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Man pleads guilty in deaths of 3 found in Ohio tree

Matthew J. Hoffman
Matthew J. Hoffman, an unemployed tree-cutter suspected in the deaths of three people whose dismembered bodies were found in a hollow tree, is scheduled to have his first court hearing on Thursday in Ohio.Anonymous / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

An unemployed tree-cutter who broke into a home to commit "a random burglary" admitted Thursday that he killed three people who surprised him and confronted him, then stuffed their remains in a hollow tree. He also pleaded guilty to kidnapping and raping a 13-year-old girl who was with them.

Matthew Hoffman, 30, entered the plea to aggravated murder, burglary, kidnapping, rape and other charges. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the deaths of Tina Herrmann, whose home he broke into; her 11-year-old son, Kody Maynard; and neighbor Stephanie Sprang. They were stabbed, dismembered and put into garbage bags and then into the tree, prosecutors said.

"This is so sickening, Matthew, to know you even had the guts to do this," the girl said in a statement read aloud in court by a prosecutor.

Speaking for Hoffman in court, his attorney, Bruce Malek, said Hoffman apologizes and that he decided not to speak in court in part because he "did not feel that he would be able to make even a short statement without breaking down."

Hoffman was accused of kidnapping the teenage girl, a relative of Herrmann's, during the break-in and raping her at his home in the small central Ohio city of Mount Vernon. She was found alive, bound and gagged, in his basement.

Malek and Knox County prosecutor John Thatcher said they weren't sure why Hoffman killed the other three but not the girl.

"I don't think he gave any other reason other than he couldn't bring himself to do it," Thatcher said.

The girl said the crimes have changed her life, but she's no longer scared of Hoffman. The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of sexual crimes.

The sheriff had suggested in November that Hoffman had been watching the family for some time, but Thatcher said he believes it was a random crime. Hoffman told investigators he'd intended to steal whatever valuable items he found, Thatcher said.

Malek said Hoffman did not single out one person or family and attributed the violence to "a random burglary that went terribly, terribly wrong."

Seven more relatives of the victims gave their own statements in court, sharing memories and wiping away tears.

Many directed their words at Hoffman, calling him a coward and a "sick freak." Wearing shackles and dark prison garb, Hoffman mostly stared at the table in front of him with an unchanging expression, his eyes occasionally closed.

Prosecutors decided not to pursue the death penalty in exchange for Hoffman agreeing to plead guilty and telling authorities the location of the remains, which otherwise would have been difficult to find, Thatcher said.

"He knew the families needed closure, that they deserved to have their families back and properly buried," Malek said.

Sprang's sister, Sherrie Baxter, told Hoffman in court that the victims' families agreed to take the death penalty off the table "to get our family members back," not out of consideration for him.

Days after the victims disappeared, authorities tracked down Hoffman with the help of surveillance video as they tried to determine who bought garbage bags found at the crime scene, Thatcher said.

Thatcher said there's no indication Hoffman had an accomplice, and he believes Hoffman told the kidnapped girl that other people were involved in the crime to keep her from trying to escape.

Hoffman spent six years in a Colorado prison for arson and other charges stemming from a fire set to cover a burglary. His former girlfriend claimed he choked her during an argument in October, according to a police report. The woman told investigators she thought he was going to kill her, but she did not want to press charges.