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Grim end to Ohio mystery: 3 bodies in hollow tree

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MOUNT VERNON, Ohio (AP) — An unemployed tree-trimmer arrested after a teenage girl was found bound and gagged in his basement pointed the way Thursday to the bodies of her brother, mother and another woman, stuffed into garbage bags and hidden in a hollow tree, authorities said.

The three victims and the rescued 13-year-old disappeared more than a week ago from a blood-spattered home. Authorities said all three were murdered there, though they did not say how, and that the tree-trimmer, Matthew Hoffman, gave investigators information through his attorneys that led them to the bodies in woods in central Ohio.

"The tragedy today is just devastating," said Knox County prosecutor John Thatcher. "The results aren't what we wanted them to be."

Knox County Sheriff David Barber said part of the tree had to be cut away to remove the remains.

"The tree was hollow to a point," the sheriff said, adding it would be speculation to understand how the remains were put into the tree.

Hoffman, an ex-convict who spent six years in a Colorado prison on arson and other charges, remained jailed on charges of kidnapping the girl, Sarah Maynard, and is the only suspect in the killings, Barber said. The 30-year-old has appeared in court but has not entered a plea.

Sarah, her mother, Tina Herrmann, her 10-year-old brother, Kody Maynard, and family friend Stephanie Sprang were reported missing after Herrmann failed to show up for work at a local Dairy Queen on Nov. 10.

A day later, a deputy found what authorities called an unusual amount of blood inside her home, and her pickup truck was found near the campus of Kenyon College. Hoffman was questioned that same day — Barber said police found him sitting in his car near a bike trail near where the pickup was found.

A SWAT team found Sarah over the weekend in the basement of Hoffman's home in Mount Vernon, about 40 miles northeast of Columbus. Investigators would not discuss details of her ordeal but have said she is doing well, considering the circumstances.

"We're inspired by Sarah's bravery," Barber said. He said Sarah was home at the time of the killings but added, "What she saw, I can't speak to that."

A day after finding Sarah, authorities conceded that the others were likely dead. Still, volunteers and authorities on the ground and in the air continued to search ponds, vacant buildings and bike trails for Kody, 32-year-old Herrmann and 41-year-old Sprang.

At the Herrmann home Thursday, three purple, star-shaped helium balloons had been left in the yard and two bouquets of flowers were resting against a tree. County Coroner Jennifer Ogle said her office would conduct autopsies and that a preliminary report could be complete as soon as Friday.

Barber declined to speculate on a motive. It was unclear how well Hoffman knew the four, but the sheriff suggested that the defendant had been watching them. He lived about 10 miles from Herrmann's home — a split-level house surrounded by a big yard, trees and two country roads — but his mother and stepfather own a home less than a mile away.

Neighbors said Hoffman often collected leaves on walks through the park, which has three lakes where people fish. One neighbor said would sit up in a tree and listen to people.

Hoffman's former girlfriend claimed he choked her, pushed her against a wall and pinned her neck with his forearm during an argument at his house on Oct. 24, according to a police report. The woman told investigators she thought he was going to kill her, but did not want to press charges.

Hoffman's Colorado convictions stemmed from a town house fire set to cover up a burglary. He returned to Ohio after he was released in 2007.

By ANN SANNER, Associated Press