All during high school Donna Best used to talk about how, one day, she would marry Michael Hoffman. Last October, she finally got her wish. The two were married in the Prince George's County courthouse in Upper Marlboro and settled into a garden apartment in Suitland.
Less than three months later, on Dec. 16, the marriage that had been so long in the making came to a violent end. Michael Hoffmann's body was found in a creek near Aquasco in Southern Prince George's County. Donna Best Hoffmann, 18, was arrested and charged with paying four young men $100 to help her and a boyfriend kill Hoffmann and dump his body into the creek.
According to police, Hoffmann drove her husband to the isolated creak where five men were waiting. He was forced from the car and shot to death -- in the head and chest -- in the presence of his wife, her lover and the four other young men, police alleged. His body was then bound with wire and blocks of concrete and dumped into the creek.
For law enforcement officials used to contract slayings of organized crime figures or drug peddlers, Michael Hoffmann's slaying has proved particularly puzzling. That a marriage could disintergrate so rapidly is no more explicable than how five persons with no previous criminal records could allegedly have been recruited to carry out the killing.
Those charged with the crime represent almost a microcosm of Prince George's County. Four are white and two are black. Two are students at prestigious colleges, three work at blue collar jobs, one is unemployed. One is the son of one of the county's wealthiest and most successful lawyers.
Not everyone in the group even knew all the others. What brought them together, apparently, were two people -- Donna Hoffmann and John Penkert, Hoffmann's lover. Of the six, these two were different. They were rougher, more prone to trouble and traveled on the fringe of the violent and drug-filled world of the Phantoms, a motorcycle gang in Prince George's County that police have linked to several slayings.
Whether the six young people acted because of money or drugs or the influence, somehow, of the Phantoms still has not been established. And so police and friends and family can only wonder. "You would think," said Sheriff Jimmy Aluisi, "that some of them would have said 'No, this is wrong.'"
Donna Best met Michael Hoffmann in a math class at Suitland High School when she was 14 and he was 16.She was plump and bleached her hair blond; Hoffmann was short and slight. The two fell in love quickly, and Hoffmann dropped out of school soon afterward, partly to earn enough money to spend on Donna, according to Hoffmann's brothers.
"He was a sucker for love," said Steve Hoffmann, 22. "He would do anything for her. He was like a baby walking a Saint Bernard."
All along, Donna had been telling her friends that they were going to get married and have a big wedding."She was just like the rest of us," said one friend. "She had this boyfried and she was really looking forward to havinng a wedding and children."
The daughter of a construction worker, Donna Hoffmann grew up in a one-story brick house on Shamrock Avenue in Capitol Heights, one block away from a drive-in movie theater, a used car lot and a Chinese restaurant.
During the past few years, she and Michael Hoffmann seemed inseparable. They danced and went to the movies, and in the evenings Hoffmann would pick-up his girlfriend from her job as a department store clerk.
Last summer Donna Best and Michael Hoffmann began living together in a one-bedroom garden apartment at 5048 Silver Hill Ct. in Suitland. For economic reasons, they shared their apartment with two male friends of Hoffmann's, who slept in a large closet.
For about a month after moving in with each other, they often were together.
But gradually, Hoffmann began spending more and more time with John Penkert, according to Raymond Lynch, 18, one of Michael Hoffmann's friends who lived with the couple.
It was nothing new. For the past two years, Donna Best had been seeing Penkert as well as going out with Micheal. Each apparently knew about the other.
Once last summer Hoffmann found his future wife and Penkert in his bedroom, according to Hoffmann's brothers and sister.
Shaken, Hoffmann apparently threatened Donna Best with ending their relationship, according to Hoffmann's friends. Donna Best would hear none of it. She wanted, she said, to marry him.
The two picked out their wedding rings at Woolco's in Forestville and were married in October. No one attended their wedding.
Even after their wedding, Donna Hoffmann spent many nights away from the apartment, according to Lynch. When she returned and Hoffmann asked where she had been, she threw dishes and furniture at him, Lynch said.
Neither had steady jobs. Donna worked as a waitress during August, did not show up for work during September, and reappeared in October as a sales clerk in a candy store. She kept that job for three weeks, then stopped coming to work.
Michael worked as a house painter during the summer, was unemployed during September and October, and finally landed a job as a stock room clerk at Andrews Air Force Base in November.
By this time, however, Donna Hoffmann was spending most of her time with Penkert. Many nights he would spend with the Phantoms, a motorcycle gang, and Donna Hoffmann began going with him.
Usually the Phantoms, who police believe have about 100 members, met in each other's homes, or in bars along Marlbora Pike. Donna Hoffmann became a familiar figure.
"We all knew her," said one of the Phantoms, who did not want to be identified. "She was one of our honeys."
Penkert was not a Phantom, but he has told police that he "partied" with the gang. Friends say that he wanted to become a gang member. One of Penkert's friends said he believed Penkert was hoping to prove himself to the gang at the time of Hofffmann's death.
Police do not believe Penkert was an official Phantom "prospect." Nevertheless, both Penkert and Donna Hoffmann had been telling friends that they were planning to move into Phantom headquarters together, in the apartment of the head Phantom, "Big Joe" Edwards.
Running with the Phantoms meant being part of a world of violence and drugs. During the past several years, three members of the gang have been convicted of slaying four persons. Earlier this year police arrested seven Phantoms and charged them with running a PCP factory in the county that grossed $25,000 a week. And last month, while celebrating Christmas at a bar on Central Avenue, eight Phantoms were arrested and charged with possession of concealed weapons, ranging from brass knuckles and sawed-off shotguns to rifles and handguns.
No members of the Phantoms have been implicated in Michael Hoffmann's slaying. Two of those charged -- Michael Naquin, 21, and Stephen Troese, 18 -- had been friends of Penkert's for years, but they both came from a straight world far different from the Phantoms.
Naquin worked as a typewriter repairman and had been a friend of Penkert's at Frederick Douglass High School. Troese, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, graduated from Frederick Douglas High School in June. He is the son of Stephen Troese, a wealthy lawyer from Upper Marlboro who has more than $1 million in assets in the county, according to testimony at the bond hearing.
According to court testimony, Troese supplied the gun that killed Michael Hoffman, stood by while Hoffman was shot and then helped dispose of the body. Police say that Troese also was responsible for asking two friends to participate in the murder.
Troese's friends say that he had used marijuana and PCP during high school, but never had been in any serious trouble. "He partied a lot," one friend said. "He went out with a lot of girls."
In high school, Troese prided himself on his athletic abilities. He was on the baseball, basketball and football teams and also lifted weights. He attended college on a football scholarship, and most of his high school grades were Bs. c
It was through Troese, prosecutors say, that two other young men -- Jeffrey Whittaker and George Harvey -- were allegedly recruited. Whitaker, 18, of Upper Marlboro, is a freshman at Johns Hopkins University and was a classmate of Troese's at Frederick Douglass High School.
At Douglass, Whittaker excelled in a variety of activities. He was on the baseball and football teams, played the piano and had good enough grades for the honor role. "Jeff was really into the books," one friend said. "He always seemed set on getting into a good college and going places."
Whittaker was on the honor roll in high school and took piano lessons. Like Troese, he experimented with drugs, including marijuana, cocaine and PCP, or "Angel Dust." But police say they have no reason to believe that either he or anyone else arrested had used drugs the day of the slaying.
Both Whittaker and Troese often played basketball with another young man charged in the slaying, George Harvey, 22 of Aquasco. Harvey allegedly fired the gun that killed Michael Hoffmann, according to court testimony.
Unlike Troese and Whittaker, Harvey did not come from an affluent family, and did not have as much ambition. But he worked hard as a house painter and a gardener for Troese's parents, as well as for other families. He had never been in trouble before.
In an interview at the county jail in Upper Marlboro, Harvey said that Troese invited him to Aquasco, but did not tell him the purpose of the meeting. He refused to talk about the crime, but said he never had received any money from Donna Hoffmann.
Harvey said he and Whittaker never had met Penkert or Naquin until the day of the slaying. "They were friends of Steve's," he said.
Police believe that Penkert met with Troese three days before the slaying and asked him to supply a gun and some friends. Penkert apparently met independently with Naquin before the killing, one police source said, but it was not known when or where.
Police believe that Donna Hoffmann distributed the $100 right after the slaying. Lynch, who lived with the couple, said that Donna Hoffmann was holding $100 in her fist at her apartment just before she drove her husband to Aquasco on the night of the shooting.
"She was holding all this money so I asked her for the money she owed me," Lynch said in an interview. "Then she said she had to give somebody $100 and couldn't pay me right then."
Donna Hoffmann, Penkert and their four alleged accomplices have been charged with first degree muirder. A grand jury is expected to decide this week whether to issue indictments.