Oh, Donna

Donna Hoffman

I had a girl
Donna was her name
Since she left me
I’ve never been the same

~ “Oh, Donna” by Richie Valens, 1958

Michael Hoffman was so head-over-heels in love with 19-year-old Donna Best that when he found her in their bed with another man, he not only forgave her, he decided the way to prevent such incidents in the future was to make her his bride.
Michael, a shy and impressionable high-school dropout who worked as a civilian clerk at Andrews Air Force Base, did not know it, but the man he discovered in bed with Donna, construction worker John Penkert, was one of the men who would eventually go down for his 1980 murder.
“He was a real sucker for her,” Michael’s brother, Steve, told the Washington Post in 1982. “He would do anything for her. He was like a baby walking a St. Bernard.”
There was nothing spectacular about Donna, and the only photographs we have are her as a plump, bleach blonde with a Farrah Fawcett hairdo.
It is apparent that Michael, 20, had a broken picker. Donna, the girl he met in math class when he was 16 and she was 14, and who often talked publicly of marrying him, was a loser with little chance of breaking out of that role.
Donna grew up in a rundown brick home in a working class Washington, D.C. suburb that was slowly falling victim to the national crack epidemic. Donna’s father was a heavy drinker who turned into a mean drunk and frequently fought with her mother, a housewife. One sister managed to escape the situation, but Donna apparently found another way of coping.
At Donna’s trial for her role in Michael’s murder, defense psychiatrists testified that Donna appeared to be borderline schizophrenic.
“She is the type of individual who has a great deal of difficulty maintaining a consistent and well-organized view of reality,” wrote Dr. Richard Epstein in a report. “Sometimes she saw events with clarity and at other times she saw images from her own mind as reality.”
Epstein testified that Donna began lapsing in and out of sanity, in and out of reality, from the time she entered junior high.
She dropped out of high school in the 11th grade and when it was clear she did not have the drive to support herself, Donna urged Michael to quit school, too, so she would not have to return to her troubled family.
Donna needed Michael’s support: The longest she held a job until she went to prison was 9-1/2 months when she worked behind the cosmetic counter at an area Woolco store. Most of the time she survived by babysitting and waiting tables.
Michael was killed by six young people — the oldest was Penkert at 25 — only two of whom had any reason at all to want Michael dead.
That’s what so strange about this case: Each participant should have been smart enough to stop the runaway train before it derailed. Instead, they all went along for the ride and Michael ended up dead.
“What I still don’t understand,” the principal of the high school where the killers and victim attended told the Post, “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.”
We will probably never get an answer to Principal Lawrence Hervey’s question. The crime was so ill-planned and executed that five of the six defendants did not even bother to go to trial, instead pleading guilty to crimes that carried sentences from 10 years to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
Only Donna went to trial, and she was convicted of murder in the first degree. She received a life term with a parole possibility.
In the various allocutions conducted when the conspirators entered their pleas, no one could offer any reason for the crime except that a friend had asked for help with a problem.
Donna and Penkert were the only ones who could provide a motive for why Michael had to die, and those motives were as weak as 3.2 beer.
According to Stephen Troese, Jr., whose participation in the crime earned him a life sentence at the age of 18, Donna wanted Michael gone because he had the temerity to want her to stay home rather than go to a party with Penkert. He wanted Michael dead so he could continue to bed Donna. Troese was the only killer to ever speak outside of court about the murder.
Fortunately, we do have some insights from criminologists who interviewed the gang as part of the judicial process and the statements each defendant wrote in their pre-sentence investigations.
Most of the participants had problems ranging from the threat of expulsion from college to drug addiction, delusions and suicidal tendencies.
Penkert was a hang-around (or possibly a member) of a local motorcycle gang called the Phantoms. He was covered in tattoos long before they became widely socially acceptable, and was a fan of a PCP/pot mix that kicked up the hallucinogenic properties up about 10 notches. He made other drugs like amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin available to his friends.
“He was also erratic, constantly threatening suicide when his love life foundered,” wrote Cy Egan in the Post. “Married at 16 to escape a domineering mother, Penkert actually swallowed a bottle of pills when his wife asked for a divorce.”
Later, police would be summoned to the hotel where Michael and Donna were spending their wedding night after Penkert showed up, causing a scene. He was hospitalized after slashing his wrists.
The wedding night was simply a preview of what was to come.
Michael quickly realized that the marriage was a mistake, but he did not take steps to end it. Instead, he stayed out late with his friends and generally avoided his young bride. Feeling rejected, Donna rekindled her affair with Penkert. Michael’s fate was sealed when Donna began spreading falsehoods about how Michael was abusing her.
The crime went from idea — when Donna wished aloud that Penkert “would get rid of Michael” — to arrest in just 48 hours. In fact, it was 17 hours from the time that Donna first expressed her desire to be rid of Michael to the murder, according to Troese.
The conspiracy was fairly simple: Donna wanted Michael out of her life as did Penkert. He asked Troese, a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, to find someone who would kill his rival. Troese reached out to George Harvey, 20, a farmer renting land from the very wealthy Troese family, who agreed to do the job for $100.
The brain trust planned the actual murder while sitting around smoking PCP.
“At the time they had little regard for the seriousness of what was about to happen,” wrote Epstein. “With responsibility divided among six persons, they felt they were going on a lark. It had a game-like quality. It moved along with the fascination and intrigue of a TV program.”
The plan was for Donna to pick up Michael and go to a remote location where the other conspirators would be waiting.
Donna drove her husband to the scene of the murder, while Michael Naquin drove Penkert, Troese, Harvey, and Jeffrey Whittaker to the spot. Whittaker was a freshman at Johns Hopkins University who happened to be home on Christmas break.
When Michael got out of the car at the abandoned farmhouse, Harvey stepped forward and put a rifle bullet into Michael’s chest. The wound was not instantly fatal, and according to the witnesses, Michael’s last words were addressed to his wife.
“Oh, my God!” he exclaimed, followed by “Oh, Donna.”
Harvey put another shot into Michael’s head and the deed was done.
They staged the scene as a robbery gone bad, and Donna expressed her appreciation to Harvey, handing him $100 and her gratitude. Then they returned home.
Donna called the police to report that Michael had vanished, but as he was over 18 and had not been missing long, the police told her to call back.
Instead, for some inexplicable reason, Donna got the bright idea to force investigators to become involved by writing a ransom note and notifying police.
Donna quickly confessed and the dominos fell quickly. Everyone blamed everyone else and claimed to have been swept along by events.
“I couldn’t believe it happened,” Troese said in his pre-sentence investigation report. “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.”
Troese’s friend, Naquin, did take some of the blame.
“Steve Troese…asked me to come over to his house,” he wrote in his confession. “There he told me they were going to take care of someone. I did not know who or why.
“Through my own stupidity, I went with them. I did not believe they were going to kill anyone.”
Harvey, the trigger man, had an IQ of 70, according to his lawyer. Whenever he is in a situation that confuses him, “he is overwhelmed by anxiety, and he attempts to cope with the anxiety by retreating to a preoccupation with tiny details.”
According to the attorney, Harvey “told himself that he was merely going to fight, not kill someone.”
Donna never gave any statement.
Shortly after she was sentenced, Donna gave birth to a child. She told authorities she thought Michael was the father.
All of the killers have served at least their minimum sentence and as of 2015, none is listed as being in custody in Maryland.

Losing It All

Helen Joy Morgan

When Helen Joy Morgan went on trial for murder in 1933, the press was quick describe her as a “pretty, cultured, convent-bred heiress,” but not one reporter was willing to point out that she was also quite nuts.
She was not crazy in the medico-legal sense of the word where a person is not responsible for their actions. Instead, Helen was a whack-job obsessive girlfriend who would brook no rival for the affections of her boyfriend, a Flint, Michigan, garage mechanic, and was willing and able to kill to protect what she thought was hers.
It is hard to say in whose book except Helen’s that the boyfriend, Leslie Casteel, would be considered a catch, but when Helen met him, she was immediately head-over-heels for the grease monkey.
They were a study in contrasts. He could neither read nor write and preferred colognes and perfumes to bathing.
Helen was the sole heir to the wealth amassed by the Morgan family of Chicago. Helen’s mother owned valuable properties in the Loop area of the Windy City, in California, as well as a plantation in Mississippi and real estate outside of Flint (Readers are reminded that back in the 1920s and 30s, Flint was home to a thriving automobile industry with all of the wealth and social strata of Detroit).
To say Helen and Les had nothing in common is putting it mildly. She moved in America’s most exclusive society — Old Money — and he was 43-year-old a thrice-married, illiterate, serial philanderer who was more than 10 years her senior.
After Helen graduated from the exclusive convent boarding school in the early 1920s, she and her widowed mother, Carrie, moved to Flint. There they were welcomed into the city’s high society, but Helen never expressed any enthusiasm for the many eligible bachelors who were hoping to make her acquaintance.
Not interested in the activities of Flint’s tony set, Helen instead enjoyed taking long country drives by herself. It was on one of the jaunts that her car broke down and Helen met Les.
No one connected to the case could really give a good reason why Helen found Les so appealing. Maybe it was a rebellious act; it might have been that she thought society boys to be immature; perhaps she thought that she could control Leslie easier than a man from her own social stratum. Could be she saw a “bad boy” who needed fixing. We will never know.
What was clear was that once the 27-year-old Helen set eyes on Leslie Casteel, he was the most important thing in her life. It was this obsession with Leslie that prompted her to buy a gun and kill him when it appeared his ardor for her had cooled.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves in this story.
The Widow Morgan was not at all happy with her daughter’s choice of a boyfriend, so soon Helen had moved out of their mansion into a small cabin owned by the mechanic.
“There she cooked his meals and cashed his pay checks and kept house,” wrote one anonymous reporter. “There she was content to ignore all of the luxury she had known since childhood and to slave for an ignorant, uncouth man whose only qualification was that she loved him.”
Carrie Morgan’s fight to keep her daughter probably pushed Helen even closer to Les. The family matriarch sent her daughter to California for several months, hoping it would cool the flame. Her plan was halfway successful, for in Helen’s absence Les returned to his philandering ways.
Helen, for her part, remained just as infatuated as ever, even after she learned that because of his illiteracy, Les had the other workers in the garage read him Helen’s love letters.
Carrie then took out her big stick and disinherited her only child. That made no difference to Helen, although we have no reports about how Les felt about losing out on the Morgan millions.
To be fair to Les Casteel, he never appeared to be after Helen for her money. Even his relatives were not impressed by Helen’s money. Noting that the couple was a cosmic mismatch, they scorned and shunned the young woman, who remained undeterred.
Les’s real motivation for the relationship with Helen was simply sex. A man with three divorces is clearly not a big believer in commitment, and eventually the novelty of making love to Helen wore off. Les began to look for other woman, tripping Helen’s jealousy switch with a vengeance.
In today’s world it does not seem unusual to hear about someone stalking their lover (former or otherwise), but this apparently was something not done in the 1930s, much less an act committed by a woman from Old Money.
Helen began following Les around town, spying on his every move. She parked outside the cottage they used to share (she did not move back in after her return from California) and watched it for hours, afraid he was carrying on with other women. He was, and she was quick to confront these women with threats of violence.
Not surprisingly, the stalking was a big turn-off for Les, so he began to distance himself from Helen. As most stalking victims will attest, this is easier said than done.
One time Helen showed up at the garage where Les worked and created a scene. She would warn any woman she saw come in contact with Les to stay away from him.
Later, Helen acknowledged that something was not right with her.
“He had some strange power over me that I could not break,” she told police after her arrest.
Jealousy quickly turned to irrational anger, with Les as the prime target now. It was clear that Helen was losing control. She told a factory manager who was a friend of Les’s that his wife had been seduced by Les into having an affair — this was a complete fabrication.
There was no such thing as a restraining order in those days, so Les had little else to do but to take it and hope Helen would move on. Obviously, the worst was yet to come.
Two weeks before Les would die, the cabin that he shared with Helen burned down. To investigators it looked like an accident, and it may well have been one. However, Helen told police that Les had torched the place for the insurance money.
Les was arrested on arson charges based solely on Helen’s statement. When she refused to repeat it for a grand jury, he was released without ever being charged with wrongdoing.
In April 1931, Les had had enough and decided that putting a few thousand miles between him and Helen might be best. He announced plans that he was leaving Flint for California. Forever.
Helen was not ready to give up the man she both loved and hated. She begged him for one last meeting before he left and Les agreed.
On the last night of his life, Les went for a ride with Helen. They ended up at Glenwood Cemetery on a lonely road in Genessee County, Mich.
What we do know is that the couple sat in the car for just a few moments before three shots cut through the silence of the cold night. Then Les stumbled from the car and fell in the road, dead. From behind the wheel, Helen emerged and stood over him before dropping the pistol and driving calmly back into town.
We know this because the entire shooting was witnessed by a man named Nelson Roome, described in the press as the night watchman for the cemetery.
Helen drove to a police precinct in Flint and said she killed Les in self-defense.
“You tried to put me in jail!” she claimed Les yelled at her. “I’m going to cook your goose, you little double-crossing stool pigeon!”
Helen said Les pulled a pistol and struggle began between the 200-pound mechanic and the 130-pound society girl.
“The door came open on my side and I fell out of the car. I pointed the gun at him and I pulled the trigger, but it wouldn’t go off,” Helen told police. “I fixed some mechanism on it, and pulled the trigger. It went off. I’m sorry I did it because I loved him.”
The story fell apart quickly after it was learned Helen had purchased a .32 revolver about a month before the killing. In other words, it was she who brought the gun to the meeting.
Helen did not testify at her trial and it did not take long for the all-male jury to convict her of second-degree murder. She was sentenced to serve 20- to 25-years in prison.
The last mention of Helen Joy Morgan leads us to believe that she ended up serving a good chunk of that time. In January 1934 — after she had served a little over a year in the Detroit House of Corrections for Women — the Michigan Supreme Court upheld her conviction and sentence.