4/22/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
What do you say when innocent people die?
I had a misfortune that most Americans never have: I knew two victims of a serial killer. I think that I know how the people of the Virginia Tech community feel after the inexplicable loss of lives there.
Christa Hoyt, 18 years old when she was killed, was a student at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville in 1990. I was a professor there, and I often saw Christa on campus with her friends. I also was a graduate student journalist at the University of Florida.
Christa lived in Archer, a small town west of Gainesville, and she worked in the local video store. I lived in nearby Bronson. The first time that I brought my daughter to the store to rent a Pippi Longstocking video, Christa fell in love with my daughter’s long hair. I often left my daughter at the store so that Christa could braid her hair. Sometimes, I brought them hamburgers from the greasy spoon around the corner.
One morning, I read in the Gainesville Sun that the police had discovered Christa’s lifeless, mutilated body in her Gainesville apartment. I did not show the article to my daughter.
My sister was the longtime girl’s volleyball coach at Ely High School in Pompano Beach. One of her best players was Sonja Larson. I met Sonja a few times at my sister’s house when the team got together for barbecues. Sonja won a scholarship to attend the University of Florida. On the same weekend that Christa Hoyt was killed, Sonja, 18, was brutally murdered in her Gainesville apartment.
Over a three-day span, five students were slain in their Gainesville apartments. We would learn that Danny Rolling, a drifter and loner, was the killer. For his deeds, Rolling would be executed by lethal injection at Florida State Prison on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006, 16 years later.
What do you say when a serial killer takes innocent lives? Most of us look for reasons buried in the killer’s past and mind and soul.
Time and again, we face the specter of an outsider. Rolling was horribly abused as a child, and he went through life as the guy who did not fit in, the odd man out.
Even as he was about to die, as he lay strapped to a gurney, he was unapologetic. Quietly, he sang a gospel to the witnesses: “Thou art the alpha and omega. The beginning and the end. The sound of thy voice stills the mighty wind. None greater than thee, oh Lord. None greater than thee.”
A journalist friend of mine who witnessed the execution told me that as she stared into the death chamber, she felt Rolling’s utter “isolation and outsiderness.”
“I didn’t have anything in common with him,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “Nobody did. It was like he wasn’t human. He was a nobody – a nothing. But everybody knew this nobody’s name. I just wish he had not existed.”
The “isolation and outsiderness” always seem to be a part of the identity of the serial killers I have read about.
And now comes Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, and the same words and phrases: “loner,” “isolation,” “anger,” “weird,” “quiet.”
Most serial killers I have read about felt as if they had been “picked on” and “bullied” for their uniqueness. Some leave behind anguished manifestos rationalizing their heinous deeds. Their deeds are bad enough, but these killers seem to believe that their words will immortalize them, making them famous or infamous.
In death, they get the attention that eluded them in life. The sheer randomness of their acts brings them the attention they sought.
As I read about Seung-Hui Cho and his thirst for attention, I recalled the pain of being the outsider voiced by the character Odd Thomas in Dean Koontz’s novel of the same name: “I am such a nonentity by the standards of our culture that People magazine not only will never feature a piece about me but might also reject my attempts to subscribe to their publication on the grounds that the blackhole gravity of my noncelebrity is powerful enough to suck their entire enterprise into oblivion.”
Seung-Hui Cho is no longer a nonentity. We will remember him forever for the 32 innocent lives he obliterated. What else is there to say?