BELFAST, Maine — It took Justice Jeffrey Hjelm more than 15 minutes Friday afternoon to read aloud the 41 criminal charges against a Searsport man accused of holding a classroom of fifth-graders hostage at gunpoint on Oct. 31, 2008.
The dry legal language of the charges belied the more compelling story of the day when 11 children were allegedly used as “shields” by Randall B. Hofland, 57, who was brandishing a 10 mm handgun when he stormed into their classroom.
After more than two years, Hofland’s trial finally got under way Friday in Waldo County Superior Court, with the jury hearing opening arguments from District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau.
“The children were rescued. The children were not hurt,” Rushlau said of the Halloween day incident at the Stockton Springs Elementary School. “But this was still a violent day.”
Hofland also is accused of threatening a Searsport police officer with a handgun a few days earlier in October 2008 during a routine traffic check before escaping into the woods and triggering a weeklong police manhunt.
“These events were both violent events,” Rushlau told the jury Friday afternoon.
Hofland has been indicted on 22 counts of kidnapping, 12 counts of criminal restraint with a dangerous weapon, six counts of criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon and one count of burglary.
After Rushlau’s opening arguments, Hofland, who is representing himself, declined to address the jury.
“I wasn’t really completely prepared to give [opening remarks],” he explained to members of the press during a recess later Friday afternoon. He also told the media, “Most of what you’ve heard is not true. I did not try to scare [the children].”
Hofland appeared calm and relaxed during the jury selection process Thursday and Friday and during the first minutes of the trial, which started about 2 p.m. Friday. He scribbled on a notepad much of the time as his stand-by counsel, Ellsworth attorney Jeffrey Toothaker, sat next to him.
Toothaker had initially been retained by Hofland’s family but has since been appointed by the court to give the defendant advice when he asks for it.
Hofland has been incarcerated at various county jails since his arrest and is now housed at Somerset County Jail in Skowhegan. For the trial on Friday, he was dressed in a blue blazer with brass buttons, jeans and sneakers instead of the orange prison jumpsuit and leg shackles he has worn to court during previous hearings. At times he paused to clean his thick glasses.
Hofland listened quietly as Rushlau, in his opening arguments, led the jury through the events of Oct. 23, 2008, and Oct. 31, 2008.
On the night of Oct. 23, Officer Jessica Danielson of the Searsport Police Department was getting ready to end a routine seat belt compliance detail on Route 1 when a vehicle stopped about 150 feet away from the officers and the driver flicked his high beams on.
“Officer Danielson said, ‘Dim your lights,’” Rushlau recounted to the jury. “What she heard was a series of shouted obscenities.”
Danielson continued toward the stopped vehicle and approached the driver’s side window when she saw the man behind the steering wheel holding a gun that was pointed at her, Rushlau said.
That man was Hofland, the district attorney said.
“She is completely astonished, surprised, jumps back and is yelling, ‘Gun! Gun!’” Rushlau said.
The driver then took off down a dirt driveway with officers in pursuit. When the car stopped, the officers shouted at the driver to surrender, but he refused, Rushlau said.
Hofland then somehow fled into the woods nearby, “disappearing into the darkness,” the district attorney said.
At some point that night, Hofland called the Waldo County Communications Center and told a dispatcher, “tell [police] to leave the area immediately. Am I clear?”
A police report entered in court documents states that Hofland threatened “war” unless police backed off.
Rushlau told the jury Friday that police obtained an arrest warrant for Hofland that night but couldn’t locate him — even with the help of the Maine State Police Tactical Team and other law enforcement agencies.
In Hofland’s abandoned Subaru, police found a box of bullets, Rushlau told the jury.
“It’s a violent event that did not result in injury,” the district attorney said. “But it is still a violent event. It put Officer Danielson in fear of immediate injury.”
Eight days later, Hofland reappeared in the Stockton Springs Elementary School cafeteria at the beginning of the school day, Rushlau said, and started “trying to grab children.”
A school employee confronted him and quickly left to call 911, he said.
Then the situation escalated, Rushlau said. Hofland grabbed another student and tried to drag him away. Then he pulled out a gun and pointed it at a student and an employee, the district attorney said. Physical education teacher Dan Campbell and a cook helped to rescue that student. Then Hofland left the cafeteria and headed toward the fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms.
By this time, the school secretary was broadcasting a “Code Blue,” or lockdown alert, over the intercom system.
Hofland tried to get into a fourth-grade room but couldn’t.
Then he turned his attention to the fifth-grade classroom, where teacher Carolyn Russell was unable to lock her door. She fought to keep the intruder out, but in the struggle was knocked down, Rushlau said.
Then Hofland allegedly threatened her with a gun.
“He backed her out of the room, leaving him alone with the fifth-graders,” Rushlau said. “He comes in and says, ‘You are my protection.’ He has taken them hostage.”
Although Hofland has said in the past that the gun was not loaded, the district attorney told the jury Friday that Hofland’s Glock in fact contained 15 rounds of ammunition.
Two children were able to escape the room, Rushlau said. Another two asked Hofland if they could leave, and he let them go.
Police officers armed with rifles and handguns entered the school, and Detective Jason Andrews of the Maine State Police tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with Hofland, Rushlau said.
“Sometime after that, Hofland decides that the children can leave,” the district attorney told the jurors.
He handed his gun to a boy and then walked out of the classroom, where he was taken into custody, Rushlau said.
“In the end, you will conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Randall Hofland committed these crimes,” Rushlau told the jurors before they were dismissed at about 3:30 Friday afternoon.
Both the judge and the district attorney told the jurors that the trial might last as long as two weeks and that they must consider each charge separately.
Before being returned to jail, Hofland told the press that he would not deny he was in the school, but that there is a “conspiracy” against him and that he is on a “federal watch list.” He did not elaborate.
It has taken more than two years to get to trial, which is longer than is typical, in part because Hofland has filed many handwritten motions, Rushlau said.
“It’s a serious matter, and we’re all treating it very seriously,” the district attorney said.