Slain woman's manager says she knew something was wrongMOUNT VERNON, Ohio (AP) — The first indication that something had gone terribly wrong in this tiny Ohio town came when a Dairy Queen manager went to check on a friend who didn't show up for work.
By: By Meghan Barr, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
MOUNT VERNON, Ohio (AP) — The first indication that something had gone terribly wrong in this tiny Ohio 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 also was in the driveway and, thinking all was well, Haythorn kept driving.
When Herrmann missed a second day, Haythorn drove back to the house — and this time she went inside.
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, Cody; and her 41-year-old friend, Stephanie Sprang, stuffed into garbage bags and hidden in a hollow tree.
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 40 miles northeast of Columbus.
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, 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.
The grieving process has begun in Mount Vernon, where just about everyone has some small connection to the murders.
Haythorn, 54, said her friend Herrmann didn't report to work last Wednesday 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.
“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 a vigil Friday, Paul Manter — a friend of Hoffman's mother and stepfather — said they “can't believe that their son did this.” Manter attends the same church as the couple and said they had wanted to help with the search, but he advised against it.
“I wouldn't have suspected that he would do something like this,” he said of Hoffman.
At the Dairy Queen, Herrmann's friends are trying to help in the only way they know how — by selling Blizzards. On Saturday, the profits from all Blizzards sold will be donated to a fund for Maynard and the two children that Sprang left behind. 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.