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Ohio sheriff: Missing mom, 2 others may be dead

MOUNT VERNON, Ohio (AP) — Fearing the worst, investigators searched a lake for three missing people Monday after a teenage girl who disappeared along with them was found bound and gagged in the basement of a man’s home nearby.

Sheriff David Barber conceded that 13-year-old Sarah Maynard’s mother and brother and a family friend may be dead. All four vanished last Wednesday from the girl’s home, which was splattered with blood, police said.

“We still would like to retain a hopeful attitude,” the sheriff said, “but we have to be realistic.”

On Sunday, Sarah was rescued from the home of 30-year-old ex-convict Matthew J. Hoffman, who was arrested and charged with her kidnapping. The sheriff would not discuss details of Sarah’s ordeal.

“She is a very brave little girl,” Barber said. “Under the circumstances, a 13-year-old girl being held captive for four days by a total stranger ... I would call her the epitome of bravery.”

Investigators, using a helicopter to guide them, searched a lake, bike paths, riverbanks and other places in and around a park across from Hoffman’s home in hopes of finding Sarah’s mother, 32-year-old Tina Herrmann; the woman’s 10-year-old son, Kody Maynard; and her 41-year-old friend, Stephanie Sprang.

Police used a sonar-equipped boat to scan below the surface. Later in the day, three divers searched the lake, setting out orange floating makers where they went in the water.

A search team pulled an old four-door car out of the lake just before sunset and an SUV a short time later. Investigators said it didn’t appear that either vehicle was related to the people’s disappearances.

After describing the investigation for days as a missing-persons case, the sheriff referred to it as “an investigation into the recovery of three people” — a significant shift in tone.

About 200 community members gathered Monday evening for a candlelight vigil at a church about two blocks from Hoffman’s home and around the corner from the park.

“I’m expecting the worst but hoping for the best,” said Jacki Mace, a manager at Sunset Lane Tanning, where Herrmann visited daily and Sprang visited less frequently but on a regular basis.

Mace, 20, said Herrmann was last in the salon Wednesday morning. She called Herrmann “a sweetheart.”

“If you were feeling down that day she’d do anything to make you smile, pick you up, tell you a funny story. She was a delight,” Mace said. “And Stephanie was the same. She was just a sweetie. They were so nice. Never had any problems with them.”

Rachel Proper, 25, attended the vigil with husband and said they wanted to show support for the family. She said she knew of Herrmann from the Dairy Queen where Herrmann worked.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before; it’s just very terrifying,” she said. “It could have been anybody.”

It was unclear how well Hoffman knew the four missing people, but the sheriff suggested that the defendant had been watching them.

“They knew Hoffman or Hoffman made himself known to them; he acquainted himself with the family whether they knew he was acquainting himself with them or not,” Barber said.

The sheriff did not say what led investigators to Hoffman’s two-story, tan-sided house, situated about 40 miles north of Columbus and about 10 miles from Sarah’s home in the town of Howard.

The sheriff said authorities first questioned Hoffman on Thursday, the day after Herrmann failed to show up for work at the Dairy Queen. Police found him sitting in his car near a bike trail opposite property owned by Kenyon College, near where Herrmann’s pickup truck was found, Barber said.

Hoffman was jailed without bail after his arrest over the weekend and did not have an attorney, the sheriff said. He would not say how cooperative Hoffman was being and would not comment on whether the girl was assaulted. The girl was released from a hospital and was staying with relatives, he said.

Hoffman was sentenced to eight years in prison in Colorado in 2001 for arson and other charges, Colorado Department of Corrections spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti said. The conviction stemmed from a town house fire set to cover up a burglary, according to news accounts in the Steamboat Springs Pilot & Today.

Hoffman was allowed to move to Ohio in 2007 after being released on parole, which ended about a month ago. He had paid about $4,800 toward $2.06 million in restitution, Colorado court system spokesman Jon Sarche said.

Hoffman’s mother and stepfather own a home less than a mile from where Sarah and her mother lived in a split-level house surrounded by a big yard, trees and two country roads. Hoffman last lived at his mother’s home two years ago, said a woman who answered the door Monday and identified herself as his mother. The woman declined to comment further before going back inside.

Neighbors said Hoffman often collected leaves on walks through the park, which has three lakes where people fish.

A woman who has lived next to Hoffman for about a year said she told her children to stay indoors when he was out.

“He would sit and listen to us up in a tree. He had a hammock, and he would sit there and listen to us,” Dawna Davis said. “He was just different. He was very different.”

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Associated Press writers Doug Whiteman in Columbus and P. Solomon Banda in Denver contributed to this report.

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