Rolling was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. He had a difficult upbringing; his father, James Rolling, told him that he was unwanted from birth. Rolling's father was a Shreveport police officer who abused him, his mother, Claudia, and later, his brother, Kevin. In one incident, Danny's mother went to the hospital after claiming her husband tried to make her cut herself with a razor blade. Claudia made repeated attempts to leave her husband but always returned. In one example of the senior Rolling's sense of discipline, he pinned Danny to the ground, handcuffed him, then had police take his son away because he was embarrassed by him.
As a teenager and young adult, Rolling was arrested several times for robberies in Georgia and caught spying on a cheerleader getting dressed. As an adult, he had trouble trying to assimilate into society and hold down a steady job. At one point, he worked as a waiter at Pancho's restaurant in Shreveport, Louisiana. In May 1990, he attempted to kill his father during a family argument in which his father lost an eye and an ear.
In August 1990, Rolling murdered five students (one student from Santa Fe College and four from the University of Florida) during a burglary and robbery spree in Gainesville, Florida. He mutilated his victims' bodies, decapitating one. He then posed them, sometimes using mirrors.
In the early morning hours of August 24, 1990, Rolling broke into the apartment shared by 17-year-old university freshmen Sonja Larson and Christina Powell. Finding Powell asleep on the downstairs couch, he stood over her briefly but did not wake her up, choosing instead to explore the upstairs bedroom where he found Larson also asleep. Rolling murdered Larson, first taping her mouth shut to stifle her screams and then stabbing her to death. She died while trying to fend him off. Rolling then went back downstairs, taped Powell's mouth shut, bound her wrists together behind her back and threatened her with a knife as he cut her clothes off of her. He then raped her and forced her face-down onto the floor, where he stabbed her five times in the back. Rolling posed the bodies in sexually provocative positions and left the apartment.
A day later, on Saturday, August 25, 1990, Rolling broke into the apartment where 18-year-old Christa Hoyt lived by prying open a sliding glass door with a KA-BAR knife and a screwdriver, but she was not home. He waited in the living room for her to return. At 11 a.m. she entered the apartment and Rolling surprised her from behind, placing her in a choke-hold. After she had been subdued, he taped her mouth shut, bound her wrists together and led her into the bedroom, where he cut the clothes from her body and raped her. As in the Powell murder, he forced her face-down and stabbed her in the back, rupturing her heart. He then decapitated the body and posed her head on a shelf facing the corpse, adding to the shock of whoever discovered her.
By now the murders had attracted widespread media attention and many students were taking extra precautions, such as changing their daily routines and sleeping together in groups. Because the spree was happening so early in the fall semester, some students withdrew their enrollment or transferred to other schools. Twenty-three year old Tracy Paules was living with Manny Taboada, also 23, her burly 200 lb roommate. On Monday, August 27, 1990, Rolling broke into the apartment by prying open the sliding glass door with the same tools he had used previously. Rolling found Taboada asleep in one of the bedrooms and, after a struggle with the young man, eventually killed him.
Hearing the commotion, Paules went down the hall to Taboada's bedroom and saw Rolling. She attempted to barricade herself in her bedroom but Rolling broke through the door. Rolling taped her mouth and wrists, cut off her clothing and raped her, before turning her onto her belly and stabbing her three times in the back. Rolling posed Paules' body but left Taboada's in the same position in which he had died.
With the exception of Taboada, all of the victims were petite Caucasian brunettes with brown eyes.
Although law enforcement authorities initially had very few leads, police did identify two suspects; one a University of Florida student (Edward Humphrey) who had a history of mental illness and bore numerous scars on his face from a car accident, making him an ideal image when discussing news about the investigation. His photo was shown repeatedly by media outlets. Authorities publicly cleared Humphrey of all charges after Rolling's arrest.
Later in 1990, Rolling was arrested in Ocala on a burglary charge and, in the course of that investigation, his tools were matched to marks left at the Gainesville murder scenes. The small one-man camp where he was living was in a wooded area located near the apartment complexes frequented by students, including those of the victims. There, investigators discovered recordings Rolling had made of himself singing country songs that he had composed and audio diaries alluding to the crimes. He was charged with several counts of murder in November 1991.
The two men the police had earlier identified as suspects were released and cleared of any involvement in the crimes.
Rolling was finally brought to trial by Alachua County State Attorney Len Register nearly four years after the murders. Rolling claimed his motive was to become a "superstar" in much the same way as Ted Bundy. In 1994, before his trial could get underway, Rolling unexpectedly pled guilty to all charges. Subsequently, State Attorney Rod Smith presented the penalty phase of the prosecution. Rolling was sentenced to the death penalty on each count. During his trial, Court TV conducted an interview with his mother from her home. During the recording, his father could be heard shouting off-camera.
Rolling was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder and paraphilia.
After Rolling was arrested, police in Louisiana alerted the authorities in Florida to an unsolved triple murder in Shreveport on November 4, 1989. Detectives noted that there were similarities between the Gainesville murders and those of 55-year-old William Grissom, his 24-year-old daughter Julie, and eight-year-old grandson Sean. The family had been attacked in their home as they were preparing for dinner. Afterwards, Julie Grissom's body had been mutilated, cleaned, and posed.
Although Rolling never officially confessed to investigators handling the Grissom case, he did write about the murders using information that only the killer would know. Shreveport police obtained an open arrest warrant in 1994 but Rolling was never extradited to Louisiana to stand trial for the killings.
Rolling was executed by lethal injection at Florida State Prison on October 25, 2006, after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a last-ditch appeal. He was pronounced dead at 6:13 p.m EDT. Rolling sang a gospel hymn, but made no statement immediately prior to his Execution, which was witnessed by many of his victims' relatives. In a written statement made shortly before his execution, Rolling confessed to the murders of the Grissom family in Shreveport.
Rolling has been the subject of several written works. His murders inspired screenwriter Kevin Williamson to pen the script of the popular 1996 slasher film Scream. Sondra London collaborated with him on The Making of a Serial Killer: The True Story of the Gainesville Murders In the Killer's Own Words. He is the subject of the book Beyond Murder by John Philpin and John Donnelly. Author Kevin Given has admitted that he based the serial killer David Reynolds from his novel "Foul Blood" on Rolling. A 2007 independent feature film entitled The Gainesville Ripper was shot in the Gainesville and Jacksonville areas, based on the accounts of the killings. In the film, Rolling is portrayed by Zachary Memos. Rolling was also the subject of an episode of Body of Evidence: From the Case Files of Dayle Hinman, a Court TV show (transmitted as Crime Scene USA: Body of Evidence on Discovery Channel in the UK) and an episode of Forensic Factor titled "Killing Spree", which originally aired on Discovery Channel Canada and was rebroadcast in America on the Science Channel. Rolling was also the subject of a 2010 episode of Cold Blood, and was briefly mentioned in a 2012 episode of "Motives and Murders" entitled "Not Again" and in a 2015 episode of "Nightmare Next Door" entitled "Daylight Abduction" where murder victim Sonja Larson's brother Jim Larson experienced the rape and murder of his wife Carla Larson on the Investigation Discovery channel. The book "Drifter" is also based on the murders based in Gainesville during the 1990's.
While on death row at Florida State Prison, Rolling wrote songs and poems and drew pictures. His works have been referred to as an example of "murderabilia".