Crime & Courts

After 4 years, Thunderbird Falls murder case inches toward resolution

The case of an Anchorage teenager who authorities say was killed as part of a bizarre online catfishing plot more than four years ago is slowly moving toward resolution, with one of four defendants charged in adult court pleading guilty to second-degree murder last week.

Caleb Leyland, now 24, is the third of four defendants in the death of Cynthia Hoffman to enter into plea agreements with prosecutors. All still face potentially lengthy sentences.

For Hoffman’s father, the past years of slow court proceedings have left their own wounds.

“I accepted everything because I have no choice,” Timothy Hoffman said in an interview Tuesday. “I will probably remain angry inside.”

Investigators have said that on June 2, 2019, Hoffman, 19, was taken to Chugiak’s Thunderbird Falls under the guise of a hike and then bound with duct tape, shot and killed, her body dumped in the Eklutna River. The case drew national media attention: A group of Anchorage teenagers, prosecutors said, were “catfished” by a 21-year-old Indiana man, Darin Schilmiller, who chatted with them online under an assumed identity and promised them $9 million to film Hoffman’s death.

Six young people were charged, four of them in adult court. Juvenile court proceedings are generally confidential.

Less than a year after Hoffman was killed, the pandemic shut down many court proceedings, leading to a backlog and long delays in resolving serious cases. This year, several of the cases related to her death have been resolved via plea agreements. Four years isn’t an unusually long time for an Anchorage homicide case to be settled, said Patrick McKay, the lead assistant district attorney in the cases.


“But is it a long time? Yeah. I don’t think anybody would disagree,” he said.

In February, Denali Brehmer, now 22, pleaded guilty to a single charge of first-degree murder. Several other charges, including conspiracy to commit murder, were dismissed as part of the plea agreement.

In August, Schilmiller pleaded guilty to soliciting Hoffman’s murder. Charges of first- and second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder were dismissed in the agreement.

Both are scheduled to be sentenced in Anchorage Superior Court on Jan. 8. An entire week of court time has been scheduled for the sentencing because of the multiple defendants, McKay said.

Now 25, Schilmiller and Brehmer also have pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges related to the case. They have not been sentenced in federal court.

A fourth defendant, Kayden McIntosh, was 16 at the time of the murder but was waived into adult court. Charges in the case describe him as the gunman who shot Hoffman in the head. His case is scheduled to go to trial in June.

Police said Leyland lent his car to Brehmer and McIntosh to use in the killing, and was promised $500,000 in return.

Hoffman, a handyman and private snowplow truck operator, said he hasn’t missed one of the dozens of court hearings held over the years in the cases.

His daughter, he said, was a kindhearted teenager desperate to fit in. Developmental delays meant she functioned at about the age of a seventh grader, her family has said. She considered Brehmer, the defendant accused of masterminding the plan with Schilmiller, to be her best friend.

“She was innocent,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman said he doesn’t agree with the plea agreements but said he accepts the outcome. Prosecutors and judges involved in the cases have tried their best to explain things to him and keep him informed of developments, he said, but ultimately the resolutions aren’t his to decide.

Hoffman said he believes each of the defendants should get what amounts to a life sentence despite their young ages at the time of the murder.

In court, he said, he’s heard “all this big explaining” about the plea agreement terms.

“There’s nothing I can do about it. The logic and reality is basically — they murdered my child, my child was 100% innocent. Their sentences should show that.”

McKay said prosecutors must, by law, advise victims about potential plea agreements. He said he meets in person with families to explain plea agreement terms. But ultimately, McKay said, it’s the prosecutor’s decision — one that has to be weighed with evidentiary concerns and other factors.

“Our points of view don’t always line up with victims on what they want to see happen in a case,” he said. “I think that’s not surprising.”

Hoffman now works with a Christian motorcycle ministry and has organized memorial rides for his daughter. The last one started at a Spenard bar on a stormy, cloudy summer day.


“It went to the brightest, sunniest day ever,” he said.

Hoffman said he’d be at the sentencings of Brehmer and Schilmiller in January, and any other court dates to come.

• • •

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.