Sixteen years ago, I lived in Gainesville, FL. I was working in a small law firm as a legal secretary, and my boyfriend, now husband, was a medical student at the University of Florida. One morning, we woke up to hear two college students were found murdered in their apartments, about a 1/2 mile from where we lived. The next morning, another young woman was found dead, murdered in a brutal and shocking way, within a block of where we had first had an apartment in town. The next morning, two people were murdered in the apartment complex across the street from where we lived. It seemed like the killers were coming closer and closer to us.
Gainesville is a small southern town in many respects. It is a college town, where the population swells dramatically when school is in session, and shrinks as dramatically during school holidays. It is a place where you can ride your bike, walk at night, and feel pretty safe. But because it is small and close knit, the murders sent terror into the hearts of residents as bad as, if not worse, as that we experienced post- 9-11. You would hear reports on the news, and reports from local people that would double-count bodies, and get reports of police showing up in different spots in town, with the speculation that even more bodies would be found. It was like being under seige, waking up and not knowing how many bodies would turn up the next day, or if it would be you.
We lived in a lower floor apartment with a walk-out set of sliding glass doors. Easy access. Immediately, all sorts of alarms, special window locks, broom handles, and any other form of security were being handed out like candy on Halloween. Matt and I left Gainesville and drove down to his mom’s house in Ft. Lauderdale. School was closed for at least a week, and everyone felt bulnerable, and like they were haunted, but there were no obvious solutions to the problem. No one knew what would happen next.
We eventually returned to Gainesville. They thought they caught the guy, and it was a college student who had been evicted from a local complex. Since our firm did evictions for another largely student complex, I was in fear for years after that anyone we had evicted would lose it and come looking ofr me or my boss at our small firm. For a long time, we kept the front door to the office locked tight.
About a year and a half later, two more women were murdered in their apartment. It turned out to be a carpet cleaner, but as soon as this news hit the airwaves, panic washed through the community again. Matt was out of town, and I ended up spending the weekend at my boss’s house, for safety reasons. We felt like it was deja vu and the fear returned many fold. It soon passed as the man was caught and the community was reassured we weren’t facing the same menace as before.
Whenever something of this size trauma hits a community, it changes it and its inhabitants forever. When I heard about Rollins’ execution, it brought back all these feelings for me, like a ghost of a nightmare, but still touchable, still real. I can only imagine that people from New Orleans will feel this same sense of fear and forboding if any future hurricane comes even close to their shores, or how the people of NY felt with the recent plane crash on the Upper East Side.
Trauma changes you. And things can unexpectedly tap those emotions and make you feel vulnerable again. But we need to go on, take risks of daily life, and try to live fully despite our fears. I am afraid that the execution of the Gainesville college student murderer won’t really serve to remove those fears, or even begin to make the families of the victims whole. It did not make me feel any better, or feel like justice was served. I am simply sad all over again, and weep for our lost innocence.