Tag Archive for murder for hire

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 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.

Which Ones are the Bad Guys?

We are warned that when we set out for revenge, we should prepare to dig two graves. The warning, of course, is that by retaliating against our enemy, we will likely destroy ourselves.
 
In the sad story of the Pardue family of Arkansas, the epigram could be rewritten to be when seeking revenge, prepare three cells.
 
David Pardue brought his misfortune upon himself, but in seeking vengeance against a former co-conspirator and the prosecutor who put him in prison, Pardue nearly destroyed his father and his son in the process.
 
He had plenty of help, not the least of which came from the government.
 
The courts were divided about whether or not the government’s conduct in taking down 72-year-old Jack and Michel — who went from being a 20-year-old University of Arkansas student to a federal prisoner — constituted entrapment, but they were united in the belief that just about everyone connected with this sordid tale (the good guys included) was guilty of some disreputable behavior.
 
It is only because the entire cast of characters in this morality play survived until the final act that this story does not meet the definition of true Shakespearean tragedy.
 
David Pardue’s Iago was a fellow Arkansas inmate named Gary Garrett, described by a federal judge as “the most reprehensible character ever to testify before this court,” who Pardue met in 1989 while he was serving a five-year term for a shoplifting incident gone bad.
 
David ended up in prison because he and his accomplice, Bob Harrington, robbed a Wal-Mart and Maced a security guard during their escape. Both men were arrested and charged, but Harrington apparently had some worth to the county prosecutor, because he not only agreed to testify against David Pardue, he later assisted Benton County Prosecutor David Clinger in prosecuting David Pardue for perjury relating to Pardue’s testimony during his robbery trial.
 
When Harrington walked and David Pardue went to the Varner Unit of Cummins State Prison for five years, David was obviously perturbed and susceptible to untoward suggestions. While in Varner, David attended a Substance Abuse Training Program (SATP Class), described as “an inmate run program with little supervision which most if not all of the inmates attended whether they were claimed to have substance abuse problems or not because it was an opportunity to meet with the other inmates in a largely unsupervised atmosphere.”
 
Through SATP, David Pardue connected with Garrett while looking for someone with connections on the outside who could “scare someone.”
 
Knowing a fish when he saw one, Garrett told David Pardue that, of course, he knew people who could get anything done that he wanted.
 
According to his later court testimony, Garrett said David told him that he wanted the “backstabbing” Harrington “taken care of.” Garrett said David offered him $10,000 to kill Harrington, his wife, Janis, and their daughter. The deal called for David to pay Garrett five grand and the person who did the job the rest.
 
Garrett had David write out what he wanted done, which Pardue foolishly did.
 
“I want both of them picked up,” he wrote. “I want her left in Oklahoma somewhere. ‘Just over the border.’ And him never found!”
 
David also drew a map of Arkansas, putting Harrington’s hometown of Gentry and his address.
 
Promising to send the information to a “cousin,” Garrett also managed to get David Pardue to procure photocopies of photographs of the Harringtons. With his plot now ready to move to the next stage, Garrett managed to weasel out the name of the prosecutor who convicted David.
 
Then he wrote to Clinger:

I have certain information and can get you enough evidence to convict David Pardue and some family members of a certain conspiracy charge. I cannot disclose the nature of the conspiracy in this letter. But can guarantee you it is a major charge. The penalty I believe would be probably life life (sic).
 
There is little time to stop this from happening.

To sweeten the pot, Garrett wrote, “P.S. Guarantee you’ll be pleased when you hear me out.”
 
That letter was written on April 30, 1990, and apparently over the month of May authorities were in contact with Garrett. In June, Garrett wrote a series of letters urging officials to “do something.” Evidence at the trial of the Pardue family showed letters written on June 4, June 6, June 15, June 22, June 29, and July 11.
 
Toward the end of June, the FBI became involved in the case, with an agent playing Garrett’s “cousin Chuck.”
 
The FBI special agent wrote a letter to Garrett to show to David:

I got the stuff you sent me about the deal in Arkansas. I can help your friend with that problem of his. But not without 1/2 up front. I no (sic) how these things go. You know that might be all I get. Let me hear from you soon. I need some green.

One of Garrett’s letters to Clinger hints at who the driving force behind the hit really might have been: “He’s real protective of his son. He don’t want nobody else but me to meet him. Unless they’re with me. I’ve talked myself blue in the face to him but to no good.”
 
Visiting day at the prison was July 1, 1990, and an FBI agent posing as “Chuck Ross” met Michel and David Pardue in the visiting room. The agent would later testify that David told him he wanted two people killed and that he provided some details about who they were.
 
“Ross” told David that he would talk to Michel in the parking lot about the job. In the parking lot of the prison, Michel gave “Ross” $250 as a down-payment on the killings.
 
From that point, the plan was outside the control of the Pardue family.
 
“It appears to the court, without question, that each and every contact that Michel had with (Ross) during the course of this matter was planned and instigated by (Ross),” wrote the Honorable H. Franklin Waters, the U.S. District Court judge who heard Michel’s appeal.
 
The first call to Michel came at 2 a.m. the morning after they met in the prison parking lot. The agent told Michel to get a picture of Harrington, despite the fact that Garrett had already had David Pardue get a photocopy of a picture to send to his “cousin.”
 
During that overnight phone call, Michel hinted that the killings weren’t a real high priority for the Pardue family.
 
“I want to get this done if I can unless ya’ll are not interested in doing it,” the tapes of the conversation show the agent saying.
 
Michel replied that he understood, but that “he had other things to do the next day” and might be hard to contact. Regardless, the next day, Michel and the agent met in Gentry, Arkansas and Michel pointed out the Harrington’s car.
 
The tapes reveal that the FBI agent was quite adept at playing the cold-blooded killer. While observing the Harrington home, the two men talked about whether the Harringtons had a child, and when Michel advised him that he didn’t know but had heard his grandfather say something about that possibility, the agent told him, “You better find out what they want done with that kid cause I’m not particular, don’t particularly cotton to having anybody testifying against me. I don’t want anybody testifying. If there is somebody in the house I need to know about it. If I can find them setting there, I want to get this thing done pretty quick, tonight probably.”
 
The agent pushed Michel to implicate his grandfather. He insisted on seeing the balance of the money he had been promised before committing the “killing” and he prodded Michel to tell him where the money was coming from.
 
“Where is the money?” the purported hitman asked. “Does your grandpa have the money? I mean that’s what I’d gathered from talking to you.”
 
Judge Waters recounts a heated telephone conversation between Michel and “Chuck Ross” that indicates both Pardues are concerned about the pace of the plan.
 
“Michel obviously tried to tell (Ross) about his grandfather’s concerns expressed in that conversation but was interrupted repeatedly by (the agent). Michel finally was allowed to say: ‘He’s saying its happening to, he, its happening too fast for him and its a little bit too fast for me, too,’” Waters wrote. “He goes on to tell (the agent) that both he and his grandfather heard of the plan to kill the Harringtons for the first time during the visitation with David the previous day.”
 
The agent, however, reminded Michel that his father said that the killings had to take place soon because the trial date for David’s perjury charges was nearing.
 
Michel responded that he expected a continuance in that case because his father was planning to dismiss his attorney.
 
“Chuck” then played his trump card.
 
“I’m, you know, I may have to get somebody to give me a little help too, and I, you know, uh, I just want to be able to do this, get my money,” he said. “If I get somebody up here to, to help me then they’re gonna want to kill me about the time I don’t be able to come across with, do you understand what I’m saying? I got expenses and responsibilities.”
 
At 9:30 p.m., about 30 hours after Michel and Jack Pardue learned of David’s desire to have his former partner rubbed out, Michel met with “Chuck Ross” at a Shoney’s in Fayetteville. At that meeting, “Ross” explains that he has a “friend” on his way to help with the killing and that Jack had to appear with the money or there would be trouble.
 
The tapes from the wire worn by the agent clearly show that Michel is blown away by the events of the past several days.
 
“It is obvious from his end of the conversation that (Michel) did not want the murder to take place, at least not that night,” Waters wrote.
 
After a long discussion about the Pardues being able to procure alibis, despite serious pressure from the agent, Michel calls off the hit. The agent promises to contact him again “later.” The agent did contact Michel a week later, but Michel again put him off.
 
Garrett, however, was not about to let matters rest. In his July 11 letter, he wrote to Prosecutor Clinger wondering “how its going with helping me get out on early parole and back home with my family.”
 
On July 14, by his own admission, David Pardue told Garrett that he did not want “Ross” to contact his family any more because he had scared them. At his trial, the septegenarian farmer testified that he and his wife slept one night on an air mattress in his field because they feared “Chuck” would come to the house to hurt them.
 
On July 31, however, a second FBI agent wrote to Garrett:

Tell Pardue I was ready to do the job that night. I made 2 trips up there. I’m not the one who delayed it. I’m ready to go. But I want to be sure I get paid. Mike said he didn’t have the money and his granddad wouldn’t meet with me or show me any money or tell me he would pay. I know Pardue can’t pay me from the pen so who’s going to pay and when. Tell Pardue to write me.

David Pardue did write to “Chuck” saying that “No more money will be paid until the job is done. The money will be payed (sic) to you.” The letter contains a postscript penned by Garrett: “Pardue is good for the money.”
 
Regardless, no further action was taken through the summer of 1990 (Except that David Pardue pleaded guilty to perjury and received an additional year in prison, removing the need to have the hit happen quickly).
 
The feds didn’t realize how conniving Garrett was, however, and he continued to write to various government officials urging them to move the plot along.
 
“He told me the other day if I get out on some act he wants and expects me to finish the job for him and then contact his son after the job is done and pick up the rest of the money,” Garrett wrote to Clinger on September 17.
 
Meanwhile the government had taken some action. They staged a crime scene with Bob Harrington playing himself and a policewoman pretending to be his wife. They took photographs of Harrington with duct tape across his mouth and “blood” across his face from a bullet wound behind his right ear. Another photograph shows the police woman lying behind Harrington, her wrists taped with duct tape.
 
A day before Garrett wrote his last letter to Clinger, “Chuck” called Michel.
 
“CHUCK”: Real quick. I’ve been in touch with your Dad. You talked to him?
MICHEL: Yeah. I seen him today.
“CHUCK”: O.K. Just told you, I got a letter from him. This thing is gonna go down the 18th, late at night or early in the morning on the 19th. You and your grandpa better get your alibis set.
MICHEL: Well, he never said anything to me about it today.
 
“Chuck” then tells Michel that he will contact him on September 20, which he did.
 
“The deal’s done,” he said. “I’m worn out. I need to get some proof and I need to, want you to look at and I need to get out of here.”
 
Michel replies, “O.K., Well, Chuck I was going to tell you that I didn’t want to meet with you but I guess it’s too late now.”
 
During the meeting at the Fayetteville Shoney’s, “Chuck” asks if Michel has an alibi.
 
“Well, I’ll just, uh, yeah,” Michel replied.
 
“How about your grandpa?” the agent asked.
 
“I just don’t like talking in here or anywhere else. I just don’t like talking about it. The whole f—ing deal makes me pretty nervous, you know,” Michel answers.
 
The agent then gives Michel a People magazine holding the “crime scene pictures.”
 
“They then discuss how the remainder of the amount owed to ‘Chuck’ was to be sent to him and it is obvious from the recording that almost all the suggestions or directions in this respect came from (the agent),” Waters wrote. “In fact, as in past conversations, Michel was allowed … to say very little, and was often interrupted … when he tried to talk.”
 
The conversation ends with the agent warning Michel, “You get that money in the mail at the latest Monday. I’ll be looking for it Tuesday.”
 
After 20-year-old Michel and his 72-year-old grandfather put together the remaining $4,500, wrapped it in a Bible and mailed it across the state line to a post office box in Oklahoma, they were indicted and with David convicted of using the mail for a murder-for-hire scheme.
 
Judge Waters heard their appeal that Michel and Jack were entrapped and that the FBI’s conduct was “outrageous.”

The court has a great deal of concern about whether Michel and his grandfather really planned any of the matters that took place or whether they were, instead, pulled along into this criminal act by the authorities much as someone is caught in a violent undertow at sea. While the court has a great deal of doubt that Michel Pardue and his grandfather would ever have become involved in this dastardly sequence of events without being dragged into it by (the agent), the court readily recognizes that there is a much closer question in respect to whether this court can, under the law, do anything about it.

Eventually, however, Waters found that he could do something about it and vacated the convictions.
 

Michel and Jack Pardue were placed in the position, they must have believed, of either paying the money for the murders that had already been committed by Chuck and his help, or face the wrath of this man with friends in New Jersey who was willing to kill a man and woman, and perhaps a small child, for $4,500 and who made his living killing people for money. That is not fair. That is not right. That is outrageous. The court believes that fairness and justice demands that this wrong be righted.

 
He was not so forgiving to David Pardue.
 
“There was ample evidence for the jury to have found as it did in respect to this defendant who not only clearly set out to solicit the murders of the Harringtons, but who inexplicably and despicably allowed his twenty-year-old son and his seventy-two year old father to become involved in the crime,” he said. “Whether David Pardue, without the aid of the government agents, would have ever been able to complete the crime that he set in motion is not important.”
 
The story would have had a “happy” ending if it had ended there, but the federal government appealed the case. Two years later, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the convictions and cautioned Judge Waters about letting his emotions get the better of him.

Although judges may express compassion for youthful individuals who become reluctant pawns of others wrongfully influencing them into violating our criminal laws, our human emotions may not dictate legal norms or deviate from the rule of law. We are satisfied that under the law there was sufficient evidence for the jury to find that Michel Pardue voluntarily conspired with his father, David Pardue, to solicit and hire an individual to commit murder of two individuals. Needless to say, this was a serious crime. In this regard we find that the district court misapplied the law of entrapment.

Prior to reinstating the convictions, the government rejected a request from the Pardues to have their $4,500 returned. Of course, after the convictions were reinstated, that request became moot.
 
We can all sleep a little safer at night knowing that the government, with the help of conscientious citizens like Gary Garrett, is out there protecting us from dangerous criminals like Michel and Jack Pardue.