Ex-Loyola professor pleads guilty in murders

Teacher accepts deal, avoids death sentence

July 07, 2005|By Anica Butler | Anica Butler,SUN STAFF

A retired Loyola College professor pleaded guilty yesterday to murder in the shooting deaths of his estranged wife and stepson in York County, Pa., avoiding a possible death sentence.

A day after jury selection began in his trial, Donald B. Hofler, pleaded guilty to two counts of third-degree murder in the April 2004 shooting deaths of Rita Knighton Hofler, a 48-year-old Harford County schoolteacher, and her son, 17-year-old Kevin Gehring.

Hofler, 71, faces a maximum prison term of 40 to 80 years at his sentencing, scheduled for September, according to a York County prosecutor.

"It's a satisfactory resolution," said Tim Barker, York County first assistant district attorney. "And the reason why this is acceptable to us is ... the finality it will bring for Rita and Kevin's loved ones."

Prosecutors offered the plea to Hofler late Tuesday night, after an hours-long meeting with more than a dozen members of the victims' family, Barker said.

"We would never have agreed to this if we had not spoken with the victims' family and gone through every detail of what could have happened with a trial or a plea," Barker said. "The consensus was that this plea was acceptable to them."

Rita Hofler, a teacher at North Bend Elementary School in Jarrettsville, and Gehring were found dead from multiple gunshot wounds in Hofler's home in Shrewsbury Township on April 25, 2004.

About 20 family members and friends of Rita Hofler and Gehring were present at yesterday's court proceedings, Barker said. Attempts to reach Rita Hofler's family later yesterday were unsuccessful.

Barker also said that a guilty plea, compared with a guilty finding after trial, reduces the number of possible appeals in a case.

"When we look at the interests of justice, both societal and individual, this was an acceptable plea to this office," he said.

After receiving the plea offer at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, defense attorney Thomas L. Kearney III met with Hofler at York County prison, where Hofler is being held. They agreed to plead guilty, Kearney said.

"From our perspective, third-degree [murder] was probably the best we were going to do," Kearney said. "I think it was a fair result for all sides."

Prosecutors had sought a conviction on first-degree murder, which carries a possible death sentence. But Kearney had planned to argue that Hofler was "mentally infirm" at the time of the shootings, hoping to dissuade a jury from a first-degree murder conviction.

"He had received prescription medications and had ... self-medicated and combined them with alcohol to deal with his pain. That had additional affects on his mental illness," Kearney said. "He had been driven into a major depressive situation at the time."

Before the shootings, Rita Hofler had filed for divorce and moved in with another man, ending 15 years of marriage. Hofler, who taught reading teachers at Loyola College in Maryland for 27 years until retiring in 2000, was devastated, according to court documents.

In the days before the murders, Hofler made a series of digital voice recordings. In the recordings, found in Hofler's house by police and played by prosecutors in a May 2004 hearing, Hofler discussed his funeral arrangements, his lack of desire to live, and a plan to kill his wife and her son, if the teenager accompanied his mother to Hofler's house.

Hofler is scheduled to be sentenced by York County Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh on Sept. 30. Barker said the plea agreement did not contain a recommended sentence. Barker added that he will not be able to make his sentence recommendation until after a presentencing investigation is completed.

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