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Staff photo by EMILY BARNESBecker
An investigation into a car theft might have started the downward spiral that led a 22-year-old man to gun down a popular North Point High School teacher before taking his own life at a White Plains intersection on Tuesday, authorities reported.
Several weeks earlier, the technology education teacher, Christopher Michael Hoefert, had accused his next-door neighbor of stealing a Nissan and admitted to investigators that he helped hide the car, court documents show. The statement to authorities might have been what motivated the neighbor, Robert Hector Becker, a man already on probation in a 2009 burglary, to fire multiple shots into Hoefert's Saturn on Tuesday afternoon, police said.
That day, Hoefert, 24, had left work at the high school in Waldorf and started driving his two-door Saturn south toward La Plata, where he lived, said Diane Richardson, spokeswoman for the Charles County Sheriff's Office. Becker was following him in a Ford Focus, speeding past other cars as they neared the twisting juncture of Billingsley and Middletown roads at about 3:30 p.m., Richardson said.
As Hoefert pulled up to the three-way stop, Becker veered his car into the intersection and blocked the Saturn, she said. Witnesses saw him get out of the Focus, walk over to Hoefert's car and shoot him twice, police reported. Becker then shot and killed himself in the middle of the street.
A helicopter flew Hoefert to Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly, but he was pronounced dead shortly after arriving.
Word of Hoefert's death flew across Facebook on Tuesday, and by that night, students had begun pouring out online expressions of grief for a well-liked teacher.
"Mr. Hoefert you were my favorite teacher," one student wrote on his profile. "You … never let anyone quit at what they were doing and that is what a teacher and a friend are all about. [G]oing to miss you Mr. Hoefert and if I get the chance, I will build that RS25 Impreza that we were always talking about in class, in honor of you."
Many of them wore black to school the next morning, as they listened to homeroom teachers tell them the news that they already knew.
That day, police released information that the motive for the shooting could have revolved around a theft.
The investigation into the car theft began Jan. 10, when Hoefert's roommate, Garrett Raymond, came home from work and discovered his tricked-out orange Nissan 350Z was missing from the driveway, police reported. Raymond found that his only set of car keys had been moved from his door to his desk and questioned Hoefert, who had come home from work early that day, court documents state. But Raymond's roommate denied knowing anything about the car theft, police said.
Raymond, also a teacher at North Point, told police that Hoefert had been "acting strange" recently and hanging out with much younger people, including "Big Rob," the next-door neighbor on Warren C. Eller Drive, according to court papers.
The Nissan turned up on Jan. 15 after someone saw it on Padgett Road and reported it as a suspicious vehicle.
In a conversation at North Point four days later, Hoefert initially told a sheriff's officer he didn't know anything about the car theft but later changed his story, police reported. He said he came home early Jan. 10 and saw the Nissan in the driveway, but it was missing when he woke up from a nap, court documents state. Days later, he said, Becker confided that he had stolen Raymond's car, which had an iPhone and GPS inside, according to the charging document.
Hoefert reportedly advised him to move the Nissan, since the electronic devices could be tracked, and used his truck to tow the Nissan from Marshall Corner Road to Padgett Road in the early morning hours of Jan. 15. He said he didn't know how Becker had gotten the keys to the Nissan, the documents state.
Sheriff's officers later found the tags for the stolen Nissan in Becker's car, police said.
They charged Hoefert with theft of between $10,000 and $100,000, unlawfully taking a motor vehicle and rogue and vagabond. Officers also obtained an arrest warrant charging Becker with the same crimes, but had not served it at the time of the shooting, Richardson said.
At the time of Hoefert's death, the human resources department for the county school system had not yet been notified of the charge against him, said Katie O'Malley-Simpson, spokeswoman for Charles County public schools.
When a report regarding a criminal charge comes to human resources, an internal investigation is done before the schools take any disciplinary action, O'Malley-Simpson said. The type of disciplinary action is determined on a case-by-case basis, she said.
Becker last year was released from jail after being sentenced to 120 days of incarceration for third-degree burglary. Police had charged him with breaking into a neighbor's garage and stealing two shotguns, two rifles and a crossbow in November 2009, court filings show.
Then on May 15, Becker was charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia and had a court appearance in the case Tuesday, the day of the shooting. However, he never showed up, according to online court records.
Family members at Hoefert's home declined to comment on Wednesday, as did people gathered next door at Becker's residence.
One neighbor said that he had known Becker since moving into the neighborhood in 2007 and even wrote a supportive letter for him before his sentencing in the burglary case.
But after Becker was released from jail, he slid deeper into trouble, James McGuire said, adding that the fear of more prison time might have contributed to his actions Jan. 15. The neighbor said he believes Hoefert had a role in initially helping to steal the car and then lied to police, placing most of the blame on Becker.
"There had to be a reason why [Becker] did what he did. In turn, it's not right, but I can understand why he did it. He was going to go to the state penitentiary for a number of years," McGuire said.
Robert Poore, an auto mechanics teacher at North Point, said school staff had no idea that Hoefert had any enemies.
"I never heard a negative word about Chris," Poore said, adding that Hoefert was "happy, smiley and good-natured."
On Wednesday, many past students visited the school, a testament to the type of teacher Hoefert was, he said.
"It really touched my heart," Poore said.
Staff writer Gretchen Phillips contributed to this report.