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EL CAJON SCHOOL SHOOTINGS

5 Hurt in Gunfire at High School Near San Diego; Student Is Held

Violence: A police officer who was on campus ends the assault by shooting the gunman. No motive is known, but suspect 'did love his guns,' former neighbor says.

March 23, 2001|ERIN TEXEIRA and GREG KRIKORIAN and SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

EL CAJON, Calif. — For the second time in three weeks, a teenage gunman opened fire at a suburban San Diego high school, wounding five people Thursday before a policeman on duty at the campus brought a quick end to the attack, shooting the gunman.

Police identified the suspect as Jason Hoffman, 18, a Granite Hills High School senior variously described as a good student and a loner with emotional problems. He was shot in the face and buttocks. None of the injuries to him or others was critical.

Shortly before 1 p.m., Hoffman drove a pickup truck on East Madison Avenue and stopped outside the school administration office, authorities said. Then, they said, he knelt in a shooting position and opened fire from the street with a military-style, Mossberg pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, spraying the building, breaking windows and creating chaos in fifth-period classes throughout the 60-acre campus.

Four people were injured by flying glass or in the resulting rush to get out of the building.

"A bullet whizzed within inches of my head," said Chris Weston, a Granite Hills sophomore. Students screamed, teachers yelled orders and everyone dived under desks, waiting for police.

They didn't have to wait long. The gunman was stopped in mid-spree even before he could use his second weapon, a .22-caliber handgun.

El Cajon Police Agent Rich Agundez Jr., a former SWAT officer recently assigned full time to the school, engaged in "an old-fashioned shootout" with Hoffman, said Liz Pursell, spokeswoman for the San Diego County district attorney's office.

"The kid opened fire. The [officer] heard him. He was right around the corner. So he fired back," Pursell said.

Witnesses said Hoffman fired at least eight rounds from the shotgun, reloading at least once. Agundez was uninjured.

Hoffman has not been arrested but is in police custody at Sharp Memorial Hospital, where he underwent a five-hour surgery. Investigators said they will probably seek charges of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon. Prosecutors said determination of charges will depend on motive--and may have to wait until investigators interview the suspect. Sedated after his surgery, Hoffman was unable to speak.

The guns, police said, came from Hoffman's home.

The injured include students Shanda Hughes, a junior; Toby Haltstead, 15; William Dietzler; Carina Scribellito, 17; Andrew "Sonny" Yafuso, 15; and teachers Priscilla Murphy, 53; and Fran Zumwalt, 47.

The shooting occurred about six miles from Santee, where two students were killed and 13 people were injured March 5. A 15-year-old freshman is accused of firing indiscriminately into a crowded Santana High School courtyard.

"It is unbelievable that another school shooting could happen in such close proximity to Santana High School and in such a short amount of time," said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. "It's unbelievable. And it makes me sick to my stomach."

Just weeks after surveying the tragedy at Santana, Jacob was again on a high school campus struggling to comprehend such mayhem. "If there was a simple answer we would have had the answer by now," said Jacob, a former teacher. "The fact is, there is not a simple answer."

There is no known motive for either shooting, or any immediately available information to indicate that the second attack was influenced by the first.

"Whenever there is an episode of violence, particularly an episode that receives a lot of publicity and attention, there is clearly a risk of copycat threats and actual copycat incidents," said David Fassler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt. "There are always kids who are literally on the edge."

Other students did not describe Hoffman as on edge. Robert Stevens, 18, a senior, described him as just a "hothead" who "kept to himself" and occasionally got into trouble for mouthing off.

Some recalled what seemed to have been an odd overreaction to a bad test score, or a boy who would purposely walk on the road rather than the sidewalk. But those incidents hardly foreshadowed Thursday's attack.

It was clear that Hoffman's home life was troubled, said former neighbors Kelli and Dennis Baker. The tall youth would spend hours walking the neighborhood to escape his house--especially during family arguments, Dennis Baker said.

He seemed to have few friends.

Rather, he hung out in the garage with Baker, a Navy instructor, and peppered him with questions. Baker said Hoffman was fascinated by how things worked: remote control cars, boats, engines--and guns. Hoffman constantly read gun magazines and asked Baker about them.

"He did love his guns," Kelli Baker said.

The couple, who first met Hoffman about eight years ago, said they never saw any sign that one day he would explode. He was frustrated but controlled, never overtly angry.

"He was a good kid," said Dennis Baker. "I never would have guessed this would happen."

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