Coroner: Victims were stabbed, dismembered
A Knox County mother, her son and a family friend, whose disappearance sparked a frantic weeklong search, died of multiple stab wounds. Preliminary autopsy results released yesterday showed several stab wounds from a knife to the back and chest of each victim - Tina Herrmann, 32; her son, Kody Maynard, 11; and Stephanie Sprang, 41. The bodies then were dismembered, said Knox County Coroner Jennifer F. Ogle. The three apparently were killed inside Herrmann's home in Apple Valley on Nov. 10.
Authorities think tree-climbing equipment was used to scale a 65-foot-tall hollow beech tree in the Kokosing Lake Wildlife Area, with garbage bags containing the remains then lowered into the cavity of the tree. Small, nonfatal wounds also were noted. The autopsies found no signs of sexual assault, pending further investigation, Ogle said in a statement. "The most challenging and heartbreaking thing I have had to do as coroner is discuss these findings with the families of the deceased victims," Ogle said.
Funeral arrangements for Herrmann and Kody have been set for 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at Peace Lutheran Church, 455 Clark State Rd., Gahanna. Calling hours will be at the church from 2-4 and 6-9p.m. Tuesday. Funeral arrangements for Sprang had not been announced yet.
The bodies were discovered Thursday afternoon after attorneys for suspect Matthew J. Hoffman directed authorities to the tree in an area north of Fredericktown. The body of Herrmann's small dog also was found in the tree. Herrmann's daughter, 13-year-old Sarah Maynard, also disappeared on Nov. 10 after she and her brother arrived home from school.
She was found bound and gagged in the basement of Hoffman's Columbus Road home last Sunday. She is with relatives, and authorities credited her with helping them to make a case against Hoffman. Hoffman, 30, is being held at the Knox County jail on a kidnapping charge under a $1 million cash bond. He has not yet been charged with the killings.
The final coroner's report will be completed once the full forensic report is completed by Dr. Jeff Lee of the Licking County coroner's office. That usually takes six to eight weeks.
Murder suspect was long 'on a bad path'
In the days ahead of his 30th birthday, not much was going right in Matthew J. 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 still doesn't explain how an odd man became a mass-murder and kidnapping suspect with 13-year-old Sarah Maynard 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, the most-reviled man in Knox County cried last Sunday, 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 185pounds 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 without prompting 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. There always were trees in Hoffman's life. He built a tree house as a teenager. He climbed trees for both his avocation and recreation. He even would climb a tree in his yard and peer at his neighbors, one of whom described him as 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 on Columbus Road, 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 tree at the Kokosing Lake Wildlife Area north of Fredericktown. Hoffman's friend, who asked not to be named, said he was not surprised that 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 and The Dispatch that searchers should be looking up trees, in trees, follow the trees. The friend said Hoffman was a strategic thinker. He doubted that Hoffman just stumbled across the tree. 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. 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, Hoffman attended East Knox High School, graduating in 1999, while studying industrial electricity at the Knox County Career Center. Hoffman soon headed west, traveling to Steamboat Springs, Colo., and landing 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 condominium 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 back home to Knox County, where his mother and stepfather lived in Apple Valley. But Steamboat Springs police suspected Hoffman in another crime as well, the theft of welcome-to-the-city signs, and he agreed to return to Colorado 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. The ex-convict stayed out of trouble and was released from parole in October. He had paid about $4,800 of the $2million in restitution he owed for the arson. But Hoffman struggled to find work, signing on a while as a truck driver and sometimes staying with his mother, Patricia Hedglin, in Apple Valley, about a third of a mile from where the two children and two women vanished Nov. 10. He reportedly worked as a tree-trimmer for a Columbus company for a time, but company officials could not be reached to confirm his employment.
The friend described Hoffman as a tightwad, reluctant to spend what little cash he had. He took a big plunge in late 2009, getting a loan to buy his deteriorating house at 49 Columbus Rd. for $37,500. Tylor Ackley, 25, seemed dumbfounded that Hoffman, who had been so good with neighborhood kids, is accused of kidnapping a girl. "We'd see him out and about, climbing trees with the kids next door," said Ackley, who lives behind Hoffman's house. "They always left their back door open, and there'd be kids running in and out."
Nicole Martin, 16, lives two doors from Hoffman's house. Her aunt and cousins' house is sandwiched between. She'd spend summer afternoons climbing trees with Hoffman and the other kids, swinging on ropes he tied onto high limbs. But something was odd about him, she said. "He was weird," Nicole said. "It's just weird to know that he's been next door and he could do something so horrible." Hoffman's friend never saw it coming. "The guy was kind of off, a little weird, but I chalked a lot of it up to being in prison," the friend said. He never knew Hoffman to be violent. As an outdoorsman, he had knifes, but the friend never knew him to have a gun. "I can't fathom him killing anyone. But, something had to snap ... maybe he's living in a fantasy world, stuck in his imagination? I sense he is happy with the outcome, that he caused turmoil and is infamous."