BELFAST, Maine — Fifth-grade teacher Carolyn Russell testified Wednesday afternoon about her intense struggle to keep the door to her Stockton Springs Elementary School classroom closed to an intruder armed with a gun.
Russell, now 58, was one of three teachers who testified Wednesday in Waldo County Superior Court during the criminal trial of Randall Hofland, who is accused of taking students hostage at gunpoint on Oct. 31, 2008. It was the seventh day of testimony.
Russell told the jury that when she heard a “Code Blue” announced at the school that morning she told the students to go to their “safety spot” behind a cabinet. Previous witnesses had testified that the lockdown alert was given after Hofland entered the school cafeteria and began to grab at the children.
After directing the children, Russell said Wednesday that she then started to lock her classroom door from the inside. But when she saw that some of her pupils were outside in the hallway, with a disheveled and dirty man right behind them, she opened it back up again.
“I yelled to them, ‘Run!’” she told the court. “They ran into the classroom and I attempted to pull the door shut, but the man in the hallway was running after them. I got the door closed, but not locked.”
She pulled frantically at the door, with Hofland tugging at the handle from the other side. Russell saw through the door’s narrow window that the man was armed with a gun that he was holding in his right hand.
“He had very, very forceful, strong pulls,” she recounted.
The teacher said she placed her feet on either side of the door and leaned back to leverage her weight and pull with all her might to keep the man outside.
Although she learned later that she had pulled and torn some muscles in the effort, and also pulled one hip out of its socket, it wasn’t enough, she said.
“Suddenly there was a really large, guttural noise and he pulled that door all the way open,” Russell told the jurors.
She fell to the floor and then started to get to her feet as Hofland entered the room.
“He walked into the classroom, his gun by his side,” she said, adding that he was scanning the room using his eyes and waving the gun around.
His demeanor was “bizarre,” and she suddenly remembered that police had been searching for an armed gunman. Hofland, 57, of Searsport also is accused of threatening a Searsport police officer with a handgun at a routine traffic stop eight days before the school incident. The event had triggered a manhunt and also caused area schools to be closed for a day.
Hofland is defending himself against 41 criminal charges related to both the school and the traffic stop incidents. No one was seriously injured in either event.
Russell told the court Wednesday that she had seen a newspaper photograph of Hofland and then decided that he was the man in her classroom.
“His head was turning all the time, his eyes were big. He was very agitated. He was very frightening,” Russell said. “He was saying, ‘I don’t want to hurt anybody, I don’t want to hurt anybody.’”
She asked him to “please leave” and told him there was an outside exit at the end of the hall, close to a path that went into the woods.
“You can go into the woods,” she remembered telling Hofland. “He said, ‘No. The children are my protection.’”
Hofland then pointed the gun at her, Russell said. He leveled the handgun at her face while standing an arm’s length away from her, and every time he took a step toward her, she took a step away from him. Eventually he backed her out of the classroom, she said.
Waldo County District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau asked Russell what she thought when Hofland aimed the gun at her.
“That he was going to kill me,” she replied.
Hofland, who is acting in his own defense, had some questions of his own for Russell.
He wanted to know how her eyesight was and asked her to review the interview she had given a police detective shortly after the hostage taking.
Clad in a gray suit, with tidy hair, a groomed mustache and large glasses, Hofland appeared much more like a lawyer in court than like the unkempt, dirty man who previous witnesses and Russell have described.
He asked the teacher if she may have made some mistakes in her testimony, as there were some differences between it and the police interview from more than two years ago.
“My memory is very good, if that’s what you’re asking,” she rebuked her alleged assailant. “I’m not relying on paper documents to remember that day.”
As he had done the day before, Hofland donned the unloaded gun holster under his suit jacket and showed Russell what he calls the “clothing evidence” — extremely torn, dirty blue jeans, a red plaid shirt and a baseball cap.
“Do these look familiar?” he asked, holding out the jeans.
“Yes. They’re hard to miss,” she said. “The fact that your underwear was sticking out makes it hard to forget.”
“Sorry about that,” Hofland said. “It wasn’t my choice.”
He asked Russell many questions about how she had tried to keep the door closed and at one point asked her to demonstrate her actions on the wooden door that leads to a jury room.
Justice Jeffrey Hjelm quickly denied that request.
Physical education teacher Daniel Campbell also testified earlier on Wednesday about what he had seen and done that day. Campbell said he helped rescue a fifth-grader who Hofland allegedly had grabbed in the cafeteria and also helped another boy to escape. He wasn’t aware that the gunman had then entered the fifth-grade classroom.
After police had arrived, Campbell said that an officer told him that there was a hostage situation.
“Police were pointing their weapons down the hallway,” he remembered.
Both he and Russell described the terror that most of the children were displaying, with many students screaming and crying and otherwise showing distress.
“I began thinking about what the police had said to me, that we had a hostage situation,” Campbell said. “I became very upset, because in my mind, it wasn’t going to end well.”
The trial will continue Thursday, with more school personnel expected to give testimony, according to a victim witness advocate.