GOOSE CREEK -- When Thomas Hoffman was found shot to death and buried in a shallow grave behind his home three years ago, investigators didn't have to look far to find a prime suspect in the case.
Sheriff's deputies quickly arrested his 47-year-old wife, Marjorie Hoffman. They cited a host of circumstantial evidence, including her cocaine problem, access to a gun and her standing as the lone beneficiary of the former Navy man's $400,000 life insurance policy.
But that seemingly strong case unraveled in recent months, authorities said. Now, the trial is off, the suspect is free and Hoffman's family is left to wonder whether anyone will pay for his brutal slaying.
"I wish we could get some justice in this case, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen," said his mother, Patricia Williams.
Marjorie Hoffman spent 932 days in the Berkeley County jail waiting to stand trial in her husband's killing in September 2007 on Little River Road. Then, on April 14, prosecutors quietly dropped the murder charge after she pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony, for failing to prevent the crime or to help bring the offenders to justice. She entered an Alford plea, where, under state law, the accused does not acknowledge guilt but concedes there is enough evidence to convict.
Hoffman was sentenced to the time she already had served in jail and set free.
Williams said she and other relatives felt the state would prevail at trial, but prosecutors seemed intent from the start on working out a plea deal.
"I don't think they ever really intended to take it to court," she said from her Arkansas home. "Tom served 22 years in the military serving his country. How can they treat him this way? Doesn't he even deserve a trial?"
Ninth Circuit Deputy Solicitor Bryan A. Alfaro said prosecutors' hands were tied by a lack of solid evidence in the case. They had little to work with beside circumstantial evidence and statements from jailhouse informants, he said.
"There was really no direct evidence to tie her to the actual killing," he said. "The evidence we did have showed she may have had some knowledge of what happened, but we weren't able to establish if she was involved in the actual murder itself."
Officials from the sheriff's office declined to comment on the decision or Alfaro's assessment of their case.
Several attempts by The Post and Courier to reach Marjorie Hoffman over the past week were unsuccessful.
Public Defender Patricia Kennedy, who represented Hoffman, said her client is still in the area, trying to rebuild her life. Hoffman, who maintained she had nothing to do with the killing, lost her home on Little River Road to foreclosure while incarcerated, as well as many of her possessions, her lawyer said.
"She literally left jail with nothing," Kennedy said. "Before we were able to locate some of her family, we were making arrangements for her to stay in a shelter."
Williams isn't impressed. As the representative of her son's estate, she recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against her former daughter-in-law to prevent her from collecting the benefits from Thomas Hoffman's retirement and life insurance plans. Thomas Hoffman served more than 20 years in the Navy's nuclear power program, and retired as a chief petty officer about two years before his death.
The lawsuit points to many of the same circumstances that caused deputies to focus on Marjorie Hoffman as a suspect in her husband's death.
Marjorie Hoffman reported her husband missing on Sept. 21, 2007. The following day, Berkeley County sheriff's deputies followed drag marks into the woods behind his home and found Hoffman's body in a freshly dug grave. He had been shot three times in the back of the head.
Marjorie Hoffman had dirt under her fingernails and scratches on her legs on the day his body was found in the shallow grave, according an arrest affidavit. He still had his jewelry and wallet, excluding robbery as a motive.
While Marjorie Hoffman told investigators she and her husband had a great relationship with no problems, they later learned she had a drug habit and had run up thousands of dollars in debts, leading to domestic discord and financial troubles, an affidavit stated.
Williams said her son grew fearful for his life after two shots were fired through the windshield of his work van while he was returning home one night about four months before his death. Hoffman told his mother and a friend he suspected his wife's involvement in the shooting, a detective later testified in court. No one, however, was charged in that incident.
Williams said the thought of Marjorie Hoffman walking free only compounds her gnawing grief.
"I miss Tom," his mother said, choking back tears. "I think it's going to be that way for the rest of my life. I don't think I'm ever going to get over this."