US

Ohio city consumed by search for missing family

MOUNT VERNON, Ohio (AP) — People in the tiny Ohio town of Mount Vernon used to have to think back years to recall a violent crime.

Now, days after 13-year-old Sarah Maynard was found bound and gagged in a basement, and with her mother, brother and another woman feared dead, residents are dwelling on the disappearances, longing for the more peaceful lives they knew before the middle of last week.

A few dozen volunteers from as far as Columbus, 40 miles away, gathered Wednesday morning near the family’s home to resume foot searches both there and around the home of a man charged with kidnapping the girl. They wore purple clothing or pinned-on ribbons in purple, the color of the school district where the missing boy and his rescued sister are middle school students.

Search teams scoured vacant buildings and wooded areas Tuesday for Maynard’s mother, 32-year-old Tina Herrmann; Herrmann’s 10-year-old son, Kody Maynard; and her 41-year-old friend, Stephanie Sprang. They haven’t been seen for a week.

In supermarket check-out lines and over meatloaf and mashed potatoes at a roadside diner, conversations in this city of 16,000 are consumed by talk of the missing family.

“It’s a tragedy all the way around,” Mayor Richard Mavis said. “This doesn’t happen around here.”

A faded sign on the side of a red-brick building reminds people to chew Mail Pouch tobacco. The mayor says it’s the kind of town where you can give your car keys to a stranger and expect to get them back.

“I just hope we get some good news,” 65-year-old Blaine Rhoades said Tuesday night, as he and his wife dropped off a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken for Sprang’s sister.

Knox County Sheriff David Barber said Wednesday that it’s becoming more likely they are dead.

“Unfortunately, the reality that these folks may not be alive is becoming more and more prevalent, simply because there’s been no word from these folks,” he said. “There’s no credit card activity, there’s no cell phone activity — anything like that — since this event occurred last week.”

He said the search continues, the investigation is progressing and that calls to a tip line have yielded “some information that’s helpful to the investigation.” The sheriff did not elaborate what kind of information has been provided.

Barber has said a deputy searching Herrmann’s home last week in nearby Howard, Ohio, found an “unusual” amount of blood inside.

Authorities charged 30-year-old Matthew Hoffman with kidnapping Sarah after they found her held captive in his basement on Sunday. A judge set his bond at $1 million.

The sheriff said Hoffman was under suicide watch and that it was up to him and his lawyer to decide whether he would help authorities. A message seeking comment was left for County Public Defender Bruce Malek.

Malek, said in court on Tuesday that Hoffman worked sometimes as a tree trimmer, but was currently unemployed.

Within the last month, Hoffman worked nine days for Fast Eddy’s, a landscaping and tree trimming service just outside Mount Vernon.

“He was quiet, unassuming, polite, clean-shaven, nothing that would make you say, ‘Ew,’” said Sandy Burd, the office manager for the business.

He was not a full-fledged employee but a part-time subcontractor, helping out after a supervisor broke his hand.

But it didn’t work out, said Fast Eddy’s owner, Eddy Stewart. It became clear that Hoffman did not know as much about tree trimming as he had implied, and “he made (the supervisor) feel uncomfortable,” Stewart said.

The business owner indicated he now was glad Hoffman had been let go.

“What if we did hire this guy and a year down the road he chose one of us as one of his victims? That’s just horrifying to think about,” Stewart said.

Neighbors and acquaintances never knew what to make of Hoffman. They say he was controlling, peculiar and smart in a scary way.

His former girlfriend claimed he choked her, pushed her against a wall and pinned her neck with his forearm during an argument at his house on Oct. 24, according to a police report obtained by The Associated Press. The woman told investigators she thought he was going to kill her, but did not want to press charges.

A man at the woman’s address said Tuesday that no one from her family wanted to comment.

In 2000, when Hoffman was living in the Colorado ski resort town of Steamboat Springs, he was accused of stealing a Chevrolet Suburban and other items from a home and returning the next day with 10 gallons of gasoline to set it on fire to cover it up, the Steamboat Pilot & Today reported. Two townhouses were destroyed and eight were damaged.

He was sentenced to eight years in prison and returned to Ohio after he was released in 2007. He often behaved strangely, his Ohio neighbors said.

He collected leaves at a park across the street from his home and would stuff them into trash bags to hang on his walls for insulation.

Jessica Shirley, 35, got to know Hoffman and his former girlfriend over the last year when they would visit her friend, who lived next to the couple. She said he was smart and controlling.

“He was kind of like the intellectual,” she said. “Kind of crazy.”

He wouldn’t let his former girlfriend smoke or allow her son to eat junk food, Shirley said. He also made a woman who lived with him until recently join a gym, she said. The two worked out together, she said.

“That was the only normal activity I know that he did,” Shirley said.

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Associated Press writers Doug Whiteman and Ann Sanner in Columbus, John Seewer in Toledo and P. Solomon Banda in Denver contributed to this report.