JUSTICE STORY: Stranded motorist who got into good Samaritan’s car turns up dead
The last time Catherine Pero saw her daughter, Maude Bauer, 31, the beautiful Staten Island matron was stepping into a stranger’s Model T Ford.
About 15 minutes later, Pero was staring in horror at her child’s bloody corpse.
The events leading up to the tragedy started in the afternoon of March 25, 1924, when the women and Bauer’s two young daughters headed out to visit relatives. During the trip, Bauer’s car was forced off the road by a truck and ended up stuck in a ditch.
Leaving her mom and daughters in the car, Bauer set off on foot to get help. Pero saw a Ford stop and her daughter step in.
Minutes later, four boys riding bicycles spotted a woman’s body in a secluded area about half a mile from where Bauer had left her car.
Pero and the girls were still waiting when a police officer stopped to ask what they were doing there. She told him the situation, and he took her to Bauer’s body.
There were .25 caliber bullet wounds in her neck and abdomen. Fingermarks on her throat and blows to her head suggested a “desperate struggle of a woman battling for her life and honor,” noted the Daily News.
Barbara Fahs, 13, said she got a good look at the driver and heard him say, “Jump in. I’ll drive you to the nearest garage, and we can get a rope.” The schoolgirl said he had a swarthy complexion, a round face, and long hair. She also noticed a brown felt fedora and coat and tortoiseshell eyeglasses.
Nearly a month after the murder, a tip led police to Harry Hoffman, 33, a film projectionist from Staten Island’s Port Richmond section. Hoffman, married with two children, had a Ford and a .25 caliber Colt. He also fit Fahs’ description.
Following the murder, Hoffman certainly acted like a man with something to hide. He changed his hair and glasses, reupholstered and then sold his Ford, and gave up his brown coat and hat for blue.
Most incriminating, he mailed his .25 Colt pistol to his brother and burned the holster.
But Hoffman also had an alibi corroborated by Raycey Parker, a fellow projectionist. At the time of the murder, around 4 p.m., Hoffman said that he was with Parker in the projection booth at a theater. Parker corroborated the story.
At Hoffman’s trial in May, prosecutors forged a chain of circumstantial evidence. A respected firearms expert used a case full of delicate measuring instruments to show that the bullets that killed Bauer came from Hoffman’s gun.
During her testimony, Fahs pointed a steady forefinger at Hoffman. “There is the man,” the girl declared in a confident voice.
Hoffman’s alibi had also evaporated before the trial. Parker told the court he had not seen Hoffman that day and described how his friend persuaded him to lie to police.
Hoffman’s attorney insisted the accused’s actions were motivated not by guilt, but fear of being arrested because he was a close match to the description of the killer published in papers.
Hoffman sobbed when he heard the verdict: Guilty of second-degree murder. His sentence was 20 years to life.
“You know I’m as innocent as you are,” he yelled at the district attorney as he was led from the courtroom.
In 1927, the verdict was overturned on a technicality. Hoffman’s second trial ended in a mistrial when his attorney collapsed from a heart attack in court and later died. A third ended with no verdict because the jury could not agree.
In May 1929, Hoffman went on trial for his life a fourth time. Newspapers described him as a “shrunken wisp of a man only a shadow of the dark heavyset Harry L. Hoffman arrested in the spring of 1924.” In addition to losing 80 pounds, Hoffman had also lost all his money and his family. His wife had remarried and put his youngest child in an orphanage.
But he saw some hope in his new legal representation, Samuel Leibowitz. In desperation, Hoffman had written to this star defense attorney, begging for help. Leibowitz took the case pro bono because he thought Hoffman had gotten a rough deal.
First, Leibowitz raised the possibility that another man — wealthy realtor Horatio J. Sharrett — was likely the killer. Sharrett’s physical appearance was similar to Hoffman’s, and he drove a Ford.
Then Leibowitz busted the strongest links in the prosecution’s evidence chain.
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With a few simple questions, he cast serious doubts about the memory of the star witness — Barbara Fahs, now 18. He asked her if she could remember the number of the public school she attended or a previous address. She could not.
As for the ballistics evidence, Leibowitz introduced experts who made a convincing case that the fatal bullets could not have come from Hoffman’s gun. The lawyer also stressed that Hoffman, being left-handed, would have had trouble shooting the pistol.
The jury found Hoffman not guilty.
“I had gambled with my life after the first conviction because I felt I should be exonerated,” Hoffman told the News. “If they had sent me to the chair, it would have been better than going back to jail.”
Life resumed for Hoffman. His union found him a job at a Broadway movie theater. His wife pleaded to return to him, but he refused, saying he could not forgive how she treated their children while he was in jail.
As for Maude Bauer, nearly 100 years later, her murder remains a mystery.
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