MOUNT VERNON, Ohio — An unemployed tree-trimmer arrested after a teenage girl was found bound and gagged in his basement pointed the way Thursday to the bodies of her brother, mother and another woman, stuffed into garbage bags and hidden in a hollow tree, authorities said.
The three victims and the rescued 13-year-old disappeared more than a week ago from a blood-spattered home. Authorities said all three were killed there, though they did not say how, and that the tree-trimmer, Matthew Hoffman, gave investigators information through his attorneys that led them to the bodies in woods in central Ohio.
“The tragedy today is just devastating,” said Knox County prosecutor John Thatcher.
Knox County Sheriff David Barber said part of the tree had to be cut away to remove the remains.
Hoffman, an ex-convict who spent six years in a Colorado prison on arson committed in Steamboat Springs and other charges, remained jailed on charges of kidnapping the girl, Sarah Maynard, and is the only suspect in the killings, Barber said.
The 30-year-old has appeared in court but has not entered a plea. Knox County Public Defender Bruce Malek, who is representing Hoffman, said Thursday that he could not comment.
Sarah, her mother, Tina Herrmann, her 11-year-old brother, Kody Maynard, and family friend Stephanie Sprang were reported missing after Herrmann failed to show up for work Nov. 10.
A day later, a deputy found what authorities called an unusual amount of blood inside her home, and her pickup truck was found near the campus of Kenyon College. Hoffman was questioned that same day — Barber said police found him sitting in his car near a bike trail near where the pickup was found.
A SWAT team found Sarah during the weekend in the basement of Hoffman’s home in Mount Vernon, about 40 miles northeast of Columbus. Investigators would not discuss details of her ordeal but have said she is doing well, considering the circumstances.
“We’re inspired by Sarah’s bravery,” Barber said. He said Sarah was home at the time of the killings but added, “What she saw, I can’t speak to that.”
A day after finding Sarah, authorities conceded that the others likely were dead. Still, volunteers and authorities on the ground and in the air continued to search for Kody, Herrmann, 32, and Sprang, 41.
The remains were found in a wildlife preserve in Fredericktown, about 15 miles from Hoffman’s home and about 20 miles from the Herrmann home.
Time in Steamboat
Hoffman lived in Steamboat Springs in 2000 when he had his first major arrest. In August 2000, Hoffman burglarized a townhome in The Ridge subdivision and then used 10 gallons of gasoline to start a fire to destroy the evidence. Sixteen people were evacuated from 10 affected townhomes, but nobody was hurt.
Steamboat Springs Police Department Detectives Captain Bob DelValle said he remembers the case because Hoffman’s reaction was unusual considering the severity of the crime.
Hoffman also was suspected in the theft of two “Welcome to Steamboat” signs, but he moved back to Ohio after the fire before he was arrested in either crime.
DelValle said he called Hoffman and told him he needed to return to Steamboat to deal with the theft of the signs. While he was in town, DelValle took the opportunity to question him about the fires.
Police suspected Hoffman after realizing he had access to the homes while he was working for Scott Barnes Plumbing. Reached by phone by the Steamboat Pilot & Today, Barnes said it was “kind of water gone under the bridge” and declined to comment further.
He told The Associated Press earlier this week that Hoffman “was a follower, and did not have a strong personality. For a 20-year-old that’s unusual, especially to an employer who hires a lot of kids.”
Hoffman worked for Barnes for about three months, Barnes told the AP, and had stopped showing up for work about a week or two before the fire.
“I was disappointed when he took that route,” Barnes said.
In questioning by DelValle, Hoffman denied setting the fire for a short time, but he eventually admitted the theft, the burglary and the fires.
He said it didn’t seem that Hoffman realized the scope of the crime at first.
“At the time, I don’t think he really considered the risk he put people at,” DelValle said. “He was just burning this place to cover up his fingerprints.”
DelValle said one gallon of gasoline would have been enough to start a fire, but with the 10 gallons Hoffman used it was “explosive” because of the fumes created by that much fuel.
“It fell outside the norm that we see with burglaries, the willingness to commit arson — and significant arson — to cover up a crime,” DelValle said. “That’s highly unusual with what we typically deal with in our community.”
Hoffman was sentenced to eight years in prison and served six. He then remained on parole until October of this year.
DelValle said that for a first-time offender, as Hoffman was at the time, it would be typical to get a deferred sentence or just parole. Because Hoffman took the burglary a step further and committed arson, it “raised the bar” on the crime.
“We worried that he would be back in the system again, and here he is,” DelValle said.
Steamboat Pilot & Today reporter Zach Fridell contributed to this story.