A caption on a photograph of convicted killer Gerard John Schaefer in Sunday's Style section misstated his criminal background. Schaefer was convicted of the murders of two young women and of assault in another case, but he was not charged with rape. (Published 2/15/94)

GAINESVILLE, FLA. -- "Like many women," says Sondra London, "I've had a weakness for good-for-nothing men." Her weakness at this moment is for 39-year-old Danny Rolling, who prosecutors say is the Gainesville Slasher, the man who in August 1991 killed five students in this college town, mutilating their bodies and leaving one woman's head on a shelf.

Sondra London is engaged to this man. He goes on trial Tuesday. She's a 46-year-old freelance journalist who specializes in stories about serial killers. She's not stupid: She scored 1245 on her SAT, has a college degree in literature, and writes skillfully even if her subjects tend to be repellent. She has raised a daughter. She has worked for "A Current Affair," and has published and edited several books, including "Knockin' on Joe," in which she describes the moment when she and Danny Rolling, after much correspondence, finally laid eyes on one another through a glass partition at the Florida State Prison:

"I approached my meeting with Danny thinking I was prepared for anything. But there was one thing I was not prepared for. I had no idea what a fine-looking man he is today. Instead of the broken and dejected loser I'd seen on TV ... standing before my hungry eyes was one gorgeous hunk of man.

"I'm sorry, folks, but it's the truth. My Maximum Man stands an imposing 6 2" with muscles out to here. His color is bright, his youthful skin is glowing, his hazel eyes are clear ... and so is his head. The news footage publicized the courtroom image of him stumbling about awkwardly, stupefied by Thorazine and seeming lost in his own body. But now my 'dangerous pussycat' strides across the floor with a languid power and instinctive grace that makes me highly aware that I am a woman, and this is a man."

A woman. A man. If we are seeking the perfect individuals to represent these roles -- if we are looking for the perfect Valentine's Day story -- we might not immediately select Sondra London and Danny Rolling. Let's just say it right up front: At first glance, her actions seem like those of a crazy person. And she's the better half of the couple. At least she's not evil, which cannot be confidently said of her fiance. He, according to the state of Florida, is a homicidal maniac.

The sensible members of society would prefer to look at these people and declare them a freak show. Their emotions do not register as legitimate: We want to say this is not love. Love is supposed to be grander, cleaner, more sensible than whatever this thing is that has drawn the journalist and the alleged murderer together.

But there is a scarier possibility: What if this is love after all? Like many women I've had a weakness for good-for-nothing men. Disney teaches little girls that within that Beast there is trapped a prince. Aladdin may look like a street rat but he's an incipient prince as well, a "diamond in the rough." Lady loves the Tramp because even though he looks like a low-class womanizing lout he's really got a heart of gold. The lesson is that the male is better than he seems at first glance, and Sondra London seems to have absorbed that message. She believes that there is something in Danny Rolling worth loving.

From the Florida State Prison in Starke, Danny Rolling (pronounced Role-ing) has written to The Washington Post, a letter filled with punctuational enthusiasms:

"My relationship with Sondra runs as deep as the Amazon River ... and just as wild! She is an extremely exciting woman! My feelings for her ... are my feelings. Just the mention of her name sends my heart racing to her! She is without a doubt ... my soulmate and I thank God above for sending her my way."

These people may inhabit a tabloid world. But does that make their experience fake? The great sin of the tabloids is not falsification (as the mainstream press likes to pretend) but rather vulgarization. The tabloid press wallows in the worst of us.

"Danny says I'm bizarre," London laughs. "Danny says I'm bizarre! I got a good laugh out of that one. I said, 'You think I'm bizarre?' "

Another word for Sondra London and Danny Rolling might be "exaggerated." In their extremism they magnify the quirks of everyday romance. Take the old-fashioned caricature of femininity and masculinity -- all that female emotionalism and male brutality -- and elaborate on it, multiply it by factors of two and three, throw in some ugly little twists and knurls. Even the unspeakable crimes of which Rolling is accused are at some level an extension and exaggeration of the predatory sexuality and dehumanizing violence found all too commonly among the male of the species.

They've been sending love letters back and forth for more than a year, and even the skeptic would have to admit that it looks like more than a stunt. Theirs is a romance characterized in part by flattery, jealousy, self-delusion, recrimination and many other things that fall under the general label of need -- and this would be a happier world if the same could not be easily said of many a love affair.

Even the most damning possible interpretation of their relationship -- that it's basically just a business deal, a form of mutual exploitation -- surely resonates within the homes of many American families.

Sondra London and Danny Rolling appear to be truly in love. In the worst way.

Sondra London positions herself in the meager breeze of an old electric fan. She has granted an interview in the sweltering office of a friend. She has an eager smile, and wears a lot of makeup. She doesn't want her picture taken because she claims to have a blemish on her eye; there's no sign of it.

"Would you like to look at some art? Let's have some fun," she says, and opens up a steel briefcase. Inside is artwork by her boyfriend. He's very creative, she thinks. He writes songs. She used to be in a band herself.

"We're both Geminis," she says, "and I found someone I could relate to in the creative sphere."

The first drawing shows a mermaid, her breasts covered by clamshells.

"Me," she says proudly.

But the next drawing is not so pretty: It's a young woman with long red nails covering her mouth in primal fear. In her eyes is the reflection of what she sees: a death's-head.

London doesn't say much about that one.

Next is a self-portrait: a man emerging from a pool of skulls. Skulls are a theme in Rolling's artwork, along with buxom young women wearing little clothing.

"You see a man in this portrait who is incredibly brave to face himself," London says. "And that's part of the reason why I love him."

There's another reason she loves him: He says nice things. He tells her she is beautiful. His letters are laced with flattery. He writes things like, "Ms. London, your talents as a WRITER brings a breath of FRESH AIR to a polluted and stale kraft."

Sondra London has a way of thinking about the difference between normal people and serial killers. Normal people, she says, have their good and bad parts all mixed together. They're like globes filled with liquid, the contents sloshing around. But serial killers are like crystals. They have different facets that are distinct from one another, compartmentalized, with one facet obscuring another. For every facet that you see, there is an equal and opposite facet somewhere else.

In fact, the serial killer can be pleasant, friendly, genuinely nice, even though at some other point he might try to cut your heart out or rape your corpse or some other unbelievably sick deed. A killer becomes a serial killer precisely because his innocuous appearance helps him get away with murder. His fatal flaws -- the inability to empathize, the explosive rage, the perverted sexuality -- don't show. He seems like a regular guy.

And he says nice things.

The killer targeted young, petite, dark-haired women. Like Ted Bundy, he knew where to find them: a college town. Classes at the University of Florida were about to begin that August night when the first bodies were found: Sonja Larson, 18, and Christina Powell, 17. Police knew instantly they were dealing with a psychopath. The bodies were ripped up.

About eight hours later, as the shock of the double murder was being absorbed by the Gainesville community, police found another corpse, that of Christa Hoyt, 18. She'd been decapitated and her breasts mutilated. The city went into a kind of primal panic. It was as though, two years after his execution just up the road, Bundy had come back from the dead. Then, the next day, police found two more victims, Tracy Paules and Manuel Taboada, both 23, both stabbed to death. Taboada had apparently surprised the killer during his attack on Paules.

Not for a couple of weeks was Danny Harold Rolling arrested, and then for armed robbery; he was not linked to the murders for months. The state's case is built in part on DNA testing. There was semen found at one of the Gainesville crime scenes.

When his name first surfaced, the citizens of Gainesville were skeptical that he'd committed the crime. People desperately want to think that there is something exceptional about sadistic murder, that it takes a special kind of fiend, an evil genius, a Hannibal Lecter sort of figure, surely someone more impressive than this Rolling fellow.

Rolling was already in jail for a series of two-bit holdups, and looked more like a robber than a killer. There was no doubt he had a troubled personal history; he was wanted in Louisiana for the shooting of his father, a Shreveport police officer. The elder Rolling didn't die but has not been in contact with his son since. Mom did send a Christmas card in December.

London is an important, if in some people's eyes somewhat comic, figure in the upcoming trial. Rolling has pleaded innocent. Their love letters have been subpoenaed by the state and she's expected to testify. One pretrial issue has been the admissibility of a confession Rolling is alleged to have made to a fellow inmate last February; London says Rolling had hoped that by cooperating with the state he could win contact visits with her.

London and Rolling have never touched. They're both bitter about it. Rolling said in the letter to The Post: "We are desperately reaching for each other daily across miles of red tape cast before us by faceless foes. ... We are denied even the simplest of human rights. To just hold hands and speak to each other during a simple visit."

But London also can look at the bright side: "A prison relationship is the ultimate in safe sex. You don't get AIDS, you don't get beat up, you don't have to wash his dirty drawers, you don't have to watch football on TV."

Her tone makes it clear this is not entirely a joke. She doesn't want to be in a relationship where she's taken advantage of by some man. She's had bad luck with men. It may be true that a relationship with a convict is unwise but so is a relationship with a lot of men who have never been convicted of anything. London has had worse luck with men outside prison than on the inside. She's been dumped a lot and done some dumping herself. She got married and divorced at a young age, then married a Trinidadian reggae singer, a "sex god," as she puts it, but he left her stuck with their baby daughter while he played music. "He was beautiful and very very sexy. And he wasn't worth a damn." After seven years they divorced, and she raised the daughter, who is now off at school.

And so this guy Danny Rolling doesn't look so bad. He flatters her. Even so, she can't imagine living with Rolling in a house in the suburbs or whatever. The way he treated his wife back when he was married -- intolerable. He'd take off for the whole weekend, hunting. Rolling once left his wife for six months.

"This is the kind of bull---- I would not put up with from a man," she says. "By God your ass better stay home."

And Danny stays home. On Q Wing of the Florida State Prison. His imprisonment (he's serving five life sentences for armed robbery pending the murder trial) gives London a certain power and control that would be lacking in a relationship with a free man.

If anything, the cell walls heighten the emotional intensity of the liaison. Their physical separation, and society's rejection of their love, only seems to heighten their passion and desire. Romance is like that; it's all the more powerful when one person is up on the balcony while the other is stuck down in the garden and all the relatives say this love cannot be. Because they cannot be together, their love is forced to remain entirely romantic, a conceptual, gooey, ethereal love that razor wire cannot contain.

"With a prison relationship, it's more a relationship with an abstract vision of the person," says London. But that's not so abnormal, she contends.

"We don't really know anyone, and when we love someone we love our image of them."

The immediate story of London and Rolling suggests a more common phenomenon that might be called Men Who Butcher Women and the Women Who Love Them. This is a staple of morning talk shows, a perfect mixture of love and violence. The romanticization of serial killers has also taken on a commercial bent. No longer are there just some scattered women who proclaim their love for death row monsters; now these killers have agents, publishers, clients. Thanks to the mass media, mass murderers have become underground heroes. {See accompanying story.}

London insists she's not one of those death row groupies. London's interest in Rolling began, she says, as a purely professional matter. She had been publishing the writings of convicts and notorious killers. Rolling contacted her.

"Well ... Let's get the ball rolling. So to speak," he wrote in that first letter. "I'm an artist and writter and songwritter. How would you like to hear some of my songs?"

She was intrigued. Gradually she decided to focus her energies on telling Rolling's story. She's putting together a collection of Rolling's writings, and simultaneously she's writing a book about him.

Their business deal raises the obvious question: Is this love a sham? Is this literally a made-for-TV relationship? Isn't there some exploitation going on here?

Yes, says London. She sings a song lyric: I was usin' her and she was usin' me. She doesn't remember what song that was (Bob Seger's "Night Moves") but she relates to the idea.

"I could have exploited him without pretending to love him. It wasn't necessary to get the story. I already had the story. Once it happened I was only honest enough to admit it."

London is probably her own best analyst. She's perfectly capable of discussing the absurdities of her emotional life. You might say her brain is a keen observer of her heart.

But there is no question which, for her, is the more powerful organ.

Two prisons squat in a vast pasture a few miles north of Starke, Fla. They are separated by something called the New River, which is quite simply a ditch. The prison to the east is Florida State Prison, the home of Danny Rolling.

The buildings are three stories high, blandly rectangular, painted a washed-out green. The complex is surrounded by parallel fences with an intervening moat that is stuffed inch by lethal inch with baled-up razor wire.

For the visitor what comes as a shock is not the sterile interior or the disinfectant smell or even the redundancy of iron gates electronically controlled by guards sealed in a booth, but rather that even in the depths of this prison there are men in chains. Outside the visiting room is a cage-like structure where two men sit silently, shackled hand and foot.

Rolling is not giving interviews pending his trial, but now coming into the interview room is the next best thing: Gerard John Schaefer,, notorious killer, writer, and former boyfriend of Sondra London.

Schaefer was London's conduit to the world of killers. She had been working as a technical writer, dealing mostly with computer manuals, when in January 1989 she read Ann Rule's book "The Stranger Beside Me," about Rule's friendship with the young Ted Bundy. London had an inspiration. She could write the same thing! Back in high school she had dated Gerard John Schaefer!

London and Schaefer went out for a year and broke up. A few years later, Schaefer became notorious. In 1972, as a deputy sheriff, he picked up two teenage girls, took them to the woods, handcuffed them, tied them to a tree and threatened them with various sexual tortures. They escaped. Schaefer pleaded guilty to assault, and was sentenced to six months in jail. Then bodies started turning up, including the mutilated remains of Susan Place, 17, and Georgia Jessup, 16. Schaefer was identified as the last person seen with Place and was convicted of both murders. He claims he was framed. Authorities say they also found, in Schaefer's mother's house, the personal effects of other young women who were missing or dead; this included two gold teeth. Schaefer has never been charged with any of the other murders, and denies being a serial killer.

The worst indictment of Schaefer is probably contained within his own writings. He is the author of pornographic stories that graphically describe sadistic murder ("The coppery smell of whoreblood had me sweating and my nerves on fire. The blonde bitch groaned... .").

And here he is: a genial-looking fellow with a friendly handshake. Looks like the guy who runs the produce department at the grocery store.

"People who know me will tell you I'm a very nice person," Schaefer says. "Polite and articulate. I religiously answer my fan mail."

He and Sondra London are no longer polite to one another. They had a terrible falling-out after London arranged for Schaefer to grant an interview to "A Current Affair" for a segment in which he was called a "diseased specimen" and a "monster."

So the affable Schaefer is now London's enemy. In a letter he threatened to have Satanists pick up London's teenage daughter.

"Sondra," he wrote, "if you so much as ever mention my name to anyone in any manner whatsoever, I'm going to use every shred of influence at my command to have your kid picked up. She's just right for these people."

Asked why a guy who claims he's nice would make such a threat, he says with a smile, "I was just mad at her."

It is hard to imagine that a man who lives on Q Wing of Florida State Prison, who often is shackled, and who is surrounded at all times by criminals and guards, could possibly do anything that would make his girlfriend jealous. But it has happened. A prison romance follows the same rules as a romance in the free world: Fidelity is a matter of emotion, not just sex.

In the fall, Rolling admitted to London that he had been corresponding with several other women. She freaked. She was consumed with jealousy. Stop immediately, she commanded him. He agreed. In a letter dated Nov. 11 he wrote:

"No one out there hears from me. Unless my babydoll says "Sickem Boy" ... You see ... my woman keeps a tight leash on her man ... Hey! I don't mind ... cause, when she plays with me ... her gentle hand tames the beast. I'm Sondra London's man ... And Proud To Be So." He ended the letter, "Chin up Honey ... ."

London has a simple description of the other women who wrote to Rolling.

"They're whores," she says.

She refers to these other women generically as "Debbies," in honor of one woman named Debbie who carried on a correspondence with Rolling. She won't reveal this Debbie's full name. "Debbie's not going to get any coverage from me. Debbie can get her own coverage."

What does this Debbie do?

"She's a whore."

Literally?

"She writes to my man. She's a whore!"

Much later in a phone interview she says she knows this outburst against Rolling's other female correspondents reveals an emotionalism that does not reflect well on her.

"That would be an example of perhaps when my emotions have gotten the better of me. In terms of, I am jealous," she said.

"I wish I was above that."

Often she sounds angry. But sometimes she just sounds sad.

She knows people think she's a joke. An airhead. A death row groupie. A fringe journalist who will do anything for a buck.

Love takes a person to such strange and unexpected places. How'd she end up here? In love with a man whom the state of Florida wants to electrocute?

The best-case scenario for Rolling is that he spends the rest of his life behind bars -- he's already serving those life sentences for robbery. London doesn't think he'll beat these murder charges. The most positive public statement she will make on his behalf is "innocent until proven guilty."

"It's like you have a child that's terminally ill," says London. "That love has a special quality that's much more intense and sweet than the everyday love that people have for everyday kids."

So she will do what she can. Help him. Be with him. Touch him if possible. Find the real Danny lost inside that twisted brain.

"I can help him come out and express himself," she says. Then she adds, softly, "I cannot help him or change him to not have a problem with violence, impulsive violence."

At her lowest she sounds as though her great romance hasn't turned out the way she had hoped. "My love for Danny is like a real beautiful butterfly that I have managed to add to my collection. I have this beautiful butterfly and everyone wants to see it. And they're all passing it back and forth and the wings get battered and broken. ... And it kind of starts looking all battered and tattered. To me."

She has an engagement ring that Danny Rolling designed. She traded some of Rolling's artwork to a jeweler for it. It features five stones, a diamond and four rubies. London hints that the design is not by accident, but she won't explain. The viewer can only speculate.

Four and one ...

Four and one ...

The Gainesville murders?

Four women and one man.

In his love poems and stories Danny Rolling is slowly revealing himself to Sondra London. There's one story called "A Lover's Fantasy" that includes this passage:

We find impressions in the sand where we lay before and make love there, as the sun turns a deep orange on the horizon. It's good ... so good ... we both tumble over the edge and shudder... . exploding into each other's needing arms....ahhh...yeah...We lay there until the last streaks of orange, pink, and purple fade into the reaching night.

The moon rises its silver shimmering head over the palms ... a full moon. Its luminous glow has a strange pull on me. I feel something happening inside my mind ... my soul ... a great turmoil begins ... and before your terrified eyes ... I change into a hideous 9-foot WEREWOLF!

'I ... OOOH! I ... OOOH!' (Snarl! Snap! Snap!)

Ha-ha! Tee-hee! Just kidding! ...