Tuesday, April 18, 2000

Did he keep dark secret?

20-year murder mystery still mystery to suspect's relatives

BY Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Michael Proffitt in a recent police handout.
        LONDON, Ky. — For most of the past two decades, Michael Proffitt has led a lonely life, never straying far from the family's rural home, rarely missing a day's short walk to the edge of Daniel Boone National Forest. Now, police say he also kept a dark secret: That in 1980, he shot Betty Hoffmann to death while the 55-year-old Greenhills secretary walked her dog in suburban Cincinnati's Winton Woods.

        The 20-year-old murder case was suddenly reopened last week after Mr. Proffitt stunned everybody by calling police and confessing.

        Today, a judge will decide whether Mr. Proffitt, 40, will be extradited from Kentucky's Laurel County Detention Center to Hamilton County, where he was indicted Friday on charges of aggravated murder and attempted rape.

        Police are convinced he did it, based on details he provided. Family members here say it's possible. But they also say Mr. Proffitt, who attended Greenhills schools as a special-ed student, has fought mental illness most of his life and may simply think he killed the woman. Or perhaps he witnessed it.

        “He asked me if he killed himself if he'd go to hell, and I said yes,” said his sister-in-law, Melissa Proffitt of London, Ky.

        “So I think he wants the death penalty so it'll be over.”

        On his daily walks to Daniel Boone forest, the deeply religious Mr. Proffitt would pass three yard signs listing the 10 Commandments, including “Thou shalt not bear false witness” and “Thou shalt not kill.”

        This much is clear: Mr. Proffitt is guilty of breaking one of those commandments.

        But which one? And why?

The past comes back
        For 20 years, the murder of Betty Hoffmann had been a cold case. She was shot once in the back July 7, 1980. The bullet exited her front and never was found. Her great Dane, Clinton, was so protective of her body that police had difficulty getting to it.

        The attempted-rape charge issued Friday was the first official indication of a motive. At the time, police said rape and robbery seemed unlikely. Mrs. Hoffmann was fully clothed and still wearing jewelry.

        No arrest was made. Until the call came in.

        Sgt. David Biggerstaff was doing paperwork in his Kentucky State Police office here April 7 when the caller gave a startling confession.

        “He told me he'd killed a woman and wanted to tell me about it,” Sgt. Biggerstaff said. “He was businesslike. He had an issue to deal with, and he dealt with it. He was focused on that issue.”

        Within hours, Kentucky police had contacted Ohio authorities and arrested Mr. Proffitt. He was questioned and jailed.

        “He told the other prisoners that this was just eatin' him alive,” Laurel County Jailer Ed Parsley said. “He's just meek as a lamb.”

        Mr. Parsley knows of no more detailed a jail house confession than the one Mr. Proffitt gave. “We don't have rodents here, but we have a lot of rats,” he said. “Usually, I'd get a report.”

        Interviews last week with Mr. Proffitt's two brothers, sister-in-law and neighbors reveal a quiet but troubled man. He has no prior arrests, officials say.

        In 1983, when he was 23, Mr. Proffitt moved from Greenhills, where he grew up, to this Kentucky town where his family has roots. His mother, Shirley Lowe, had just retired from the Cincinnati telephone company and moved here, too.

        She died in 1997, and by all accounts, the death was hard on Mr. Proffitt.

        “A lot of times, it got to where he wouldn't eat,” said his half brother, Joe Helton, 25, who has lived here with Mr. Proffitt for 15 years. Since his mother's death, Mr. Proffitt's weight has dropped from 180 pounds to 106. He's 5-foot-6.

        Mr. Proffitt has a loving family. But he never had a job, or a girlfriend, or a set of friends. He watched a lot of TV. His favorite was Unsolved Mysteries.

        With help from his sister-in-law, Mr. Proffitt found God at her Pentecostal church, and both were baptized there on April 19, 1998. A statue and three framed images of Jesus Christ adorn his living room.

        Family and friends say Mr. Proffitt kept to himself, tending to the family's four dogs and the chickens in the nearby coop.

        He also played music, and his cassettes collection includes Belinda Carlisle, Van Halen, Tim McGraw and the soundtrack to Less Than Zero.

        And he walked, usually the 0.7-mile between his brick house on White Oak Road and the entrance to Daniel Boone forest.

        “He walked a lot, way down the road to the boondocks,” said neighbor Evelyn Hedrick, 59. “Three, four times a day. ... Michael would walk all over the place. Sometimes come back soon, sometimes not for hours.”

        “You can't imagine him hurting anyone,” said her daughter, Tiffany, 22.

        In recent months, he had refused his medication, even during a voluntary commitment in February to a psychiatric facility in nearby Corbin, Ky., family members said.

        Then came Friday morning, April 7. Mr. Proffitt left his brother David's nearby house at 10:30 a.m., saying he was depressed. At one minute after noon, he called police.

        On a recent family visit to Laurel County Detention Center, accompanied by the Enquirer, Mr. Proffitt appeared extremely thin and unkempt. He declined comment but nodded to his family that Mrs. Hoffmann had a dog that day in 1980. He failed to recall other details.

        “Maybe he seen it happen and thinks he done it,” said his brother, David, 36, who grew up in Greenhills with Mr. Proffitt.

        “He told me he shot her in the back but meant to shoot her in the leg,” said Mrs. Proffitt, David's wife and the suspect's sister-in-law. “He got nervous and ran.”

Her name was Betty
        The investigation in 1980 stalled, and the file was put aside. Maybe a stray bullet, police theorized. Mrs. Hoffmann's husband, John, died in 1992.

        “He never really did move on,” said John Hoffmann's longtime friend and construction business employer, Jerry Reinert of Cold Spring, Ky. “He was aggravated that they (police) shelved it. ... He thought it was a neighbor.”

        But on that theory, he never elaborated. The Hoffmanns had moved to Jewel Lane in Greenhills from the Houston suburb of Bay City, Texas, just five months before her death. She was a secretary at University of Cincinnati Medical College.

        Mr. Proffitt grew up on Gambier Circle, close to both the Hoffmann house and the slaying scene. He graduated from Greenhills High in 1980, several weeks before the slaying.

        “He used to fight with the other boys, but that's just normal roughhousing,” said Wilma Bolser, who lived across the street from the Cape Cod-style home Mr. Proffitt grew up in.

        “Otherwise, he'd be by himself. He'd go to school by himself, and come home by himself.”

        The day he called Kentucky State Police, Sgt. Biggerstaff told Mr. Proffitt an officer would be right over. But before one arrived, Mr. Proffitt called again to see whether he was on his way yet.

        When Mr. Proffitt was taken to the police barracks, Joe Helton had no idea where his older brother was. He called police, saying Michael was missing, assuming he'd gotten lost in the woods.

        “We had no idea what they were talking about,” Mr. Helton recalled. “I was like, what? 1980? Are you guys nuts?”

        He leaned forward on the edge of a bed set up like a couch in the living room.

        “I don't think he knows what he's got into,” he said.


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