Nov. 19, 2010
Written with Randy Ludlow and Elizabeth Gibson
A procession of three white hearses traversed rural roads to a wildlife area yesterday, signaling a somber and startling end to a desperate search that had consumed Knox County for a week.
Encased in garbage bags, the bodies of a mother, her 11-year-old son and a family friend were pulled from the bottom of a hollow tree in a forested section of the Kokosing Lake Wildlife Area north of Fredericktown.
Matthew J. Hoffman, an out-of-work tree trimmer described as an odd loner, is suspected of killing Tina Herrmann, 32; her son, Kody Maynard; and family friend Stephanie Sprang, 41, a mother of three.
The 30-year-old Hoffman has not been charged in the deaths.
He has, however, been charged with kidnapping the sole survivor snatched from Herrmann’s bloodied Apple Valley-area home on Nov. 10, more than 12 miles from where the bodies were recovered.
Thirteen-year-old Sarah Maynard, Tina’s daughter, was found bound and gagged, but alive, in the basement of Hoffman’s home when police stormed the Columbus Road residence outside Mount Vernon on Sunday.
Hoffman told his attorneys early yesterday where the bodies were hidden, leading investigators to search the out-of-the-way wildlife refuge miles from where authorities and hundreds of volunteers had concentrated their searches.
The tree containing the remains was located about 2:30 p.m., said Sheriff David Barber. He conceded that the bodies likely would not have been found without Hoffman’s directions. Authorities wouldn’t describe yesterday how the three were killed, saying autopsies would be conducted by the Licking County coroner’s office.
Though Barber earlier had cautioned against harboring hopes that the missing were alive, more than 300 volunteers still fanned out yesterday morning, many increasingly realizing that they were looking for bodies rather than miracles.
The blue-collar workers and farmers of Knox County, seldom visited by violent crime, were heartfelt in their anguish, horrified by headlines that struck them as the stuff of the big city, not modest Mount Vernon and its surrounding countryside.
Last night, hundreds gathered at Apple Valley Lake, setting the water sparkling with floating candles that symbolized a community in pain but strong in its solidarity.
Earlier yesterday, the citizen searchers, wearing purple ribbons, combed woods and fields near Apple Valley and Gambier, near where Herrmann’s pickup truck had been found abandoned, and Hoffman had been spotted, after the four had vanished.
After the bodies were located, Chris Thompson, Sprang’s uncle, thanked the searchers for their efforts and then asked for their prayers.
“We’re going to need time to deal with this,” he said.
Knox County Prosecutor John Thatcher did not address whether Hoffman had confessed to the slayings, saying he would seek additional charges in coming weeks. Hoffman could face death-penalty charges, but it is possible that his delivery of the bodies was part of a deal to spare him lethal injection.
Hoffman, who spent six years in a Colorado prison for setting a fire that caused more than $2 million in damage to a condominium complex there, is being held in jail unless he can come up with a
$1 million cash-only bond. He’s under a suicide watch after threatening to hurt himself.
Hoffman’s public defender, Bruce Malek, declined to comment.
Barber said that investigators think Hoffman acted alone and have no other suspects in a case that made national headlines. Investigators have hinted that Hoffman might have stalked Sarah and her family. His mother and stepfather lived near the Herrmann home.
A team of deputies from three county sheriff’s offices, state investigators and others had worked the case nonstop since Herrmann’s boss at the Dairy Queen in Mount Vernon discovered blood in her employee’s home on Nov. 11, after Herrmann hadn’t shown up for work.
“I have never experienced a case this big, this tragic,” Barber said yesterday. He praised all the law-enforcement assistance that rallied to the aid of his office.
A Walmart receipt listing Hoffman’s purchase of trash bags, a tarp and other items led to his arrest and the discovery that he was holding Sarah Maynard captive. Authorities have not said where the receipt was found.
Some described Hoffman as an experienced outdoorsman and camper who was familiar with many remote spots in Knox County. The wilderness area where the bodies were found features a 160-acre lake amid its 1,323 acres.
He had his own tree-climbing gear that he used before losing a part-time tree-trimming job last month, about the same time his ex-girlfriend accused him of assault.
Sarah and Kody Maynard were students at East Knox Middle School. Sprang, a friend of their mother’s, was the mother of two sons, ages 20 and 9, and a 17-year-old daughter.
Friends said they’ll remember Sprang and Herrmann as two independent, hard-working mothers who took a cleaning job at a timeshare community to support their children. The duo met on the job at the Apple Valley Resort and became inseparable.
On Tuesday, before the bodies were found, Herrmann’s former boyfriend of six years, Greg Borders, was at the King Beach Drive home he had still shared with her and her two children. He was going through their belongings.
Standing on the front porch, he remembered summers when the couple and the kids would spend all day in the yard, playing tag and basketball during the day and telling ghost stories around a fire at night. With little money for trips or presents, they made the most of at-home family time, Borders said.
“The best times for us were when she got off work and we’d cuddle on the couch, watch our recorded shows and talk about our day, discuss our lives together,” he said. “Be goofballs, pretty much.”
Kody was the best pitcher on his Howard youth-league team, Borders said. And Sarah is always the inquisitive one, he said. “Sarah likes to ask questions constantly,” Borders said. “You’d watch TV with her and she’d be asking you about everything.”
When Borders first walked back into the house after authorities were done there, he was numb.
“Once it hit me, I had to get out of the house,” he said. When he finally walked back in, he became sick. “I’ll never go back to that house.”
Borders was too distraught to talk further yesterday, said his uncle, Joe Pejsa, with whom Borders has been staying. The discovery of the bodies was a relief, yet also devastating because it confirmed the loss of Herrmann and Kody, he said.
Pejsa said that Herrmann was compassionate and caring.
“She would give you the shirt off her back,” Pejsa said. “Those kids came before anyone else.”
A small memorial was created around a tree in the side yard of the King Beach Drive home yesterday. Three purple, star-shaped balloons blew in the wind above artificial flowers and electric candles. Someone also left a card addressed to “Sarah and families,” along with 11 pink roses and a single white one.
Jan Edgar, a friend and former boss of Sprang’s, said Sprang always was smiling, a big kid at heart. She loved shoes, the Tinkerbell character of Disney lore, golf and, most of all, her children.
Sprang worked for Edgar at Tomahawk Hollow Golf Club for 21/2 years. She said her fondness for golf stemmed from family tradition in which she took her father and sons on a golf outing every Father’s Day.
“If you got to know her, you got to love her,” she said.
Sheriff Barber praised Sarah Maynard as the “epitome of bravery” for surviving her ordeal in Hammond’s basement.
Sarah has been staying with her father, Larry Maynard, at his southern Franklin County home since Monday.
“When she’s ready to face the world again, she’ll have friends,” said Sherry Chadwell, who lives across the street.
When Sarah first arrived at her dad’s, “she smiled and waved. It brought tears to my eyes,” said another neighbor who didn’t want to be named. His daughter, 11, has played with Sarah on past visits.
Neighbors have brought pizza and chicken dinners for the family. American flags have been displayed to show support.
Last night, a sign on the home cautioned visitors to leave them alone: “We are not ready to talk at this time.”
Some of the 12,000 people following a Facebook page dedicated to the four flooded it last night with prayers and expressions of sympathy.
“My heart is broken,” wrote one mourner.
That sentiment drove a gathering last night at Apple Valley Lake, not far from the Herrmann home, where hundreds of mourners held candles, sang and clutched one another in the cold.
Members of the Herrmann and Sprang families approached the water first, shoulder-to-shoulder, arm-in-arm, softly floating their candles on the surface of the lake.
After those gathered had done the same, the water near the shoreline glistened with dots of flickering flames.
The Rev. Lee Cubie of the Howard United Methodist Church addressed the crowd: “We’re here tonight to show that we can raise a light in this world that is greater than any darkness or any gloom that may overcome us.”
Mothers held their children a little tighter last night, including Persophone Gilmore, whose daughter Savannah had asked to come to the vigil. Savannah, 11, was in the same class as Kody. “Lots of hugs,” she said.
Julie Arthur, who attended the vigil with her 16-year-old daughter, Paige, said they wanted to acknowledge the families of the dead.
“This is Knox County,” Arthur said. “We support each other. It doesn’t matter if you knew them. They were mothers. They were children.”
Dispatch reporter Dean Narciso and correspondent Adam Taylor contributed to this story.