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 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 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.