MOUNT VERNON — A group of friends and neighbors, who gathered at the Columbus Road home of Donna Davis on Monday morning watched tearfully as helicopters continued to circle overhead. The large television is tuned to any breaking news which may bring word of the three people missing from an Apple Valley residence. The computer is carrying live feed of the same. They are waiting for any word about the three Apple Valley residents who remain missing.
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Many in this group once considered 30-year-old Matthew Hoffman a friend. The tree trimmer who spent many hours out at his fire pit, was apprehended Sunday morning when Knox County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team members raided his home and rescued 13-year-old Sarah Maynard.
Maynard’s 11-year-old brother Kody, her mother Tina Herrmann, and family friend Stephanie Sprang, remained missing Monday.
Those who said they knew Hoffman, paint a picture of a man with many eccentricities, whose behavior showed troubling changes over recent weeks.
“It’s crazy,” said Davis. “He seemed like a decent guy at first.” She is one of three mothers in the room who say their young sons have been to many sleepovers at Hoffman’s house.
“He told me ‘he [Hoffman] jumped with us on the trampoline and made popcorn,” said mother Leanda Cline.
Cline and Davis, along with Shara Davis of Mount Vernon, all have boys who played football with the eight-year-old son of Hoffman’s former girlfriend, a Mount Vernon woman the group declined to identify. Davis, who said she remains close friends with Hoffman’s former girlfriend, said the woman moved out about three to four weeks ago after an alleged domestic violence incident.
“He choked her,” Davis said. “And she warned us to keep our kids away from him.”
Davis said after months of sleepovers, accepting rides from Hoffman and spending time with him socially, his behavior became disturbing.
“His two dogs disappeared,” said Donna. “I believe in my heart that he killed those dogs,” she said tearfully, explaining that Hoffman’s explanations for what happened to the dogs while his girlfriend was out of town did not make sense.
“That’s when we started pulling back,” she said of her family’s relationship with Hoffman.
Before they believed his behavior became more erratic, she said her daughter, 14-year-old Sarah Fisher, accepted a ride home from Hoffman last winter after a movie.
“I let my daughter ride home alone with him,” she said regretfully.
“It was weird,” Fisher said of the ride. “We didn’t take the main roads back, we took the back roads. I came home and told my mom he made me uncomfortable.”
Ron Fowler, Donna’s live-in boyfriend, said he witnessed Hoffman setting squirrel traps in his backyard.
“We were feeding the squirrels, and he killed them,” Fowler said.
Donna said Hoffman’s ex-girlfriend reported he took the squirrels inside to eat them.
Shara Davis, Donna Davis, and Cline all grew up on Columbus Road, but admit they no longer feel safe there, citing many changes to the neighborhood.
They said several weeks before this incident they feared for Hoffman’s girlfriend’s safety.
“She always had to be real quiet when she came over, so he wouldn’t hear her,” Fisher said.
Donna said Hoffman was skilled with computers, and spent many hours on his before the electricity and gas were shut off to his house.
She said Hoffman told her he had served five years for a “robbery gone bad” in Colorado.
“I had asked him if he’d ever been locked up because he was so observant like people from prison are,” Donna said.
The neighbors describe Hoffman as a “very athletic” man who was often seen climbing trees by hoisting himself up with his arms.
The neighbors interviewed said they are hoping for the best, but fearing the worst for the people still missing.
“I’m so sorry for that family,” Donna said tearfully.
She said she is thrilled Sarah was found alive, but her biggest regret is that she did not know the little girl was being held captive only a few yards away from her home, and she could do nothing to help.
“I feel so bad that I was right here and didn’t hear anything,” Donna said emotionally.
She said she last saw Hoffman before his arrest, in the backyard Wednesday night, at his fire pit, poking into the flames as he watched the fire.
Fowler said he saw Hoffman on Friday in the late afternoon or early evening.
“I saw him Friday with his backpack walking towards the gravel pit,” Fowler said.
While search crews could be seen heading towards the old gravel pit at Foundation Park, Fowler said it is an area he believes Hoffman knew well.
“My son’s been swimming at the gravel pit with him,” Fowler said with concern.
Fowler and Donna both noticed a large silver pick-up they had never seen before was parked in front of Hoffman’s house since Wednesday. The truck was removed by law enforcement Sunday.
Many of the neighbors believe the story will end sadly. Donna said she has not slept since the sound of an explosion sounded next door to her home Sunday morning as SWAT crews entered Hoffman’s home.
She said she has many regrets.
“I kept my door unlocked so [Hoffman’s girlfriend’s son] could go back and forth,” she said. “I let him drive my daughter and I took rides from him. My son slept at his house.”
But Donna said what is troubling her the most right now, is knowing Sarah Maynard was being kept hostage next door while she and her family did not have any inkling something was wrong.
“That basement where she was, it was so dark and dirty she [Hoffman’s ex-girlfriend] wouldn’t let the dog down there,” she said sobbing.
She said while she never knew Maynard was trapped in the basement, she believes the young girl may have heard the many people coming and going from Donna’s house between Wednesday and Saturday.
She said whenever she stepped outside to shout her daughter Sarah’s name to call her inside, she is worried she may have given Maynard false hope.
“Every time I yelled for my daughter she [Sarah Maynard] probably thought someone was going to help her,” she said through tears.