MOUNT VERNON, Ohio — It's possible that three people still missing in central Ohio were killed, a sheriff conceded Monday, a day after the 13-year-old girl who disappeared along with them was rescued from the home of a man later charged with kidnapping.
Authorities want to remain optimistic that 32-year-old Tina Herrmann, her 10-year-old son, Kody, and Herrmann's friend, 41-year-old Stephanie Sprang, are alive, Knox County Sheriff David Barber said at a news conference.
Investigators searched a lake for signs of the three near a house where 13-year-old Sarah Maynard was found in the basement and where Matthew J. Hoffman, 30, was arrested. Maynard has been released from a hospital and is staying with relatives, the sheriff said.
"She is a very brave little girl," Barber said. "Under the circumstances, a 13-year-old girl being held captive for four days by a total stranger ... I would call her the epitome of bravery."
Unlike previous days, the sheriff declined to describe the investigation as a missing-persons case, referring to it as "an investigation into the recovery of three people."
The shift in tone was owing to the amount of blood found at the home, the fact that only Maynard was found with the suspect and because apparently no one has seen her mother, brother and the other woman.
"We still would like to retain a hopeful attitude, but we have to be realistic," Barber said.
The sheriff revealed that authorities first questioned Hoffman on Thursday, the day after Herrmann didn't show up for work at a local Dairy Queen and was reported missing.
Police found him "just sitting there" in his car near a public bike trail opposite property owned by Kenyon College, near where Herrmann's pickup truck was found the same day, Barber said. It wasn't clear whether the pickup truck had been found first.
Authorities arrested him Sunday at his two-story tan-sided house about 40 miles north of Columbus. Barber would not reveal what led investigators to the home and said there is no indication others were involved. It was unclear whether Hoffman knew the two women.
"They knew Hoffman or Hoffman made himself known to them; he acquainted himself with the family whether they knew he was acquainting himself with them or not," he said.
A few blocks away from Hoffman's home, a public park with a lake was closed Monday, initially by Mount Vernon police because an officer patrolling overnight had found what he thought was bloody clothing potentially related to the investigation, police Capt. George Hartz said. But tests did not find any human blood on the clothing, he said.
The city reopened the park at midmorning, only to have it closed again a half-hour later by county and state authorities so they could search the lake with a boat equipped with sonar, Hartz said. He did not have other details on the lake search.
Neighbors had said Hoffman frequented the park, which was once a gravel quarry and now has three lakes where people fish. It was difficult Monday to see any police activity through the thick trees bordering the park.
Hoffman was being held in the county jail and did not have an attorney, the sheriff said. A bond hearing was tentatively scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Mount Vernon Municipal Court clerk's office said.
Herrmann, her children and Sprang disappeared Wednesday from Herrmann's home in nearby Howard. Barber has said blood indicating an injury had been found in Herrmann's home, where Sprang's vehicle was in the driveway.
Authorities believe Maynard, the teenage girl, had been "under the control" of Hoffman since Wednesday, when she and her brother last attended school, the sheriff said.
The girl is with relatives and has been helpful in the investigation, Barber said. He would not comment Monday on whether she was hurt or assaulted.
Dawna Davis, 35, who lives next door to Hoffman, said she told her children to stay indoors when he was out. She said he moved in alone about a year ago and that a girlfriend lived with him temporarily with her son until about a month ago.
"He would sit and listen to us up in a tree. He had a hammock and he would sit there and listen to us," she said. "He was just different. He was very different."