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Bucyrus police arrest man in four slayings

TNS Regional News • Sep 4, 2014 at 3:07 PM

Neighbors say he was the nicest guy.

He would help Lola Pflider take out the trash, toss her kid a buck for some ice cream. He seemed to drink a lot, but a lot of people around here drink a lot.

They never imagined he’d end up where he is now — in jail, under arrest, a “person of interest” in one of the most brutal homicide cases the city of Bucyrus has seen in decades.

Donald Wayne Hoffman, 41, was arrested on Tuesday after he walked into the city police station and offered information about two suspicious deaths that police were investigating. Whatever he told them led to two more grisly discoveries.

In all, four men were found dead in their homes on Monday and Tuesday: Billy Jack Chatman, 55, of Fremont Street; Freelin Hensley, 67, of Marion Road; Darrell E. Lewis, 65, of Bucyrus Plaza; and Gerald Lee Smith, 65, of W. Mansfield Street.

Friends and relatives say all of the victims knew one another, and all were feeble in some way — hobbled by injury or illness or a reliance on alcohol. Smith and Hoffman were roommates.

The cause of death for each of the men is awaiting autopsy results, but Bucyrus police are treating each as a homicide. Authorities had said earlier that it appeared the men were beaten.

Police aren’t saying much about Hoffman — the Crawford County sheriff’s office didn’t release his name and a mug shot until late yesterday — but according to jail records, he was booked into the Crawford County jail on charges of aggravated murder and aggravated robbery.

He was scheduled to appear in Crawford County Municipal Court this morning to hear the charges against him. No motive has been released.

Hoffman has a criminal record, though none of it suggests violent tendencies. In Crawford County, he got into trouble after police found him passed out drunk in a parking lot in 2009.

A year later, he was sent to prison for passing bad checks in Crawford County. That same year, he also pleaded guilty to burglary and theft charges in Marion County and was sentenced to nearly five years in prison and ordered to pay back his victims, some from whom he’d stolen as little as $10.

He was released from prison early, in March 2012.

Neighbors still in shock by the killings that threw this city of 12,000 into a panic said they thought Hoffman was just the “town drunk,” a pleasant-enough guy who rose at 4 a.m. and took off on his bicycle, collecting bottles and cans for pennies.

“He was nice to me and my kids,” said Pflider, who lived beside Hoffman and Smith.

Pflider, no longer comfortable at her own home, stood at a friend’s place across the train tracks from the apartment building where Smith was found dead in the basement. The building over there was quiet, the doors sealed with evidence tape. A quart of chocolate milk sat spoiling on the porch.

Pflider and her friends, some of whom were related to the victims, said they considered Hoffman “ crazy,” maybe, but not dangerous.

“Something just snapped inside of him,” Jerry Lantz said.

But Karen Murr, a longtime friend of Smith’s who visited him daily, said she’d recently seen another side of Hoffman. Less than a month ago, she said, he became belligerent and started threatening people, telling one man he’d kill him.

He began coming home and talking about fights he’d been in, one time returning shirtless. He had dropped a lot of weight, she said, his current mug shot showing a man much thinner than the 350 pounds he was listed as in old court records.

Murr said that just days ago she would have thought Hoffman incapable of such violence. But not now. Asked whether she thinks he could have done it, she nods. “Now I do.”

Smith’s niece, Valerie Smith-Malone, said she didn’t know Hoffman. She knew only that her uncle had said he thought he’d made a mistake moving in with the younger man.

Yesterday, Smith-Malone sat in her home, dazed, showing the picture of a lighthouse that Smith once painted. She said her uncle was easygoing and frail, a man suffering from a lifelong hip injury and a battle with alcohol.

“All these guys were sweet guys,” she said of the victims, remembering the way Chatman would sweep friends up with a hug and a kiss.

“Why?” she asked. “Why? It’s senseless.”


By Lori Kurtzman - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)

©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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