30 years later, family fights to keep Carol's killer in jail

  • Article by: HERÓN MÁRQUEZ ESTRADA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 20, 2010 - 10:04 PM

In a notoriously brutal and bizarre case, Carol Stebbins Hoffman was killed and dismembered by her husband in 1980.

Carol Hoffman's high school graduation photo from 1971.

As the longest-serving sheriff in Hennepin County history, Don Omodt saw few cases as bizarre as the strangulation of Carol Stebbins Hoffman on a hot August night in 1980.

The mother of two girls, ages 3 and 9 months, was killed by her husband, David Hoffman, in the western suburb of Corcoran while their baby daughter was in the room. His mother, who reportedly knew of her son's plans, kept the children distracted while he dismembered his wife's body.

Hoffman first tried to dispose of the body in a garbage disposal but ultimately ended up burning some of the remains in the back yard and then tossing the rest into nearby Weaver Lake.

Hoffman and his mother were arrested and convicted. At their trials, among the claims made were some involving devil possession and incest.

"It was a brutal case," said Omodt, who took office in 1967 and served 28 years. "Up to that time we had not come across anything as bizarre."

On Monday, Hoffman, now 63 and serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, will try to convince the Minnesota Department of Corrections that he is a changed man and should be paroled in the death of his 26-year-old wife. It's his third attempt at parole but his first in 10 years.

Carol Hoffman's relatives say they are deathly afraid that Hoffman will hurt them if he is released. They say they are concerned that the years have diluted the impact of what is widely considered one of the most notorious crimes in Hennepin County history.

Their commitment to keeping Hoffman imprisoned has been taken up by the next generation of relatives, some of whom were not born before Carol Hoffman was killed.

Her nieces and nephews have started an online petition asking that David Hoffman remain locked up. A nephew made a YouTube video memorializing Carol Hoffman that asks people to sign the petition, which will be presented to corrections officials.

"The nieces and nephews have gotten involved because we are dying," said Lorie Aanerud, 54, who plans to attend Monday's parole review in St. Paul along with other relatives. "My kids are going to have to pick up the fight when we are gone. They're terrified of him, too. He got a life sentence but so did we."

At Monday's hearing, family members will have 20 minutes to plead their case. They don't believe it's enough time to convey the severity of his actions.

"My sister's life was worth a lot more than that," Aanerud said. "I want them to understand how deeply sick and troubled this man is."

'Driving the devil out'

In the days immediately following the Aug. 10, 1980, killing, a mournful David Hoffman was seen on the evening news leading efforts to locate his wife, who he told police had inexplicably run off.

"We knew she didn't run away," her mother, Phyllis Stebbins, said last week. "She would never leave those two girls."

The case gained so much notoriety that the subsequent trial was moved from Minneapolis to Rochester because of negative pre-trial publicity.

David Hoffman claimed that he strangled his wife for a variety of reasons, including that she was going to divorce him and he feared he might not see his daughters again.

But Hoffman, who pleaded guilty by reason of insanity, also said he killed Carol Hoffman because he believed she was possessed by the devil.

In a jailhouse letter to his mother, Helen Ulvinen, Hoffman said he was "driving the devil out of" Carol Hoffman when he killed her and that his killing her was what "was best for my girls."

In testimony, Hoffman and friends testified that he told them, and his mother, that he wanted to kill his wife and might have been planning the killing for months or years.

Eventually a jury convicted Hoffman of first-degree murder. He received a life sentence. His mother was convicted of the same crime, but that conviction was overturned about a year later by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

There also were reports that Hoffman had a romantic affair with his mother, who died in the mid-1990s.

At trial, testimony was presented that claimed Hoffman killed his wife in a rage when she refused his sexual advances and then told him to go have sex with his mother instead.

No remorse?

What troubles the Stebbins family and corrections officials the most, according to department records, is that David Hoffman does not seem to understand the severity of what he did and has not accepted responsibility for his actions.

"He has made no attempt whatsoever to show remorse for what he did to my sister," Aanerud said last week.

That lack of remorse kept Hoffman in prison in 1994 and 2000, when petitions for parole were denied.

"I listened very closely to your testimony with an ear toward hearing sincere remorse ... a true sense of guilt," DOC Commissioner Sheryl Ramstad Hvass wrote to Hoffman in 2000. "You appear to have a blind spot ... that prevents you from recognizing the enormity of what you did."

David Hoffman's youngest daughter, who has visited her father over the years in prison, said she has seen the remorse and thinks it is time that he be released for his crimes.

"Thirty years is a life sentence," said the daughter, who requested anonymity because she has never identified herself publicly as Hoffman's daughter. "I've seen the remorse; it's there. He just doesn't show it to everybody. He's done his time, and it's time for him to make amends for what he did outside of prison."

Tom Kelly, the attorney who defended David Hoffman 30 years ago, said he has not kept in touch with him. But he believes that it might be time for Hoffman to get parole.

"If he's served his time and he's eligible, then he should be released," Kelly said.

The Stebbins family vehemently disagrees and plans to make that point on Monday.

"This story is so horrifying," Aanerud said. "He deserves to stay in prison. We're not just doing this for ourselves. We're doing this for society."

Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280

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