The Barbara Hoffman Murders.
Every city has an underbelly. Madison is no different. It’s the city where the state capitol resides. It’s home to one of the finest learning institutions in the world. It’s even a constant entry on all those best cities in the country lists. Truth be told though, Madison has just as murky of an underbelly as anywhere. In the 1970’s, that murky side of Madison rose to the surface with the Barbara Hoffman murders.
There were plenty of carnal attractions in Madison in the 1970’s. Adult bookstores, strip joints and massage parlors were easily found. These establishments had no problems attracting customers and any attractive woman could find quick money in Madison as a sex worker if she so desired. Barbara Hoffman fit that caste.
Barbara Hoffman came to Madison from Park Ridge Illinois. Attractive, young and intelligent, she was a biochemistry student at U.W. Madison with a grade point average of 3.9 in her field of study. Like any college student, Barbara needed a source of income. In 1975, she found that at Jan’s Health Studio (formerly located at 1320 S. Midvale.), where by all accounts, Barbara was very good at what she did.
It wasn’t long before Barbara started seeing a client named Harry Berge Jr. outside of Jan’s Health Studio. Berge, a 52 year old factory worker from Stoughton was so smitten with Hoffman that he made her beneficiary of his life insurance. Whatever harmony Berge was hoping for with his young beautiful friend never happened. He would ultimately be found dead in the snow outside of Middleton.
On Christmas Day 1977, Gerald Davis walked into the city-county building in Madison and confessed to police that he helped dispose of a body at the Blackhawk Ski Jump near Middleton the day prior. Davis, a 31 year old receiving clerk, told the officers present that his girlfriend, Barbara Hoffman, said she found a dead man in her apartment. Barbara said she needed help getting rid of the corpse which she had stashed behind her apartment a couple days earlier. The two drove Berge’s body to the Blackhawk Ski Jump and buried it in the snow early in the morning on the 24th of December.
Gerald Davis also made Barbara Hoffman the beneficiary of his insurance policy.
The police were led by Davis to where Berge’s body lay buried in the snow. It appeared Berge had blunt force trauma on his head leading the police to believe he was beaten to death. A search of Hoffman’s apartment turned up nothing. Nor was there any evidence behind her apartment building. All they had was Davis’s story and a dead man’s body. It wasn’t until months later they finally found hair and blood matching Berge’s behind Hoffman’s apartment building. With the evidence and Davis’s story, prosecutors were confident this would be an easy conviction of Barbara Hoffman. Her trial going just as they had expected. That is until a second death sent the whole affair spinning in another direction.
A few months into the Hoffman trial, the prosecution suddenly dropped their changes against her. Barbara Hoffman was free but her freedom was short lived. She was arrested for the murder of Gerald Davis, the key witness in the case, just a few minutes later. The whole affair nearly came to fisticuffs between Detective George Croal and Eisenberg right there in the courthouse as Hoffman was being led to her initial appearance in front of Court Commissioner George Northrup on the new complaint.
Gerald Davis was found dead in his bathtub on March 27th, 1978. This took the momentum out of the prosecutions case quickly. Making matters worse, Davis also began writing letters recanting his story to the District Attorney (Jim Doyle, who would eventually become Governor of Wisconsin), Hoffman’s defense attorney Daniel Eisenberg (who defended Lawrencia Bembenek unsuccessfully in Milwaukee a few years later), local newspapers, and the Madison Police Department Captain Of Detectives.
Davis’s death appeared to be a suicide. An empty bottle of sedatives was found near his body. A toxicology tests revealed nothing until they tested for cyanide. Davis’s body was found to have two and a half times the lethal dose present. A test was done for cyanide on Harry Berge Jr’s body. It revealed Berge had thirty seven times the lethal dose in his system. The head trauma Berge suffered was now thought to come from the violent convulsions that are typical for a victim of cyanide poisoning to go through before death occurs.
Where could have all this cyanide come from? Remember, Barbara Hoffman was a biochemistry major U.W. Madison.
When a new witness entered the picture it twisted the events even tighter. William Garrott, the man who operated Jan’s Health Studio, agreed to testify that Hoffman told him she was going to marry a man, honeymoon with him in Mexico, kill him, and collect 750,000 dollars in insurance money. Garrott would testify this in court in exchange for a deal to get his partner, Madison crime figure Sam Cerro, reduced charges. Cerro was facing charges of drug dealing and gambling. Doyle and other members of the prosecution brokered the deal.
This posed a problem for defense attorney Eisenberg. He represented both Garrott and Cerro on unrelated charges prior to the Hoffman case. This constituted a conflict of interest for Eisenberg. Eisenberg was unwilling to leave the case and after Judge Torphy questioned Hoffman, who wanted Eisenberg to continue to represent her, allowed Eisenberg to continue. When asked by court reporters if he feared reprisals by the state bar for staying on the case, Eisenberg replied “Fuck the bar.”
The trial commenced on June 16th, 1980. Eisenberg argued that Davis killed Berge out of jealousy and, unable to cope with what he’s done, committed suicide. Hoffman’s parents provided alibi’s for Barbara stating she was with them on the dates of the murders. Prosecutor John Burr produced phone records showing Barbara made and received phone calls at her apartment on those dates. Hoffman herself never took the stand. The jury deliberated for two days and came back with a split verdict. Barbara Hoffman was found guilty of the murder of Harry Berge Jr. but found not guilty of the murder of Gerald Davis. On July 1st, 1980, Barbara Hoffman was sentenced to life in prison. Her only statement in the trial came before her sentencing. Hoffman stated “I did not commit the crime of which I am accused and for which I have been convicted. And that’s all I have to say.”
There is a alternate theory as to how both men died. It theorizes that Berge died accidentally by mistaking cyanide found in Hoffman’s apartment for sugar and Hoffman actually killed Davis. This would account for such a high dose in Berge and such a lower dose in Davis.
Barbara Hoffman is still incarcerated at Taycheedah Correctional Institution near Fond Du lac. She shuns any inquiries and interviews. She has not spoken publicly since her sole statement at her sentencing.
Donald Eisenberg would eventually lose his license to practice law in Wisconsin due to the conflict of interest. He would regain his license and go on to defend, unsuccessfully, Lawrencia “Bambi” Bembenek a few years later. Eisenberg still practices law in Madison.
The Barbara Hoffman trial is the first in the state of Wisconsin to be televised after the State Supreme Court began allowing television cameras in the state’s courtrooms. The packed onlookers in the courtroom and all that sat watching their televisions got a look at the seedy Madison sex industry. An industry that would become diminished in the trial’s aftermath but never fully eradicated.
The movie “Winter Of Frozen Dreams” is based on the Barbara Hoffman case. The book “Winter Of Frozen Dreams: A True Story Of Passion, Greed, And Murder” by Karl Harter is about the Barbara Hoffman murders.