Crime & Courts

Sentencing begins for accused mastermind in teen’s murder at Thunderbird Falls

An Indiana man charged as the mastermind in a bizarre catfishing plot to kill an Anchorage teenager in 2019 is expected to be sentenced this week in Anchorage Superior Court.

Investigators have said it was Darin Schilmiller’s influence that prompted five teens in Alaska to take 19-year-old Cynthia Hoffman to Chugiak’s Thunderbird Falls on June 2, 2019, under the guise of a hike and then bind her with duct tape before fatally shooting her and dumping her body in the Eklutna River. The case drew national attention.

Schilmiller, now 25, posed as a millionaire and started an online relationship with Anchorage resident Denali Brehmer, 18 at the time, whom he directed to kill and rape someone in order to fulfill his fetishes, prosecutors said Tuesday as a multiday sentencing hearing got underway.

At least two days of witness testimony are expected ahead of Superior Court Judge Andrew Peterson’s sentencing decisions for both Schilmiller and Brehmer. Additional testimony is expected Wednesday.

In exchange for the killing, Schilmiller had promised to pay Brehmer $9 million or more, according to an indictment and bail memorandum filed in the case. Brehmer recruited then 16-year-old Kayden McIntosh, 19-year-old Caleb Leyland and two other teens to fatally shoot Hoffman, the documents said, and sent photos of her body to Schilmiller.

Schilmiller is expected to be sentenced later this week. Brehmer was initially scheduled with him but her sentencing hearing has been delayed until next month, Peterson said this week.

Schilmiller pleaded guilty in August to soliciting Hoffman’s murder as part of a deal with prosecutors that resulted in the dismissal of first- and second-degree murder charges. Brehmer pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in February.


Leyland pleaded guilty in November to a charge of second-degree murder. He’s scheduled to be sentenced in June.

McIntosh’s case is ongoing and a trial-setting conference is scheduled later this month.

Proceedings against the other two teens charged in the case are confidential because they took place in the juvenile justice system.

Both Schilmiller and Brehmer appeared in court on Tuesday and listened to the testimony. Brehmer looked down at her lap for most of the hearing.

Schilmiller’s attorney, Regan Williams, contends his client operates at a low level of intellectual function and that it was Brehmer who first raised the idea of murder, according to a sentencing memorandum he filed last week.

Witnesses testifying during Tuesday’s hearing included Hoffman’s father, Timothy Hoffman, who said his daughter had a developmental disability and “her main goal was just to make friends.” She had described Brehmer as her best friend, Hoffman testified.

[From 2019: Mourners fill Anchorage church to remember 19-year-old homicide victim]

Police identified Brehmer as the ringleader among several others from Alaska involved in Hoffman’s murder, Assistant District Attorney Patrick McKay said during questioning of Anchorage police detective Brendan Lee on Tuesday.

After interviews with police, Brehmer eventually led them to Hoffman’s body, Lee said in response to questions.

The detective read aloud in court a deleted note outlining a plan to kill Hoffman that officers found during a search of Brehmer’s phone. Brehmer had written about violence and said she would laugh and enjoy watching Hoffman die, according to the note.

Investigators during a search of the phone also found child pornography and connected Schilmiller to that case. He and Brehmer have since pleaded guilty in federal court to child pornography charges. They are scheduled to appear for sentencing in that case at the end of the month.

An agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Tuesday also testified that the FBI searched Schilmiller’s Indiana home after talking with agents in Anchorage.

During an interview, Schilmiller said he directed Brehmer to kill someone and disclosed that he had a number of fetishes and was interested in child pornography, infants, raping and killing people, the agent said.

The agent described the interview as “remarkable and incredibly disturbing” because he could tell that Schilmiller was “doing this stuff because he enjoys it.”

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter focusing on breaking news and public safety. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota. Contact her at