It’s their nightly ritual. Sometime before eight o’clock, Jim Larson lights a candle at the bedside of his 3-year-old daughter, Jessica, and then reaches for Horton Hears a Who, The Cat in the Hat, or Green Eggs and Ham.
Together, they lie side by side on her tiny bed as he reads the sweet nonense of Dr. Seuss:
"Have no fear!" said the cat. "I will not let you fall. I will hold you up high As I stand on a ball. With a book on one hand! And a cup on my hat! But that is not ALL I can do!" Said the cat ...
Sooner or later, after she’s said her prayers and blown out the candle, the little girl with blond hair and giant blue eyes drifts off to sleep. Then, Larson kisses Jessica good night and walks into his own room and his own dreams.
And sometimes, his nightmares. In 1990, a serial killer named Danny Rolling stabbed and killed Larson’s sister, Sonja, in Gainesville, FL. Seven years later, just as Larson had started to put that tragedy behind him, his wife, Carla, was abducted from an Orlando grocery-store parking lot and strangled to death. Two promising lives cut short by random acts of evil.
Today, as Larson struggles to raise his daughter, two men sit on Florida’s death row, convicted of murdering women who meant the world to him.
Larson, 39, is left with memories and bottomless questions. “They did nothing to deserve this,” he says of his sister and wife. “We’re good people. Sonja was good. Carla grew up going to church.”
Now and then, people will spot Larson working at a Home Depot in Orlando and ask if he is the same man they saw on television or in the newspaper. It is a celebrity he would have given anything to avoid. He does not like being seen as a victim. And yet he admits that some days, “Pain is all there is.”
Still, to let himself be consumed by the horror is unthinkable. “I have to keep going,” he says. “I have Jessica.”
The first monster, Larson would say, looked like he could have been one of his fishing buddies, a guy you would open your front door to. But Danny Rolling, 36, the son of a retired police officer from Shreveport, LA, was just wrong inside, according to police and prosecutors. His murder spree (which Rolling claimed was guided by demons) began in August 1990, after he shot his own father, nearly killing him, during an argument. Sometime after that, he boarded a Greyhound bus heading to Gainesville, a college town of strip malls, leafy neighborhoods, and apartments filled with young women.
According to police, on Thursday, August 23, Rolling was buying a tent in Wal-Mart when apparently he spotted Sonja, a pretty 18-year-old, shopping with her roommate, Christina Powell (both were freshmen at the University of Florida). Later that night, Rolling walked through their front door and killed them. It was the women’s first night in their apartment.
Over the next three days, Rolling brutally murdered three more students. Police spent months building a case against another suspect. In the meantime, Rolling was arrested for a string of robberies and bragged to his cell mates about stabbing the students. Nearly a year later, Jim Larson eyed his sister’s killer in a Gainesville courtroom.
“He was a guy who looked like a banker when you dressed him up in a suit,” says Larson. “You kind of expect to see him looking like the maniac that he is. But you can’t tell just by looking at these people what they’re capable of, what evil is inside of them.”
Rolling was a part of Larson’s daily life for years, and, through him, a part of his wife’s. The couple had met while Carla was still in high school in Pompano Beach: they got engaged the year before she graduated from the University of Florida in Gainesville with degrees in architecture and building construction. Sonja would have been a bridesmaid at their wedding.
The Larsons were still newlyweds when Rolling went to trial in 1994. As the lurid details of the murders came to light–Rolling was so callous, he stopped to eat a banana in Sonja’s kitchen after stabbing her–Larson sat in a Florida courtroom, lost in anger and agony. One night, overcome by the horror of the crime, he curled up in a ball in his hotel room.
“I actually kind of lost it. I was crying, and I said, `This is where I want to stay,'” Larson remembers. “Carla was right there to help me.”
His wife dropped to the floor, cradled him in her arms, and tried to convince him that Rolling, who eventually received the death penalty, was just an aberration; that the world was still a place of love and beauty. Together, she told him, they would get through this.
Slowly, with the help of counseling, Larson began to recover. He and Carla went camping near Denver, Jessica was conceived on that trip. Nine months later, Larson says, pure joy returned to his life: “After Jessica’s birth, it was like I had even more love for Carla. It was just unbelievable.”
During Carla’s pregnancy, her employer gave her a choice of working on two projects: one in Orlando, the other in Miami. The Larsons, whose lives were dictated by Carla’s career, settled on Orlando because they thought it would be a safer place to live.
They bought a tiny mint-colored bungalow on a dead-end street in College Park, one of the city’s quietest neighborhoods, within walking distance of Jessica’s day-care center. They installed a security system in the house, and bought a Ford Explorer with air bags so Carla would be safe driving back and forth to work on Interstate 4. Larson got a job as a salesman at Home Depot.
They juggled work with diaper changes and midnight feedings, rejoiced in their daughter, and tried not to think about Rolling. Then, on June 10, 1997, Larson got a call at work Carla was missing.
A worried colleague told Larson that Carla, who was helping to build the Coronado Springs Resort at Walt Disney World, had gone out at lunchtime to buy some fruit and had never returned.
Larson knew that his wife was not the type to take the afternoon off without telling anyone. He also knew–with the certainty of a man who’d looked a murderer in the eye–that something was terribly wrong. Larson rushed to pick up Jessica at day care, then went home and called the police. For the next several hours, he sat next to the phone, hoping to hear that someone had only kidnapped Carla and that she would be able to come home.
But the call never came. The police and news media did.
As he waited, hoping the media coverage might help to locate his wife, Larson felt numb. “It was like I was so angry, I wasn’t angry,” he says. Some even suspected him of killing Carla. They were puzzled by his calmness and apparent lack of emotion. A local radio talkshow host accused him outright of murdering his wife–and stopped only when one of Larson’s friends, an attorney, called the station and threatened to sue.
“My neighbors were coming up to tell me what they were saying, but really that was the least of my problems,” Larson says now. The police had, in fact, given Larson a polygraph test soon after his wife’s disappearance, but quickly ruled him out as a suspect because he had been seen at work at the time Carla disappeared.
Larson was not surprised, two days later, when his wife’s body, stripped of her clothes and jewelry’, was found at the end of a remote path, half covered by leaves in a shallow grave.
Eventually, the numbness gave way to crushing sadness. “I miss everything about her,” Larson says of the woman he considered his soul mate. “She had this wax, about her, this little smile. Her thriftiness. She could go into the kitchen and make dinner out of nothing. There were so many things. I would have loved to see her grow old.”
Like Rolling, John Huggins was a career criminal with a history of violence. Yet few could have predicted that he was capable of cold-blooded killing. Several years before murdering Carla Larson, Huggins had renounced his life of crime and become religious, volunteering to go on at least five missionary trips to Haiti, where he built churches and schools. One minister called him a “gentle giant.”
In June 1997, Huggins took his estranged wife, Angel, and their children on vacation to Orlando, checking in at a motel across from the grocery store where Carla went to shop for fruit.
On June 10, in broad daylight, Huggins kidnapped Carla, stole her Ford Explorer–with Jessica’s car seat in the back–drove to a remote patch of woods, and killed her.
Angel Huggins eventually led police to her husband after telling them that he had disappeared the morning Carla vanished and had come back to the motel sometime later, sweaty and agitated. Police investigators found Carla’s jewelry, including her pear-shaped diamond engagement ring, in the home of Huggins’s mother-in-law.
Why Huggins murdered a young mother while on his family vacation confounded everyone involved–including police and prosecutors. “In my eighteen years as a prosecutor, I have never seen anything like it,” says Assistant State Attorney Jeff Ashton, who, with another attorney, secured Huggins’s conviction.
Two years later, what troubles Jim Larson the most is thinking about Carla’s last moments. “She sat right beside me during Rolling’s trial, and she knew how bad it could get. There was nothing worse than what happened in Gainesville. Even if it just crossed her mind for a second, that was too much.”
Huggins was sent to death row in February 1998, though Larson expects to endure years of appeals in the ease. “I kept saying that once the trial was over I’d do this or that,” Larson reflects. “That time is here, but it is hard to let go. It means, in some ways, saying goodbye to Carla again.”
Nonetheless, Larson says he is moving on with his life–which means concentrating on his future with his fiancee, Brenda Benson. The couple met two years ago when Benson, a bookkeeper, came to see Larson at work to offer a sympathetic ear. Her husband, Scott, an insurance agent, had died just a year earlier, when an oak tree fell on the truck he was driving.
Benson and Larson met in a park one day and talked for hours, sharing their stories and their feelings of hopelessness. Within a few months, they became inseparable-drawn together, they say, by an understanding of each other’s pain and an ability to accept each other’s enduring love for a lost spouse.
“We know what it is like when one of us is having a bad day or when we hear a song on the radio that reminds us of Scott or Carla,” Benson says, tears welling in her eyes. “It’s okay.”
Most days, Benson goes to Larson’s house straight from work. They walk hand in hand to pick up Jessica from day care and return home to eat dinner together. Although both received counseling after the death of their spouses, they have stopped now that life has fallen into a busy., more normal routine. Recently, they began going to a Presbyterian church so that Jessica can start learning about religion. For his part. Larson says that since Carla’s death, he has difficulty reconciling his beliefs with what happened.
Last spring, the couple held a garage sale and combined households. At first, it was hard, Larson says, to change the home he’d shared with Carla, to take down photos of her to make Benson feel more at home. But now he finds himself looking forward to completing his and Benson’s first project together–remodeling their kitchen. “It’s going to be beautiful,” he declares.
Most family members have been supportive of the relationship, including Carla’s parents, who visit their granddaughter often. Larson’s stepmother, Ada Larson-Vlodek, said she had reservations about the union in the beginning, but now sees it as a blessing. “I know God sent Brenda to take care of him,” Larson-Vlodek says. “She’s an angel.”
Watching the party of three gathered at a local restaurant, it seems clear that Benson, whom Jessica calls Mommy, is warming to her new role. “Come on, Jess,” Benson says, coaxing the toddler to eat a chopped hot dog. When that fails, she gets the waitress to bring crackers. Adding cheese from Jim’s hamburger, she makes a new, impromptu meal for the 3-year-old.
“I’ve learned a lot,” says Benson, 35, about taking care of Jessica. “She is something else. She’s a very special girl.” For now, Larson and Benson say, their hands are full with Jessica; but they don’t rule out the possibility of having children together someday. After they eat, Jessica and Benson hold hands as they walk down to a nearby dock to hunt for turtles. Larson looks on and smiles.
If there’s a bright side to all the sadness, he says, it’s that Jessica was too young to grieve over the loss of her mother. To her, Benson, who has long blond hair like Carla’s, is the same person who took her home from the hospital, breast-fed her, and quieted her latenight cries.
“Jessica never missed a beat,” Larson says. “Through her eyes, everything is the same as it always was.” Still, it is Jessica’s father-and not the kind woman she knows as her mother-who is now responsible for the smallest details of her daily care. He potty-trained her, stays home when she’s sick, and takes her to the doctor. And he reads her to sleep.
One day, Larson says, he will tell his daughter the story of how her aunt and mother died and that Benson isn’t her real mommy. One day.