A violent end to a 44-year marriage

Husband pleaded guilty in what he calls suicide pact

October 28, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN REPORTER

ELKTON -- Ed Hoffman says he stood over the bed of his sleeping wife for a half-hour, a loaded shotgun in his hands, watching in the pre-dawn darkness as she tossed and turned in her nightgown. When she nestled into just the right position, he put the barrel against her head and pulled the trigger, killing her instantly.

Then it was his turn to complete what he says was a murder-suicide pact between him and his wife of 44 years.

But first he had to take care of some details.

He went to his computer and composed and sent an e-mail to 70 friends and relatives, a matter-of-fact recounting of their loving marriage and desire to take charge of their own deaths. He arranged insurance papers and faxed pass codes to their attorney, and then sat down for a slice of pumpkin pie and a Diet Cherry Coke in the kitchen.

When he returned to the bedroom 14 hours after the killing, he called a neighbor to tell him what he was doing and where to find the house keys. The stunned neighbor called police, who arrested Hoffman after he fell asleep in bed next to the body of his 72-year-old wife with the shotgun in his hands.

Investigators said he never denied shooting his wife that morning two years ago and claimed it was a humane act, something that they had talked about years earlier when it became apparent that the failure of their family dry-cleaning business meant they could no longer afford their comfortable lifestyle.

He said she only asked him not to tell her when the time came. So he didn't.

"We lived together for 44 years," he told investigators, according to a transcript filed in court. "We knew exactly what each other wanted. She was at the top of her game. That's how she wanted it."

But friends and family say they were never told of the plan and don't believe she would have accepted such a fate. She had developed arthritis and needed dentures but was otherwise healthy and active. They say her shooting might have had more to do with his reluctance to acknowledge that they were going broke.

"Jane was a powerhouse," said friend Ellen Ramer, 48, and would have found a way to work out the financial problems. "She would have done anything. Jane would have dealt with it."

After extensive psychiatric evaluation, Hoffman pleaded guilty Oct. 10 and is awaiting sentencing scheduled for Dec. 1. Prosecutors agreed, as part of the plea, to seek life in prison with all but 40 years suspended - a virtual life sentence for the 75-year-old retired Philadelphia businessman, whose health is fading and who had to be pushed in a wheelchair into Cecil County Circuit Court Judge Dexter M. Thompson's courtroom to enter the plea.

But the end of the court case is unlikely to answer the many questions that linger among friends and family members who recall a loving couple who lived in a cedar-sided house on a quiet, wooded street near the Elk River. Was the killing - by an apparently doting husband with odd sleeping habits but no criminal record - an act of compassion or control?

The neighbor Hoffman called that morning, Gerry Sligh, said, "Nobody will ever know for sure if it's true that they did have a pact, but I'm sure in my mind that Ed believed he was doing the most humane thing he could've done."

Financial trouble

To Hoffman, he and his wife were soul mates, "social misfits" who completed each other.

According to a report filed in the case by a court-appointed psychologist, Hoffman said that he had grown up in the Philadelphia suburbs isolated from his peers by overprotective parents. They dressed him in starched white shirts, a tie and camel-hair jackets. He had difficulty swallowing, which left him malnourished, frail and unable to participate in physical activity. He said he had no friends - he went to the movies with his parents and felt threatened by social situations.

Jane, on the other hand, was popular and athletic, the captain of her basketball team at a private high school. She overcame dyslexia through persistence, recalls her sister, Ruth Fackenthal. "She had pluck," Fackenthal said.

Their first encounter could hardly be considered conventional. On a business trip, Hoffman shared a hotel room with her then-husband, who confided in him that he had been unfaithful and wanted a divorce. The husband insisted the two meet and introduced them at the airport after the trip.

A year after her divorce, she and Hoffman married and moved into a home in the affluent Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd, and she quickly became an integral part of his family's dry-cleaning business.

As years passed, customers came to prefer casual clothes and no-iron sheets. Profit margins thinned, and payments owed to former employees - required by a pension law - began to exceed the worth of the business.

In 1990, they gave up on the business. He signed it over to an acquaintance nicknamed "Diamond Bob," who promised he could reverse their financial fortunes with a revolutionary way to pick up dry cleaning.

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