Crime & Courts

Anchorage woman accused of recruiting teens for Thunderbird Falls murder sentenced to 99 years

Denali Brehmer, the Anchorage woman accused of recruiting other teenagers for the 2019 murder of 19-year-old Cynthia Hoffman, was sentenced Monday to a 99-year prison sentence.

Prosecutors described Brehmer, 18 at the time, as the local leader of five teens caught up in a catfishing scheme by an Indiana man who convinced her he was a handsome millionaire who would pay $9 million for a filmed killing.

Brehmer, now 23, was sentenced by Anchorage Superior Court Judge Andrew Peterson.

Investigators have said that on June 2, 2019, the group invited Hoffman on a hike at Thunderbird Falls and then bound her with duct tape, shot and killed her, and then dumped her body in the Eklutna River. The case drew national media attention.

Hoffman’s father has testified that his daughter, who was developmentally disabled, considered Brehmer her best friend.

Indiana resident Darin Schilmiller, 25, was sentenced last month to 99 years in prison. Schilmiller directed Brehmer to kill and rape someone to fulfill his fetishes, prosecutors said during his hearing. Schilmiller also directed Brehmer to sexually assault a young teenager and send him photos and videos of it, according to federal charges filed against him and Brehmer in a separate case.

Although Schilmiller set the plan into motion, prosecutors argued in a sentencing memorandum that Brehmer “was the driving force of the plan in Alaska. She recruited multiple others to join this murderous plot.”


Brehmer did not fire the fatal shot: Kayden McIntosh, 16 but waived into adult court in 2019, was described by charges as the gunman who shot Hoffman in the head. His trial is pending. Caleb Leyland, 19 at the time of the murder, is scheduled for sentencing in June. Two younger teens charged in the case were prosecuted in the juvenile justice system, so the outcome is confidential.

As part of an agreement with prosecutors in February 2023, Brehmer admitted her involvement in the killing and entered a guilty plea to a charge of first-degree murder. Several other charges were dropped.

Brehmer was well aware of Hoffman’s vulnerability, prosecutors contend. They point to a note created and deleted on the day before the murder in which Brehmer wrote that Hoffman was “very trusting, her fault, also very gullible.” Brehmer also noted those traits would make it easier to lure Hoffman out for a hike at the falls, according to the state’s memo.

Brehmer’s attorney, Emily Cooper, argued in a sentencing memo that Brehmer’s “vulnerabilities were manipulated by Mr. Schilmiller to set his plan in motion here in Alaska.”

Brehmer was young and duped by an online love interest, Cooper’s memo states. “The promise of money, love and acceptance was a manipulative move on a vulnerable 18-year-old girl who spent her early developmental years lacking safety, love and care.”

Brehmer was present when her infant sister was killed, and she was removed from the family home, Cooper said during closing arguments Monday. Later, a sexual assault resulted in a pregnancy, she said. Brehmer gave up the baby for adoption.

The state had requested a 99-year sentence, with a “worst offender” finding based on the contract murder aspect of the case that Peterson included in the sentence he handed down. Brehmer’s attorney had asked for 80 years with 20 suspended, citing prior court decisions that backed shorter prison time for youthful offenders.

— Michelle Theriault Boots contributed reporting for this story.

Zaz Hollander

Zaz Hollander is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su and is currently an ADN local news editor and reporter. She covers breaking news, the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at