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UPDATE / FLORIDA MURDERS : Signs of Normal Campus Life Emerge Amid Ongoing Fears

September 27, 1990|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A month after the brutal slayings of five college students sent shock waves of terror through this leafy Southern town, there are signs of recovery.

The walkways on the University of Florida campus are crammed with young students. Over 70,000 football fans are expected at Florida Field on Saturday when the 17th-ranked Gators take on Ole Miss.

But a chill lingers. For weeks police have talked about having identified eight suspects in the grisly murders of four young women and one man near the campus. But none, apparently, can be linked to the crimes.

The task force set up to hunt for the killer has been reduced, and crime lab results have failed to provide many telltale clues, according to reports this week. Police said they have collected 700 pieces of evidence, and received 5,000 leads that include everything from sightings of suspicious persons to nightmares about ex-boyfriends.

Police are re-emphasizing that danger persists. Gainesville police Sgt. Dick Gerard said he drove around town the other evening and noticed evidence of "apathy and complacency" in areas of off-campus housing in which three-fourths of the university's 34,000 students live.

"I saw apartments with windows and doors wide open," Gerard said. "And solitary joggers. That scares me."

In the days following the slayings many students bought dead-bolt locks, cans of Chemical Mace, even handguns. "But now," says 22-year-old junior Scott Hankes, "talk is really about school and football."

But what happened here during three days in August is not something this town or its residents will forget. "I don't think anyone will ever walk into the house without first seeing if someone's there. There's apprehension," says Judy Plunkett, 21, editor of the student newspaper, the Alligator.

The horror in Gainesville began sometime before Aug. 26, when the bodies of two young women were found slashed and mutilated in the apartment they shared. The next day another young woman was found dead in her apartment in a similar slaying.

The following day, Aug. 28, a young man and woman were discovered bludgeoned and stabbed to death in the apartment they shared.

That week thousands fled the campus, many vowing not to return unless the killer was caught. Almost 500 students did drop out.

Within hours of the murders, Gainesville Police Chief Wayland Clifton waxed optimistic that the killer would soon be caught. He described the killer as "shrewd and methodical." Clifton is no longer available for comment.

When police began to talk of suspects, the names of two, both in custody, became known. But neither seemed to match the profile suggested by Clifton, and neither has been charged in the killings.

One was identified as Stephen M. Bates, a 30-year-old fast-food cook from Lakeland being held on unrelated burglary and assault charges. The second was Edward L. Humphrey, a troubled 18-year-old who has received an enormous amount of media attention. A first-year UF student who earlier this summer had lived in the apartment building where the bodies of the last two victims were found, Humphrey was arrested on charges that he beat his 79-year-old grandmother. Since then he has been jailed under a $1-million bond.

University President John Lombardi said Wednesday that he is too busy dealing with NCAA sanctions over football and basketball recruiting violations and preparing for January budget cuts to wonder about the killer's identity. He is angry, though.

"I'm angry that such a beautiful thing--the spirit of this university at the start of a semester--has been destroyed," he says. "I think the police are optimistic. But until they arrest somebody, we're counting each day in which nothing happens as a victory."

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