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The Horrible Hunt : Her Son's Disappearance Sent Rose Hoffman Searching for 10 Years in a Shadowy World of Violence and Brutality

July 24, 1988|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE — Gus Hoffman disappeared on Independence Day, 1978.

The posters Rose Hoffman quickly tacked up around town in a panicky search for her missing son show a 20-year-old, still teetering between youth and adulthood. His over-the-collar hair and sprouting mustache suggest mild rebellion, while his baby-face grin and kind eyes hint at the tightknit, loving family in which he was raised.

But it's the Harley Davidson motorcycle pictured on the poster, a fleeting obsession, according to his family, that portends what police believe was "Gussie's" fate. The Harley, they now maintain, took him on a very brief but fatal ride.

For 10 years Hoffman's mother has kept on the tenuous trail of that bike, repeatedly descending from middle-class security into a shadowy realm of extortion, torture and a now-defunct motorcycle gang called the Forgotten Few. Last month, the hazy picture she pieced together over the years contributed to charges being brought against three suspects accused of murdering her son.

"The only thing that saved her," said Carol Jenson, a longtime friend who accompanied Rose Hoffman on many of her expeditions into that biker underworld, was that "the scum of the Earth, the slimeballs . . . recognized that Rose had absolutely no fear. I've never seen anything like it . . . ," Jenson said. "I'd say 'Dear God, protect us, 'cause I don't know what she's going to do next.' "

The Hoffman family's large ranch-style home sits on a hillside of tangled old oaks near Los Gatos. Earlier this month, Rose Hoffman sat under an umbrella on the pool-side deck, her back to a huge view of San Jose and the Silicon Valley, where the family tapped into the technology-fueled wealth of the new American dream.

Gus Hoffman's 1966 Harley Davidson Sportster had rattled this family of six from the moment he bought it from a neighbor with money he earned at his father's machine shop, where he milled electronic parts six days a week for the blossoming computer industry.

Rose and her husband, Gus Sr., were furious about the bike, she said, and Gus, who still lived at home, received an ultimatum: Sell it or move. "It's just the type of bike you don't want your son to have," Rose Hoffman said. Finally, though, the family agreed to let Gus keep the bike until he got it running.

After working on the bike in the family garage almost every night for a year, Hoffman finally kicked it over in June of 1978. Three weeks later, at about 5 in afternoon of July 4, he again stomped on the kick-starter and wheeled the bike down the driveway of the family home, which at the time was a more modest, "median income" place in San Jose.

The Hoffman children--Doreen, Bill and Elizabeth, who is the youngest at 23--were the kind of kids who, even as young adults, always called home if they wouldn't be joining the family for dinner, Rose Hoffman said.

So when the family awoke on July 5 and realized Gus hadn't come home, Gus Hoffman Sr. stayed home from work, and Rose Hoffman began calling around the neighborhood to track him down.

Finally a neighbor's son who worked as a gas station attendant told her that on the evening of the 4th he had waited on two men on motorcycles and other "biker types" in a blue Monte Carlo sedan. "I guess they were real wise guys," Hoffman said, using a term that seems needlessly polite, given what she knows now.

After the group left the station, the attendant said, he watched them pull up behind and alongside Hoffman at an intersection, then apparently chased him down the street.

Rose Hoffman took that information to San Jose police, who promptly identified two of the men. But one couldn't be located, and the other said, " 'I don't know what you're talking about,' " said Sgt. Jeff Ouimet, a San Jose Police Department detective who eventually took over the case.

Rose Hoffman never believed that, nor, apparently, did the police, and within a few weeks the case was turned over to homicide. But lacking a body, the missing motorcycle or witnesses to what happened after the initial encounter, the department couldn't devote itself single-mindedly to the mystery. Rose Hoffman could.

Almost immediately, the Hoffmans got a special phone installed for calls responding to the reward they offered, which jumped from $1,000 to $5,000 and then $10,000--an offer that still stands.

Soon after, people began calling in to crack jokes about Gus Hoffman's disappearance or to say they knew where he was and would kill him if they didn't receive cash. "The leeches swept in on her," Ouimet said.

Some people suggested her son had simply run away. Others hinted that he had been swept up by a religious cult.

Grasping at any clue, Hoffman visited bars frequented by San Jose area bikers and drug dealers. With choppers lined up outside and leather-clad characters with "big Buck knives" on their belts carousing inside, the bars "weren't executive clubs," said Doreen Simoneau, Hoffman's oldest daughter, who sometimes accompanied her mother.

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