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Published: Friday, 11/19/2010

Bodies of 3 missing Ohioans found stuffed in hollow tree

Three hearses arrive at a sheriff's checkpoint to take away bodies found in a Knox County wildlife preserve. Three hearses arrive at a sheriff's checkpoint to take away bodies found in a Knox County wildlife preserve.
DORAL CHENOWETH III Enlarge

MOUNT VERNON, Ohio — A procession of three white hearses traversed rural roads to a wildlife area Thursday, signaling a somber and startling end to a desperate search that 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.

Hoffman, 30, has not been charged in the deaths.

He has, however, been charged with kidnapping the sole survivor snatched from Ms. Herrmann's bloodied Apple Valley-area home on Nov. 10, more than 12 miles from where the bodies were recovered.

Sarah Maynard, 13, Tina's daughter, was found bound and gagged, but alive, in the basement of Mr. Hoffman's home when police stormed the residence outside Mount Vernon on Sunday.

Hoffman told his lawyers early Thursday where the bodies were hidden, leading investigators to search the out-of-way wildlife refuge miles from where authorities and hundreds of volunteers had concentrated their searches.

Sheriff David Barber conceded the bodies likely would not have been found without Hoffman's directions.

Authorities wouldn't say how the three were killed, saying autopsies would be conducted by the Licking County Coroner's Office.

Though Sheriff Barber had cautioned earlier against harboring hopes that the missing were alive, more than 300 volunteers still fanned out Thursday morning, many increasingly realizing they were looking for bodies rather than miracles.

After the bodies had been discovered, Chris Thompson, Ms. 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 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 telling authorities where the bodies were could be part of a deal to spare his life.

Hoffman, who spent six years in a Colorado prison for setting a fire that caused more than $2 million damage to a condominium complex there, is being held on a $1 million cash-only bond. He's under a suicide watch after threatening to hurt himself.

Hoffman's public defender, Bruce Malek, declined comment.

Sheriff Barber said that investigators believe Hoffman acted alone and have no other suspects. Investigators have hinted that Hoffman might have stalked Sarah and her family. His mother and stepfather lived near the Herrmann home.

For the rest of this story, visit www.dispatch.com..



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