The man accused of taking a classroom full of elementary school students hostage more than two years ago said in court Thursday, Jan. 20, that his appearance at the school that day was less traumatic than media reports and some witnesses have suggested.

“The reason these children are so damaged now is not because of what I did specifically, but because of things they’ve heard in the years since then,” said Randall Hofland. “It sounds so much more horrific than it really was for them.”

Hofland’s comments came halfway through the day the prosecution called six student witnesses, each of whom described what they experienced while at Stockton Springs Elementary School on Oct. 31, 2008.

During a noontime discussion on future witnesses, which occurred without the jury present, a rift was revealed between Hofland and his court-appointed attorney Jeffrey Toothaker regarding whether the defense would call additional students as witnesses.

Toothaker — who is serving as a standby attorney for Hofland, while Hofland takes the lead in his own legal representation — told Justice Jeffrey Hjelm that Hofland was seeking to subpoena seven students, but said he could not support Hofland’s request.

“Because of what the state is reporting to me about the condition of these children, these are not subpoenas I will issue,” Toothaker said, adding he was basing his decision on information he had received from the victim witness advocate in the District Attorney’s office.

Toothaker said Hofland was free to pursue the matter on his own, if he wished. Hofland, for his part, told Hjelm he wanted to have the students testify because he believed their testimony would be “beneficial” to him. He said information that students and others have obtained from media reports since 2008 is “pretty much not correct.”

“There was not this hysteria you’ve heard people talking about,” Hofland told Hjelm. “That’s prejudicial, your honor.”

Rather than challenge the claim the seven students have certain psychological issues, Hofland seemed to seek to corroborate that information. He said during his time at the school that day — “short as it may seem,” he said — he had become “acutely aware” of some of the issues students were dealing with.

As Hofland proceeded to offer his diagnosis of specific students among the seven he was seeking to subpoena — some were from “broken homes,” he said, while he alleged another had been abused — Hjelm issued a warning to District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau, who was visibly expressing incredulity at Hofland’s claims.

“Mr. Rushlau, you need to keep your reactions to yourself,” said Hjelm.

Hofland, wearing a navy blue blazer, blue-and-white striped shirt and a red tie, turned to Rushlau.

“Go ahead, be that way,” said Hofland to the prosecutor.

As Hofland’s commentary resumed, Rushlau drew another warning from Hjelm about keeping his reactions to himself. Following the second warning, Rushlau placed his elbows on the table and held his head between his hands.

Hjelm asked Hofland if he had considered other options, such as using previous testimony or statements made to police by the particular children he was seeking to subpoena. Hofland said he had, but said using such material wouldn’t allow him to “question them effectively.” He said many of the children have so far “basically reported hearsay” about what happened that day.

Returning to his claim that some of the students have psychological issues, Hofland said he believed he could have helped the children.

“I could have fixed this, I really could have,” he said. “It’s not all me. In fact, it’s probably very little me.”

Hjelm, who said he gathered that Hofland was “assuming a protective role with regard to these children,” then asked Hofland if he had considered how a jury might perceive Hofland’s decision to have these children testify — specifically, how they might perceive Hofland’s decision to bring a “particularly vulnerable child into this type of setting.”

In further evidence of a rift between Hofland and Toothaker, Hofland said his court-appointed attorney was “trying to drive into my head — and into my back” the point that it would not help his case to have the seven children testify. Hofland said much of what he was looking to accomplish could be done by having the Stockton school’s former guidance counselor, Rebecca Corcoran, testify about the children in question.

Hofland named one particular student, a fifth-grade boy, who he said would be particularly important to his case, “unless someone has managed to corrupt his memories.”

Hofland presses guidance counselor on students’ mental status

Corcoran had testified earlier Thursday, as she was the first witness called by the state that day. Her room was near the fifth-grade classroom in the Stockton school in fall 2008, and she recounted how she had seen “a man with a gun fighting to get into the fifth-grade classroom.”

Corcoran then called 911, and she said a dispatcher who answered the phone told her they were already aware of the incident and then hung up on her. She said she soon saw Carolyn Russell, the fifth-grade teacher, go past her room “shaking, crying and very upset.” Corcoran later went down and peeked in the fifth-grade classroom, she said, but said she could neither see nor hear anything inside that room.

A short while later, Corcoran encountered two fifth-grade girls who had made it out of the classroom. She said they were “sobbing uncontrollably” and looked “terrified.”

“I could not console them,” she said.

On cross-examination, Hofland asked about Corcoran’s educational background then proceeded to ask if any of the Stockton fifth-grade students in fall 2008 “had any serious psychological issues” prior to Oct. 31.

Corcoran said yes, some did, but when Hofland asked for details about particular students, Rushlau objected and Hjelm sustained it. Similarly, Hofland’s next question — “Do students come to school with outside psychological issues?” — was objected to by the prosecutor, and Hjelm sustained that one as well.

Hofland then sought to have several magazine articles presented to Corcoran, which Rushlau objected to because he said it seemed Hofland was seeking to have Corcoran testify as an expert witness, rather than a witness of fact.

“I’m not asking her to do an analysis separately,” Hofland said. “I’m asking her to talk about their state of mind that day.”

When Hofland asked if Corcoran was familiar with the family issues raised in the magazine articles, Rushlau objected and Hjelm sustained it.

After several questions about Corcoran’s previous testimony, Hofland then asked, “Were you aware of any abuse of children in the fifth-grade classroom prior to the incident on Oct. 31, 2008?”

That question was also objected to by Rushlau, and the objection was sustained.

Hofland’s remaining questions for Corcoran centered around the events of Oct. 31, 2008. When she was done testifying, Rushlau asked if she could be excused permanently, but Hofland asked for the right to recall her to the witness stand in the future, and Hjelm agreed to his request.

Fifth-grade girls describe day’s events

Four girls who were in the fifth-grade class at Stockton Springs Elementary School in 2008 testified during the afternoon session Thursday. All four of them described how a man with a gun burst into their classroom after struggling with their teacher to open the door.

“He looked pretty beat up,” said one girl, describing the man’s appearance. “He was awful thin, and he looked kind of shaggy, with facial hair.”

[Editor’s note: Due to the ages of the children involved, VillageSoup is opting not to publish names of students who testify or who are discussed in court.]

Each of the girls described a classroom full of upset students, using words such as “worried,” “scared,” “frantic” and “trembling” to describe their reactions and those of their classmates to the arrival of the man with the gun in their classroom.

“I was terrified,” said one of the students.

Several girls recounted how the man, whom they identified as Hofland, spoke to them about trouble he was having in his life and how his world had turned “upside down.” The girls testified how he spoke of divorce, and how he wanted to see his own children. They said Hofland told them the class was his protection and told them he wasn’t going to hurt them.

Two of the girls described how, independently of each other, they decided to make a break from the classroom. One of them described crawling along the wall of the classroom, unsure if Hofland could see her, until she reached the door and made a quick exit, then running to the school’s main office. Another said her instincts kicked in and told her to leave.

“I had it in my head and I just decided to do it,” said the girl of her escape.

Some of the girls described Hofland putting his arm around one student, apparently as a hug, and also how he kissed another girl, who was upset, on the forehead. One girl who testified Thursday said Hofland attempted to put his arm around her to comfort her, but that only made her feel worse, she said.

Another student testified that Hofland did nothing to try and comfort or console other students who were upset.

Hofland, during his cross-examinations of the girls, asked them to verify what they had heard him say in the classroom. He also made a point of asking them whether he had pointed the gun at anyone in the room, other than their teacher.

Hofland asked one of the girls if he had ever threatened her or one of her friends while he was in their classroom. The girl said no, he hadn’t threatened either one of them. It appeared that Hofland was done questioning that witness until Toothaker signaled him, and after a whispered conversation, Hofland returned to the lectern with more questions for the girl.

After a few more questions about what had taken place in the classroom, Hofland asked the girl, “You didn’t ask to leave?”

“No,” she said.

“None of the other children asked to leave?” he asked.

“No,” she replied.

“I didn’t tell any of you that you had to stay?” he asked.

“No,” the girl said.

School secretary: Fifth-graders looked ‘terrified’

Tina Boyce, who was the secretary at the Stockton school Oct. 31, 2008, also testified Thursday. She recalled the first indication that day that something was wrong was when a parent burst through the front door of the main office crying out, “Call 911!”

Boyce said she thought of the school’s emergency plan and went into what she called her “emergency mode.” She first went to the intercom and announced a “Code Blue” — indicating the need for a school-wide lockdown — and then called 911. Rushlau asked Boyce what she told the dispatcher who answered the phone.

“I said, ‘This is Stockton Springs Elementary School. We have a man in our schoolhouse with a gun. We need help and we need it right now,'” Boyce testified.

Following the steps in the emergency plan, Boyce said she next called the district’s central office. After that, she said she felt the need to go room-to-room, throughout the school, making sure there were no children who didn’t have a place to go. She didn’t find any children who weren’t were they should have been, Boyce said, and when she got to the fifth-grade classroom she went inside.

“What did you see?” asked Rushlau.

“I saw Mr. Hofland, sitting on the floor, and he had the fifth-graders sitting around him, sitting on the floor,” Boyce said. “I asked him if he would release the children to me.”

Boyce said Hofland told her he could not do that, and, echoing testimony from previous witnesses, she recalled him saying the children were his “protection.”

Boyce said she did see a gun in Hofland’s hands while she was in the classroom, and said at one point he held it up and appeared to point it at her.

“At that point I decided it was best that I leave the room,” said Boyce. “I didn’t want the situation to get any worse than it was, because I was afraid for the kids.”

Boyce said she remembers the fifth-graders looking “terrified” while in the classroom with Hofland. She said he looked like a “wild man.”

On cross-examination, Hofland asked Boyce about her vision and hearing. She acknowledged she wears glasses and a hearing aid, but said she has no trouble hearing voices when speaking with people.

Fourth-grade students, teacher testify

Two students who were in fourth grade at the Stockton school in fall 2008 also testified Thursday, as did their former teacher, Debra Gooch.

The students were both in the gym (which also serves as the school’s cafeteria) when Hofland entered the school. One of the witnesses, a boy who was 9 years old in 2008, said Hofland grabbed him by the wrist and tried to drag him toward the girls bathroom. The boy recalled Hofland repeatedly saying “C’mon, c’mon,” in a quiet voice as he pulled him.

“I didn’t understand what was going on that very second,” the boy, now 11, testified on the witness stand.

The boy said Glen Larrabee, a bus driver, came into the gym and confronted Hofland, telling Hofland to release the boy and another student. The boy said Hofland said, “I didn’t want it to end this way.”

The boy said he and another student, a fourth-grade girl, were let go and that they ran out of the gym and down an adjacent hallway to their classroom. The boy said when he got back to the classroom, he told Gooch and his classmates, “There’s a man with a gun.”

Upon further questioning, though, the boy said he hadn’t seen a gun, nor had he heard anyone in the cafeteria say Hofland had a gun. The boy simply said, “We knew he had a gun.”

The boy also recalled hiding in his classroom with his classmates, many of whom were upset and one of whom was sick to her stomach.

When it came time for the witness to be cross-examined, Hofland asked the boy, “Do you remember how your day started here?”

After some confusion over what exactly Hofland meant, Hofland clarified his question by asking the boy if he had promised to answer the questions asked of him truthfully. The boy said he had.

“Thank you, you did a good job,” said Hofland.

Rushlau asked that Hofland’s comment be stricken from the record, and Hjelm agreed.

The other witness who was a student in fourth grade in Stockton in fall 2008 was a young girl. Like the boy, she testified that she was in the gym/cafeteria and said she saw Hofland grabbing students and trying to pull them to the girls bathroom.

Similarly, she recalled running from the gym to her classroom and hiding there with her classmates. She offered a description of Hofland that matched what others who saw him that day have said — that he generally looked dirty, was wearing ripped jeans and had a mustache.

When Rushlau completed his questions, Hofland indicated he would not cross-examine the witness.

“I have no questions, your honor, but I thank her for attending,” he said.

Gooch, who testified prior to the students taking the witness stand, described locking down her classroom after she heard the “Code Blue” announcement and hiding her eight students.

Gooch recalled hearing Boyce in the adjacent fifth-grade classroom, talking with an adult male. Gooch said she could not hear what the male was saying in response to Boyce, but said Boyce was saying “something along the lines of ‘What are your intentions?’, ‘Put away the gun’, ‘Let the kids go…'”

On cross-examination, Gooch acknowledged she never saw Hofland during the incident. He asked her questions about the time frame, what she had heard Boyce say in the fifth-grade classroom and how Gooch had “corralled” her students and what pieces of furniture she had used to shelter them.