Stephen Troese Jr. says he can remember the precise moment when Donna Hoffmann asked her boyfriend to get rid of the man she had married two months before. It was 1:10 a.m. last Dec. 15. They were in front of Hoffmann's apartment in Suitland, and she was complaining that her husband had forced her to stay at home instead of letting her go to a party with her boyfriend. "I wish you would get rid of him," she said.
Troese (pronounced Treece) says he did not believe Hoffmann really wanted John Penkert to kill her husband. But less than 17 hours later, 20-year-old Michael Hoffmann was dead, shot once in the head and once in the chest. By Dec. 17 six persons ranging in age from 18 to 25 had been charged with Hoffmann's murder. They included Hoffmann, Penkert and four of their friends.
Now all six are in jail, convicted of various murder charges, serving sentences ranging from 10 years to life in prison. But those who live in the Prince George's neighborhoods where they grew up continue to wonder how the killing ever could have happened.
"What I still don't understand," says Lawrence Hervey, a high school principal who lives down the road from the wooded murder site in Aquasco, "is why not one of those kids stopped and said, 'Hey, what we're doing is wrong.' It was like they were going to a picnic."
The six never addressed that question publicly. Five of them pleaded guilty, and Hoffmann's trial shed little light on the group's attitudes toward the killing. But some insight can be gleaned from court documents, particularly the six presentence reports and nine psychiatric reports filed on the defendants.
The presentence reports contain the defendants' written explanations of their roles in the crime, while the other reports contain the assessments of psychiatrists' and psychologists' of the factors that led the young people to become involved in the murder scheme.
Of the six defendants, only Stephen Troese consented to an interview. The lawyers for two others, George Harvey and Jeffrey Whittaker, also were interviewed by The Post, as were psychiatrists for Whittaker and Troese.
The interviews and court documents show that John Penkert was the only defendant who had a clear motive for the killing: Penkert wanted Michael dead because he did not want to share Donna with her husband. According to his confession to police, Penkert knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it.
The others had a much less clear understanding of the meaning and consequences of their actions, according to their own written statements. At the time, they were so interested in pleasing their friends in the group that they had little regard for the seriousness of what they would bring about: suffering and death.
None of the group, not even the gunman, thought he or she would be responsible for Michael's death. With responsibility for the plan divided among six persons, they felt as though they were going on a lark, rather than a murder, according to their descriptions. Some told themselves they could not get in trouble because they were not going to pull the trigger; others thought it really was not going to happen; and some simply refused to face the meaning of what they were doing.
Until the gun went off it did not seem possible to any of the six, the reports indicate, that they would be arrested for their actions and thrown in jail for years to come.
At least one psychiatrist, H. L. Resnik, suggests that the six may have carried out the murder because their values, and sense of reality, developed from watching television. "The Hoffmann murder had a game-like quality that suddenly got out of hand," says Resnik. "It moved with the fascination and intrigue of a television program."
Resnik's theory is supported somewhat by a complaint Donna made to her psychiatrist about the length of time that police interrogated her. "She became increasingly frightened by her realization that the police did not appear to be following the rules the way she had observed them on the TV programs she had watched," Dr. Richard Epstein wrote in his psychiatric evaluation.
Each played an important role in carrying out the murder: John Penkert, Donna's construction worker boyfriend, asked Stephen Troese to find someone to kill her husband. Troese, a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, asked George Harvey to kill Michael. Harvey, a tenant farmer for Troese's family, fired the gun and accepted a $100 payment from Donna.
Donna, who was unemployed, drove her husband to the murder scene in a heavily wooded area of Aquasco. Michael Naquin, a typewriter repairman, drove Penkert, Troese, Harvey and Jeffrey Whittaker to the murder scene. And Whittaker, a freshman at Johns Hopkins University who was home for Christmas vacation, got out of Naquin's car to give the Hoffmanns directions to Aquasco Farm Road, the murder scene, when they lost their way.
Donna Best Hoffmann, 18, grew up in a one-story brick house in Hillside, Md., down the block from a Chinese restaurant, a used car lot and a drive-in movie theater. Her father is an electrician, her mother is a housewife, her sister is a secretary.
Donna met Michael Hoffmann in a 10th-grade math class at Suitland High School, when she was 14 and he was 16. She was plump and bleached her hair blond; he was short and slight. The two fell in love quickly and Michael dropped out of school soon afterward, partly to earn enough money to spend on Donna, according to his brothers.
"He was a sucker for love," said Steve Hoffmann, 22, who was charged with assault for allegedly swinging at Donna (in a case that has not yet gone to trial) when he saw her outside a liquor store months after the murder. "He would do anything for her. He was like a baby walking a Saint Bernard."
For the next two years, according to her acquaintances, Donna talked of how one day she would marry Michael. Her friends believed her: the two always were together, according to Steve Hoffmann, especially after Donna also dropped out of school.
After leaving school, Donna worked at a variety of jobs: a clerk in the cosmetics department of Woolco department store; a waitress at Horn and Horn restaurant; a "shampoo girl" at the Hair Cuttery beauty parlor, and a clerk at Fanny Farmer Candies. All of her jobs were in Forestville, most at the Pen Mar shopping center. None lasted longer than nine months.
Michael, meanwhile, sometimes worked as a house painter and sometimes was unemployed, according to Steve Hoffmann. In October 1980, soon after the couple was married, Michael got a job as a clerk at Andrews Air Force Base. In his spare time, he went drinking with friends and listened to Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton records, his brother said.
To Donna, Michael was someone who would let her fulfill her dreams of wearing an engagement ring, getting married and having children, acquaintances of the couple said. He also was someone she could mother -- and dominate. When he became depressed, she would cheer him up. When he drank too much, as he often did, she scolded him and demanded that he change, Steve Hoffmann said.
Penkert was different. Donna met Penkert three years before the murder but did not begin dating him until two years after they met, according to Steve Hoffmann. Unlike Michael, Penkert, who was tall and muscular, did not need or want mothering; he wanted to control Donna, according to court testimony.
Once last summer Michael found his future wife and Penkert in his bedroom, according to Michael's brothers and sister. Shaken, Michael threatened Donna with ending their relationship, according to his friends. Donna would hear none of it. She wanted, she said, to marry him.
The two picked out their wedding bands at Woolco's department store in Forestville. They were married in October 1980 in the Prince George's County courthouse. Only Donna's parents attended their wedding.
Two months and 10 days later, Donna drove her husband to Aquasco and watched as he was shot and killed, prompting a judge in the Prince George's County Courthouse to ask: question: "Why didn't she just get a divorce? We're open here every day, 8 to 4:30."
The answer to that question, according to an evaluation by her psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Epstein, is that Donna did not want a divorce; she also did not want her husband to be killed.
According to Epstein's court testimony, Donna began lapsing in and out of sanity, in and out of reality, from the time she entered Suitland Junior High School at the age of 13. Sometimes, he said, she saw events with clarity and at other times she saw images from her own mind as reality.
She suffered such lapses into insanity during the events leading to the murder and the events immediately afterwards, according to Epstein's evaluation. As a result, according to the evaluation, reality seemed "ungenuine" to her -- so ungenuine, in fact, that she did not believe that either her conversations with Penkert and Troese about killing her husband or her ride with her husband to the murder scene would really result in his death.
According to Epstein's testimony, Donna may have been born with a tendency to lapse in and out of reality. But that tendency probably was aggravated, he testified, by her parents, who would fight and then deny that they were fighting, or talk of separating and then deny that they were going to leave each other.
"She is the type of individual who has had a great deal of difficulty maintaining a consistent and well-organized view of reality," Epstein wrote in his evaluation.
Testimony during Donna's trial gave evidence of her breaks with reality, according to one psychiatrist. For example, when hours before the murder Penkert smashed the windows of Michael's car, and Jeffrey Whittaker asked Donna what had happened, she said: "I've been raped."
When Donna returned home after the shooting, she phoned police to report her husband missing. When police would not look for him because he was over 18, she wrote a note saying Michael had been kidnaped -- "We have your husband and he will be die sic ," it said -- and phoned police again.
"The note was the product of a mentally disturbed mind," Epstein testified. "A rationally organized mind would not have made up such a story."
After the murder, she and John Penkert continued to see each other while they were free on bond awaiting trial, according to court testimony. In July, when Penkert was interviewed for his presentence report, he noted that he had "mixed feelings" about her.
Today, Donna is an inmate in the House of Corrections for Women in Jessup, Md., where she is serving a life sentence.
Donna is now pregnant. In July she told a county judge that her late husband was the father of her unborn baby. She said she expected to deliver the baby in September, exactly nine months after her husband was murdered.
Earlier this month she tried unsuccessfully to win release from jail because of her pregnancy. The baby has not yet been born.
John Penkert, 25, had trouble with women for much of his life. But Donna caused him more torment than any other woman he had known. She was fickle. She spent some of her time with Penkert and some with her husband. Penkert, who is now serving a 30-year sentence in the Maryland penitentiary in Baltimore, figured he could solve his problems with Donna by getting someone to murder Michael.
"I did it because I love her," he wrote in his confession to police.
Penkert said in his presentence report that his troubles with women began with his mother. As a child and teen-ager, he wrote, he felt as though his mother, an Upper Marlboro housewife, tried to run his life. To get away from her, he wrote, he dropped out of Crossland High School and got married at the age of 16; then he tried to run the lives of the women he became involved with. When they crossed him, he became angry and/or suicidal.
When his wife decided she wanted a separation, Penkert swallowed a bottle of pills, according to an emergency room record from St. Mary's Hospital that was attached to his presentence report. The two did not separate then, but were divorced several years later, in 1979.
After that he began to date Donna. Last year, when she married Michael, Penkert slashed his wrists with a knife in front of the couple, in the courtyard next to their first-floor garden apartment. The wrist-slashing occurred two months before the murder, according to court documents.
During the month before the shooting, Donna spent much more time with Penkert in his basement apartment in Suitland than she spent with her husband, according to court testimony. But when she did return home, Penkert would become angry.
When Penkert would confront Donna with her unfaithfulness to him, she would blame Michael.
"She would say that her husband was bothering her and beating her," Troese said in an interview.
The result was that Penkert became much more angry with Michael than with Donna. "Starting about a week before the death," Troese wrote in his presentence report, "Penkert told me a couple of times that Donna was married and that her husband would harass her. He also said he would like to beat him up so that he would finally leave him alone. He didn't say anything about killing her husband."
The idea of beating Michael became a murder plan 17 hours before he was shot, according to Penkert's and Donna's statements.
The event that precipitated the change of plan, according to Stephen Troese, was that Donna went home to Michael instead of meeting Penkert at a party, as she had promised. So Penkert and his friends, at 1 a.m. on December 15, drove to the Hoffmanns' apartment next to Suitland High School and banged on the pink door.
Michael answered; Donna came out of the bedroom in her nightgown.
"Get dressed," Penkert said to her. "You're coming with me."
Penkert was angry; he grabbed a hammer from the apartment, went outside and bashed out the windows of Michael's white Camaro, according to a statement made to police by Ray Lynch, who lived with the couple but played no role in the murder scheme.
Donna left the apartment with Penkert. As they walked away, leaving Michael behind in the apartment, she turned to Penkert and said: "I wish you would get rid of him."