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EL CAJON SCHOOL SHOOTINGS

Vice Principal Was the Target of Youth's Attack, Police Say

Shootings: The administrator escaped without injuries, according to authorities.

March 24, 2001|KEN ELLINGWOOD and RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

EL CAJON, Calif. — A vice principal was the apparent target of the 18-year-old gunman who opened fire with a shotgun at his high school, wounding four others before he was shot by a campus police officer, authorities said Friday.

Officials declined to say why they believe Jason Hoffman, a senior at Granite Hills High School, targeted Vice Principal Dan Barnes, who was fired at once but escaped unhurt by diving into a doorway. In all, 10 people were injured in the afternoon shootout.

"All we can say about the motive is that, at this point, by virtue of the charges, you can say that the focus of this subject's behavior was the vice principal," said San Diego County Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst.

Pfingst said he planned to charge Hoffman with attempted premeditated murder, plus four counts of assault with a deadly weapon. Along with accompanying allegations that a gun was used, the charges could bring a possible maximum prison term of life plus 47 years if Hoffman is convicted, the prosecutor said.

New reports Friday added to a portrait of Hoffman as a troubled young man who had turned violent at school before.

Four years ago, Hoffman was prosecuted as a juvenile for assaulting a fellow student with a racquetball racket at a different school, according to a law enforcement source. Hoffman, then 14, was accused of assault with a deadly weapon but the allegations were downgraded to misdemeanor charges because the victim's injuries were minor, the source said. Hoffman was ordered to take anger management classes, the source said.

Bernadette Roberts, a classmate of the suspected gunman at Granite Hills, told reporters Friday that Hoffman "was so mad, he'd throw his mouse and keyboard across the room. One time he said, 'I wish I could do Columbine all over again.' "

Roberts said she reported the comment to teachers. School and law enforcement officials said they were investigating such reported threats.

One of Hoffman's friends at school said the suspect was quiet and an introvert, but prone to short-lived bursts of anger. Tommy Hardy said Hoffman began missing classes several weeks ago and his grades suffered.

"Sometimes he got mad, little things would get him mad, like if he messed up a project he'd throw down his hands" or swear loudly, said Hardy, a senior. "He wasn't crazy, just angry. He was always mad at teachers because they wouldn't teach him the things he wanted to know."

Ralph Hoffman, the suspect's father, said Friday that he knew nothing about the shooting or his son's alleged involvement.

"I am sorry for what happened, but I do not know anything," Hoffman said during a brief interview. He said he hadn't spoken with his son since the shooting. "I can't talk to him," he said. He declined to elaborate.

The suspect's mother and the elder Hoffman split up when Jason Hoffman was 3 months old, records show.

Granger Ward, superintendent of the Grossmont Union High School District, would not discuss Hoffman's campus disciplinary record, citing confidentiality laws.

During a news conference, Ward announced plans to reopen the school Monday after the second shooting at a high school in his district in the last three weeks. He said counselors would be assigned to each of the school's 108 classrooms and he encouraged parents to join their children.

Officials allowed about 200 students and parents onto campus Friday afternoon to collect belongings left after the shooting. But even on the arms of their parents, some students found the brief return to campus chilling.

"It feels very weird and strange. It makes you feel like someone is going to jump out from the bush or something," said 15-year-old Jennifer Strom, who was hospitalized with chest pains during the ordeal. She had recently undergone heart surgery.

Tragedy's aftermath has become agonizingly familiar to Grossmont officials. Granite Hills and Santana High School in nearby Santee, where an alleged rampage by a 15-year-old freshman on March 5 left two dead and 13 others injured, are six miles apart.

"We need to reclaim our school," Ward said.

The Granite Hills shooting proved far less devastating. The only student other than the suspect who was injured seriously in the attack was released Friday from Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego. The 16-year-old junior, Andrew Yafuso, had been struck in the chest, face and arms with pellets from a shotgun fired from a distance that a doctor estimated at three to seven yards.

"He had a close brush with death," said Frank Kennedy, the hospital's trauma director. "If the distance from the gun to the victim, instead of seven yards, had been three feet . . . we might have been talking about him [being] in the morgue."

The condition of a 51-year-old man who suffered chest pains while running to find his child after the shooting was upgraded from critical to serious at Grossmont Medical Center, according to Eileen Cornish, a hospital spokeswoman.

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