GAINESVILLE, FLA., AUG. 30 -- At Williamsburg Village Apartments, nervous residents called police today when they heard glass breaking. At least eight officers arrived, weapons drawn, and located the source of the disturbance: a lone maintenance man who had inadvertently shattered a pane of glass.
Such is the state of nerves in this normally tranquil university town that the slightest abnormality or new piece of information transfixes people. Many of the 34,000 University of Florida students, three-quarters of whom live off-campus, have departed for an early Labor Day weekend. Those who remain are calmly going about their lives, but they are armed, often with whistles and stun guns.
University officials report "a kind of disturbed calm" as students and faculty await news of an arrest or another slaying. Five college students have been found murdered in their off-campus apartments, at least three of their bodies mutilated, since last weekend in what police have called the work of a serial killer.
"Until he's caught, people are not going to feel secure," said Linda Gray, a university spokeswoman.
Police have been tight-lipped about details of the murders that dominate virtually every conversation here. Officially, they have neither confirmed nor denied published reports that the victims were mutilated with a sharp implement and that body parts were missing.
But they admitted that, although they are expanding their search and interviewing potential suspects, they are "not in an arrest mode," as Lt. Spencer Mann, spokesman for the Alachua County Sheriff's Department, put it. "We don't have a hot suspect," he said. "We have a suspect pool."
The victims are Manuel Taboada, 23; Tracy Paules, 23; Christa L. Hoyt, 18; Sonja Larsen, 17, and Christina Powell, 17. Larsen was buried today in her hometown of Pompano Beach.
Police said the county medical examiner's office has been working around the clock on autopsy reports. The deaths of a couple in their 40s found 15 miles away in Melrose late Wednesday are not connected to the murders here, they said.
Police said they have received as many as 1,500 tips by telephone and in writing from private individuals, and a task force has extended its investigation to other areas of the state.
"He might be as normal as you and I," said police spokeswoman Sadie Darnell, "except he chooses to murder people."
In the absence of new horrors, the community seemed to return to an uneasy normalcy today. Long-distance phone lines cleared. The university band rehearsed for the home football opener against Oklahoma State Sept. 8, and students played tennis and basketball outdoors.
Entrepreneurs rented a hotel room and sold vials of tear gas for $12.95. A planned pep rally for new students was cancelled, and police reported that officers responding to routine calls often were greeted by nervous residents "holding baseball bats, bottles, bricks and knives."
In a community where the university is the main employer, town and gown are irrevocably meshed. Longtime residents said the slayings have galvanized the community around its university core like no other event. Several sought to put the best possible face on events.
"This is one aberration in the history of the city," said Mayor Courtland A. Collier, who likes to note that Gainesville was selected recently as the 13th most livable city in the country by a national magazine. "It could happen in any city."
H.G. Davis, a retired journalism professor and editorial writer for the Gainesville Sun, said the town and state have such itinerant populations that, in several years, few will remember this year's events.
Davis also said the itinerant nature of many local residents assures that Gainesville's laid-back reputation will not be tarnished for long. "It's hard to keep a memory in Florida," he said, noting that many residents migrate from elsewhere.
"There is this thing about young people dying," he added. "You always feel young people have promise."
Police said they hope to curb a flourishing rumor mill that they said is hindering the investigation.
With a touch of exasperation, Darnell shoots down each rumor at twice-daily briefings, including one, she said, that the murders had "any connection to the movie 'The Exorcist III.' "