The hardest thing about writing crime is trying to really get inside the head of a murderer.
I’m one of those people that catches spiders and puts them outside, rather than kill them.
So I’m always researching true crime stories to try and work out what makes real killers tick. The trouble is, the truth is often so much stranger than fiction. If I wrote a crime story based on some of the homicides I’ve researched, no one would believe it.
This week I came across a real mind bender. It was a documentary about a guy called Matthew Hoffman, who killed three people in Ohio ten years ago.
It all started when a thirty-two-year-old woman called Tina Herrmann didn’t show up at her job for two days in a row. So her employer went to her home to see what was wrong.
What she found when she walked into the house left her an hysterical mess. There was blood everywhere. The bathroom looked like a butcher’s shop. Tina, her two children Sarah and Kody, and her best friend Stephanie, were all missing.
The police went looking for her boyfriend and her ex. This is usual. The fact is, if you ever get murdered – and I’d rather you heard this first from a friend – the killer will almost certainly be someone you know very well.
Not this time. Both had cast iron alibis.
They realised this time they were looking for a stranger. And people don’t come any stranger than Matthew Hoffman …
Investigators finally caught a break when a deputy on a routine patrol found Tina Herrmann’s truck, abandoned in a parking lot. After he called it in, he spotted a man watching him from a parked car. The man said he was waiting to meet his girlfriend.
Meanwhile, detectives searching Tina’s home found a Walmart bag containing tarpaulins and heavy-duty trash bags. Having had some experience in these things, they knew these were just what a killer might use to dispose of bodies.
Now it was all down to good, basic detective work; they traced the bar codes on the trash bags to a local store, matched the purchase transaction to surveillance video, which identified the man who bought them. Video showed him driving away in a Toyota Yaris.
They ran a database search for all Yaris vehicles in the area. One of the names that came up with was Hoffman’s, an unemployed tree trimmer. The photo on his driver’s licence matched footage from the store. He was also the same man police had seen loitering near Tina’s truck.
Ka-ching. They went and arrested him.
But now it gets really weird …
When police searched Hoffman’s barely furnished house, they didn’t find Sara Herrmann. What they found was a tarpaulin, fourteen feet square, piled three-feet-high with dead leaves.
The bathroom was lined with hundreds of plastic bags, also filled with leaves.
The freezer? Empty except for some red popsicles and two dead squirrels.
Finally, in the basement, they found a survivor. Bound hand and foot and lying on yet another bed of leaves was thirteen-year old Sarah Herrmann. But there was no sign of the others.
In his confession, Hoffman said that he had only intended to rob Herrmann’s house, but when the two women showed up unexpectedly, he panicked and killed them with a knife. He was in the middle of “processing” the bodies in the bathroom when the children returned from school. Hoffman then killed Kody … but not Sarah.
Instead, he tied her up and put a hood over her head. He drove away with his captive and three dismembered bodies wrapped in plastic.
Where were the bodies now? Hoffman took investigators to a 60-foot-tall hollow tree in the Kokosing Wildlife Area near Fredericktown.
Look in the hole, he said. Up there in the tree.
Hoffman had used a rig-and-pulley system to reach the top of the hollow tree and dropped the bodies inside. Why? He never said. In fact, he never explained his strange obsession with trees, leaves and squirrels to anyone. Did any of it have anything to do with the murders? Your guess is as good as mine.
But if I ever wove that story into a crime novel, I’d sure as hell have to come up with a reasonable explanation. Sheriff Barber, who led the investigation, would have liked one. He visited Hoffman in prison, hoping for some clue. No luck. Hoffman’s last words to him were: “I wish people would just get over this. It is what it is.”
So, I’ve filed the story away and maybe I’ll use it one day. Or maybe not. Because fiction, unlike life, has to make sense.
So enough blood and mayhem for the day. It’s time to take my spaniel Charlie out for a run. He also has an obsession with trees, but in his case, it’s harmless. In fact, Charlie wouldn’t dream of hurting anyone. If only people were more like spaniels, the world would definitely be a better place.
And I’d be out of business.