Archive for 1980s

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 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.

A Modern-Day Bluebeard

Lowell Amos

Carolyn Lawrence Amos might still be alive today if she had followed her instincts and not taken her estranged husband, Lowell Amos, back the day after his mother died.
 
Instead, in 1989, Carolyn was murdered by her husband, a modern-day Bluebeard, who collected $800,000 from an insurance company. Ironically, Carolyn threw Amos out in 1987 when he refused to cancel the overly large policy he took out on her life.
 
According to Amos, Carolyn was accidentally electrocuted by a hair dryer while she stood at the bathroom sink. However, the autopsy revealed no evidence of electrocution, but did show that Carolyn had ingested Valium and alcohol shortly before her death. The coroner ruled the cause of death undetermined and the case was closed.
 
In hindsight, it is surprising that the Middletown, Indiana, police did not look a little more closely at the circumstances of Carolyn’s death. It occurred less than a year after Amos’s mother, Mary Toles, died under mysterious circumstances only a few weeks after Amos moved in with her. Just what killed the 77-year-old woman was never determined. Because of her age no autopsy was performed.
 
But that’s not all. In 1979 Amos’s first wife, Saundra Heard Amos, 36, died after she allegedly fell and hit her head in the bathroom. Traces of Dalmane, a sleep aid, and alcohol were found in her blood during the autopsy. Again the coroner ruled the cause of death undetermined and closed the case. Amos collected $350,000 in life insurance.
 
Amos wasn’t finished, however. In 1994 his third wife, Roberta Wagner Amos, died of a drug overdose under circumstances that can only be called bizarre.
 
The couple were in Detroit for Amos’s consulting firm’s Christmas party. They spent the evening drinking and around midnight returned to their room in the Atheneum Hotel where they began using cocaine.
 
A friend of Amos’s business partner told police that she was with the Amoses until around 4:30 a.m., December 10. She said that Roberta looked tired and “like she was drinking” while Amos appeared to be “jumpy and talkative.”
 
Amos and Roberta went to bed and when he awoke later that morning he found Roberta dead next to him. She had apparently been dead some time because one employee called by Amos after discovering Roberta’s body said Amos graphically told him her corpse was cold.
 
“I touched her and she was cold,” an equally cold Amos reportedly said. “She’s laying in the next room — cold as a mackerel.”
 
Amos told them he had waited to call anyone so he would have time to get rid of the evidence of cocaine use. Amos handed the man an overnight bag and asked him to take the bag from the hotel before the police arrived. When the man got to his home he opened the bag to find a syringe without a needle, a “foul-smelling hotel washcloth with an unrecognizable substance on it,” according to reports, and a sports coat. He turned the evidence of — something — over to police.
 
Unlike the Indiana authorities, Detroit cops, who coined the phrase “routine murder,” opened a homicide investigation even before the results of the autopsy were in. Amos was talking with Detroit homicide detectives back at the hotel where he admitted the couple had used cocaine. Amos told the cops that the couple had inserted the coke anally and in Roberta’s vagina.
 
“Obviously, Roberta is a 37-year-old healthy female that had a completely unexpected death,” said Detroit homicide detective Patrick Henahan. “Then the following day we started getting calls from these other locales regarding the other wives and that’s what made us delve into it.”
 
Roberta’s autopsy revealed that she had a “tremendous” amount of cocaine in her body, according to Wayne County medical examiner Sawait Kanluen.
 
“It was 15 times the amount typically seen in a cocaine overdose,” he later testified. The ME pronounced her death a homicide.
 
There was good reason to rule the manner of death homicide: Roberta’s mother, Marie, testified that Roberta did not use drugs, and a professor of emergency medicine told the court during Amos’s preliminary hearing that Roberta’s symptoms as described by the friend who was with her that night did not fit with a cocaine overdose.
 
“The symptoms of a typical cocaine overdose include nervousness and hyperactivity,” said Dr. Suzanne White. “Mrs. Amos would not have simply fallen asleep or died quietly had she overdosed.”
 
In addition, other friends of Roberta’s told police that Roberta was afraid of her husband and preparing to leave him because he was seeing another woman, something that was part-and-parcel with Amos’s psyche. He cheated on his first wife, Saundra, with Carolyn Lawrence, who he married just months after Saundra died. Two days after Roberta’s death, Amos treated a pair of women to a $1,000 dinner. The women reciprocated the favor by engaging in a menage a trois.
 
Unlike with the other deaths, Amos did not benefit financially from Roberta’s death.
 
“It makes me wonder how much did he have to hate her to do this,” said Marie Wagner. “Or did he just think he could get away with it here? No one has that much bad luck.”
 
Roberta’s death did prompt Indiana authorities to reopen the cases involving the deaths of Saundra, Mary Toles, and Carolyn Lawrence Amos.
 
“When you have one situation, you don’t have a track record. When you have two you start looking,” Anderson Detective Michael Williams said. “When you have three you get into a situation where you may have some kind of pattern.”
 
It took the Detroit police 11 months to gather enough evidence to charge Amos with first-degree murder. He was arrested in Las Vegas, where he moved after Roberta’s death.
 
There was plenty evidence presented at the preliminary hearing to indicate that Amos was a serial killer. Similar to a grand jury, the rules of evidence in a preliminary hearing held before a judge in state courts are different than those at trial, so prosecutors were able to introduce evidence connected to the deaths of Amos’s previous wives.
 
Connie Alexander, a former neighbor of Amos and Saundra, said the night Saundra Amos died in 1979, Saundra and Alexander shared a beer at Alexander’s house in Anderson, Ind. Saundra Amos went home about 11 p.m. A few hours later, her young children knocked at Alexander’s door.
 
“They said, ‘Something is wrong with Mommy, and the ambulance is stuck in the snow,”‘ Alexander said. She said her husband helped free the ambulance.
 
Alexander testified she went to the Amos house after hearing Saundra Amos had died. She found Lowell Amos burning something in the fireplace.
 
Binding Amos over for trial, Wayne County District Court Judge Deborah Lewis Langston asked rhetorically: “Is Mr. Amos unlucky in love? I have my own opinion.”
 
Then she looked down from the bench at Amos.
 
“May God have mercy on your soul,” she said.
 
At trial, Amos testified that he loved Roberta and was heartbroken when he learned she planned to end the marriage.
 
His stepson told jurors that Amos knew he would be under suspicion because of the earlier deaths. Gary S. Lawrence, Carolyn’s son, said he talked to Amos outside an Indiana funeral home after his third wife died.
 
“He told me he was glad he had no life insurance on Roberta. I told him it wouldn’t matter because if she had stepped off the curb and got hit by a bus people would swear he paid the bus driver. He said, ‘I know it.'”
 
Amos’s defense attorney argued that the state had not proved its case in his closing argument.
 
“As horrible, as sordid, as unfortunate as this particular case is,” the attorney said, “it is not murder.” At most it was a case of manslaughter.
 
The jury was allowed to hear evidence involving the death of Carolyn, but not those of the two other women, which helped establish a pattern of behavior. Jurors did not take long to convict Amos of murder. In Michigan the penalty for first-degree murder is a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole.
 
At his sentencing Amos continued to proclaim his innocence.
 
“You’re a young judge,” Amos said. “I hope this is the first time and the last time you have to sentence an innocent man.”
 
Judge Jeffrey Collins was unmoved, describing the former General Motors plant manager as a dangerous killer without conscience.
 
“Thank God for the safety of our community you will be locked up for the rest of your natural days,” he said.
 
As of May 2014, Amos is serving his sentence in an Upper Peninsula prison. No charges were filed in the deaths of Saundra, Carolyn, or Mary.