The plane touches down early on Monday morning, March 12, 2007. He spent the weekend steering jetliners up and down the eastern seaboard, but on this flight the 44-year-old pilot is now a passenger on his ride home. Once his feet are back on Cleveland soil, he begins his drive east to Newton Falls in rural Trumbull County. His wife of two years is expecting his arrival. After a number of fumbled tries, he's decided today is the day he will end it.
He drives past the quiet stretch of post-war ranch homes that line West Ninth Street and into the driveway of the split-level they share. He leaves an overnight bag and cell phone in the car; this visit won't take long.
After shuttling some belongings from the house, he takes a seat at the bottom of the foyer steps. As he leans forward to lace up his shoes, his wife appears at the top of the stairs.
Back in 1997, Karl Hoerig spent his days hovering 30,000 feet over the Persian Gulf, keeping Saddam Hussein's planes off the 33rd Parallel. At the helm of a C130 cargo plane, he was co-pilot for mission commander Larry Diemand, both part of the Air Force Reserve 910th Airlift Wing based out of Youngstown.
Reservists have an active gig: They work day jobs and fly regularly at the base, then saddle up for extended treks around the world. In Saudi Arabia, the unit was part of a month-long mission to enforce a no-fly zone on Iraq, a high-velocity chess match that came with the threat of combat.
Diemand and Hoerig had been friendly back home, but in the gulf the two grew close. Hoerig was a good-looking and popular 34-year-old with a high-watt smile. The unit wit, he lightened the mood with one-liners delivered through the intercom. Above all, he was an incredibly capable pilot — particularly in tense situations, like the time their plane was intercepted by Iranian fighters who peeled back just before an incident.
"When you go in a theater like that, you really want the most experienced air crew you can get," Diemand says. "And Karl was top-notch."
But during the hours the crew was grounded, on an isolated airbase simmering at 115 degrees, Hoerig opened up about the recent end of a marriage that had lasted 10 years and produced a young son and daughter. Diemand guided him through the grief.
Once the gulf tour was complete, the two continued to see each other around the base, eventually losing touch after Diemand retired in 2000. But like many who crossed paths with Hoerig, the elder pilot tucked away fond memories of the encounter. It's how he remembered Hoerig seven years later when he heard the news.
Local marksmen swear by Slugmasters, the mom-and-pop gun shop in Braceville just 15 minutes from Newton Falls. The woman stopped by earlier in the week to have a look around. Now it's Saturday, March 10, and she's come back to buy.
A marked departure from the outdoorsmen who usually visit, she's attractive in her late forties, topping out a few inches over five feet tall, with dark eyes and long brown hair that hits her shoulders. She scans the scopes and guns hanging from the walls and arranged under cases in the windowless showroom. The hint of an overseas accent clings to her unfailingly polite speech, but she also drags her vowels around like a New Yorker.
She carries with her a pistol course book, and she has underlined certain passages in it. She says she's interested in target shooting, but knows nothing about it. The clerk recommends a .357 Smith & Wesson Model 60, a five-shot revolver with a five-inch barrel. For almost two hours they cover the basics. The weapon's grip is too large for her hands, so she has it replaced. She opts for one with a built-in laser sight, which fixes a red dot on the intended target. The total price tag is $839.
She buys the gun using her maiden name, though her husband is known to frequent the store as well. The necessary paperwork is signed and stamped, and the woman leaves with the revolver.
"Of the thousand people we've sold guns to," Slugmasters' owner says today, "I never would have suspected her."
When Karl Hoerig's closest friends heard he'd met a new woman, it seemed par for the course that year. Leading up to the spring of 2005, Karl had been dating a lot, trying hard to forget about the recent girlfriend who got away.
He was part of a tight-knit group of Reservists, their bonds cemented over long hours logged at the base. Their missions overseas took them everywhere from Thailand to Costa Rica and involved everything from cargo runs to weaving through columns of enemy fire on the approach to Baghdad International. The five socialized off the base as well, going out together and taking ski trips. Most recently, they went in on a '70s junker they planned to refurbish into a Browns tailgating bus.
But Karl was also navigating a rough patch. He'd broken up with a young Peruvian woman named Carla, whom he'd met on a mission. She had been living with him in Newton Falls, but he ended it when she indicated she wanted kids. He later realized he'd fumbled the play. In the year after their split, a heartbroken Karl turned to online dating, but still referred to Carla as the love of his life. That's why friends were somewhat surprised when, in April 2005, he told them he was thinking about marrying a new woman he'd met only weeks earlier.
Claudia Sobral was a native of Rio De Janeiro. She came to the United States in 1989 on a visitor visa and later married a doctor in Manhattan. In 1998, she became a U.S. citizen; a year later her marriage ended in divorce.
At the time she met Karl, Claudia was living in Queens and working as an accountant. After connecting online, he flew out to meet her in person. Their relationship quickly hit overdrive.
When Karl's friends met Claudia at a weekend getaway on Put-in-Bay, they saw a nice woman and an obvious attraction: The new girlfriend could have been Carla's sister.
"I think he would have done anything to alleviate the pain, like jumping into another relationship with someone who he felt was exactly like Carla," says Chris Swegan, one of Karl's friends in the Reserve.
Whether it was a fresh fire or an afterburn, Karl needed only two months to shore up his commitment: They skipped off to Vegas in June and returned with a marriage certificate. The rabbit-hole plunge from Big Apple to small-town America didn't seem to bother Claudia; she said she liked Newton Falls.
Karl's family was also shocked by the dash to the altar, but not enough to question their 42-year-old son's choice. Ed and Frannie Hoerig first met Claudia when their son brought her by the house in Newton Falls, a pretty two-story nestled on the edge of cornfields. She was attractive and friendly, a little bossy and strange — but they chalked it up to her Brazilian birthright and longtime New York residency. For a reserved family from Newton Falls, one locale was as alien as the other.
A month in, friends say, Karl realized he'd made a mistake. For one, he wanted a wife time-stamped from a simpler era — one who would cook, clean, and take care of his two kids from the first marriage when they visited from out of town. Claudia wasn't interested in any of it.
When the couple spent time with his friends, she seemed disinterested, resulting in awkward exchanges. The guys and their wives would come over to work on the Browns bus, jacking up the music in the driveway and ordering pizza. Claudia would only stay inside. When the group convened for a Super Bowl party, she suggested everyone watch a movie instead.
But Karl's friends saw no major reasons for concern — no infidelity, and no violence in their squabbles.
"I think anyone who knew them knew it was headed for divorce," Chris Swegan says. "It just became a matter of time."
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