Hofland tells jury threats from police led to ’08 standoff

Posted Jan. 26, 2011, at 10:47 p.m.
Attorney Jeffrey Toothaker (left) of Ellsworth, who is acting as standby counsel for accused school hostage-taker Randall Hofland, makes the opening argument for the defense at Waldo County Superior Court on Tuesday.
Attorney Jeffrey Toothaker (left) of Ellsworth, who is acting as standby counsel for accused school hostage-taker Randall Hofland, makes the opening argument for the defense at Waldo County Superior Court on Tuesday.

BELFAST, Maine — For several months in 2008, Randall Hofland had felt as if he was being harassed and followed by police in Bucksport and Searsport.

Officers randomly stopped him on the street and asked him who he was, he testified Wednesday afternoon during his own criminal trial at Waldo County Superior Court. He told the jury he believed his phone was being tapped, his cell phone had “very curiously” stopped getting a signal when he moved back to Maine from California and he was certain he had been placed on some kind of federal watch list.

And so, when he crested a hill on Route 1 in Searsport on the night of Oct. 23, 2008, and saw several police cars with flashing blue lights parked close to his driveway, Hofland’s fears seemed to become reality.

“My state of mind was that I was being followed by people,” he told the jury.

He explained that what previous witnesses had described as a routine traffic safety check seemed very suspicious to him.

“As I came up to the stop, I’m sitting there, I see somebody running up the road at me,” Hofland testified. “I told [the officer] in no uncertain terms, because I was quite alarmed by this point, to stay away from my car.”

Hofland, 57, of Searsport, has been charged with 41 counts related to that traffic stop, during which he has been accused of threatening a police officer with a gun, and also an incident eight days later at Stockton Springs Elementary School in which he is accused of taking students hostage at gunpoint.

During the three weeks of the trial, Hofland has acted as his own defense attorney. On Wednesday, he took the stand for more than three hours to explain the two events and still hadn’t finished by the end of the afternoon.

No one asked Hofland precise questions, as has been the practice during other witness testimony. Instead, he launched into long, often complicated descriptions of the events, with many digressions into what he called a long-standing,  elaborate conspiracy against him. His hours of testimony only occasionally were interrupted by objections from Waldo County District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau.

In large part, Hofland’s description of the traffic stop contradicted the testimony of former Searsport police officer Jessica Danielson. She had told the jury at the beginning of the trial that she was scared for her life when she approached a Subaru whose driver had turned on the car’s high beams and appeared very agitated.

Danielson said she reached in the car to turn off the high beams and saw that the driver, later identified as Hofland, pointed a gun at her. As she moved away, she yelled, “Gun! Gun!” in warning to the other officers. At that point, Hofland rapidly drove off, she said. The incident triggered a weeklong police manhunt and led to the Oct. 31, 2008, incident at the elementary school.

“Jessica Danielson comes charging up at me,” Hofland told the jury Wednesday. “I told her to stay away, stay away, and then she reaches in.”

When the officer yelled “Gun! Gun!” Hofland said he became very scared for his own life.

“She became a threat,” he said. “When she started yelling ‘Gun!’ she became a very serious threat, because it means she’s going to start shooting at me.”

Hofland “adamantly denied” Danielson’s testimony that he had threatened her with his Glock 10 mm handgun.

“I did not point a gun at Officer Jessica Danielson. I thought she was a baldfaced liar. I really did,” Hofland said.

He said he remembered later that he may have been holding one of his cell phones in his hand and suggested once again that Danielson could have mistaken the black phone for a gun.

Hofland said that he is aware of the conflicting testimony but wanted to tell the jury “exactly” what happened.

“She undoubtedly was reaching for a pistol,” he said. “At that point in time I said, ‘I have to leave here.’”

Hofland left the scene by driving away at a reasonable speed, he told the jury, but found that police vehicles were “practically blocking” the driveway to the box trailer where he was storing some of his belongings and where he sometimes slept.

“I got out of my car. They were yelling at me,” he testified. “I was yelling something back at them. Basically, ‘Stay away.’”

He made a 911 call and told the dispatcher that he believed that there had been an “intrusion” or police entrapment, Hofland said.

He told the jury that he decided to head into the woods, and while he forgot to change from his good walking shoes to his hiking boots and insulated socks, he did remember to strap on his gun holster and load it with the pistol. This was the gun that former employer Capt. George Perkins had told him he needed to purchase for protection against bears, Hofland testified.

“I just knew I was under threat,” he said Wednesday, referring to the police approaching him that night.

And so, on the run, he turned off his cell phone so he could not be traced and used the eight days he was in the woods to “reflect” on the past eight years since his difficult divorce and on his battle for custody of his three sons.

“As I’m walking through the woods, debating what I’m going to do, I’m awfully cold and wet,” he said. “Three days [in], I said, ‘Well, I have to turn myself in at some point.’”

Hofland explained to the jury that he had a few objectives. He didn’t want to get hurt, and he definitely didn’t want the police conspiracy against him to be “swept under the rug.”

So, he decided that he would go to Stockton Springs Elementary School, a locale where he knew he could make a “big splash” while surrendering.

“I know that sounds bizarre,” he told the jury. “But I needed to find a safe way. I knew at this point in time the police were not trustworthy. I knew I was at risk.”

At this point, Hofland’s testimony digressed into a long ramble against George Perkins, for whom he once worked as a caretaker, and also about perceived violations of his constitutional rights by police and the court system.

After Justice Jeffrey Hjelm told him he had to return to his testimony about the events for which he was on trial, Hofland described how he walked into the school’s front door with no problems the first thing in the morning on Oct. 31. He told the jury that he was looking for a small space where he could enclose himself with a few students and talk with them until the police arrived.

“I didn’t want to get shot,” he said. “I didn’t want anything happening to me, and I certainly didn’t want anything happening to these kids. I didn’t want them to see a bloody mess, and I certainly didn’t want them hurt.”

He told the jury that he took the round of ammunition out of the chamber of his handgun, so it was “by definition” unloaded, and headed into the cafeteria.

“When I located a safe place, I tried to gather children up to sit with me,” he said. “That was a safety issue. Not for them, but for me.”

Hofland said that he did not take the gun out in the cafeteria, in direct contrast to the emotional testimony of two school staff members earlier in the trial.

“Glen Larrabee’s a hero, except for the lies he told,” he said of the bus driver-custodian who had described the panic he felt when Hofland pointed the gun at his head.

Hofland said that Larrabee and physical education teacher Dan Campbell were both “perjurers.”

Hofland told the jury he “tried to grab” one boy when the Code Blue, or lockdown alert, went out over the school intercom system.

He said that he walked down the corridor, looking in all directions to ensure there were no threats and then moved to open the door to the fifth-grade classroom.

Teacher Carolyn Russell testified earlier that she had injured herself in her efforts to hold the door shut and keep Hofland out of the room.

“Carolyn Russell did a fabulous job in resisting me, she really did,” Hofland said. “I would call her a hero. But once they start lying, they’re not heroes anymore.”

Because he was worried that the teacher would get injured or possibly killed if she “launched herself” off the door onto a desk in the room, he decided to take the gun out and distract her.

“I knew there was a very short time span between me finding a safe haven and a police officer starting to shoot,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘If I don’t get in there, to a closed, safe room, I don’t have a lot of options left.’”

So Hofland pulled out his handgun and pointed it at the door.

“Carolyn Russell danced, like a dancing toy, away from that door handle, because she was totally surprised by seeing that gun,” he told the jury. “She’s clearly excited. She’s hysterical. I wasn’t ready for that. Until this point in time, nobody had been overly upset.”

Hofland then said that he had to deal with the terrified teacher, who was “jumping up and down” and asking him not to hurt the children.

“I said I didn’t want to hurt anybody,” Hofland said Wednesday.

Then she told him that he was scaring the children, he testified.

“I understand that, but I think what’s scaring the children more is her being so hysterical,” he said to the jury.

Hofland then made Russell leave the classroom, he said.

“I would have been happy to let her stay if she was calm and collected, but she wasn’t,” he said Wednesday. “I said ‘Go, go!’ Then I went in.”

Once in the classroom, Hofland said that he pulled up a plastic milk crate next to where the children were huddled and told them he wasn’t there to hurt them.

“We spent a period of time talking about other things,” he testified, adding that only one girl was crying. He eventually let her go.

Hofland will resume his testimony on Thursday.

Two of the boys who were in the fifth-grade class in 2008 and a police official also testified on Wednesday about the events of that October day. Hofland apparently had subpoenaed them because he hoped their testimony would support his case that he hadn’t frightened the children.

One boy, Nacoma Noomyenooneam, said that he really didn’t want to testify. He also said, when asked if he was “really upset” by what had happened, that it “didn’t bother” him.

John Noomyenooneam, Nacoma’s father, said outside the courtroom that he “couldn’t believe” Hofland would ask the children to come to court and that he was horrified that Hofland had premeditated his entry to the school.

“He planned it,” the father said. “Any story he has that would lead anyone to have any sympathy for him is gone with me.”

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