Bus driver testifies that he feared for kids’ lives

Posted Jan. 18, 2011, at 8:04 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — His voice shaking with emotion, school bus driver Glen Larrabee testified Tuesday about the fear he felt, for himself and the children, when Randall Hofland pointed a gun at him and at a Stockton Springs Elementary School pupil.

Larrabee and two other school staff members testified Tuesday in Waldo County Superior Court during the criminal trial of the man accused of taking students hostage at gunpoint on Oct. 31, 2008.

Larrabee recounted how education technician Marcia Williams had approached him outside that morning and alerted him that a strange man was in the school cafeteria.

When the bus driver entered the cafeteria, he said he saw Hofland grabbing at the children. Although Williams had been unnerved by the man’s demeanor and had already left to call 911, police hadn’t yet arrived and the school staffers were on their own.

“I said, you can’t touch the kids,” Larrabee told the jurors Tuesday.

Then the man grabbed a 9-year-old boy and put him in a headlock, Larrabee said.

“I said, sir, don’t hurt the kids,” the bus driver recalled. “The next thing I knew he had pulled a gun out. … I thought, I hope this is not the end of me.”

Hofland, 57, of Searsport is defending himself against 41 criminal charges related to the school incident and to another one eight days earlier when he is accused of threatening a police officer with a handgun during a routine traffic stop on Route 1 in Searsport. No one was hurt in either incident.

Larrabee, a 61-year-old man who has driven school buses around the Belfast and Searsport area for decades, described his fear when the alleged gunman didn’t let go of the boy.

“I kept asking him not to hurt anybody,” the bus driver said. “He still had [the boy] in his hands. He took the gun, put it right in [the boy’s] hip. I kept telling him, don’t hurt the kids. If you want to talk to somebody, talk to me.”

Larrabee said that his eyes were locked onto Hofland’s during the tense standoff.

Waldo County District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau asked whether Hofland said anything to him at that point.

“He looked at me, held the kid in his arms, and said, ‘So that’s the way it’s gonna be,’” Larrabee recalled.

The bus driver testified that someone else, previously identified in police reports as physical education teacher Dan Campbell, then pulled the boy away from the gunman.

At that point, Hofland took the gun and “put it right between my eyes,” a visibly distressed Larrabee said. “I told him, you know, you and I can talk about this. You don’t have to do this.”

Hofland didn’t reply, but lowered his weapon and started to walk out of the cafeteria, according to the bus driver.

Larrabee said that he began to follow Hofland in hopes of calming him down, but to no avail.

“He swung around, pointed the gun at me and said, ‘You stay,’” the bus driver recounted.

Larrabee said that after Hofland walked out of the cafeteria, the gunman turned and walked toward the fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms, which were by then in lockdown.

The gunman pulled at the door of the fourth-grade classroom but couldn’t get in, Larrabee said.

“I heard someone inside saying, ‘Get out of here! You don’t belong!’” he recalled.

Then Hofland grabbed the door of the fifth-grade classroom, and kicked and pulled it open, the bus driver said, at that point watching from a distance.

“I paused for a second. I thought, ‘I can’t let him hurt the kids,’” he said.

So Larrabee walked to the classroom. He said he could see the children sitting on the floor and Hofland standing with the gun held high. Two girls came out the door, he remembered.

The bus driver walked into the classroom and tried again to reason with Hofland, he testified.

“I asked him not to hurt the kids. I said, ‘Are you sure you won’t take me?” Larrabee said.

But Hofland again pointed the handgun at him and told him to get out. Larrabee complied.

By this time, the first police officer had arrived, and Larrabee hurried to the locked front door to let him in, then escorted Maine State Police Trooper Jonah O’Roak to the fifth-grade classroom.

Larrabee said that the trooper pulled a gun out and said he was going to shoot Hofland.

Crying and breathing heavily during his testimony, Larrabee told the jurors that he told the trooper, “Don’t shoot him. There’s kids in front of him.”

Also testifying Tuesday morning and into the afternoon were school cook Sandra Sylvester and education technician Williams.

When Hofland stood up to cross-examine all three witnesses, his questions appeared to primarily focus on what he had been wearing at the time of the alleged hostage-taking and exactly where people had been located in the school. During his cross-examination of Larrabee, he requested and received permission to don a gun holster to demonstrate whether or not he would have been able to hold the boy in a headlock while pulling the gun from the holster with his left hand.

Intermittently during the trial, Rushlau and even Justice Jeffrey Hjelm objected to Hofland’s questions and cross-examination techniques.

“Do you recall me ever saying that I didn’t want to hurt anyone?” Hofland at one point asked the bus driver.

“You didn’t say anything,” Larrabee, who appeared uncomfortable to be questioned by his alleged assailant, replied.

Before the trial adjourned Tuesday afternoon, Hofland also told the jury that Larrabee and others had received the Maine State Police’s Award for Bravery for their efforts at the school that day. He never fully explained why he was pointing that out.

The trial is expected to recommence at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

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