Image: Felled hollow tree in Knox County, Ohio.
WCMH-TV
The hollow tree in which the bodies of three people were found was cut down Friday in Knox County, Ohio, out of respect for the victims' families and so that it wouldn't become "a sightseeing thing," officials said.
updated 11/19/2010 10:05:28 PM ET 2010-11-20T03:05:28

The first indication that something had gone terribly wrong in this tiny town came when a Dairy Queen manager went to check on a friend who didn't show up for work.

The manager, Valerie Haythorn, told The Associated Press on Friday that when she drove by last week, the lights were on at the home where Tina Herrmann lived with her two children. Herrmann's truck was in the driveway, and, thinking all was well, Haythorn kept driving.

When Herrmann missed a second day, Haythorn drove back to the house in Howard — and this time she went inside.

    1. Hoffman withdrew $1,200 hours before death: sources

      Philip Seymour Hoffman withdrew a total of $1,200 from an ATM at a supermarket near his New York City apartment the night before he was found lifeless in his bathroom with a syringe still in his left arm, sources told NBC News.

    2. NYC mayor will skip St. Pat's parade over gay ban
    3. Indiana man back home 18 years after abduction
    4. 32 states in the path of another wild storm
    5. Judge vows quick ruling on Va. marriage ban

Haythorn said she climbed in the back window because the front door was locked. Once inside, she discovered a significant amount of blood.

"It was enough blood there that I knew there was a problem," she said. "Nobody cut their finger in that house."

Haythorn immediately called authorities. The search for four missing people began in earnest after her Nov. 11 visit.

Three days later, Herrmann's 13-year-old daughter, Sarah Maynard, was found bound and gagged — but alive — in the basement of a home. On Thursday, the search reached a tragic end when authorities found the bodies of Herrmann; her 11-year-old son, Kody Maynard; and her 41-year-old friend, Stephanie Sprang, stuffed into garbage bags and hidden in a hollow tree.

Gary Ludwig, a supervisor with Ohio's Division of Wildlife, said wildlife staff on Friday cut down the tree. He said Knox County authorities wanted to remove it out of respect for the family, and so that it wouldn't become "a sightseeing thing."

Image: Kody Maynard, 10, Tina Herrmann, 32, and Stephanie Sprang, 41
WBNS-10TV via AP;
Kody Maynard, 11, Tina Herrmann, 32, and Stephanie Sprang, 41, were found dead on Thursday.

Knox County Sheriff David Barber said investigators were led to the bodies by Matthew Hoffman, an unemployed tree-trimmer accused of kidnapping the girl and keeping her for nearly four days in the basement of his home in Mount Vernon, about 10 miles west of Howard.

It was unclear how the three others died — or how someone managed to put their bodies inside the hollow tree. Autopsies were being conducted Friday, and the county coroner said the results were expected Saturday.

Barber said all three were killed in Herrmann's home in Howard, about 40 miles northeast of Columbus, though he did not say how. Hoffman gave investigators information through his attorney that led them to the bodies, which were removed after part of the tree was cut away, Barber said.

The remains were found in a wildlife preserve in Fredericktown, a rural site about a quarter-mile from two churches where an Amish horse-drawn buggy passed after three white hearses had driven away.

Ludwig described the tree as an American beech and about 60 feet tall. Beech tree trunks are typically hollowed out, he said.

Image: Matthew Hoffman
AP
Matthew Hoffman is charged with kidnapping a 13-year-old girl who was found bound and gagged but alive in a basement.

Wildlife staff had planned to remove the tree from the preserve, but they needed additional equipment to get it out of the area. "It was such a big tree," Ludwig said. "It couldn't be transported out of there." For now, he said the pieces were in "a big mound" in the preserve.

The grieving process has begun in Mount Vernon, where just about everyone has some small connection to the killings.

Sprang's son Michael Kupiec told WBNS-TV on Friday he has no hatred and is eagerly waiting for investigators to tell his family about what happened to his mother.

"Until we find out more, on if they knew him — if he knew them, we don't really know anything," Kupiec said. "And we're just — we're waiting by authorities to find out all the information that we can. So I have no hate towards anybody."

Haythorn said her friend Herrmann didn't report to work Nov. 10 at 4 p.m.

"I knew then that something was wrong, because that was totally out of character for her," Haythorn said quietly in a booth at the Dairy Queen. "She loved coming to work. She loved the people here. She would not have just blown it off."

Nobody knows why the four were targeted, and authorities have not speculated on a motive. The sheriff has suggested that Hoffman, who spent six years in a Colorado prison on arson and other charges, had been watching them for some time.

Hoffman remains jailed on the kidnapping charge and is the only suspect in the killings. His attorney has declined to comment.

Sandy Burd works at a landscaping service where Hoffman was briefly employed earlier this year. She said Hoffman knew how to climb trees and had his own tree-climbing equipment.

She has been feeling guilty, wondering if she could have prevented the tragedy. She is a regular customer at the Dairy Queen, where Herrmann was a friendly face.

Image: Ohio vigil
Jay LaPrete  /  AP
Local residents gather to sing and pray during a vigil Thursday in Howard, Ohio, for four people involved in a horrific case.

"When it's somebody who served you at the Dairy Queen two weeks ago," Burd said, shaking her head. "It's hard on everybody here."

A memorial of flowers and balloons was growing at the Herrmann home, where neighbors knelt to pray and pay their respects.

At the Dairy Queen, Herrmann's friends are trying to help in the only way they know how — by selling Blizzards. On Saturday, $1 from each Blizzard sold will be donated to a fund for Sarah Maynard and Sprang's children. The restaurant is accepting donations for the children and is working with the mayor to open bank accounts for them.

"There's some peace in knowing they are not suffering, because that was a major concern," Haythorn said. "We're very glad that that part has ended. But devastated over the fact that they will never be back."

___

Associated Press writers Doug Whiteman in Fredericktown and Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Ann Sanner and JoAnne Viviano in Columbus contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Bodies of missing women, boy found in Ohio

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments