Ohio sheriff: 3 missing people may be dead

Matthew Hoffman / AP photo

MOUNT VERNON, Ohio (AP) " Fearing the worst, investigators searched a lake for three missing people Monday after a teenage girl who disappeared along with them was rescued, bound and gagged, from the basement of a man's home nearby.

Sheriff David Barber conceded that 13-year-old Sarah Maynard's mother, brother and a family friend may be dead. All four vanished last Wednesday from the girl's home, which was found splattered with blood, police said.

"We still would like to retain a hopeful attitude," the sheriff said, "but we have to be realistic."

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On Sunday, Sarah was rescued from the home of 30-year-old ex-convict Matthew J. Hoffman, who was arrested and charged with her kidnapping. The sheriff would not discuss details of Sarah's ordeal.


"She is a very brave little girl," Barber said. "Under the circumstances, a 13-year-old girl being held captive for four days by a total stranger ... I would call her the epitome of bravery."

Using a helicopter to guide them, investigators searched a lake, bike paths, riverbanks and other places in and around a park across from Hoffman's home in hopes of finding Sarah's mother, 32-year-old Tina Herrmann; the woman's 10-year-old son, Kody; and her friend, 41-year-old Stephanie Sprang.

Police used a sonar-equipped boat to scan below the surface. Later in the day, three divers searched the lake, setting out orange floating makers where they went in the water.

After describing the investigation for days as a missing-persons case, the sheriff referred to it as "an investigation into the recovery of three people" " a significant shift in tone.

It was unclear how well Hoffman knew the four missing people, but the sheriff suggested that the defendant had been watching them. "They knew Hoffman or Hoffman made himself known to them; he acquainted himself with the family whether they knew he was acquainting himself with them or not," Barber said.

The sheriff did not say what led investigators to Hoffman's two-story, tan-sided house, situated about 40 miles north of Columbus and about 10 miles from Sarah's home in the town of Howard.

The sheriff said authorities first questioned Hoffman on Thursday, the day after Herrmann failed to show up for work at a Dairy Queen. Police found him sitting in his car near a bike trail opposite property owned by Kenyon College, near where Herrmann's pickup truck was found, Barber said.

Hoffman was jailed without bail after his arrest over the weekend and did not have an attorney, the sheriff said. He would not say how cooperative Hoffman was being and would not comment on whether the girl was assaulted. She was released from a hospital and was staying with relatives, he said.

Hoffman was sentenced to eight years in prison in Colorado in 2001 and was still on parole for arson and other charges for setting a condo on fire to cover up a burglary, said Jon Sarche, a spokesman for the Colorado court system.

His mother and stepfather own a home about a mile from where Sarah and her mother lived in a split-level house surrounded by a big yard, trees and two country roads. Hoffman last lived at his mother's home two years ago, said a woman who answered the door Monday and identified herself as his mother. She declined to comment further before going back inside.

Neighbors said Hoffman often collected leaves on walks through the park, which has three lakes where people fish.

A woman who has lived next to Hoffman for about a year said she told her children to stay indoors when he was out.

"He would sit and listen to us up in a tree. He had a hammock and he would sit there and listen to us," said Dawna Davis, 35. "He was just different. He was very different."


Associated Press writers Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Mount Vernon and Doug Whiteman in Columbus contributed to this report.

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