Was mystical leader Terri Hoffman somehow responsible for the suicides or accidental deaths of 10 people, eight of them her followers?
After nearly four years of investigation, prosecutors are no closer to pinning the deaths on Hoffman and no evidence has been presented to a grand jury.
But the families of those who died may soon receive at least some consolation: Hoffman could be sentenced to up to 50 years in prison this month after being convicted of bankruptcy fraud charges.
“I think it’s at least some semblance of justice,” said Dallas County Assistant Dist. Atty. Cecil Emerson, who heads the investigation.
Emerson conceded a murder indictment is improbable, but said the case will remain open, even though it is no longer active. Closing it, he said, “shuts down a thin hope that we could convict her of something, or that maybe somebody will come forward that knew something more that would help us out.”
The district attorney’s office began investigating Hoffman after the mysterious deaths of David and Glenda Goodman, the last of her followers to either commit suicide or otherwise die untimely deaths.
The Goodmans, who had broken with Hoffman, were found shot to death in their home in January, 1990, two handguns beside them on the floor. The couple had written Hoffman checks totaling more than $100,000.
From 1979 to 1990, 10 people with ties to Hoffman died--six by suspected suicides, including two of her four husbands, and four in apparent accidents. Of those, two told relatives they suffered from terminal illnesses, although autopsies showed they did not, and at least four bequeathed money and property to Hoffman.
Eight of the dead were involved with Hoffman’s group, Conscious Development of Mind, Body and Soul Inc., which religion experts say has cult-like leanings.
Hoffman is to be sentenced Feb. 25 on the fraud charges, which could unblock two civil lawsuits pending since she filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 22, 1991.
The lawsuits accuse Hoffman of using “hypnosis, behavior modification, mind control and emotional manipulation” to cause the followers’ deaths.
One of the suits, filed by Leonard Goodman, David Goodman’s father, contends Hoffman “not only influenced but had almost total control” over his son and daughter-in-law.
“I believe that if David and his wife, Glenda, had never met Terri Hoffman, they would be alive today,” Goodman said in an interview from his home in Santa Maria, Calif.
“The whole thing has been an ordeal for them,” said Dallas attorney Jim Barklow, who represents Hoffman’s stepchildren in the other suit.
Don Hoffman, Terri Hoffman’s fourth husband, committed suicide by a drug overdose on Sept. 16, 1988. He thought he had a terminal disease, but autopsy results showed no signs of illness. He left everything to his wife.
His children contend Terri Hoffman used hypnosis to persuade their father to kill himself.
“We’ve been in a position of just waiting to see what happens in the bankruptcy case,” Barklow said.
On Dec. 7, Judge Steven A. Felsenthal converted Hoffman’s bankruptcy to Chapter 7 liquidation status. The order came two weeks after Hoffman was convicted on 10 counts of bankruptcy fraud for failing to report an agreement to pay her lawyer 15% of any book or movie deals relating to her life story, and for failing to disclose that she had power of attorney to control her boyfriend’s bank accounts.
The action enables attorneys in the civil lawsuits to refile settlement claims with the bankruptcy court or try to proceed with a court hearing.
Chuck Cleaver of Dallas, whose 14-year-old daughter and ex-wife were followers of Hoffman and died in mysterious accidents, said the courts “now have the opportunity to assess evidence relating to the person one federal law enforcement officer has characterized as possibly the most successful, unprosecuted serial killer-for-profit in the history of Texas.”
Hoffman, who referred all questions to her attorneys, remains free until her sentencing on the fraud charges. She faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.
Hoffman became known in Dallas in the late 1960s and early ‘70s for her meditation classes, a blend of mythology and metaphysics in which “masters” were said to be reached.
She founded Conscious Development in 1974 to sell tapes and booklets of her teachings. The group still has about 100 members in Dallas and Chicago.
Fred Time, who represents Hoffman in the wrongful death lawsuits, contends the family members and Dallas officials are on a witch hunt.
“They’re a group of anti-cult people who have nothing to do,” he said.
He will never persuade Leonard Goodman of that.
“I’d like to see it go to trial and see her brought up on (murder) charges,” Goodman said. “But the fact that my son’s dead will never go away.”