I’ve waited 16 years to tell this story publicly. Every couple of years I edited this essay, tweaking this and tweaking that, but I didn’t want to post all of it until the time of the execution. It seems that time has come – just a few minutes from now.
Over a three-day period in August 1990, the mutilated bodies of five young people were found scattered across Gainesville, Florida. With the whole state in panic, police quickly apprehended a student named Edward Lewis Humphrey. The police, the media boldly announced, had caught the Gainesville Murderer.
Or so they thought. Eventually – over a year later – the actual perpetrator of the crime, Danny Rolling, was charged with the murders while serving a life sentence for armed robbery. In late February of 2004, Rolling changed his plea to guilty.
Tonight he will die for his crimes. But this probably won’t change the image most Americans have in their mind from that horrible summer: an image of Ed Humphrey, paraded in the courtroom in an orange jump suit, looking, so we thought, like a serial killer.
The horror began on Sunday, August 26, 1990, when the bodies of two University of Florida freshmen were found murdered in their apartment. Sonja Larson, 18, and Christina Powell, 17, were found in Williamsburg Village, a popular student residence, both apparently strangled. But the killer did not stop there: both were skillfully slashed open from pelvis to thorax, and parts of their breasts had been chopped off. At first, police hoped that this was a case of a botched burglary gone terribly wrong and would remain an isolated incident. But the next day, the corpse of 18-year-old Christa Hoyt was found in a nearby apartment. The murder scene was even more grotesque: the killer, after completing the same ritual slashings, decapitated the young woman, placed her head on the mantelpiece above the fireplace with her eyes pried open, and finally cleaned the apartment with Windex, leaving behind the bizarre, yet gruesome display.
Gainesville was in a state of absolute panic. As thousands of students left town to return home, thousands others bought up the city’s supply of mace, stun guns and pistols. And though Alachua County Police mobilized over 300 officers from around the area, they were still unable to stop the killing. The next day, two more young bodies were found. Tracey Paules and Manuel Taboada, both 23, were found dead in their apartment. The scene was relatively calm compared to the other two sites – neither body was mutilated, though Taboada had been stabbed no less than 30 times (police suspected that Taboada, a six-and-a-half foot football player, probably surprised the killer as he was murdering Paules, and was probably stunned with a taser gun before being killed himself, thus distracting the killer from his routine).
The biggest manhunt in the history of the Southeast was now in full swing. All of Florida was caught in a state of history-repeating-itself shock, hearkening back to the year 1978, when Ted Bundy rampaged through the Florida State University Chi Omega sorority house, killing several women. But as suddenly as the murders began, the killings abruptly stopped. While families buried their children and university students practiced their shooting skills, the nation began to ask the inevitable rhetorical question, “Why?” The state and county police, as well as the FBI, were obviously under enormous pressure to apprehend the murderer or murderers.
On Friday, August 31, the state police received a possible lead. Ed Humphrey, a University of Florida student with a recent history of mental problems, had just been arrested my hometown of Indialantic, Florida, 100 miles southeast of Gainesville. He had apparently hurt his grandmother in an argument and was now ranting about the Gainesville murders to the local police. The state police announced it would question Humphrey before his arraignment at the Brevard County Juvenile Correctional Facility. During the questioning he babbled about the murders, Satan, and someone named John (psychiatrists believed this may have been a reference to John the Baptist). Ed’s attorney, Ed Lykkeback, protested the proceedings: “He was a medical patient at the time [of the questioning] who was not being treated. He said a lot of grandiose things that caused him to become a suspect. He was rambling.” Upon the completion of the interrogation, the police officially labeled Humphrey as a prime suspect, and the bond for his petty assault charge was raised from $10,250 to one million dollars, about 200 times higher than the typical assault bond.
I had been in my room packing for school when my mom told me to come downstairs. I assumed she wanted to know whether I had heard from any of my friends in Gainesville. Since the murders had started, about half said they were heading home, while the other half decided to stay together in large groups. Either way, there was nothing truly extraordinary to report, so I thought I’d be back to work in a moment or two. When I finally entered her room, she had a strange, almost quizzical look on her face. Before I could say anything, she spoke.
“I just got off the phone with Trudy, and she says she heard that they’ve arrested someone.” Jesus, I thought, getting ready to joke and ask whether it was anyone I knew. Before I could open my mouth, she completed her thought.
“It’s Ed Humphrey.”
I stared blankly at her. Ed? He had emotional problems, but he was no Ted Bundy. Her friend Trudy must have screwed up the local gossip. Nah…. Couldn’t be.
I completely shrugged off the possibility and eventually went to bed.
The next morning I woke up rather early and was the first person up and around. Not even considering the conversation from the night before, I turned on CNN to see what was new in the world. The first image to greet me was a picture of Ed Humphrey, scarred and overweight, being led away by bailiffs at a hearing. I was utterly amazed. How in the world could this be happening? I had known him since first grade, and this made absolutely no sense. The reporter explained, “The city of Gainesville, Florida breathed a collective sigh of relief as Edward Louis Humphrey of Indialantic was questioned and held on a lesser charge.” He hadn’t been arrested for the murders, yet, but this was close enough.
Ed Humphrey was the headlining story for every news program and paper in America. His image fit the media’s requirements for the perfect serial killer: at 220 pounds and over six feet tall he was an intimidating figure, but his scarred face and disheveled hair, results of a recent car accident, gave him the appearance of a madman. Though he answered the judge’s questions quite lucidly, he would mug for the TV cameras, making faces and crossing his eyes. The media, so it would seem, had captured the quintessential psychopath.
The media did not focus on the police’s evidence linking Humphrey to the crime (since there was none, not including his manic, but nonspecific ramblings about the murders). Instead, they keyed into Humphrey’s bizarre background. He was better than the stereotypical loner, sketched out by the neighbors as “a nice, but quiet young man.” Instead, Humphrey was depicted as the all-American kid gone sour. He played varsity soccer and easily had a 3.0 average or higher. For years Ed was always the one to say hello to you first when you passed him in the hall, his teeth gleaming and gait bouncing. Then, in my junior year, the transformation began. After a severe case of mononucleosis which required months of heavy drug use, Ed began to change. He would go around school in army fatigues, playing “Rambo” by himself in the halls, without warning or provocation. He also stopped doing his work on time. Finally, one day while driving down a highway with an older brother, Ed jumped out of the car as it was traveling at over 50 miles per hour. Though only suffering mild scrapes and bruises, Ed was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for three months.
After treatment, Ed eventually graduated and moved to Gainesville with his brother, George. He didn’t stay for long, though – he was arrested for wielding a knife at a group of students, though he claimed he had only done so because they said they were going to beat him up. Ed returned to Indialantic, but was quickly rehospitalized after a bizarre car accident which left his legs broken and his faced slashed in dozens of places. Police classified the crash as a suicide attempt. I was not able to visit him in the hospital, but one of my friends did, and what he told me still haunts me. “Ed says he blanked out from all the medicine, and did not want to kill himself. He says that he’s sick but the doctors and his parents ignore him.”
By August of 1990, Ed’s physical wounds had healed (though his face was deeply scarred) and he enrolled in classes at the University of Florida. But he also had quit using his lithium and his manic behavior reappeared. The week of the murders, he returned home to Indialantic, where his grandmother (with whom he had lived) accused him of being high on drugs, not realizing he was having another manic fit. A fight ensued and Ed shoved her, smashing her face onto the tile floor.
The local papers had a field day with the story. “Local Teenager: Murderer?” and other profitable headlines graced the pages. Suddenly, I was seeing images of Ed I had never dreamed of — Ed the Loner, Ed the Mental Patient, Ed the Grandmother Beater — this was absolutely ridiculous. Outside of high school photos, police reports, and interviews with “friends” who barely even knew the guy, the paper provided very little information. Ed had been arrested in Indialantic for punching his grandmother, and within hours the police somehow had reasonable cause to consider him as their Number One Suspect.
His was a story the media could not resist. It had more bizarre twists and turns than even the best screenwriter’s murder mystery. Of course, the state police had assembled other suspects – seven men, to be exact – but their stories were largely ignored, usually mentioned in passing as part of the breaking story on “the prime suspect.” One of the suspects, Warren Tinch, was a 58-year-old Ohio man wanted for the murder of an elderly woman. Another man, Stephen Bates, had just been arrested in a neighboring county on a theft charge. And another suspect, Danny Rolling, was just picked up for armed robbery. But these men, along with the four others, were passed over by the media due to their lack of interest, or, perhaps more accurate, the enormous wealth of interest in the Humphrey case.
But the Florida police and FBI quickly realized they had a possible problem. The only evidence linking Humphrey to the crimes was his manic ranting about the murders. He never claimed to have committed them, though he appeared to enjoy talking about them when he wasn’t on his lithium. Beyond that, the police only had a general positive semen match between Ed and the first murder site – a match which could have occurred between the murderer and over 7,000 other men in Alachua County, though. Lacking the proof to even charge him with the murders, the police recommended that, if convicted, he should receive the maximum sentence for beating his grandmother. By late October, Ed was convicted of the assault, despite his grandmother’s pleas that the charges be dropped. Ed received 21 months in solitary confinement for a crime which usually resulted in probation. While in jail, FBI genetics experts determined that pubic hair found on the scene did not match his, but other genetic material from another cite matched identically with that of another suspect, Danny Rolling. Over a year after the murders, a grand jury indicted Rolling for the murders, but they refused to indict Humphrey due to an overwhelming lack of evidence.
After serving 15 months of the sentence (mostly in the Chattahoochee State Prison Hospital), Ed was released.
“I thought the media was really unfair. It sucked, man.”
There is no doubt that much of social persecution that has become a mundane reality for Ed Humphrey was catalyzed by the media’s sensationalistic coverage of the murders and its lack of sensitivity to the facts of the case. Not unlike the Richard Jewell case six years later, the media selectively emphasized Humphrey’s troubled background and failed to acknowledge the police’s inability to connect him to the evidence.
The Florida Today, the largest paper in Brevard County, had a field day with the Humphrey case. The day after his bond hearing, the front-page headline for the Today announced “SUSPECT’S BOND: $1 MILLION.” A large color photo below the headline depicted a disheveled Humphrey, sporting chains, shackles and red prison garb, being escorted by an equally huge police officer. Two articles filled the top two thirds of the page: on the right, “BREVARD TEEN NAMED IN UF SLAYING PROBE,” and below the picture, “YOUNG MAN ‘HAD HIS HIGHS AND HAD HIS LOWS.’” A small blue graphic announced a “Special report, 4A-5A.”
Brevard County and the Florida Today had not seen a story as juicy and as shocking as this since the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, whose debris scattered across the county beaches only four and a half years earlier. The Today took advantage of this new-found attention with its sensationalist front page that morning. At first glance, the headlines on that page seem typical enough: they inform the reader that a local teenager has become a suspect in the murder investigation, his bail was set for a million dollars, and he was troubled and strange young man, as can be expected in such serial killing cases. But with these statements begins the societal damnation of Humphrey.
The headline and article acknowledging the police’s suspicions is factual enough – it states what the police believe and discusses the details. But the other two parts of the page are quite alarming. The headline “SUSPECT’S BOND: $1 MILLION” is rather confusing for it implies that Humphrey, the suspect, has been arrested for the crime and is now stuck with a bail that mirrors the heinousness of his actions. But Ed was not arrested for the murders; he was in jail for the assault on his grandmother. But none of the headlines explain this important fact – instead, the reader is left to assume that the bond is in relation to the murders, for at this point, the reader knows absolutely nothing about the assault.
When one explores the page a bit further, one finds the paragraph “An Indialantic man named among suspects in the University of Florida slayings was ordered held on $1 million bond Friday on an unrelated assault charge.” For the newspaper, this paragraph at the beginning of the article explains in basic detail the circumstance surrounding Humphrey’s bond sentencing. This may be true, but for the reader of the newspaper, the first thing she might do is read the large headline, and perhaps look at the picture. Next, she would probably read the subheadlines. Before she even begins to read the article (assuming she is interested enough to continue), the tone of the story has been set. Humphrey is a murder suspect and his bond is enormous. Even though the reader realizes through reading the story that the bond was in reference to “an unrelated assault” and not the murders, she is already left with the psychological impression that Humphrey is the murderer. The general term suspect is equated with the evidence-backed concept of a suspect who has been charged with the crime. And once a reader has felt that a suspect has become the suspect, she may assume his guilt, though no evidence has been presented in a court of law to even charge him with the crime. This assumption, unfortunately, is based solely on the newspapers incompetent attempt to disseminate the news properly.
The other headline, “YOUNG MAN ‘HAD HIS HIGHS AND HAD HIS LOWS,’” sets the pace for an embarrassingly damning article which chronicles the rise and fall of Ed Humphrey. After noting his previously unknown, yet tragic high school years, the article paints an ugly picture:
That fragile shield of anonymity was shattered forever Friday with news that he had become a suspect in the brutal slayings of five students in Gainesville. Now the nation knows his name: Edward Louis Humphrey, Cub Scout, Eagle Scout, the youngest in a family of four. . . . Edward Louis Humphrey, Key Club, Spanish Club, a solid B student who always had his homework in on time. And finally, Edward Louis Humphrey, in Brevard County Jail on $1 million bond in the assault of his grandmother – and a suspect in the slayings that have stunned two college campuses and the Gainesville community surrounding them.
The article, which continued in the “special report” spread several pages later, then focused on his friends discussing how Humphrey would run around on “combat missions,” dressed in camouflage, sporting a non-existent rifle and shouting various military terms. His high school principal noted that he wasn’t “very gregarious.” The article portrays the image of a very disturbed young man, the sort you might expect to go on a murderous rampage. To make matters worse, the article is juxtaposed with several related stories, including “APARTMENT COMPLEX RESIDENTS STRUGGLE TO COPE WITH TRAGEDY,” “HUNDREDS MOURN FOR VICTIMS” and “TIP FROM FRIEND GIVES UF REPORTER INSIDE TRACK ON TEEN SUSPECT.” In the center of the page appears a photo of a crying pallbearer at one of the funerals. Below that is a picture of Humphrey’s grandmother, her eye bruised and swollen.
What does this spread tell the reader? The pages go into great depth discussing various events surrounding the case, yet only one suspect, Ed Humphrey, is emphasized. We read these inside stories about his dubious history, yet we also see and read about the grief of those who knew the victims. The reader is provided with the same profile usually attributed to alleged serial killers after they have been charged with the crime in court. The term suspect is thus used in a more official capacity in such cases. But the Florida Today’s blurring of the line between potential suspect and officially charged suspect blurs the understanding of the reader, leaving her with the impression that the police finally have their man.
For their September 10th issue, the first to go to press after Humphrey’s arraignment, Newsweek placed the Gainesville murders on a spread at the beginning of their National Affairs section. It is a rather active layout: the headline “THE SIGNATURE OF A SERIAL KILLER” boldly asserts itself across the left page. Below that is the subhead “FIVE GRISLY MURDERS TERRIFY A FLORIDA COLLEGE TOWN – AND FBI EXPERTS CONSTRUCT A PROFILE OF THE PSYCHOPATH.” Approximately two inches directly below the subhead is a picture of Humphrey, the poor camera light accentuating his scars to the point of making them fresh and bloody. To the right is a large picture of the police rolling away the body bag of Christa Hoyt. Directly below that is a picture of mourning friends displaying a sign with Christa’s name and large heart symbol. And hovering above the whole scene are the high school class photos of each of the victims.
The image sends a rather harsh message to the reader. The victims are represented in three distinct ways: as the living, as the dead, and as the loss of loved ones. It is a bitterly tragic triumvirate which evokes both compassion and rage in the reader. But perhaps the most damning visual image is that of Ed Humphrey: it may be the worst picture of him ever published, his face and hair a wreck, his stare cold, all encompassed by a restraining chain around his neck. And directly above that we have the aforementioned line, “FBI EXPERTS CONSTRUCT A PROFILE OF THE PSYCHOPATH.” Newsweek literally presents us that profile in the form of Ed’s psychotic picture. Even the most casual reader of the spread is obliged to make the connection. Ed is not merely a suspect – he is the FBI’s psychopath.
The article itself is as brutal as the imagery. The piece emphasizes the brutality of the murders, noting gruesome gossip such as “Hoyt’s body had been sliced open from the pelvis to the upper chest and. . . the women’s breasts had been slashed.” Eventually, the article brings up Ed Humphrey, and not unlike the Today stories, it presents no actual connection between Ed and the murders. The article leaves no mention of the other suspects, too. The only new information provided is that Ed had once lived in the same apartment complex as two of the victims. For all intents and purposes, Ed is only mentioned as a possible sidenote to the story, but the inclusion of his picture would suggest otherwise.
But the most damning part of the story appears in the last column. While presenting us with a description of the University’s new-found paranoia, Newsweek includes the following sentence:
Frightened students cowered behind locked doors in their apartments, and scores left school until the killer was caught.
Until the killer was caught? This, obviously, would suggest to the reader that the killer had been apprehended! And this killer, according to the article (by default, since no other suspect is mentioned), is Edward Louis Humphrey. The sentence could not be interpreted any other way – it is written in past tense, suggesting that students no longer cowered behind locked doors because the killer was now in custody. Such a statement would probably not be reconsidered by the casual viewer. The only thing it could possibly accomplish is reinforce the unfounded belief that Ed Humphrey was the Gainesville Murderer.
I don’t want to be on TV. I don’t want people to read about me. I don’t want people to know who I am. I mean, it’s just a really bad feeling -knowing that wherever you go people are judging you, and they don’t even know you. They’ve never even talked to you. And people do it to me all the time. . . . You know, I really don’t like reporters.
In the case of Ed Humphrey, the people and the state of Florida simultaneously panicked. The media, understandably, gave the murders a great deal of coverage, but in doing so added to the fear and suspicion on all sides. So when the police finally identified a legitimate, albeit weak, suspect, the weight of societal anger and frustration was then dumped onto the back of that suspect. Ed Humphrey did not have to become a name which evoked dread in the hearts of Floridians. But the media, more set on getting the biggest and fastest story instead getting the most accurate story, presented his tale without the caveats needed to remind the public that he is merely a suspect and nothing more. Even Humphrey openly talks about the media’s role in his character assassination, as he did in an interview in the Florida today many years later:
I feel 100 percent sure that the media is the main reason our country is the way it is. I mean, people watch too much TV – five, six hours a day. Well, they’re influenced so much by what they watch and they think, ‘Oh yeah, I saw they got the suspect. Glad they caught him.’ They don’t even think about what the word ‘suspect’ means. They just think, ‘Well, he probably did it because there is is on TV.’ And then, as far as newspapers go, half the things that [they] deal with are just negative things about people. When I got out of jail and got a job, when I got good grades in school, they weren’t calling me. What are they going to say when I get off probation?
About six months after he was released from jail, I ran into him on at our local mall, one of only two occasions where I’ve seen him since the murders. He was with two young women, smiling, and had lost a lot of the weight. I’d grown a beard and was now wearing glasses, but he recognized me immediately and gave me a hug.
Ed was Ed again; he still had lots of problems to overcome, but he was no longer the monster of Gainesville. He was living with his brother in Orlando, working, and taking night classes.
I asked him if he was bitter about the way he had been treated. He said no.
“And if I had been a newspaper publisher,” Ed concluded, “I would have done the same thing.” -andy