The family of a teen killed 23 years ago talked of his incomplete life and devastating loss as his confessed murderer was finally sentenced to 30 years in prison Friday.
Frederick Hart was just 15 when he was strangled, stabbed and left to die in the woods behind his Galloway Township home in May 1990.
Steven Goff, now 41, confessed to the crime this past April, saying he could no longer live with the guilt.
But while Goff spent those years growing up, having a son and apparently turning from an early life of crime, Hart’s family has been left to wonder what could have been.
“There is not enough paper to explain how much I miss my brother,” older sister Robin Douglas wrote in a letter read in court by victim-witness advocate Tricia Hayek. “How much I think, ‘What if?’”
Jessica Culp was just 9 when her “cool Uncle Freddie” was killed. She remembered him as more of a brother who never made her feel like a pesky little sister. And she missed having him to turn to growing up when there were things a girl doesn’t want to talk to her parents about, such as her first crush.
“(Goff) was free longer than my uncle was alive and breathing on this earth,” Culp said.
The boy lived a tough life, but trusted others to do the right thing and loved everyone, his sister Kate Sharkey recalled. He reveled in dressing up for Halloween and was a huge fan of the hair band Poison.
According to his confession, Goff believed Hart was going to testify against him in a burglary case involving the teens.
“I did have the intent of killing Ricky,” Goff said in court, using the nickname friends called Hart. “I’m not going to lie.”
While some family said they forgive Goff, they wondered why he didn’t come forward at the time, especially in the 19 months before Hart’s remains were found by a hunter in December 1991.
They said they knew Goff was the killer but that an apparent jailhouse confession given while he was serving a burglary conviction at the time could not be used.
“Thanks for coming forward,” nephew Gerald Tittermary Jr. told Goff. “I don’t forgive you.”
He said he didn’t know what Goff’s life had been like in the past 23 years or who he became, just that “you’re the guy that took my uncle.”
Tittermary’s father, Jerry Sr., told Goff to look at the family sitting crying in court so he could see the devastation he caused.
“We’re burying Freddie all over again,” Hart’s uncle said.
“I know it’s reopening old wounds,” Goff said when given a chance to address the court. He said he contemplated coming forward for about three years before he walked into the Galloway Township Police Department this past April Fool’s Day and confessed.
“I wanted to give you your justice,” Goff told the family. “You deserve to see me suffer.”
He said he didn’t have the words to properly address the family and that he knows sorry is not enough.
“I hope that Mr. Goff coming forward in the manner that he did and his humility in court brought some measure of comfort and closure to the Hart family,” defense attorney James Leonard Jr. said outside the courtroom. “But clearly they have suffered a tremendous loss and nothing that was done today can replace what was taken from them.”
Superior Court Judge Michael Donio denied a motion by the defense to give Goff more than three years’ credit for his previous incarceration shortly after the killing.
Donio said that when he first read a letter Goff submitted to the court, he contemplated giving him a sentence lower than the plea agreement, but after reading his full history that was complicated.
Goff’s “lengthy juvenile record” included 29 arrests with 22 burglaries and thefts. As an adult, he had 11 arrests with six convictions, the last in 1997.
“Our juvenile system in this state needs to be overhauled,” Donio said. “(He) got away with most of those offenses with very little jail time. ... The juvenile system did not rehabilitate Mr. Goff.”
Goff must serve at least 15 years of his sentence before he is eligible for parole. The term is not beholden to the 85 percent mandatory parole ineligibility since the crime happened before the No Early Release Act, Chief Assistant Prosecutor John Maher said.
Contact Lynda Cohen:
Follow @LyndaCohen on Twitter