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 madness, in and out of reality, around 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 of the marijuana 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 his 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 (famous alumni include Jimmy Stewart), 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 dominoes 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.
Tag Archive for killer kids
I had a girl
The tragic story of Dorothy Perkins, at one time the youngest woman ever to be charged with murder in New York, is a great example of what happens when more than one eyewitness describes a crime.
If anyone should have been lying dead on the floor of that crowded Greenwich Village house on Valentine’s Day 1925, it probably should have been either Mickey Connors or Dorothy’s father, Rudolph.
Instead, the dead man was Thomas (Tommy) Edwin Templeton, a veteran of the Great War and an apparently pretty decent guy who was only trying court 17-year-old Dorothy, who ended up fatally shooting him.
Dorothy’s father served with Tommy, 26, in the New York Guard’s Ninth Coast Artillery as a supply sergeant. During the war, Tommy had risen to the the rank of sergeant and continued his military service in the reserves while working as a brakeman on the Pennsylvania Railroad. He came from a reputable old New York family; his brother served in the New Jersey State Assembly. His prospects were bright, which made him in Rudolph’s mind a good suitor for Dorothy.
On the other hand, 35-year-old Mickey Connors was a truck driver and spouse-abusing divorced felon when he became acquainted with Dorothy. His ex-wife was serving a term for felony forgery. Dorothy was 15 at the time they met.
Dorothy was attracted to Connors, even though she knew he was married. Whether she knew of his past as a criminal is not known, but even if she did, it made no difference.
Perhaps it was her father’s relentless pressure for Dorothy to agree to Tommy’s courtship that turned her off from him, perhaps it was something else: when she was arrested for Tommy’s murder, the press made no secret that Connors had “ruined” Dorothy, and there were claims that she even had a child by him.
Connors and Dorothy apparently met in June 1924 when he wed the mother of one of Dorothy’s girlfriends. After that marriage, Connors moved away from Greenwich Village, but kept in contact with Dorothy on the sly. Meanwhile,
“The Perkinses felt easier at this,” wrote one reporter, referring to Connors’s move. “Tommy Templeton was calling at the Jane Street house more frequently now…and Rudolph felt and said that his young comrade-in-arms was the man for Dorothy. And Dorothy did not seem to dislike Tommy. Rather, she seemed indifferent to him. Rudolph though she might come to love Tommy, if Mikey Connors stayed out of the way.”
But Connors did not stay out of the way.
On February 13, 1925, the Ninth Battery held a review at a nearby armory followed by a dance. Tommy gave two tickets to the event to Dorothy, assuming she would invite a girlfriend.
“The regiment paraded, marched in review past the colonel, countermarched, formed batteries, manned the big guns,” reads an article in the American Weekly magazine. “Telescope under his arm, Sergeant Templeton sprang up the ladder to the gun-pointing platform…As he stood there above the gun, his eyes wandered to the balcony filled with the guests of the regiment, seeking Dorothy. He found her — and Mickey Connors. Side-by-side they sat.”
Dorothy watched the drill but skipped the dance, although Connors opted to stay. Confronted by both Rudolph Perkins and Tommy Templeton, Connors disclaimed any intentions of any sort toward Dorothy.
The crisis came the next night at the party celebrating Rudolph’s 47th birthday. Tommy was invited, Connors was obviously not. His presence was not needed, however, for there to be trouble. Just what happened that night — aside from Tommy dying — remains a bit of a mystery because of the numerous versions of the shooting that witnesses recounted during Dorothy’s 15 minutes of infamy.
“Dad was in the hall waiting for him when Tommy got to the house,” Dorothy told police later. “I was dancing in front, but I heard them and came out. And then Dad shouted that he never wanted me to speak to Mickey again.”
Rudolph once again promoted Tommy to his daughter.
“Why do you want a bum like Connors when you can have a nice fellow like Tommy?” he asked.
Dorothy testified that she wasn’t interested in Connors any more, and that their encounter the previous night was really just a chance meeting.
“I told him I didn’t want to hear anything about it,” she said. “He slapped me in my face. I ran to my room, trying to think. It looked like trouble — everyone was drinking.”
People at the party said they assumed she was going to the room to get away from her drunken father. What no one knew was that Dorothy was heading to her room to fetch a .22-caliber revolver which she had stolen from an aunt in Connecticut. The Perkinses did not know their daughter had a gun, but Tommy had apparently seen her with it at least once before, according a witness at her trial.
Joseph Harssel, a soldier in Tommy’s regiment testified that after a double-date at a local movie theater, Dorothy opened her bag and displayed the gun.
“Templeton asked her what she carried the gun for,” Harssel testified. “She said she was a ‘blonde-haired bandit.’ Then…she said ‘I am carrying the gun with me for protection in case someone approaches me on my way home.'”
At Dorothy’s arraignment, the family minister testified to what he had been told by the family in the aftermath of the shooting. The Rev. Truman A. Kilborne of the Greenwich Presbyterian Church said that after Dorothy heard that her father threatened to shoot Connors, she retrieved the gun from her dresser, fearing that Rudolph had found it and was going to use it. She returned to the house with the revolver hidden in her sleeve, Kilborne said.
“Someone told her father that she had a revolver and he attempted to take it away from her,” The New York Times quoted the minister as saying. “She resisted and in the struggle for its possession the revolver went off. Templeton, who was standing nearby, pitched forward, his heart pierced by the bullet.”
Previously, at the grand jury hearing, Harry Brown, a friend of Tommy’s, testified to a wholly different version of events — one in which Mickey Connors made an unwelcome appearance at the party.
“Things were going all right until somebody said something about another fellow being downstairs to see Dorothy. Tommy left the room for a while and walked into the hall, He said. “When he came back, Dorothy was standing near me when Tommy said, ‘That mutt is downstairs. He’s got a rod, and he’s too yellow to use it.”
According to Brown, Dorothy ran down stairs and came back with the pistol, saying “I’ll show you whether or not my friend is yellow.” Brown said Dorothy then fired two rounds and “Tommy dropped dead to the floor.” He claimed to have grabbed Dorothy and locked her in her bedroom awaiting the police. It was Brown’s testimony that led to the murder charge.
In her interview with the American Weekly, Dorothy said the shooting occurred before she ever left the house. She slipped the gun into the sleeve of her coat and tried to leave.
“I thought I would get out of the house and give it to somebody to keep for me,” she said two months before her trial. “But dad stopped me. He struggled with me. He tried to hit me. Then the gun slipped down the loose sleeve of the coat. I grabbed for it. It went off. I saw Tommy staggering. He said something. Mother says he said: ‘She’s got me now, Mrs. Perkins!'”
Aside from Tommy being dead by a gunshot wound, the only other fact in evidence was that the bullet went through Rudolph’s coat and eyeglass case on its way to Tommy’s heart.
“I held Tommy in my arms until they said he was dead,” Dorothy continued. “Then I — I don’t know — I guess I ran.”
Prior to Dorothy’s trial, Rudolph tried to take the blame.
“I saw the glint of the revolver in her coat sleeve,” he said. “I grabbed for it — and she got a grip on it, too. Tommy was behind me, trying to stop the fuss. Then there was a shot. Tommy staggered, and Dorothy began to scream. Maybe I did it. “Both of us grabbed the gun. No one will ever know who pulled the trigger — Dorothy or I. But it was an accident.”
When she was on the stand, Dorothy said she took the pistol from her aunt because Tommy promised to teach her how to shoot. She testified at her trial that she fought with her father, grabbed the pistol — without explaining why — and left the house. Dorothy said she was walking around for about an hour, cooling off. She returned home, assuming her father had relaxed as well. It was not the case.
“The minute I came in the door, Dad began again,” Dorothy continued in her confession. “As I came up he called me a name and said he’d kill me. He stopped me and took hold of my hands and my mother grabbed him.”
She told police that she did not remember what happened after that moment, and stuck with that story during her trial.
Q — Do you remember whether the gun was in your hand?
A — No, I don’t.
Q — Do you remember if it was your finger that pulled the trigger?
A — No.
Q — Did you shoot that gun?
A — Not that I remember.
Q — Do you love Tommy?
A — Yes.
Q — Do you still cherish his memory?
A — I do.
She claimed on the stand that her standoffish treatment of Tommy was an attempt to make “him jealous by flirting with someone else.”
On June 17, 1925, the jury rejected the state’s case that the shooting was murder and convicted Dorothy of manslaughter. A week later she was sentenced.
“I wish to say that I feel very sorry for you. It is to be regretted that a young woman like you should find herself in the position you occupy today.” The judge, identified only as McIntyre, appeared to be preparing to lower the boom on Dorothy. “You did a heinous wrong. You have led a very bad life for a young woman. You led from a very early life a meretricious relation with a man whom I regard as a beast and a boor. I do not know whether the information imparted to me is correct or not, but I am told that the child at your aunt’s house is your child.”
McIntyre’s claim hit Dorothy like a punch in the gut and she reportedly staggered back into her seat. He then said if she disclaimed the allegation, he would believe her. He once again said he had sympathy for Dorothy, but that he could not overlook the fact that a serious crime had been committed. He berated her for bringing the pistol to New York and for claiming she was a blonde-haired bandit.
“You are a girl, it is true, but women are not exculpated because of their sex,” McIntyre went on. “When a woman is bad she is vicious and worse than a man many, many times over. There is too much of it. Women seem to feel that they may do that which they please and get away with it.”
With that tongue-lashing, McIntyre sentenced Dorothy to 5-to-15 years in the women’s prison at Auburn.
Dorothy Perkins ended up serving four years of the sentence, during which time she was trained as a stenographer. She was released in January 1929 for good behavior and The New York Times reported that she had a job waiting for her when she got out.
Mickey Connors served a few months in the Tombs for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.