Friendly Treachery: The Murder of Cynthia Hoffman
She went along even when she didn't really understand. Sometimes it was like they were speaking another language. When things were overwhelming, Cece just turned it off. Even when they were mean. Having friends was worth the bad stuff, most of the time.
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Cece was just happy to be out with her friends. Earlier that morning, Angela, her BFF since high school, called, and Surprise wanted to take her on an adventure. It was okay with her dad. And here they were, driving around in a car that Angela had borrowed just for us.
Angela brought along Caden. A boy Cece didn't really know, but he seemed cool. She said they needed Caden to take pictures and video of them acting crazy. They drove around town, stopping at different places. It was a nice summer day and Angela wanted to show Alaska to her rich boyfriend, Tyler, who lived very far away.
After a few stops and videos, Angela had an idea. Wouldn't it be fun to make like we were kidnapped and taken into the woods? Yeah. She said the best place to go would be… Caden yelled out Thunder Bird Falls! Angela said she liked that place. It would be perfect. It was beautiful there. The pictures would be great. People were gonna freak.
They all jumped back into the car and headed outta town. On the way, Angela talked with her Tyler on the phone. He wasn't even there, but they all talked about him like he was the boss. Angela thought it was important to do what Tyler wanted. They said things Cece didn't understand, but that was okay. All Cece knew was that Angela was in L O V E. Cece had never been in love like Angela. Someday.
Angela could talk for hours about her dreams with Tyler, how rich he was, how he was gonna come and get her, and they would live in a big house far away. It was nice to hear about Angela's dreams. Cece was just happy to be out on this adventure with her BFF.
After a while, they left the highway and parked in a gravel lot on a wooded hillside. Between the trees below, Cece could see ocean water. On the other side, the mouth of the trail led up into thick woods. As Cece looked at the slope, she could hear the distant rumble of water falling.
Angela took a small pack from the car and talked with Caden. When they came to the edge of the parking lot, the trail down looked steep, hardly a path at all. Angela encouraged Cece. It wasn't that steep. Everyone walks to the main path. They couldn't get good pictures with everyone around. Caden and Angela told Cece that she could wait for them, but it would be a shame that she wouldn't be in any of the pictures. Cece didn't wanna disappoint her friends, so she followed slowly but steadily.
The trail was hard, slippery, and steep at points, but after a while, it finally leveled out. Cece looked back up the hill, worried about getting lost. The brush was so thick she couldn't see the main trail or the parking lot.
Eventually, when they reached the flat gravel bar at the edge of the slower-moving water, the group stopped. Here, Caden asked. Angela nodded. She said something into the phone and panned it around. Cece could hear some reply from the phone. Caden and Angela stepped away. They were talking serious about something which Cece mainly ignored.
She was used to being left outta conversations. It was okay. They were her friends. Angela stood beside some large rocks, using them as a shelf to unload her pack. Cece saw a roll of duct tape and then a gun. That captured her attention and made her a little nervous. Seeing the concern. Angela told her friend, it's just a toy.
Cece asked what all this stuff was for. Angela told her they were gonna pretend to be kidnapped. They would put on the tape and take funny pictures that they could send to their friends. They had talked about kidnap and rape videos before, just fooling around with the idea. Sometimes Angela's friends made Cece nervous, tried to do things she didn't like, but mostly they were cool.
She went along even when she didn't really understand. Sometimes it was like they were speaking another language. When things were overwhelming, Cece just turned it off. Even when they were mean. Having friends was worth the bad stuff, most of the time.
Cece thought Angela didn't look like she was having fun. She looked serious. This whole thing must be what Tyler wanted them to do. She didn't like it, but Cece would help her friend. With that compromise, she said she wanted to see the gun. She just wanted to hold it and couldn't understand why they wouldn't let her. After all, it was just a toy. Angela made a show of putting a few strips of tape on herself. Then she asked Cece to sit. Caden took pictures of the two girls. One doing the taping, while the other sat docile on the rocks.
As Cece was bound, she felt increasingly nervous. Both of her friends looked serious. On the phone, they were talking about rape, what pictures to take. It wasn't as fun as Angela said. She noticed Angela didn't have that much tape on. Cece looked around. The deep wooded canyon loomed over her. She felt helpless. Her breathing became faster. Angela wasn't stopping. She was wrapping tape across her face, covering Cece's mouth. Next would be her eyes. She looked at her friend and saw not a friend. That was the moment Cece lost control. This whole situation wasn't right. It wasn't fun. She wanted to jump up and run, but her feet and hands were tied. She couldn't even talk right. As these realizations hit her. Cece tried to suck in more air. It wasn't enough. Her chest heaved with the realization. She tried to scream past the gag. Her eyes bulging as waves of panic hit. Cece screamed as loud as she could, violently pitching backward, rolling off the rock, and onto the gravel bank.
Angela was close, saying things, trying to get her friend to calm down. They were just gonna take some funny pictures., but that was it for Cece. She didn't wanna be taped; she didn't wanna be kidnapped; she didn't want to be raped. She screamed, muffled again and again, struggling against the bonds.
Even as Angela crawled after her, trying to pin her down. Angela pulled the tape off of Cece's mouth. Cece pulled in a deep breath and was racked with sobs. A few seconds later, she yelled, demanding to be untied.
Angela, trying to save the photo shoot, unwrapped her wrists. Fear mixed with anger fueled Cece's tirade. She demanded they let her go. If they didn't, she was gonna call the cops.
With this, Angela stood up and backed up a couple of steps. Looking down at Cece. She handed Caden the pistol. Angela, her face expressionless, stared into her friend's eyes. Cece didn't want this game. She just wanted to go home. Caden, who had stepped off to the side, raised the pistol and shot Cece through the back of her head. Cece writhed and convulsed on the gravel while Angela took her turn as photographer.
The call came into the Anchorage Police Department Dispatch on June 3rd, 2019. A father, Timothy Hoffman, wanted to report his 19-year-old daughter, Cynthia, missing. Hoffman said his daughter had gone out with friends the day before and had not returned. She wasn't answering her cell phone. An added cause of concern Cynthia experienced a developmental disability and was, therefore, potentially more vulnerable than the average person.
Hoffman told the dispatcher that he and other family members had been out looking for her but had no luck. He had talked to Angela, Cynthia's best friend, who she was supposed to have been with, but Angela had said they had dropped her off in one of the city parks during the day. Angela seemed surprised that Cynthia hadn't been home yet.
The police dispatcher assured Hoffman that they were listing Cynthia's missing. They would provide her name and her description to patrol officers who'd be on the lookout. That police response did not satisfy Hoffman. He was sure his daughter, known in the family as Cece, was in trouble.
She had always answered or at least returned her cell phone calls. He had money for her from a recent contracting job she'd helped with, and it was very unusual for her not to be counting the minutes until payday. He texted Cece's friend Angela again. It did make sense that Cece would wanna leave her pal and wander off, but Angela seemed worried about Cece too, and she reassured him that his daughter would be home soon.
Timothy rounded up some friends and family and they continued the search downtown, the malls, the hospitals. Hours passed with no signs. None of Cece's friends had seen her, and there was only silence from the police.
The second night with no Cece came and went. Still no return texts or calls. The family again reached out to friends and rechecked the usual places. They were sick with worry, and the silence took on an ominous weight. Then, the police knocked on the door. As unbearable as the silence had been, it was preferable to the tidings they brought with them. Cece was dead. They had found her body floating in the water in Eklutna. She had suffered a gunshot wound to the head.
The police, who hadn't seemed to want any information before, now wanted to check and double-check every detail. Places, times, friends, associates, phone numbers, internet access codes. The Hoffman family, dazed and disbelieving, gave them everything.
What police knew was the hikers had spotted and reported the body. Death at Thunder Bird Falls was not a common call, but over the years, there had been several reported at that location. Some homicides, mostly body dumps, but also accidental and suicide.
The water there drops almost 200 vertical feet at the top of a ravine with sheer sides. The accidental deaths and injuries are mostly climbers who underestimate the difficulty of the cliffs. As far as the hikers go about a mile back, the primary trail overlooks the falls on one side of the ravine. The viewing deck there has historically been a jumper location several times.
On this day, when the first patrol officers arrived, it was immediately apparent that Cynthia Hoffman's body floating alone in one of the pools below the falls was not the result of an accidental slip or an act of self-harm. Her legs were bound at the ankles with duct tape. She had head trauma, probably a bullet wound to the back of her head.
As they started their investigation. Cynthia's level of sophistication was a source of interest to the detectives. She experienced a developmental disability. What did that mean? Her dad simplified it, giving the comparison he had used hundreds of times over the years. He said developmentally, she was like a seventh grader, which meant she was a 12-year-old in a 19-year-old's body.
However, some of the descriptions the investigators were getting showed Cynthia was functionally even younger than that. She could perform simple instructions, help with task handle most activities of daily life, but had to be watched, had to be kept track of by a responsible adult. Her disability might not be immediately obvious to the casual observer, but anyone who spent any time around Cynthia would know there was something amiss.
Her parents didn't trust that she could avoid being led astray. They constantly worried that someone would take advantage of her. According to her dad, Cynthia was childlike in her trust, and her greatest desire was to have friends. He knew this endearing trait made her vulnerable.
The Hoffman family were vigilant, and until a few days prior, Angela Cynthia's BFF was one of those people they thought was looking out for their daughter. The two had known each other through high school, and from dad's perspective, Angela had earned a spot in the circle of trust.
Now Angela's story of dropping Cynthia off at a park in Anchorage looked like bullshit. She was the last person known to have been with Cynthia, and they had gone hiking at Thunder Bird Falls.
Detectives walked away from the death notification with a greater understanding of the situation. They had a person of interest now. They had her phone number and the names of some of her friends. It was a good starting point.
It did not take long to identify Angela. Her real name was Denali Brehmer, an 18-year-old who lived a semi-homeless lifestyle. She and friends would stay here and there, flopping where they could couch-surfing friends' houses. Sometimes they were shelter rats. Because of the nomadic lifestyle and active avoidance, it took detectives two days to track her down.
By the time investigators had Brehmer in the box, they had some leverage. They had processed the crime scene and Cynthia's body. They had Brehmer's cell phone data on order. If they were lucky, they could track that phone right up to the murder scene.
From the moment Brehmer sat down in the interview room chair, detectives started backing her into a corner. Before they even asked her any questions, they casually went over the basics of what they knew, holding back some of the key details.
When the show and tell was over, the question they put to Brehmer was not explain what happened. They already knew the answer to that. What they asked her to talk about was why.
Brehmer took the theme the detectives cast like a bass to a lure, and she gave them her first account of the crime. It was simple and deflected blame onto one of her friends. Bemer said that on the day of the incident, she, Cynthia, and 16-year-old Caden McIntosh were driving around Anchorage, looking for a place to take interesting photos.
They decided that Thunder Bird Falls would be a good backdrop. When they arrived at the Trailhead, they went down to the water instead of walking the main trail. And once down there, they found a wide gravel bank beside the water. Brehmer and Cynthia played with duct tape, pretending they were kidnapping victims with McIntosh and Brehmer taking turns filming. They put more and more tape on Cynthia, until Cynthia was sitting on the ground with her hands and feet bound, and her mouth was covered. Brehmer said Cynthia suddenly freaked out. So she pulled the tape off, but Cynthia remained scared and angry.
Yelling that she was gonna call the cops and accused them of trying to rape her.
At that point, McIntosh unexpectedly pulled the gun and shot Cynthia in the head. Brehmer said she was so freaked out. All she could do was watch. She describes Cynthia's convulsions as McIntosh shoved her body down the slope and into the water.
After that, they climbed back into the car and drove back to Anchorage. At McIntosh's direction, Brehmer said she burned Cynthia's belongings and made a call to Cynthia's father.
Brehmer finished her story by saying that she did not know that Macintosh was going to shoot Cynthia and she only kept quiet about the murder because she was afraid.
The interview with 16-year-old McIntosh mirrored Brehmer's account except for a couple of important details. He confirmed that the three borrowed a car and went driving around to take some pictures.
They ended up at Thunder Bird Falls. The girls started fooling around at the water's edge. The girls used duct taped or pretend they were being kidnapped. Cynthia got really upset, and she said she was gonna call the cops and say that he raped her. Caden said it was Brehmer who pulled out the gun and gave it to him.
McIntosh said he must have blacked. But then admitted that he barely remembered shooting Cynthia and pushing her into the water. He blamed the whole thing on Brehmer saying that she brought the gun because she wanted him to do it.
That initial story was like many first runs the detectives here in all kinds of cases. It didn't make much sense, but that was okay. The suspects had placed themselves at the scene and in the middle of the crime, and they agreed on who pulled the trigger.
After that, some of the investigators began examining digital evidence and others set to rounding up other people mentioned as peripheral players.
Detectives uncovered the rest of the story when they unearthed information hiding in two places. First, the accounts of those secondary players, and second Brehmer's, otherwise unremarkable cell phone. What they uncovered would make national news.
It turned out that Bremmer had a benefactor, a man who was identifying himself as Tyler from Kansas. Tyler and Brehmer were having a long-distance love affair. Their texts peppered with familiar expressions of affection and sexual innuendo. They exchanged photos, and each liked what they saw. As an added attraction, while Brehmer was dirt poor and almost homeless, Tyler was a millionaire. That was an irresistible lure for Brehmer. She was on board for whatever he wanted, as long as they would be together. With his hooks deeply embedded in Brehmer's imagination. Tyler slowly moved beyond the initial lovey-dovey stuff, exposing more of his predatory side. He was a rich man with particular tastes and desires.
He hinted at his preference and affection for young, really young girls. He asked Brehmer to film videos of little girls having sex with her. Brehmer, still enthusiastic about their future. Tyler told her he also wanted to watch a girl die. In fact, he was willing to pay handsomely if she would do that for him. When the twin ideas of raping a child and committing murder didn't scare Brehmer off, Tyler put a number on the offer. He would pay $9 million. Brehmer agreed.
Now her wealthy boyfriend and benefactor was putting her to work. Brehmer began sending the kind of pictures that Tyler liked and she gave him progress reports on the live-action requests.
She selected an impressionable 15-year-old girl from her circle of friends. She got her high and docile and then filmed the two of them for Tyler's edification.
For the second mission, Brehmer knew the killing would not be so easy. She needed help and she might need a patsy. She brought in a couple of friends. The conspirators met on a fateful day in May. She told them everything, what she had done and what Tyler wanted.
Her friends were enthusiastic. Motivated by the promise of big bucks. They hatched a plan. They agreed on a victim. They made assignments. They picked a location and someone ponied up a pistol.
When he was brought in for an interview, 19-year-old Caleb Leland admitted he knew about the plot. He agreed to loan Brehmer a car for $500,000. The rest went exactly as planned. The fake photo session was just about getting Cynthia Hoffman to the pre-selected murder site. One of the conspirators had thrown in the idea of beautiful Thunder Bird Falls.
But the filming didn't go as planned. There was a point where Cynthia realized something was wrong. She panicked. Brehmer tried to calm her down so the photo session could go on, but Cynthia was beyond reasoning. McIntosh, a little freaked out himself was holding the pistol that until then, had only been used as a prop. He took a step to the side, so he is standing slightly behind her. He raised the gun, pulled the trigger, and sent a bullet into Cynthia's skull. Cynthia Rock forward with the force of the blast flopping sideways down slope. Her body convulsed, her brain desperately trying to reboot through the trauma.
After that, McIntosh drug Cynthia's body, pushing her face down into the pool below. Neither could say if the gunshot killed her or if she had drowned. But Brehmer didn't miss the opportunity to memorialize the scene with her camera.
On the way back to Anchorage, Brehmer and McIntosh talked about the next steps. They would gather anything belonging to Cynthia that's still in the car, her purse, a couple of other things, and they'd burn them. Brehmer would call Cynthia's parents to lay down a cover story.
When detectives went back at her, Brehmer stuck to the lies until they convinced her that she had been duped. Tyler, a millionaire tycoon from Kansas, was not really who he was claiming to be. There was no money. In fact, Tyler from Kansas wasn't even Tyler, nor was he from Kansas. They confronted her with the deleted messages from her cell phone. There were ones where she and Tyler planned the rape of a child. Brehmer volunteered that she was gonna get her 15-year-old friend high, so she'd be a docile victim.
Then there was a cache of communications surrounding the planning and execution of the murder. Brehmer ultimately admitted everything. Brehmer even talked about a crime that the investigators hadn't seen in the digital evidence. She had molested a nine-year-old girl for Tyler's enjoyment.
With the case basically solved, one mystery remained. Who was Tyler from Kansas?
Working with federal counterparts, that answer came quickly. Tyler turned out to be a 21-year-old man named Darren Shilmiller a resident of New Salisbury, Indiana, a quiet agricultural community with only 600 residents. Shilmiller lived with relatives in a small single-story brick house on two acres. When word of the murder investigation filtered out, the media descended on New Salisbury to find out about Indiana's now notorious son.
Unsurprisingly, Shilmiller looked nothing like the photo of Tyler he sent to Bremmer. Tyler sported model-good looks. Shilmiller's a big, overweight, prematurely balding white guy. He looks like the person from the stereotype, the one people imagined sitting in the basement of his mother's house doing the things that he was now accused of doing.
People who knew Shilmiller described him as weird, a shy introvert. Everyone was
surprised about the murder charge, but not so much the child pornography. He was known around town for having a creepy interest in children. He had asked friends for photos of their little kids and made distasteful comments about kids over social media.
One lady had broken off communication with Shilmiller when he asked her for diaper change photos of her little girl. The FBI's Child Exploitation task force worked with the Anchorage detectives and counterparts in Indiana to cover the child porn and digital aspects of the case. When warrants were executed on a Shilmiller's phone and computer, evidence was seized that corresponded with the crimes in Alaska. Shilmiller was picked up for interview and confronted with the evidence, and he confessed to all of the substantial allegations. He had used a fake identity to seduce Brehmer. Once he had gained her trust, he offered her money to commit certain offenses.
These crimes, sexual abuse of minors, and murder had been under his direction and supervision. He wanted the video and photographs for his personal gratification.
During the interrogation, Shilmiller gave them two details that they hadn't considered first. The murder had been scheduled to be complete on the day before his 21st birthday. Second, he had tried to use the rapes and murder as blackmail to encourage Brehmer to commit additional crimes.
In the investigation's wake. Shilmiller was extradited to face charges in Alaska. In state court. Shilmiller, Brehmer McIntosh, Leland, and two juveniles were charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder in the first degree, and two counts of murder in the second degree. The two juveniles, one male and one female, were involved in the crime's planning and also expected some of the loot. Their names were not released because of their age. In addition, both Brehmer and Shilmiller face federal charges related to the production and dissemination of child pornography.
In February 2023, Brehmer settled her state case, pleading guilty to first-degree murder in the Anchorage Superior Court. In exchange, prosecutors dismissed charges of conspiracy to commit murder, solicitation of murder, tampering a physical evidence, and two counts of second-degree murder. She faces a minimum of 30 years in state prison and will be sentenced August 2023.
The federal trial for Brehmer and Shilmiller's pornography is scheduled to begin in July. In interviews with local media. Cynthia's father, Timothy, said, "the only thing I know is that my daughter trusted these people. Her disability just made her want to have friends. My daughter just wanted friends and now I have to bury her. And that is wrong."
Marcy: Mark, let's first talk about the setting for this case. It happened in the beginning of June, so it's summertime in Southcentral Alaska.
Mark: Yeah, so the snow is finally melted away. The temperatures are going up, which by lower 48 standards are pretty low. Like you're talking about fifties, sixties, maybe occasionally some seventies.
And it isn't until end of July, before the August rain start, you might see some days in the upper eighties, but in early June, it was fifties, sixties.
Marcy: but June is the season to get out and do things in Alaska, and if you live there, you definitely feel the clock ticking like it's a now or never thing. Summer solstice that happens on June 21st is a really big deal in Alaska because it marks the shift to the countdown to shorter days.
Mark: That burst of activity is ironic. When you think of what happened in this case.
Marcy: Describe Thunder Bird Falls and what kind of police calls come from there.
Mark: The municipality of Anchorage is both urban and rural, the northern boundary of the police service area is the Knick River Bridge. And the Southern is north of the town of Girdwood, let's call it Bird Point. So about 70 miles from top to bottom, or an hour's drive in no traffic.
The middle of that North-South drive is what they commonly referred to as the Anchorage Bowl, an area of several miles wide between the Chugach Mountains and the saltwater and Thunder Bird Falls is about 30 miles north of the city, almost out of APD police jurisdiction.
Incidentally, if you're a Sarah Palin fan, she started her political career as the mayor of the city of Wasilla. It's maybe 20 minutes north of Thunder Bird Falls. This is a glacially Fed Creek that runs off the mountaintops just above the inlet.
It is a beautiful waterfall with about a 200-foot drop at the end. In the park, there's a well-built trail that kind of side hills along the ravine to a viewing platform near the falls. It's pretty rugged in that ravine, wet and slippery. So they discourage people from venturing off the main path.
But people do. The main draw is obviously the falls, but it's because it's uniquely accessible. It's less than a two-mile hike, round trip. The trail is fairly flat. And for a lot of Anchorage, it's the first place you take your kids to go on a hike because it's so short and it's has a cool view as a payoff at the end.
As far as police calls go, there have been people who have been injured or died accidentally while climbing around there. There have been suicides, unfortunately there. And this wasn't the first homicide or body dump at that location. All of this is because it's easily accessible from the city and it's pretty well known.
Marcy: There's a nice state park video about the falls that we'll include in the show notes. And you have some perspective on the lives of the suspects in this case and how they were living?
Mark: For my patrol work, time and burglary, vice, sex assault, and especially from working targeted projects, I brushed up against this type of group a lot.
Marcy: So, how do you define that kind of group?
Mark: Older teens, young adults, homeless or semi homeless, haven't found a path to follow in life. Don't have a productive life kind of flailing around with not much to do, plenty of time on their hands. A lot of these kids, I wanna, I'm gonna call 'em kids, but they're, some of them are just barely young adults.
Some of them, many of them, get involved in low level criminal activity. Some get pulled in deeper as we see here. It's a situation that's particularly dangerous for young girls who are frequently victimized. Some of the earliest episodes in this series talk about some of the worst things that could happen there.
Marcy: These are kids who have had chronic problems, poor family relationships, and pretty much little to no oversight.
Mark: That's exactly right. These kids congregate in certain areas around town. Mainly large open public spaces with access to indoor shelter, especially in the winter.
One example is the city of Anchorage is downtown bus shelter. But it's also some of the malls. It's not by accident that one of my crime suppression unit projects was in this downtown area that included that bus shelter, a horrible hotel, and the juvenile shelter.
I don't want to give the impression that troubled youth or. Are at the root of all problems. But we definitely had some eye-opening and unexpected experiences down there. And not all the kids at risk got deeply involved. I think some kids that go, that get involved in this, take a look around and see how low you can sink and how quickly and pull themselves away from that spiral because of what they see.
Marcy: Was the brutality of this crime surprising to you?
Mark: Yes and no. Some of the stories I heard, some of the things I got involved in, were eye-openers, like I talked about the Jerry Star episode. We saw, in that case, kids who basically sold each other for dope. This is dog-eat-dog street life, with a strong praying on the weak. So by the time I had heard of this case, no, it wasn't surprising. It was just sad.
This story is it's not a standalone story, nor is it something that could only happen in Anchorage. In the last few years, the city of Wasilla, about half an hour of the North, had its own brutal teenage murder group. And what was uncovered there was similar themes to this case.
Juveniles and young adults who, whose parents have lost or abdicated their oversight parents that just looked the other way on some very concerning behavior. And the result was a no moral compass Lord to the flies kind of existence for them. And in that situation, just like in this, eventually a kid was basically executed. And the investigation showed an incredible level of depravity.
Marcy: What I think is amazing in this case is that all of these people conspired and everybody just thought it was okay. Nobody said, hold on a second, I need to save this kid.
Mark: That's the dog-eat-dog thing. A lot of these kids are victims too and have suffered abuse. They get abused at home or on the street, and they take it out on someone weaker or more vulnerable.
Everyone is looking out for themselves. We're familiar with cases of mothers who have sold their daughters. So why not a friend killing a friend for profit?
Marcy: Is it significant that Brehmer used a different street name?
Mark: No, I don't think she used that street name to cover for this particular crime.
And I don't think it's necessarily significant for this particular crime. It's an aspect of the street life she was in. These kids she's an adult, but let's be real. Not really. They're outsiders. They feel it. They don't like who they are or where they've come from, and they pick a different name to shed the old skin. Some of them probably think it's, makes 'em harder to identify. But it's that's pretty thin.
Marcy: do you have trouble identifying people because of these alternative names?
Mark: Not really. It's just an extra step in the investigation. But there are ways of identifying them. In this case, the, I'm sure they got it from the cell phone, although I'm not certain, but that's the first place you go.
She has a cell phone, run that cell phone. Who's attached to the cell phone and who are they attached to? But there are also people who know everybody. So you pull up a good surveillance photo, print it out, show it around. These people like to spread gossip, talk trash and back stab like crazy. The rumor mill is always running at full speed among these kids.
You just have to take the time to talk to them. There's also adult sources who work among this population. But you gotta be careful not to abuse that trust. So they don't lose trust with the people they're serving.
Marcy: what happened in this case between Shilmiller and Brehmer is catfishing, right?
Mark: Yeah. Catfishing is the online use of fraudulent identity with the goal of gaining the cooperation of a target for some purpose.
Marcy: Here, Shilmiller pretended to be a young man, good looking with a fat bank account. That's not so unusual, but the results aren't typical. What other examples do you have of catfishing?
Mark: There are tons of those kind of schemes the most successful or aimed at the perceived vulnerabilities of the target. Shilmiller was looking for a poor, vulnerable young woman. In the past, he had been unsuccessful at getting what he wanted from single mothers. This is not all sex related. Probably the majority of catfishing is financial. They're targeting elderly adults posing as fake bankers, fake IRS agents, fake relatives who desperately need money.
Unfortunately, some of these victims have been taken for tens of thousands of dollars.
Marcy: You had mentioned other sexual exploitations.
Mark: Many teenagers have been victimized some with really tragic results. Here are a couple of examples of this scam. A girl thinks she is messaging another teenager. She sends him a nude pick. The bad guy blackmails her, threatening to send the picture to everyone she know.
In that way, he coerces her in descending whatever's requested. Sometimes he demands for more racy photos, or even a demand for meetup and sex in person. By the way, that is sexual assault.
In another case, I just read about a teenage boy was the victim, basically the same scam I just described. Instead of cooperating with the bad guy's demands, he killed himself. That scam went from the initial exchange of messages to his suicide in one night. His parents, sleeping just a few feet away, had no idea what was happening to that boy.
Marcy: I know that a lot of these predators work with information that they gather from the target's own social media posts.
Mark: Yes. So pick a target off of social media that you wanna stock and take a look at what they have out there. Can you come up with where they work, where they go to school, the names of friends and relatives? If you're a scam artist, that information is gold. Particularly when you're targeting someone who is unsophisticated in the ways of the world. Like a teenager, this is a huge danger for them.
Marcy: Do you think Brehmer was a victim at all?
Mark: No. Brehmer's a product of her environment. As I'm looking at this case. It struck me as how horribly wasteful it was. Working around some of these people, as I did some, had huge potential. Brehmer, if she had grown up with a moral compass, had natural leader potential.
Unfortunately, instead of using that potential, her broken ethics and judgment allowed her to enthusiastically jump into this crime. And where did she lead her gang? To prison.
Marcy: And sacrificing an innocent girl. You have mentioned people who were very streetwise, but ultimately really dumb.
Mark: Yeah, I think Brehmer's one of those. Her limited world left her with huge holes in her knowledge and self-awareness. As I talk about this, I think about an interview I saw with a special forces officer who was in the field in Afghanistan with indigenous fighters.
We're going way down a rabbit path here, but I'll come back to make it make sense. So this officer said, these are great soldiers that he's working with, locals that his SF guys are working with. One night, they stopped and sat down under the stars. Sky was cloudless, no light pollution.
You could see every star in the Milky Way. And some of the men began making comments about it, how the light pollution back home in the US prevented such a clear view. As the conversation between the Americans and the local fighters progressed, it became clear that the Afghani soldiers knew almost nothing about the reality of the natural world or the outside world.
They didn't know about the orbit of the planets, the differences in other countries. All the knowledge we that we take for granted.
And I think of this limited worldview in isolation is applicable to some people, unfortunately here. Some are very intelligent, in terms of street smarts, but no intellectual curiosity about what, what was happening outside the few city blocks that they knew as home. They limited their understanding of the outside world to a very narrow band of popular culture. And this ignorance leaves them vulnerable. In Brehmer's case, it meant Shilmiller could woo her with his amazing bullshit, and it meant that she had no idea of the capabilities and reach of law enforcement.
Marcy: Her plan to blame McIntosh seemed pretty flimsy when you consider everything else.
Mark: Yeah, and all the other witnesses. Like I said, the rumor mill in that group is crazy. I can't believe with her knowing about that, that she thought she could actually get away with it. It's just so senseless and sad when you think about.
Brehmer here is basically the Deputy Mastermind. And her plan is to abandon ship and blame everybody else. That just isn't gonna work.
One thing you look for when you interview is where you can give a suspect, or the suspect can give himself a moral off-ramp.
In the first story she gave, Brehmer initially uses, the other guy did it, but the detectives doing the interview would never take that at face value. You just have to know that she's just flailing around to save herself. The other moral off-ramp that both of the suspects took was that they panicked had to kill Cynthia because she threatened to lie about them raping her. They are giving a justification in some sick way. But what that does for me as a, as an investigator, is it makes me suspicious about what the real conversation was like. It just
isn't believable that Cynthia had suddenly accused them of rape out the blue.
I don't know exactly what was said, but based on those accounts, I don't think Cynthia came up with the idea that she was gonna get raped all on her own.
Marcy: Do you think McIntosh saying that he blacked out and could barely remember the shooting was that moral out?
Mark: Yeah, that's exactly what it is. And it's common in, in all kinds of crimes. There's usually an effort to avoid seeming like a monster. In many cases especially brutal crimes, the suspect won't go past that convenient blackout. I, I may have been there, I may have been holding the weapon, but I just can't remember anything I blacked out.
And at least here, he admitted what he did. What that blackout does is spare him, and anybody else who claims that they don't have to describe their observations of the victim of the outcome. Here he was spared from having to give his observation of Cynthia's death. Brehmer, who claimed to have been a bystander with no involvement initially, was forced to describe what she saw in her friend's death.
Marcy: Talk about why there wasn't an immediate all hand search for Cynthia once the missing person call came in.
Mark: Yeah, we've talked about missing person cases in a lot of past episodes. And I don't wanna belabor all that detail have already provided. I wasn't the one triaging this call, obviously.
But here you have a report of a young woman who is being reported by her father. He's concerned. But there isn't any information that's immediately alarming. She's not answering her phone. That is a concern, but not an unusual one. She's developmentally disabled, which can be of great concern, but in context, she's not so disabled that she isn't allowed out without constant direct supervision. It just didn't ping the radar urgently, say a 10-year-old missing child would. And developmental disability is sometimes tough to judge for risk assessment.
Some of the factors that could have gone into the determination. A further assessment are, what are some of the contacts we've had on record for her. We later learned that some of her friends were shitheads. Did the police department have the kind of contacts with her that might lead us to believe she ran with a bad crowd? I'm not trying to blame the victim here, but you know when a chronic runaway comes in and we know it, it's less urgent than a person of the same age who completely outta character has vanished?
Marcy: The male and female juveniles that are charged in this murder. Any sign of what they actually did, what their part was.
Mark: It's a little surprising that how they're culpable hasn't been released. Obviously, the shooter who was a juvenile at the time has been sent to the big leagues and charged as an adult.
Based on my experience, the other two did something less than shoot and more than just know about the crime. To be convicted, therefore, presumably to be charged. They have to; they had to take an active step in the crime. Here they were present for the planning meeting.
That might be enough, but probably not unless they said maybe one of them came up with the idea. Take her to Eklutna and maybe gave details of where and how. If they had been present for the shooting, that would be enough.
For example, for the guy who lent them the car, that was enough, only because he did so with full knowledge of what was gonna happen and that he expected to be paid and that seals his culpability. For as far as the juveniles go, say they brokered the intro for the car, something like that would make them culpable.
Those specifics have not been released yet.
Marcy: Brehmer's sentencing is 30 years open. Does that mean that she will cooperate further?
Mark: Yeah. In terms of this case, I usually wait for the court action to be done for the cases I picked, but I think this case is pretty well cooked. I think the plea is with the probability she'll cooperate and she will have some benefit from that.
She also faces additional sentencing on the Fed charges., I don't think she would've pled already, had this case been shaky. I think it's rock solid. I think she's gonna cooperate for some consideration on sentencing. That's the open sentence part. Her sentencing is supposed to be in July and they will definitely push that back for cooperation.
And I think, it'll be interesting to see what they do with that. Where she serves federal or state prison and what the split on the sentences are, whether they're concurrent. And I'd say Shilmiller, the Mastermind is pretty much screwed. He confessed, there's a ton of evidence.
There's cooperators and I think that's I think once when they get an idea of how or Shilmiller's gonna fight it, they'll probably resolve all of these cases in one way or the other.
It'll be interesting to see if he does fight it, what the defense tactic will be. I'm assuming that the defense will say something like, he thought, it was all pretend, but I think that's gonna be a very big lift for that defense attorney.
The reason this story is so horrible is it's the opposite of the hopeful story, right? It's so bad.
Marcy: The Hoffman family's tribute to their beloved daughter, part funeral, part Motorcycle Rally, was attended by hundreds of people outraged by the savagery in betrayal of her death. Relatives and mourners spoke of Cece's compassion and love for people. They talked about how she struggled but prevailed and graduated from service high school in 2018.
Since then, she'd enjoyed working with customers at a local restaurant and as her father's assistant on contract maintenance jobs. The family said, "Cynthia had such a kind heart and was a friend to many people. She's truly going to be missed."
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Thank you for listening. If you haven't already, please subscribe to Crime Raven, so you don't miss an episode. Please recommend us to your friends too. Check our website at crimeraven.com. Crime Raven, hosted by Mark Rein and Marcy Rein, is written and directed by Mark Rein and edited and produced by Marcy Rein, and it's a 3 Little Birds, LLC production.
Thunder Bird Falls video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20JTSgku_qY Sources https://lawandcrime.com/crime/catfished-killer-takes-plea-deal-in-2019-death-of-best-friend-murdered-in-exchange-for-9m-from-fake-millionaire/
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