Howard Township, Ohio, was a sleepy, bucolic little hamlet nestled in the heart of Knox County, and residents no doubt wish it would have stayed that way. But a strange man from Mount Vernon, a nearby small town, changed all that last week—probably forever.
On Nov. 10, four people went missing: Tina Herrmann, 32, failed to show up for work at Dairy Queen. Her children, Sarah Maynard, 13, and Kody Maynard, 10, were last seen at school on the same day. Herrmann’s close friend, Stephanie Sprang, 41, was also missing. There was a large amount of blood inside the Herrmann residence days later, according to initial police reports.
The following Sunday, a SWAT team stormed the Mount Vernon home of Matthew J. Hoffman and found Sarah bound and gagged, but alive, in his basement, according to ABC News. He was arrested and charged with kidnapping. But nearly a week after Hoffman’s arrest, Herrmann, Kody Maynard, and Sprang were nowhere to be found, whipping the residents of an ordinarily quiet town into a frenzy. Until Thursday, that is, when the three bodies—along with Hermann’s dog—were discovered stuffed inside a hollowed-out tree 16 miles from where the trio disappeared.
How did police know to go to Hoffman’s residence to look for Sarah Herrmann? Someone had to tell them she was there. But who?
“Even though Hoffman is in custody, there’s been quite a bit of speculation that he might not have acted alone … that he had an accomplice who is still out there somewhere," Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Mavis told The Daily Beast. “People are wondering how one person could control four people at the same time … and the kids were not that small.”
It’s not unusual for law enforcement to be tight-lipped with information in the middle of an investigation, but the lack of answers—hard facts—is causing locals to conjure up their own explanations. Mayor Mavis said that when police found Herrmann’s pickup truck over seven miles away from her home, questions immediately arose regarding how it got there. If Hoffman dropped it off there, how did he leave the scene? Did someone drive him away? Did he walk?
But also of concern to residents—and a subject of much speculation—is how the police knew to go to Hoffman’s residence to look for Sarah Maynard. Someone had to tell them she was there. But who? At this point, there are still more questions than answers.
Adding to the mystery is the lack of information regarding Hoffman’s background. “In a small community like ours, people usually know quite a bit about each other,” said Mayor Mavis. “I’ve heard that he graduated from our career center, which is our joint vocational school, but there does seem to be a general lack of information about him.”
In August 2000, Hoffman, then age 20, burglarized a dwelling, stole a vehicle, and then set fire to the townhouse in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to cover up the crimes, according to police records. While no one was injured, the fire did spread to adjoining units and caused about $2 million in damages. After being found guilty, he was sentenced to an eight-year prison term. Records from the Colorado Department of Corrections show that Hoffman was released from prison in January 2007 and paroled to Ohio.
But little seems to be known about Hoffman's background before his sentencing in Colorado. His mother and stepfather live less than a mile away from Herrmann's home in Howard. Hoffman last lived there two years ago, according to his mother, but there was no indication that he had ever met any of the people who have now gone missing.
Steven Thompson, Stephanie Sprang’s father, told Good Morning America that his family has gone over everything they could think of, but nothing makes sense. “We have thought how a connection might be there, but we can't come up with one,” he said. “I’ve never met the guy. I never even saw his picture until just the other day.”
Rumors, nonetheless, are circulating that Hoffman might have been following Sprang. Thompson said that he’s heard his daughter suspected as much. “Friends of hers are saying that she had feelings for a while now that somebody was stalking her or watching her,” he said.
A few blocks from Hoffman's Mount Vernon home, more than 200 community members recently gathered to pray. They lit candles at a church vigil for the missing trio. “I'm expecting the worst but hoping for the best,” said Jacki Mace, the manager at a tanning salon where both of the women were regulars. “She was a sweetheart,” said 20-year-old Mace. “If you were feeling down that day, she'd do anything to make you smile, pick you up, tell you a funny story. She was a delight, and Stephanie was the same. She was just a sweetie. They were both so nice.”
Meanwhile, Mayor Mavis is attempting to keep faith. “I know that the longer this goes on the worse the odds are for a good outcome, but I’m going to continue to hold out hope. That’s what all of us here in Mount Vernon are doing … all we have to hold on to is hope.”
Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.