York, Pa. -- With his old college professor looking on in an orange prison suit, Robert Peters spoke in awe yesterday of the teaching ability of Donald B. Hofler.
But in April 2004, the retired Loyola professor was an intoxicated "shell of the person I'd known for 30 years," Peters told a judge, recalling his former mentor holding a gun and talking about killing his wife.
Hofler was sentenced yesterday to the maximum of 40 to 80 years in prison for the murders of his estranged wife and her teenage son. After inviting them to his Shrewsbury Township, Pa., home on a Sunday afternoon, Hofler fired six alternating shots into the bodies of Rita K. Hofler and Kevin J. Gehring.
In handing down the sentence, York County Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh emphasized the deliberate nature of the killings.
"These offenses were contemplated by Mr. Hofler. They were thought out; they were planned," Linebaugh said. "These victims were lured to the defendant's home by the defendant."
Hofler, who had been charged with first-degree murder, avoided a possible death sentence by pleading guilty in July to two counts of third-degree murder.
But the prison sentence handed down yesterday means that Hofler, 71, will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.
"That was my only hope, that he would never see the outside of prison," said Cathy Skipper, Rita Hofler's younger sister, who was among 25 family members at yesterday's hearing. She held wallet-size pictures of Rita Hofler, 48, who taught at North Bend Elementary School in Jarrettsville, and Kevin as the judge read the terms of Hofler's sentence.
"It's the best we could get because of the appeals process," said Charles Knighton, Rita Hofler's brother. Noting that Hofler will likely have to spend the rest of his life living in close quarters with other convicts, Knighton added, "If you're going to go to jail, you might as well enjoy everything it has to offer."
The judge, pointing out that Hofler had saved more than $100,000 for retirement, fined him $50,000 for each of the two murders.
Hofler earned a reputation as an authority on the history of the English alphabet, and he taught reading teachers at Loyola College for 27 years. He was named professor emeritus when he retired in 2000.
But colleagues testified yesterday that in the spring of 2004 Hofler became despondent after his wife filed for divorce and moved in with another man, ending 15 years of marriage.
In the weeks after she moved out of the family's home, Hofler, who friends and colleagues said had never been a heavy drinker, began regularly taking a cocktail of prescription drugs and liquor. In the days before the murders, Hofler made a series of digital voice recordings, prosecutors said.
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 17-year-old son, if the teenager accompanied his mother to Hofler's house.
As relatives of Rita Hofler read victim-impact statements before the judge, the bespectacled Hofler, his right arm in a sling and a wisp of gray hair grazing his forehead, sat quietly and bowed his head. He was silent throughout the hearing until he stood to address the family.
"I'm truly sorry for what happened on that fateful day when I committed the most egregious act of my life," he began, bending over to speak into a microphone on the defense table and facing the relatives across the room. He began to choke back tears and wiped his chin with a clenched fist, as if to scratch an itch.
"Everyday I still think about what happened," he continued. Then, as he began to list things that have reminded him of Rita Hofler and Kevin, such as a nurse's smock with a Mickey Mouse tag or a young man dressed in a graduate gown, he abruptly stopped. "Excuse me," he said, and plopped down in his chair, sobbing with his head in his arms on the table.
Family members said the statement fell short of an apology because, they said, it was mostly about his suffering, not about remorse. "He's regretful because he's in jail," Knighton said.
During the hearing, Knighton said of Hofler: "No matter what you were in the past, you are a cold double-murderer."
Prosecutor Timothy J. Barker, the York County first assistant district attorney, described Hofler as someone who was only concerned about himself.
"All the decisions revolve around his pain," Barker said.
During his closing statement, Barker said Hofler saw Kevin merely as an "heir" and killed him for financial reasons.
Skipper, Rita Hofler's sister, pointed out that that Donald Hofler has rarely expressed regret for killing Kevin, who had a rocky relationship with his stepfather.
"The only thing he was guilty of was loving his mother," Skipper said.
"He was just starting to get his taste of independence," said Lori Thompson, Rita Hofler's niece.
Defense attorneys had asked the judge for a lesser sentence that would have allowed him to spend some of his final years outside of prison. They pointed to his accomplishments as an educator.
Colleagues yesterday described him as one of Loyola's most inspirational professors.
"He's the only person I knew that ever studied a dictionary on a regular basis and tried to find new dictionaries to learn words from," said Maureen Beck, a reading specialist teacher for Baltimore County public schools. "In prison he asked me to mail some tests to use with some inmates."