Thursday, September 4, 2014
BUCYRUS, Ohio (AP) — An Ohio man was charged with aggravated murder Thursday in the slayings of four men who were found in separate homes in one small city earlier this week.
Donald Hoffman, of Bucyrus, has been in custody since Tuesday, when authorities say he walked into the police department and provided information that led officers to two bodies. Two others had been found a day earlier.
Hoffman, 41, was jailed on a probation violation until he was charged. A judge ordered him held on $10 million bond — $2.5 million for each alleged slaying — following a recommendation from the prosecutor, who said Hoffman's criminal record includes assault, menacing and theft.
The slain men had been beaten, strangled or both, the county coroner said Thursday.
"There's no doubt that the defendant has been accused of a series of horrific crimes," Crawford County Municipal Court Judge Sean Leuthold said at Hoffman's initial court appearance. "If he did commit those crimes, he poses a threat to basically every citizen in this community."
A message was left for Hoffman's appointed attorney.
Hoffman appeared via video feed from jail, seated in an orange jail outfit with his arms crossed. He spoke only to acknowledge that he understood an explanation of how the case would proceed. Authorities said the case could be presented to a grand jury Monday.
More than two dozen relatives of the victims attended the hearing, some wiping tears as the judge read the charges. Most left without commenting, but a few made statements of grief, anger or confusion about why their loved ones might have been killed.
The bodies of 55-year-old Billy Jack Chatman and 67-year-old Freelin Hensley were discovered Monday at their homes in this city of 12,000 residents about 65 miles north of Columbus. On Tuesday, the bodies of 65-year-old Darrell Lewis and 65-year-old Gerald Lee Smith were found.
The coroner, Dr. Michael Johnson, said Thursday that Smith and Hensley died from being strangled with a cord and beaten in the head. Lewis died from strangulation with a cord, and Chatman died from head trauma.
Bucyrus police Chief Dave Koepke said investigators are trying to establish a timeline for the slayings and determine the motive.
Hensley's sister Brenda Lauthers said she found a frying pan in a bathroom sink near his body and that the family of another victim told her that man apparently was hit with a hammer. Police refused to discuss those kinds of details, citing the investigation.
Friends and family say at least some of the victims and suspect knew each other — as poker or drinking buddies, through mutual acquaintances or perhaps by proximity.
Hensley was a former auto shop owner who loved motorcycles, his relatives said.
He lived less than a half-mile from Lewis, who'd had hip replacements last year, several of Lewis' neighbors said. Lewis got disability checks at the start of each month and "was just an old guy who was not very strong," said Jeannie Beasley, his 60-year-old neighbor.
Lewis' brothers, Lee and Mike Lewis, said they suspect he drank with Hoffman.
Chatman's daughter, Macy Chatman, said her father had known Hoffman for years.
Hoffman at one point lived close to Hensley, Lauthers said. Police said Hoffman also previously lived at a hotel room down the block from the property where Smith was found.
As investigators try to sort out such links, the families await answers.
"We are lost," said Donna Hardymon, Hensley's daughter. "There are four empty souls that left this world for no reason."
The town is unaccustomed to such violent crime but doesn't shy from discussing what residents and police describe as prevalent drug problems, especially with heroin.
At a Thursday prayer service attended by about 100 people, including some of the victims' relatives, local religious leaders talked about overcoming addiction and finding forgiveness and peace.
Associated Press writers Mitch Stacy and Jennifer Smola in Columbus, Ohio, and Mark Gillispie in Cleveland contributed to this report.