 23, an architecture student at the university. (Taboada, the younger son of Cuban immigrants, and Paules, who met in high school, were not romantically involved. He always said his “steady girlfriend” was his gray-and-white cat, Sasha.) Tracy’s friend Lisa Buyer called her later that evening and talked until around midnight. “She was nervous about the murders,” says Buyer. “I told her to be careful.”
On Monday evening Khris called Tracy again and again with increasing urgency, for by then the news was out that a third woman had been killed. But there was no answer. At 8 o’clock the next morning, a maintenance man entered the apartment and found Paules and Taboada dead. They had been stabbed repeatedly, perhaps as they slept. The body count in one of the most gruesome killing sprees in memory had reached five. Authorities said evidence suggested that all had died at the hands of the same killer, or killers.
The discovery of five murder victims—three of them horribly mutilated—within 40 hours threw the 34,000-student university and its host city of 125,000 into virtual panic. Hundreds of students fled for home. By Wednesday afternoon, area stores were completely sold-out of dead bolts, Mace and electronic stun guns; even baseball bats were hard to find. The rampant fear became a danger in itself as students armed themselves with pistols, rifles and shotguns. Said Sarasota retiree Ron Davis, as he bought his stepdaughter Stephanie Burzenski, 21, a handgun at Sapp’s Pawn and Gun Shop: “She’s never fired a weapon. We’re going to tell her, ‘Use your judgment, but if you know that you’re in danger, then fire away.’ ” In fact, most students felt that they were in danger all the time. Gainesville police received 900 groundless emergency calls on that Wednesday alone, many of them from students who had heard branches brushing their windows or birds screeching in trees. When cops responded, terrified students often refused to open their doors, afraid that the men in uniform were murderous impostors.
The killer, it seemed, could be anyone. “We’re trying to put a security blanket over this city,” Police Chief Wayland Clifton Jr. said as 170 local, county, state and federal law enforcement personnel joined the hunt for the person authorities called “a methodical maniac.” But no one felt safe. There was no telling who might be next, because nobody knew how the victims had been chosen.
Sonja Larson was the baby in her family. The 18-year-old freshman wasn’t able to get a dorm room for her second semester as an elementary education student. “I hated it that she wasn’t going to be on campus,” says her mother. Ada, an accountant. She drove up to Gainesville last month to help Sonja and two women friends hunt for an apartment. They settled on a unit at the Williamsburg Village Apartments, just four blocks from the university.
On Thursday, Aug. 23, Sonja drove away from her parents’ home in Deerfield Beach, north of Miami, in the Honda CRX they had given her in 1988. That night, she called from a pay phone—her own phone hadn’t yet been connected—to let her family know she was fine. When Ada hung up, she remembers having “some feelings of worry, but I’m a worrier.” Her concern intensified when Sonja did not call on Friday or Saturday. Then the parents of one of Sonja’s roommates, architecture student Christina Powell, 17, of Jacksonville, called from Gainesville on Sunday. Christi’s brother and sister had gone to the apartment the day before: no one had answered the door, and no one was answering now. “I said, “Get somebody to open the door. They could be in there!’ ” recalls Ada. “That was about 4 P.M.” Though a policeman entered the apartment shortly afterward, almost seven hours passed before a Broward County sheriff arrived at the Larsons’ home and asked them to call Gainesville police. “I knew right then,” Ada says. “I started screaming.” When her husband, Jim, a retired boatyard owner, made the call, he was told that Sonja had been murdered but that dental records would be necessary to make a positive identification. “That’s how bad she was,” Ada says. Sonja Larson and Christi Powell had been stabbed, apparently where they slept, then mutilated. Investigators reportedly searched nearby trash bins for body parts.
Though police have not disclosed a probable time of death, Ada believes that the girls died late Thursday night or in the early morning hours of Friday. Sonja had told her boyfriend she’d call him Friday but did not. A neighbor heard someone taking a shower in the girls’ apartment at 6:30 A.M. Friday, and Ada is convinced that the person taking the shower was the killer. “Those girls were not early risers,” she says. At 10 A.M. next-door neighbor Jason Beaupied had heard George Michael’s Faith blaring from the apartment and a banging on the wall, “like they were putting in a nail.” Ada thinks her daughter’s murderer may have been trying to mask the noise as he pounded on a back door, which sticks, to exit the apartment.
There is a cedar hope chest in Sonja Larson’s Deerfield Beach bedroom. Inside is her tattered pink-and-blue baby blanket. There is also a black Bible, engraved with her name. The marker remains where Sonja must have left it the last time she read it. She had highlighted the passage in yellow: “In Thee O Lord I have taken refuge…Incline Thine ear to me, rescue me quickly; Be Thou to me a rock of strength. A stronghold to save me.”
Christa Hoyt was just 18 years old last November when she moved out of her family’s home in Archer, 12 miles southwest of Gainesville. “Right after her birthday she wanted to move out,” says her stepmother, Diana. (Her father, Gary, is a dispatcher for Southern Bell.) “She just wanted to be able to come and go as she wanted. Just a normal teenager.” When the time came, Christa simply tossed everything into her black Chevette and moved on. The car was black because she liked everything in black, including most of her wardrobe. She asked for black roses on her birthday cake and was determined to wear a black dress to her junior prom, until Diana sewed her a royal-blue one. A strong-willed young adult, Christa nonetheless kept one foot firmly planted in childhood, as evidenced by her large collection of teddy bears. “When she went to bed she would keep them with her.” says her stepsister Laurie. “She slept in the middle of them all.” Even her nightshirts all had teddy bear designs on them.
Christa was working her way through Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville with a job as an overnight clerk at the Alachua County sheriffs office, a position that suited her interests: She was studying chemistry, hoping to become a crime-lab technician. At 1 A.M. Monday, Aug. 27, concerned that, she was an hour late for work, shift supervisor Kim Norman requested that a deputy check Hoyt’s Gainesville duplex. Christa had shared the apartment with her high school friend Bridgette Toombs until just the week before, when Toombs had moved out amicably.
Christa was a cautious sort, says her family, who would never have opened the door to a stranger. They believe the killer must have been waiting for her inside when she returned from playing racquetball late Saturday night. “My understanding is that he came in through her sliding glass door.” says Diana. “She didn’t have a bar across it. He was able to open the lock and there he was.” The sheriffs deputy found Christa’s body. It had reportedly been decapitated.
Investigators combed through every detail of the victims’ lives searching for points at which they might have crossed paths with the killer—or killers. Some similarities leap out: All of the women were slim, attractive brunets who had enjoyed social and academic success. Larson, Powell and Paules were excellent high school softball players. (Powell had insisted that her high school coach call her a “third base-woman.”) All were strong, independent, even brave. Larson liked to tube through rapids. Paules went skydiving and tried to talk her boyfriend into it, insisting that even if it were the last four minutes of his life, “it would be the best four minutes.”
But if authorities had found a Rosetta stone to unravel the mystery, they were not revealing it, or much of anything else. Intent on keeping what knowledge they had from the killer, they released only the most cryptic statements. A week after the killings, Gainesville Police Detective Capt. Richard B. Ward said that the murderer would not be satisfied with five victims. “No way. No, sir. He won’t be satisfied until he’s successful.” Ward would not explain what he meant by “successful.” Spokeswoman Lt. Sadie Darnell said that the killer had left messages at the crime scenes, but “they were not messages as you would think of messages.” That is, they were not written out, but presented somehow. “It’s subtle. It’s not a taunt. It’s not very flamboyant. It’s consistent with a serial killer,” she said.
A serial killer, experts say, could pass as almost anyone. Most of these guys don’t fit the Hollywood stereotype of a glassy-eyed lunatic,” said James A. Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston and co-author of Mass Murder: America’s Growing Menace. “Most of them are people you would not suspect. That is why, when they knock on the door and they claim they are the guy down the end of the hall, you trust them.”
Of the eight suspects investigators said they were focusing on by the week’s end, part-time University of Florida student Edward Humphrey, 18, drew the most public attention. The 6′, 200-lb. Humphrey did not fit the cool, ingratiating serial-killer mold. Humphrey was arrested in the early morning hours of Aug. 30 after he beat his 79-year-old grandmother, Elna Laverty, at the home he had until recently shared with her and his mother in Indialantic, near Cape Canaveral. (His father had left for Montana some years before.) Humphrey made what Brevard County Sheriff Jake Miller described as “erratic, unintelligible statements, grunts, animal sounds” as he was led in cuffs and leg-irons to his arraignment. There, he grinned at the TV cameras and blurted out, “Innocent until proven guilty.” He remains in jail.
Humphrey, according to his friend Erik Bedesem, was an A student in high school without any manifest problems—until the past few years. After a long bout of mononucleosis in 1988, according to Bedesem, Humphrey changed totally, suffering extreme mood swings for which he was treated with lithium, a powerful psychotropic drug. “He started thinking Satan was after him,” says Bedesem. “He wore gardening gloves and a tie as a sash to repel Satan.” A couple of years ago Humphrey told friends that he had pitched himself out of a car as his brother drove it at 70 mph. He was hospitalized for his injuries. Then last year he drove his Mercury Marquis head-on into a utility pole in what he told Erik was a suicide attempt. He went through the windshield, badly scarring his face and injuring his leg seriously enough to require surgery.
Humphrey’s bizarre behavior was well-known at the Gatorwood Apartments, where residents say he lived in a building across the parking lot from Manny Taboada for a time this summer. “Ed had a major crush on Tracy.” claims Rachel Olivier, a University of Florida teaching assistant. Olivier says that Paules, who didn’t move in until August, apparently visited Manny earlier. “Ed tried to get her attention at the pool by staring at her, smiling at her, inviting her to sit with him while he drank beer. She never did.” A manager at Gatorwood confirms that Humphrey’s lease was canceled in July after he threatened workers and residents there. But in late August he moved into the nearby Hawaiian Village Apartments. Former neighbors there told reporters that Humphrey often wore a combat vest, carried a hunting knife and stayed out all night on what he called “reconnaissance missions.” Says one neighbor, Otto Krumm: “He acted nervous and skittish all the time and was generally an odd sort, the type of kid who hated life.” According to the Gainesville Sun, investigative sources say that at least one of the victims had a leg muscle mutilated in a manner similar to the injury suffered by Humphrey, who walks with a limp. Last week the Indian River County sheriffs office issued new arrest warrants for Humphrey, for sexual battery and armed burglary against two women in nearby Vero Beach in October 1988. One recognized him as her assailant after seeing his picture in the paper.
But more than a week after the killings, investigators were still downplaying suspicion of Humphrey; they had fanned out to 11 states to pursue other leads, and continued sifting through information received in as many as 1,000 telephone calls per day. “We’re going to arrest [the killer]. We’ll stop him,” insists Captain Ward, who came home one night to find that his own wife had barricaded the door and put a pistol on the kitchen counter. “If we’re not able to stop it in some way, it’s probably going to happen again.”
Meanwhile the victims’ families are left to deal with their anguish. “I’m grieving.” says Ada Larson, “but I think I’m going to grieve for a long time. Right now I’m mostly angry. I want the killer to die.” So does Ricky Paules. “Tracy had a bright future,” she says, “and he took it all away. I’ll pull the switch. I’ll slit the throat, whatever, I’m ready. No mother should have to outlive her children.” Manny Taboada’s brother Mario, a Miami radio advertising executive who wants to become involved in advocacy groups for children, takes a different view. “At first I thought if I had the guy in front of me and I could make him suffer. I would.” he says. “Now I don’t think I would do it. I started thinking. “Why would someone do this? ‘And then I thought, ‘Somewhere down the line they weren’t loved.’ We have a lot of work to do in this world. I’m not a religious person, and people don’t understand me. They don’t understand how I can make it through this without some faith. But my faith is in the human race.”
For Ricky Paules, that is a faith that must be regained. She remembers standing in the carport barely three weeks ago as her youngest child, Tracy, climbed into her charcoal-gray Toyota for the six-hour drive to school. “She said, ‘Neither one of us is going to cry, right?” And I said. “Right. Now get out of here.’ She said. ‘Okay, dude.’ She pulled out into the street, but she stopped and motioned me over to the car. She grabbed me and we hugged and kissed and she said, ‘I love you, Mom. You know I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye.’ ”
—James Kunen, Meg Grant, Cindy Dampier, Linda Marx, Don Sider and Marilyn Balamaci in Gainesville