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 Maryland
I had a girl
Inhuman (adj.) — 1. Without compunction or human feeling. 2. Devoid of feeling and consciousness and animation. Synonyms: Cold-blooded, insensate, unfeeling, Garrett Wilson.
There is no other way to describe a person like Garrett Wilson, a father who twice — several years apart — smothered his newborn children to collect insurance money.
The Malefactor’s Register has looked at baby-killers before. Clover Boykin, the Florida woman who strangled her son and another baby she was caring for, at least admitted she was mentally disturbed. But Garrett Wilson refuses to see the wrongfulness of his acts.
Wilson, when he was convicted of murdering his son, had the audacity to stand before a Maryland court and refused express the least bit of remorse.
“I am not going to cry or whine or beg,” Wilson told Judge D. Warren Donohue before he was sentenced to life in prison. “I’m not going to ask you for anything.”
Wilson was probably incapable of crying, whining or begging, because as homo psychopathus, his subspecies of human being is incapable of honestly expressing these types of emotions.
Diagnosing a true psychopath is an involved and complex science best left to the experts, but Wilson exhibited many of the character traits commonly found in psychopaths. He certainly had no compunction about killing his children, and that probably means he has some kind of personality disorder.
Was it the money, or was it just that Wilson didn’t like children? There’s ample evidence to support either motive.
In the mid-1970s, when Wilson was 20 years old, he began having sex with a 13-year-old girl, Deborah F., whom he courted by buying gifts and generally taking her to impressive places. Over the next three years, Deborah became pregnant five times, and on four occasions, following Wilson’s instructions, had an abortion. The last time, the doctor refused to perform the procedure because Deborah was five months pregnant. Instead Deborah and Wilson married. She was 15 and he was 22.
When Deborah was seven months pregnant, Wilson provided a glimpse into his psyche by asking if she would be all right if “something ever happened to the baby.”
Their daughter, Brandi, was a healthy and normal child born in late February 1981, and Deborah was a loving, caring mother. Wilson, however, never expressed any interest in the child and did not assist in changing or feeding the baby. His sole involvement was to purchase a pair of insurance policies on Brandi from two different agents in the amount of $10,000 and $30,000. He did not tell Deborah about the policies and named himself as the sole beneficiary. The insurance agents later said that had they known Wilson was taking out two policies from different companies, they would not have insured the baby.
On the night of April 30, 1981, Deborah was sick in bed. Uncharacteristically, Wilson opted to forgo help from Deborah’s mother, who usually stepped in to take care of the baby in Deborah’s stead, and gave his wife three or four pills that he said were vitamins.
There were a couple of firsts that occurred that night. It was the first time that Deborah slept through the night since the baby was born, and the first time that Wilson ever cared for his daughter.
Around 6 a.m., Wilson called his in-laws and told them that Brandi was dead. He had not called 911 or awakened his wife. His mother-in-law had to tell him to call 911 and then the distraught grandparents rushed over to the Wilson home.
Strangely, although the fire station was much closer to the Wilson home than the grandparents were, and despite the fact that Deborah’s parents had to dress before leaving their home, they arrived before the paramedics. That is not an indictment of the Emergency Medical Services.
Deborah was in such a deep sleep that she was not awakened by either the arrival of her parents or the paramedics. Her mother had to shake her awake.
After an autopsy, Brandi’s death was labeled as a Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) death. The medical examiner identified certain elements of the autopsy findings, such as pinpoint hemorrhages on the thymus gland and on the surfaces of the lungs and heart, which were consistent with suffocation but were not enough, by themselves, to lead her to opine that suffocation was the cause of death, or that the manner was anything but natural.
Deborah, however, suspected Wilson was responsible for Brandi’s death. She left him four months after Brandi’s death, and they later divorced.
The day his daughter died, Wilson called one of the insurance agents and informed him of Brandi’s death. Later that day, he played pool and then went flying with a friend. Eventually, Wilson collected the $ 40,000 in insurance proceeds and bought a new Trans Am.
Five years later, Wilson was scamming several different women. He was engaged to two women and had weddings planned for March and June, 1986. Fortunately, for his June bride, she managed to find information in his wallet that indicated his plans for March. On the down side, it was not until a month before the ceremony, so the young lady had the sad duty to inform everyone who was invited to her wedding, as well as her wedding party, that she had been duped by a con man. She demanded that he repay her expenses for the wedding, as well as for the gifts he gave her and later convinced her to pay for.
While married to his second wife, he began courting yet another woman, who he convinced to loan him $5,000.
Wilson’s wife gave birth to a son in March 1987. Just as before, Wilson showed no interest in the baby and did not participate in caring for his child. He did, however, take the time to purchase two life insurance policies totaling $150,000 on his son, Garrett Michael. Prior to his son’s birth, Wilson did tell his second wife that Brandi had died of SIDS, and the woman, fearful that there was some genetic link, researched the topic. By August 1987, she felt confident that Garrett Michael was out of the woods, because he had passed the age range when SIDS commonly strikes. Wilson did not reply to her comment, she recalled later.
By late summer 1987, the woman who loaned Wilson the five grand was “pushing really hard” for payment. Wilson told her over the phone that he would have the money soon because, she testified, he was “going to take care of it this weekend.”
Garrett Michael died nine days after that phone call, at approximately 6 a.m. on August 22, 1987.
The morning of Garrett Michael’s death was the first occasion Wilson took care of him without his wife around. The baby cried and his mother started to get up to feed him. Instead, Wilson offered to take the feeding. Wilson’s wife said she was surprised at the time because he had never before made such an offer.
Wilson went into Garrett Michael’s room with the mother listening via a baby monitor. She heard footsteps approaching the crib, and then creaking sounds from a rocking chair in the nursery. The rocking-chair sounds continued for approximately seven minutes, and then she heard a “patting sound.” She next heard footsteps approaching the crib again, and a “sigh” similar to “expelling air.”
“This last sound concerned her, but she was not overly alarmed,” court records state. “She reasoned that, if (Wilson) had a problem, he would call her. She then got up and went downstairs to feed her two cats, who had been pestering her for food. Afterwards, she went upstairs to Garrett Michael’s room. (Wilson) was no longer there. She immediately noticed that the baby did not ‘feel right,’ and there was foam around his mouth. He was limp when she picked him up.”
“Garrett, what did you do to him?” she screamed at her husband, whom she described as being “pale.”
Wilson silently walked away when she begged him to call 911, forcing her to make the call. She attempted CPR while going downstairs to turn on the houselights to guide the paramedics to the house. Paramedics arrived and rushed Garrett Michael to Shady Grove Hospital. After the ambulance left the house, Wilson and his wife went to her two-door Saab to follow the ambulance to the hospital. Before leaving, he removed the baby’s car seat from the back seat.
Garrett Michael was pronounced dead at the hospital. While in the ambulance his heart had been fibrillating. An EKG reading obtained by the paramedics showed that Garrett Michael’s body still contained electronic waves, indicating that he had just died or was in the process of dying. One paramedic testified that the baby’s heart may have been beating regularly four minutes before the paramedics began CPR.
After an autopsy, Garrett Michael’s death was determined to have been caused by SIDS, with the manner of death listed as natural. The pathologist discovered no evidence of external or internal trauma or abnormalities that would explain Garrett Michael’s death. The baby’s brain was swollen, but the medical examiner testified that the swelling could have been due to resuscitative efforts made by medical personnel.
Just as before, the baby’s mother told others that she suspected her child had been murdered by Wilson.
Wilson paid off all of his debts using the proceeds of the insurance policy. He and his second wife were divorced in 1993 after she discovered he was also married to a woman in Texas and had a child by her.
She remained convinced that Wilson had killed her child, and continued to push for more and more investigation into Wilson’s actions. By 1997, Maryland police and prosecutors felt their case was strong enough to take to a jury.
Wilson was charged only with the death of Garrett Michael, and proving that the baby’s death was murder would turn on whether a jury would believe that SIDS is such a rare affliction that it was unlikely that it would strike twice in the manner that it followed Garrett Wilson.
Statistics played a central role in the trial, in effect providing the quantum of “beyond a reasonable doubt” necessary to convict a person of a crime. Various experts testified that based on the circumstances presented in Wilson’s case, there was somewhere between a 1 in 4 million and 1 in 10 million chance that two of his children would die in the manner that Brandi and Garrett Michael did.
The jury accepted the statistics and circumstantial evidence, and convicted Wilson of his son’s murder.
The conviction was overturned on appeal in 2002, when the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the statistical evidence was incorrectly brought into the case. The appellate court found that there was sufficient research to back Wilson’s claim that SIDS was predisposed within families, and thus the statistical method used to calculate the odds of Brandi and Garrett Michael’s similar deaths was wrong.
Maryland retried Wilson without the statistical evidence and his cold-blooded reactions to his children’s deaths was significant enough to convict him.