Recordings describe professor's plan to kill his wife and stepson

Ex-Loyola educator made tapes days before deaths

`I want her to suffer'

May 25, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

SHREWSBURY TOWNSHIP, Pa. - A few days before Rita Hofler and her 17-year-old son, Kevin Gehring, were found shot to death here, the woman's estranged husband began to make a series of digital voice recordings.

Retired Loyola College professor Donald B. Hofler talks about his finances and his funeral arrangements. He says that, at age 70, he no longer wants to live.

And, in a recording played yesterday in a Pennsylvania courtroom, he discusses his plan to kill his wife of 15 years. "Rita's supposed to come over tomorrow," Hofler, who is charged in the slayings, says in a low, groggy voice on the recording. "If she does, it may well be her last day on Earth. If Kevin comes along, it'll be his."

Pennsylvania State Police believe the message was taped April 24, the day before state troopers found Rita Hofler, a 48-year-old Harford County elementary school teacher, and her son, an 11th-grader at Susquehannock High School, dead inside the family's ranch-style home on Penny Lane, just north of the Mason-Dixon line.

York County district attorneys played about 30 minutes of digital recordings at a preliminary hearing yesterday. A judge ruled that Donald Hofler, originally charged with criminal homicide, should stand trial on first-degree murder charges.

Hofler bowed his head and wept through much of the hearing. His lawyer, Thomas L. Kearney III, later said of the recordings: "They were obviously very difficult to hear. My client was undergoing a tremendous amount of stress at that time."

Trooper Christopher Mumma, the lead investigator in the case, testified that the recorder, alongside a note addressed to Donald Hofler Jr. in Fort Worth, Texas, was found in the kitchen the day of the killings.

Authorities were summoned to the Penny Lane home that Sunday afternoon by Donald Hofler Jr. and his wife, who called police about 1:30 p.m. after receiving a call in which Donald Hofler told his son that "he killed them both" and that Rita Hofler and her son were "lying in his house dead," according to an affidavit of probable cause filed with the court.

Pennsylvania state troopers entered the home about 5 p.m. that evening and found Rita Hofler and her son dead in recliners in the living room, Mumma said in court. Both had been shot several times, he said.

Troopers also found four handguns in the house and casings from two of them on the floor near the bodies.

Donald Hofler was conscious and lying on the floor of the living room, Mumma said.

State police said Hofler told them he had taken 120 tablets of Valium, and he was transported to York Hospital.

Upon his release from the hospital three days later, he was transferred to York County Prison, where he is being held without bail.

With District Court Justice Vera J. Heilman's ruling yesterday that the case can proceed, a formal arraignment will soon be scheduled in the county's Court of Common Pleas in York. Hofler will enter a plea at that time.

First Assistant District Attorney Timothy J. Barker said prosecutors are still deciding whether to pursue the death penalty.

"It is a consideration for us," he said.

Donald Hofler, a renowned reading professor and authority on the history of the English alphabet, told friends that he was upset that his wife and her son had moved out about a month earlier. She filed for divorce, but Hofler had persuaded her to come to the house April 25 to talk.

Rita Hofler had worked in Harford County's public schools for 20 years and had taught at North Bend Elementary School in Jarrettsville since 1991.

She met Hofler when she took his reading class at Loyola. The two married in February 1989.

The night before her visit, Hofler made a lengthy recording in which he says: "I have already made the decision that I will kill her," and "I want her to suffer the way that I have been suffering."

Hofler sounds sedated and can be heard crying in the recordings. He refers to having taken Valium and Ambien in an effort to sleep.

Much of the audio is of Hofler apologizing to his two adult sons. "I may not have the guts to do it, but if I do, please forgive me."

He leaves detailed instructions about his will and his finances. He asks them to sell his house and to spend the money generously on their families.

Hofler retired from Loyola College in 2000, after instructing reading teachers for 27 years. He urged the teachers to use phonics, a method in which people learn to associate letters with the speech sounds they represent, in their classroom instruction.

Former students said he always made an impact in the classroom - at times standing at the chalkboard and writing upside down and backward with both hands.

Hofler recordings

Donald B. Hofler made six digital voice recordings in the days before his wife and her son were killed in their Shrewsbury, Pa., home. He has been charged with first-degree murder. Here are excerpts from the recordings:

From a recording made the night before the killings:

"Tomorrow will probably be the most significant day of my life. I have already made the decision that I will kill her. ... I want her to suffer the way that I have been suffering."

Later: "If she comes, she's dead. ... I have never hurt so badly as this in all of my life."

From a recording made several days before the killings:

"I know ... you want me to send the guns, but I have more guns than you can ever imagine." (He is addressing his eldest son, Donald Hofler Jr., in Fort Worth, Texas.)

From the first recording, believed to have been made four days before the killings:

"I can't do this anymore. ... I may not have the guts to do it, but if I do, please forgive me."

"It's not a coward's way out. It takes more courage to do this than you can realize."

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