Riding with strangers
Lessons to be learned from a murdered Liberty student
On July 11, 1979, Liberty Baptist College student Steven John Hofer said goodbye to his friends and packed his car for his return trip home to South Dakota. Before leaving campus, Hofer stopped to visit the family of Pastor Dane Emerick to drop off a gift for their newborn daughter.
“The day he left he brought a gift for our new baby, a hairbrush and a dress and things,” Pastor Dane Emerick remembered. “He was saying goodbye and see you next year, and then from that point on we never — no one had seen or heard from him again.”
Hofer never made it home.
“I can describe him — curly hair, tall young man and very conservative,” Emerick said. “Really sweet and he loved my daughter.”
Two years later, the body of a young male was found in a rural area in Clarke County, Ohio. Officials noted a ‘Jesus First Pin’ and distinctive belt buckle on the body.
A church had paid for the burial of the boy after learning that he was wearing a Jesus First pin. A retired law enforcement official revisited the case of the missing student and found similarities between Hofer and the body found. After linking the pin back to Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr., the official contacted Liberty.
“We told him there was a student missing and then he called the parents and described the belt buckle and they said, ‘That’s our boy,’” Emerick said.
After his true identity was discovered, Hofer’s body was exhumed and later laid to rest in his home state.
University security assisted in the search for Hofer, but the search focused on his expected route home and were unsuccessful in their efforts.
“The situation was (Clarke County), Ohio was out of the way from the direction he was going,” Emerick said. “There was a point where we were asking why — that’s why no one looked in that direction.”
The car was later found outside of the Ohio area. It had been stripped and the license plate removed but officials were able to positively identify the vehicle as Hofer’s.
“That’s why they figure he picked up a hitchhiker,” Emerick said. “He was a timid kid — he wouldn’t have picked up someone that looked rough, but maybe someone who looked in need.”
Though the only memories left of Hofer at Liberty remain on the pages of a local 1981 Daily Advance and in the minds of a few faculty members, the moral of the story can still be applied to traveling students today.
“I know your heart aches and you want to help someone and that person hitchhiking could be the greatest person in the world, but you don’t know,” Emerick said. “It could be a ministry that would be fatal to you.”
Liberty freshman Garrett Grindstaff views hitchhiking as just that — a ministry opportunity.
“This is a major ministry opportunity (because) you are doing this person a huge favor,” Grindstaff said. “When you invite them into your car you are showing them you care and once they realize that you care about them, the next thing that comes out of your mouth to them is important.”
Most states have law prohibiting the solicitation of rides or assisting solicitors. In the state of Virginia and specifically in the City of Lynchburg, hitchhiking laws are strictly enforced. Virginia Statute 46.2-929 says, “Pedestrians shall not stand or stop in any roadway for the purpose of soliciting rides.”
“I have been warned several times by different people but people have encouraged me as well,” Grindstaff said. “There are stories of people who have robbed individuals and even killed them, but I think it goes back to the gut reaction — if your gut instinct is telling you no, then most likely it’s a bad decision.”
Despite the risks involved, Grindstaff said he would pick up a hitchhiker alone before doing it with others in the car.
“As a guy, I would much rather pick someone up by myself because if the situation did become dangerous I would be the only one in danger,” Grindstaff said.
Former Senior Campus Pastor Dwayne Carson has admittedly assisted a hitchhiker or two but reluctantly advises students not to follow in his footsteps.
“I attended school in Dallas, Texas but lived here — grew up in Amherst County. I would have to drive from Dallas to Lynchburg and I would drive alone for 20 hours,” Carson said.
In his loneliness Carson welcomed a few strangers into his car, offering both a ride and conversation, according to Carson.
Carson advises students that if the decision is made to pick someone up, precautionary measures should take place before pulling over.
“If you pick someone up use your cell phone to tell your parents,” Carson said. “I picked up — name — at this mile marker.”
Carson also recommends that females should never pick up a hitchhiker and that men should act in larger groups rather than on their own when offering a ride.
“A couple of guys, you’ve got an empty seat — I think you’ve got a Good Samaritan moment there,” Carson said. “But you have to always be alert — the last thing you need to be thinking is that every person you meet is going to kill you, but you should always be alert.”
Carson does not advocate breaking the law and advises students to hold the laws of each state in high regard.
“I encourage obedience of the law — know the laws of your state,” Carson said. “That means if you’re picking someone up your most likely going to do it at a rest stop or gas station.”