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Violence Marks Life of School Gunfire Suspect

Shootings: Records show that Jason Hoffman, accused of wounding five in El Cajon, was exposed early to his parents' problems.

April 20, 2001|GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They met at the Big Noise Bar two decades ago.

Denise Marquez was a bartender. Ralph Hoffman was a drinker. Two months after they met, they were living together in Chatsworth. Two years later, she was pregnant.

Things between them were bad before the baby was born. Afterward, they got worse, especially when Ralph was drinking. When their boy was 3 months old, Marquez said that Hoffman threw the infant at her during a fight. A year after that, Hoffman was arrested by Los Angeles police after allegedly tossing the child into a swimming pool.

On March 22, their son, Jason Anthony Hoffman, 18, was accused of walking onto Granite Hills High School in El Cajon with a 12-gauge shotgun and a .22-caliber pistol and shooting five people before he was shot by a police officer. All survived their wounds.

What led to the teenager's alleged crime is unknown. Authorities believe he was angry and gunning for a vice principal. His attorney said only that Hoffman has long wrestled with clinical depression.

With Hoffman facing life in prison, his family history is sure to figure in his defense. And Los Angeles County Juvenile Court records, recently unsealed, provide grim snapshots of his early years and those of his parents.

"Here you have a son of two people who have had their own share of problems," said Hoffman's attorney, Bill Trainor, a San Diego County deputy public defender. "And whatever allegations were tossed around is of some relevance" to Hoffman's defense.

"A young man does not, in a vacuum, just show up on a school campus one day with a shotgun."

Jason Hoffman's Juvenile Court record begins with his father's arrest Aug. 11, 1984.

Police arrived at the family's Chatsworth apartment about dusk. Ralph Hoffman was drunk and holding Denise Marquez against a wall. She was screaming, and the couple's 17-month-old son was crying.

The couple had already been separated more than a year. Marquez had come to the apartment with the toddler, she later told authorities, to attend a wedding reception.

After returning from the party, she said, Hoffman took their son to the pool. She ran upstairs to call police and then went back to the pool, watching him throw the toddler into the water, again and again.

Even as she pleaded with him to stop, a police report said, Hoffman "continued to throw [the child] across the pool and let him sink to the bottom, until [the child] floated to the top."

When he couldn't stop the boy from crying, the report said, Hoffman took his son to the side of the pool before returning, "hostile and angry," to the apartment.

Marquez told officers that Hoffman was knocking her head against a wall before they arrived.

While he was being arrested, the police report said, Ralph Hoffman insisted he had done nothing wrong. "The kid loved the water," he said in the police report, "and besides, I didn't let him stay under that long."

Caught Between His Parents

In an internal report by the county Department of Children and Family Services, Ralph Hoffman again minimized his behavior.

"Mr. Hoffman states that Jason is fascinated with water and when they got back from the wedding, Mr. Hoffman felt that Jason better get some respect for the water," the caseworker's report said.

But the caseworker portrayed the incident as serious: "Jason Hoffman came to the attention of authorities when he was just 17 months of age after an incident in which his father was drunk, took the minor into a swimming pool, threw him toward the deep end . . . and continuously submerged the minor for a period of approximately 15 minutes even through minor was obviously terrified."

While Denise Marquez could not be reached for comment, Ralph Hoffman last week told The Times that none of the incidents described in the court files "has anything to do with what he is going through right now."

Hoffman also emphasized he was never charged with abusing his son.

No felony charges were filed against him, according to Los Angeles County court records. There also is no record of misdemeanor charges against him, although those records are only kept for 10 years.

Still, the pool incident was not the first time that "Jason [was] the pawn in arguments between his parents," the caseworker noted.

With a "history of violence in their relationship," according to the children's services report, Hoffman and Marquez "periodically exposed [Jason] to their altercations."

Once, Marquez said, Hoffman threw Jason at her during a fight. In his interview with a caseworker, Hoffman said he remembered handing Jason to Marquez, not throwing him.

Records show, however, that there was no denying that the violence in their relationship endangered Jason.

"The situation has been unsafe for Jason since virtually his birth," said the caseworker's report.

The blame, it added, went to both parents.

At the time of his arrest, Hoffman had been an alcoholic for 15 years, according to the report. It said he disclosed previous arrests for public drunkenness and malicious mischief.

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