Jeffrey Whittaker first saw the flash, then heard the sound of the gun. Next he heard Michael Hoffmann, who was walking four feet ahead of him. "Oh my God," Hoffmann groaned, as he fell on his back, to the ground. "Oh, Donna," he said to his wife, who stood beside Whittaker in her white rabbit fur coat.
Then there was a second shot and Hoffmann, 20, was dead.
Donna Hoffmann, Whittaker and the man who fired the gun, George Harvey, ran down Aquasco Farm Road, jumped into a brown car with three of their friends and drove off. "Thank you," Donna said as she reached into her handbag, took out $100 and handed it to the gunman, who was sitting in front of her.
Of the six friends who helped bring about Michael's murder, only two -- Donna, 18, and her boyfriend, John Penkert, 25 -- had an emotional stake in the plan. Michael's disappearance cleared the way for them to carry on their relationship.
But the motivation for the other four young people involved in the killing last December was much less clear. None had anything to gain from the killing; all had a great deal to lose.
Whittaker, 18, was a freshman at Johns Hopkins University. Stephen Troese (pronounced Treece), 18, was a freshman at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Michael Naquin, 21, was a typewriter repairman who had a wife and child. Harvey, 20, was a tenant farmer.
Now all are in prison on murder convictions, serving sentences ranging from 10 years to life.
All pleaded guilty to the crimes with which they were charged; no detailed explanations were offered in court as to how the young men came to participate in a killing. But some insight into their involvement in the murder can be found in the six presentence reports and nine psychiatric or psychological reports filed in court in connection with the case.
The presentence reports contain the defendants' written explanations of their attitudes toward the murder. Although there is no way of knowing whether their descriptions after the murder accurately reflect their feelings before the killing, the statements are the best available version of why the teen-agers and young adults went along with the crime.
In general, the reports from psychiatrists and psychologists show that whatever reservations Troese, Whittaker, Naquin and Harvey possessed seemed less important at the time of the killing than the need of each of the four to please at least one other member of the group.
Their individual needs for acceptance were so great, and the fulfillment of those needs apparently was so satisfying, that the four were able to shrug off responsibility for their actions. At the time, it all seemed like a great adventure among friends, without meaning or consequences.
The friendship between Penkert and Stephen Troese seemed odd to their friends, because the two had vastly different backgrounds. Troese was the son of a millionaire lawyer and landowner; he grew up in a two-story, five-bedroom red brick house with a pool and tennis court in Upper Marlboro. His parents separated when he was 13 and Troese lived with his father.
At Frederick Douglass Senior High School, Troese was known as a "jock"; he played baseball, basketball and football.
Penkert, on the other hand, was known among the teen-agers of Upper Marlboro as a "head." Penkert hung around with the Phantoms, a motorcycle gang, and sold PCP, according to his own statements. Penkert's father was a construction foreman. Unlike Troese, who always knew he would go to college, Penkert never expected to go.
In the end, it was the differences between the two that fascinated Troese and made him willing to fulfill Penkert's request to find someone to kill Michael, according to Dr. H.L.P. Resnik, Troese's psychiatrist.
The event that brought the two together was a leg injury Troese suffered during his first semester at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. As a result, he could not play on the football team, as he had intended, and he was not very interested in studying. He decided to drop out of college and return home, despite opposition from his father.
"When Stephen was injured early in the season, he perceived his coach and team no longer needed him and for the first time ever, he found himself empty and depressed," Resnik wrote in his psychiatric evaluation.
Once Troese was at home, a friend introduced him to Penkert. The two became friends, Troese says, and began smoking the drug PCP together in Penkert's basement garden apartment in Suitland. On a few occasions, according to Troese, Donna and members of the Phantom motorcycle gang also would be in Penkert's apartment.
Troese was intrigued by the biker culture that Penkert represented, according to Resnik. He was so intrigued, in fact, that he would do anything to please Penkert, whom he perceived as his new coach.
"Penkert had me in the palm of his hand," Troese said during an interview earlier this month at the Patuxent Correctional Facility in Jessup, Md., where he is serving a life sentence.
Troese's psychiatrist believes that his patient's willingness to help with the murder was also the result of his use of the drug PCP earlier in the day. But prosecutor Michael Whalen questions whether PCP had a significant impact on Troese, pointing out that he smoked the drug six hours before the shooting and was able to discuss the murder plan with intelligence.
In an interview, Troese said that during the 17 hours in which he planned Michael Hoffmann's death, he did not feel as though he would be responsible for a murder.
At the time, he said, he did not feel as though he was recruiting Harvey to murder someone. "I was just putting Penkert in touch with Harvey," Troese said.
He added that he told himself, when Penkert took a rifle from Troese's house and put it in the trunk of Troese's car, that the gun had nothing to do with the already-discussed plan to kill Michael.
"I didn't know what he was going to do with it," Troese said. "I didn't think it was going to be used for any murder."
On the afternoon of the murder, when Troese and Penkert sat in the living room of Troese's mother's house in Suitland and gave Donna directions to the murder site in Aquasco, Troese felt that he was merely telling Donna where to locate Harvey, he said.
Troese denied that he handed the gun to Harvey at the murder scene; he claims that Naquin handed Harvey the gun. Whittaker, Harvey and Naquin say that Troese handed it to Harvey.
The way Troese tells it, he did not really comprehend that a murder was taking place until he heard the gun go off.
"I couldn't believe it happened," he said. "I was dazed the whole time. I was scared. When I went home, I was white and shaking. I didn't tell my father what happened but he knew something was up. I was scared to death; I'm just not that kind of person."
Jeffrey Scott Whittaker, 18, who rode with the Hoffmanns to the murder scene and watched as Michael was shot, grew up in a two-story white house with gray shutters in an affluent section of Upper Marlboro, about one mile from Troese's home. The two had been acquaintances since the third grade, when they began playing football together. They became good friends during their senior year in high school, according to former classmates.
Whittaker was an A student at Frederick Douglass High. He played the trombone and piano, wrote poetry and played varsity football and basketball. At the time of the murder, he was a freshman at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, home for Christmas vacation. He is currently serving a 15-year sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.
It was Whittaker's friendship and admiration for Troese that led him to fulfill Troese's request minutes before the murder to lead the Hoffmanns down the dirt road to the murder site, according to Dr. Brian Crowley, Whittaker's psychiatrist.
"Troese was everything Whittaker wanted to be," said Tom Heeney, Whittaker's lawyer. "He represented money and power; he drove a fast car and came from a wealthy family" -- more wealthy than Whittaker's.
At the heart of Whittaker's willingness to please Troese, according to Heeney, was the fact that Whittaker, who is black, did not feel as though he fit in with the other blacks of Upper Marlboro, who generally were not as affluent as his family. But Whittaker also did not feel as though he fit in with his white friends. "He never felt like he really belonged," said Heeney.
Whittaker might have been able to refuse Troese's request if he had had "a good sense of right and wrong," according to Crowley. But he did not.
"I really don't know about morals," Whittaker told Crowley, according to Crowley, who read from his notes. "I didn't think I had any morals at the time. I just thought I could get away with it. They said they'd take care of the body."
It is difficult to understand exactly why Whittaker felt this way. Crowley claims part of the reason may lie in Whittaker's relationship with his parents. Whenever Whittaker's father, a computer analyst, would order him to do something -- like clean his room or come home at a certain time -- Whittaker would obey, acting like a "good boy," according to Crowley. But inwardly, Whittaker would feel rebellious.
"Jeffrey came to see authority as something outside himself," Crowley said. "He did not internalize values so that he was his own authority."
Six hours before the murder, Whittaker smoked the drug PCP. Crowley believes the drug put Whittaker into an "altered state of consciousness," which contributed to his decision to participate in the murder.
Whittaker was present when Troese, Penkert and Donna planned the murder. He watched and listened while Troese and Penkert gave Donna directions to the murder scene, and she carefully wrote them down.
Donna had two questions: how would she get away from the murder scene after the murder, and what would they do with the body? Troese said he and Penkert would wait for her in a car down the road and they would take care of the body, according to court testimony.
All this time, Whittaker did not say anything. He was not fazed by their conversation, he later told Heeney; he felt as though his friends' actions were none of his business.
"They'll do anything they want to do," Whittaker said, according to Heeney, who read from his notes. "It's their thing, not my thing."
Troese had a question: Did Whittaker want to come along? Whittaker wasn't sure. Troese suggested he go for the ride; Whittaker agreed.
"There was no rational reason why he went along," says Heeney. "Except that he figured that he was uninvolved, that he was just an observer who had no duty to intervene or say no."
Whittaker, Penkert, Troese and Naquin got into Naquin's car and drove south to Aquasco, where they picked up Harvey and waited several miles from the murder site, at the local hardware store on Rte. 381, for Donna and her husband to drive by.
But Donna and Michael got lost; they passed Naquin's car and could not seem to locate Aquasco Farm Road. Troese asked Whittaker, whom Michael had never met, to get out of the car and give them directions to the murder site. Whittaker at first protested; then he obliged.
Then the Hoffmanns got lost again. Whittaker, who was standing by the hardware store, walked toward their car, got in, and rode with them to the murder site, according to court testimony.
"Whittaker was like the dutiful German soldier marching off to obey Hitler's command," said Heeney. "At that point nothing seemed to matter to him; the violence didn't seem real to him."
Michael Naquin, a 21-year-old typewriter repairman who drove his friends to the murder site, lived in a mobile home in Upper Marlboro. He met Troese through a mutual friend one week before the murder.
He graduated from Frederick Douglass Senior High School, where he was a member of the junior varsity football team and the track team. He is married and has a 1-year-old daughter, and is currently serving a 10-year sentence at the Maryland state penitentiary in Baltimore.
Naquin claims he became involved in the scheme because he did not know it would lead to a killing.
"Steve Troese, one of the codefendants, called me the evening the crime was committed and asked me to come over to his house. There he told me they were going to take care of someone. I did not know who or why," Naquin said in his presentence report. "Through my own stupidity, I went with them. I did not believe they were going to kill anyone."
Nevertheless, Naquin had reason to suspect that something serious might happen: when he picked up Troese, Penkert and Whittaker to drive them to the murder scene, Troese placed a rifle in the trunk of his car, according to Naquin's statement.
"Steve Troese placed a gun in my car but I did not ask why he had placed it there," Naquin wrote. "I felt that something was going to happen but did not say anything."
Within one hour, Michael Hoffmann was dead.
George Harvey, 20, who fired the gun that killed Michael, was 13 years old when he met Troese. Harvey and his family raised tobacco for the Troese family on the Troese farm in Aquasco, just yards from the site of Michael's murder.
Harvey lived in a dilapidated two-story wood house on the Troese farm. He shared the house, which did not have electricity until recently, with his five brothers, three sisters, father and stepmother.
After he dropped out of Gwynn Park Senior High School in the 10th grade, he began working full time for the Troese family, both on the farm in Aquasco and at the family's house in Upper Marlboro.
Harvey was used to doing what Troese wanted. Usually, Troese's father would give Harvey orders, but when he was away, the orders -- to clean the pool, or hang the tobacco leaves, or paint the fence -- would come from Steve.
Although Troese sometimes acted as his boss, Harvey considered Troese his "best white friend," according to a 21-page statement he gave his lawyer. For years, Troese helped Harvey mow the grass on his father's farm, played basketball with him, lent him money, took him to the race track and bought him cigarettes. Together, they used to go to a segregated bar in Aquasco, where Harvey was given the dubious honor of drinking beer and shooting pool with whites -- on the other side of the room from the blacks -- because he was with Troese.
Harvey's feelings of indebtedness to Troese led him to commit the murder, according to Harvey's statement. "Well, I feel like this," he said. "I feel like if I didn't do him this favor, you know then when I needed some money or something like that, I need some food in the house or something like that, he wasn't going to loan me no money."
Harvey, who is now serving a life sentence at the Maryland penitentiary in Baltimore, felt especially in need of Troese's friendship at the time of the murder, according to his psychologist. Harvey had been feeling lonely and insecure; his girlfriend, the mother of his child, had left him three days earlier for another man.
In addition to his feelings of indebtedness and insecurity, there was another factor that led Harvey to commit the murder, according to the psychologists who examined him.
Harvey is of limited intelligence, with an I.Q. of 70, his lawyer, Robert Matty, said at Harvey's sentencing. Whenever he is in a situation that he feel he cannot grasp, "he is overwhelmed by anxiety, and he attempts to cope with the anxiety by retreating to a preoccupation with tiny details," his psychologist, Alan L. Plotkin, wrote in a report.
When Troese visited Harvey hours before the murder to ask him if he would "rub out" Michael, Harvey refused to see the big picture -- or admit to himself that he was going to kill Hoffmann, according to the statement he gave his lawyer. All day long, Harvey told himself that he was merely going to fight someone, not kill someone, according to his statement.
Minutes before the murder, on the dirt road several yards away from the spot where Michael was to be murdered, Harvey was handed a rifle. He felt troubled, according to his statement. He had been thinking that he and Troese would fight Michael together, but suddenly he was expected to face him alone, with a gun.
At the murder scene, while Harvey waited in the bushes, rifle in hand, for Michael to appear, he continued to tell himself that he was not going to kill Michael, he said in his statement.
"When I started to get up and hit him Michael with the gun," he said. "Then the gun went off."