MOUNT VERNON, Ohio — In the days ahead of his 30th birthday, not much was going right in Matthew Hoffman's already troubled life.
He and his girlfriend, who accused him of choking her during an argument at his home on Oct. 24, had broken up.
She feared she might die.
A few days later, he lost his part-time tree-trimming job at Fast Eddy's after creeping out his supervisor and overselling his experience.
Money was a constant concern.
Besides the bills accompanying day-to-day life, he owed $2 million in restitution for setting fire to a condominium complex in Colorado.
Even his dog had run away.
But all that doesn't explain how an odd man became a suspect in a triple murder and the kidnapping of a 13-year-old girl tied up in his basement.
Criminologists say triggers such as a job loss or the end of a relationship can ignite a buried fuse that burns into violence, even murder.
In his jail cell in Mount Vernon, Ohio, the most-reviled man in Knox County cried on Nov. 14, the evening of his arrest.
He threatened to harm himself and is under suicide watch, with deputies checking on him every 10 minutes.
Hoffman, who turned 30 on Nov. 1, had not gone out of his way to cultivate many friends over three decades.
He basically kept to himself.
A friend described him as intelligent but without a lick of common sense; a man who was physically strong at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds and imbued with a personality that embraced risk.
He was the type to catch a squirrel in his attic, clean it, fry it, and eat it.
Hoffman would turn back flips off picnic tables and once strung a tow strap between two trees in his backyard and repeatedly tried to cross it like a tightrope walker.
During a parade once, he dashed from the curb and ran back and forth beneath the undercarriage of a giant moving truck as others watched in disbelief.
And the trees.
Interest in trees
Trees were always in Hoffman's life.
He built a tree house as a teenager. He climbed trees for both his avocation and recreation.
He would climb a tree in his yard and peer at neighbors, one of whom called him a “real weirdo.”
Neighborhood kids would join Hoffman in swinging from ropes he tied in the trees.
In search of taller conquests, the friend said, Hoffman would tell tales of clambering up trees throughout Knox County with his tree-climbing gear.
He knew the woods and remote spots of Knox County well.
In the months before buying his 109-year-old house, he was a nomad, living out of his car and pitching a tent in secretive spots amid the trees.
On Thursday, the bodies of Tina Herrmann, her 11-year-old son, Kody Maynard, and family friend Stephanie Sprang were pulled from a hollow beech at the Kokosing Lake Wildlife Area north of Fredericktown.
Sarah Maynard, 13, Ms. Herrmann's daughter, was found bound and gagged, but alive, in the basement of Hoffman's home when police stormed the residence outside Mount Vernon on Nov. 14. Mount Vernon is about 135 miles southeast of Toledo.
Hoffman's friend, who asked not to be named, said he was not surprised the bodies of those snatched from Apple Valley were found inside the 65-foot-tall tree.
Early last week, the man told the sheriff's office that searchers should look up trees, in trees: follow the trees. The friend said Hoffman was a strategic thinker. He doubted Hoffman just stumbled across the tree.
‘A bad path'
Matthew John Hoffman is the son of Robert and Patricia Hoffman. He grew up in the Warren area in northeastern Ohio, moving with his mother to Knox County in 1997 when his parents divorced.
Alice Morelli recalled the 14 to 16-year-old Hoffman who lived next door to her in Trumbull County.
He always appeared unhappy and acted strangely, she said.
“He was really lost. He was on a bad path.”
The youth would jump off his roof onto a trampoline.
Ms. Morelli's dog hated him, barking at him wildly on sight.
Hoffman responded to the dog with an unemotional stare, she said.
Hoffman and his buddies spent time in the woods and built a tree house.
He and a friend got in trouble with the police in 1997 when they were found on the roof of Lakeview High School. Hoffman said he just wanted to see whether he could get up there.
After moving to Apple Valley, he attended East Knox High School, graduating in 1999, while studying industrial electricity at the Knox County Career Center.
He soon headed west, traveling to Steamboat Springs, Colo., and landed a job with a plumbing contractor.
Then, the man with no rap sheet turned criminal.
In a bid to cover up his 2000 burglary of a condo complex, he sprinkled 10 gallons of gasoline and set it ablaze.
The fire sent 16 people running from their condos and caused $2 million in damage.
Hoffman fled home to Knox County, where his mother and stepfather lived.
But police suspected Hoffman in another crime as well, the theft of welcome-to-the-city signs, and he agreed to return to clear up the matter.
Police then arrested him and charged him with the arson as well.
Charles Feldmann, who prosecuted the case, said last week that Hoffman “struck me as someone who had a horrific appetite, a premeditated appetite, to cause that kind of damage and the potential loss of life.”
Hoffman was sentenced to eight years in prison and served six years. After his parole, he returned to Ohio in 2007, where he reported to local parole authorities.
Hoffman's friend in Knox County tried to reintroduce him to life on the outside.
At a McDonald's, his friend had to explain a “McChicken” to him. Hoffman appeared bulked up and better read.
To read the rest of this story, visit www.dispatch.com.