The Horrible Hunt : Her Son's Disappearance Sent Rose Hoffman Searching for 10 Years in a Shadowy World of Violence and Brutality

Times Staff Writer

Gus Hoffman disappeared on Independence Day, 1978.

The posters Rose Hoffman quickly tacked up around town in a panicky search for her missing son show a 20-year-old, still teetering between youth and adulthood. His over-the-collar hair and sprouting mustache suggest mild rebellion, while his baby-face grin and kind eyes hint at the tightknit, loving family in which he was raised.

But it's the Harley Davidson motorcycle pictured on the poster, a fleeting obsession, according to his family, that portends what police believe was "Gussie's" fate. The Harley, they now maintain, took him on a very brief but fatal ride.

For 10 years Hoffman's mother has kept on the tenuous trail of that bike, repeatedly descending from middle-class security into a shadowy realm of extortion, torture and a now-defunct motorcycle gang called the Forgotten Few. Last month, the hazy picture she pieced together over the years contributed to charges being brought against three suspects accused of murdering her son.

"The only thing that saved her," said Carol Jenson, a longtime friend who accompanied Rose Hoffman on many of her expeditions into that biker underworld, was that "the scum of the Earth, the slimeballs . . . recognized that Rose had absolutely no fear. I've never seen anything like it . . . ," Jenson said. "I'd say 'Dear God, protect us, 'cause I don't know what she's going to do next.' "

The Hoffman family's large ranch-style home sits on a hillside of tangled old oaks near Los Gatos. Earlier this month, Rose Hoffman sat under an umbrella on the pool-side deck, her back to a huge view of San Jose and the Silicon Valley, where the family tapped into the technology-fueled wealth of the new American dream.

Gus Hoffman's 1966 Harley Davidson Sportster had rattled this family of six from the moment he bought it from a neighbor with money he earned at his father's machine shop, where he milled electronic parts six days a week for the blossoming computer industry.

Rose and her husband, Gus Sr., were furious about the bike, she said, and Gus, who still lived at home, received an ultimatum: Sell it or move. "It's just the type of bike you don't want your son to have," Rose Hoffman said. Finally, though, the family agreed to let Gus keep the bike until he got it running.

After working on the bike in the family garage almost every night for a year, Hoffman finally kicked it over in June of 1978. Three weeks later, at about 5 in afternoon of July 4, he again stomped on the kick-starter and wheeled the bike down the driveway of the family home, which at the time was a more modest, "median income" place in San Jose.

The Hoffman children--Doreen, Bill and Elizabeth, who is the youngest at 23--were the kind of kids who, even as young adults, always called home if they wouldn't be joining the family for dinner, Rose Hoffman said.

So when the family awoke on July 5 and realized Gus hadn't come home, Gus Hoffman Sr. stayed home from work, and Rose Hoffman began calling around the neighborhood to track him down.

Finally a neighbor's son who worked as a gas station attendant told her that on the evening of the 4th he had waited on two men on motorcycles and other "biker types" in a blue Monte Carlo sedan. "I guess they were real wise guys," Hoffman said, using a term that seems needlessly polite, given what she knows now.

After the group left the station, the attendant said, he watched them pull up behind and alongside Hoffman at an intersection, then apparently chased him down the street.

Rose Hoffman took that information to San Jose police, who promptly identified two of the men. But one couldn't be located, and the other said, " 'I don't know what you're talking about,' " said Sgt. Jeff Ouimet, a San Jose Police Department detective who eventually took over the case.

Rose Hoffman never believed that, nor, apparently, did the police, and within a few weeks the case was turned over to homicide. But lacking a body, the missing motorcycle or witnesses to what happened after the initial encounter, the department couldn't devote itself single-mindedly to the mystery. Rose Hoffman could.

Almost immediately, the Hoffmans got a special phone installed for calls responding to the reward they offered, which jumped from $1,000 to $5,000 and then $10,000--an offer that still stands.

Soon after, people began calling in to crack jokes about Gus Hoffman's disappearance or to say they knew where he was and would kill him if they didn't receive cash. "The leeches swept in on her," Ouimet said.

Some people suggested her son had simply run away. Others hinted that he had been swept up by a religious cult.

Grasping at any clue, Hoffman visited bars frequented by San Jose area bikers and drug dealers. With choppers lined up outside and leather-clad characters with "big Buck knives" on their belts carousing inside, the bars "weren't executive clubs," said Doreen Simoneau, Hoffman's oldest daughter, who sometimes accompanied her mother.

Hoffman quickly picked up the nomenclature of modified motorcycles. But she still sounds like June Cleaver when she explains that her son's bike, with its red gas tank with yellow flames and chrome trim was "really cherry . . . a hard-tail with a springer front."

"You're so straight," a drunk biker sputtered one night, pushing his face close to Hoffman's. "Anyone could spot you in a minute."

It had never occurred to her, Hoffman said, that she and her new Cadillac might stick out at the rowdy joints where they once watched, in Jenson's words, "a long-haired grisly biker type . . . pull a girl out of a car by her hair and drag her into the bar."

"Rose has a very sweet, loving and compassionate nature to her," Carol Jenson said. But it wasn't her warmth that kept the bikers from harming her. "Some thought we were so crazy they wouldn't do anything to us," Jenson said. Also, "Rose let it be known that she carried a loaded gun wherever we went. She made it clear that if she went down, they'd go down with her."

"I did have a little gun," Hoffman said. "But it was never loaded."

When the leads at bars and parks where bikers hung out grew thin, Hoffman turned to the spirit world for clues, paying palmists and two of the best-known psychics in Northern California to help her find her son.

One psychic told her, in repeated visits, that her son was living in Utah. She said he "got involved in something he couldn't get out of. That he had an emotional breakdown," Hoffman recalled, shaking her head in disgust. Another assured her that her son was alive. Then, after meeting with one of several private investigators Hoffman hired over the years, the psychic had a new vision. She told Hoffman that her son had been "unmercifully beaten and killed."

As the police worked the case their way, Hoffman continued working it on her own, telling everyone she encountered about the son who had disappeared. Several times people tried to extort money from her in exchange for false information.

Soon after Hoffman told her story to a crew that had come to repair some kitchen tile, in 1981 she believes, a man called to say he was holding Gus Hoffman prisoner. When Rose Hoffman met with him she realized he was the 18-year-old son of the man who had been at the house doing the repairs, she said. Even so, "I paid the kid $500. . . . He patted me on the back and said, 'How does it feel to know your son is still alive?' "

When the man called again and upped the ransom to $5,000, Hoffman asked to hear her son's voice.

"He said, 'I can't do that. They won't let me. But I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to kidnap your daughter if you don't get that money to me. I know what she looks like. I know where she goes to school,' " Hoffman said.

She and her husband became frantic. Under police direction, Rose Hoffman wrapped a wad of fake money around a couple of real bills, and stuck it in the back of an abandoned station wagon in east San Jose as she had been instructed. The police arrested the man as he picked up the cash, and later determined he had no connection to Hoffman's disappearance.

The whole time she was searching for her son, Hoffman "wanted to believe he was going to just walk in the back door," she said. But as she slowly gathered information about the people with whom her son was last seen, she suspected that wasn't likely to happen. The more time she spent talking to bikers in parks or listening to biker girls on the street, and finally attending bikers' funerals in hopes of turning up clues, the more frequently she and friends would find themselves putting on old clothes to "go digging."

"Someone would say, 'I heard that he's buried here or buried there,' " Hoffman said. "It was like looking for a needle in a haystack."

Private Detectives Hired

Over the years, Hoffman hired three private investigators, the first of whom called her and offered his services soon after she began posting flyers at liquor and convenience stores. The investigator, it turned out, was a Hell's Angels gofer, according to the police, and knew some of the suspects--who Hoffman said "were too stupid to be Hell's Angels. They wouldn't have them."

After Hoffman said she had already dropped him, the first investigator phoned in 1980 or '81 to say he had found a young woman who knew about Gus Hoffman's murder. But before putting them in touch with the woman, he told the Hoffmans "the horrendous story . . . the unbelievable nightmare."

Simoneau, the Hoffmans' oldest child, remembers the drive home after hearing the investigator's account. "I was afraid my dad was going to have a heart attack. . . . They were as close to hysterical as you can get. . . . Later I'd go through months and months of nightmares."

When the investigator set up a meeting with the alleged witness, Gus Sr. couldn't bear to hear the story again. So Rose alone climbed into the back of a camper parked behind a Sambo's restaurant in Los Gatos.

Hoffman said the woman spoke to her from behind a curtain draped between the cab and the camper.

"I can't really repeat the story. It's too sickening," Hoffman said, staring off into the clear Santa Clara Valley air. "The closest I can get to it is that my son was tortured for five days. What the girl said is that they just wanted to teach him a lesson. What they did to my son--I can't even say that--but she said that we'll never find him.

"It was just so very bad what she told us," she continued, staring down at the patio table. "It was sexual abuse and torture. And also . . . there was supposed to be a girl there taking pictures. Or someone. They wanted to humiliate him."

Hoffman looked up and added, almost pleading, "But now the police are telling me that that's not a true story. . . . Did they tell you that?"

In fact, the detectives believe only parts of the story she pieced together over the years are true.

As time passed and people transferred in and out of the homicide division at the San Jose Police Department, Hoffman's disappearance had been shuffled to a back burner. But in February of 1987, almost nine years after Hoffman disappeared, the department handed the case to two night detectives.

The partners, Jeff Ouimet, 37, and Jack L. Baxter, 44, found themselves devoting more time to the Gus Hoffman mystery, poking around in the parts of town Rose Hoffman already knew well.

Violent and Sadistic

This world, they said, was sufficiently violent and often sadistic that potential witnesses were at first too terrified to testify.

But because of the initial leads Hoffman had developed, "we could see the light at the end of the tunnel," Ouimet said. After traveling around the country to interview more than 50 witnesses, in June the detectives arrested Michael Hodges, 36, and Richard Dollar, 32, who last week entered innocent pleas to murder charges at a preliminary hearing and remain in the Santa Clara County Jail on $1 million bail. John Michael Stelle, 47--known as Sluggo or Slug because of the "nice tattoo of a banana slug on his arm or chest"--remains at large, Baxter said.

Seated in a white, acoustic tiled interview room at the San Jose Police Department, the detectives flipped through finger-smudged manila folders containing color Polaroids and black-and-white prison shots of the four suspects. But it's Michael Stevenson, a thin, long-haired man shown posing shirtless with a .357-caliber Magnum in one photo, whom potential witnesses feared most, the detectives said.

According to news clips, Stevenson was arrested in 1976 for the alleged kidnaping of a teen-age girl, and again in 1977 after a 20-year-old woman alleged he beat her, then kept her chained and handcuffed in a closet, forcing her to take drugs. Several witnesses said he fancied himself a Charles Manson-type leader, the detectives said, adding that his standard fund-raising technique was extortion.

"What eventually led to his killing was the same kind of deal," Ouimet said. "He was trying to extort some property or money from an elderly person . . . and it resulted in him being shot and killed. (The police) didn't even file a complaint in that case. They said it was a justifiable killing. . . . In all the interviews we did, we only found one person who was sorry to hear he was dead. That was his wife, his widow. Even some of his so-called friends said it couldn't happen to a nicer guy."

Attorneys for the suspects discount the case against their clients. James McNair Thompson, the attorney for suspect Richard Dollar, said, "The prosecution doesn't have a body. No physical evidence at all. . . . They have some statements from people (no one) would rely very heavily on, and that's about it."

The detectives disagree. With Stevenson dead, and almost a decade gone by, witnesses who in the beginning were too frightened to talk, are now speaking up, they said. And the story they have pieced together from this testimony--records remained sealed by court order last week--is not much different than what Rose Hoffman learned early on in her search.

What Officers Surmise

The detectives now believe that the suspects encountered Gus Hoffman at an intersection on the evening of July 4, and either chased him, with one of them "swinging a chain at him," or they simply persuaded him to follow them to their house to talk about his bike. "When he got there, they decided they wanted to take the motorcycle from him . . . ," Ouimet said.

"They parked the bikes in front," Baxter said, "and two of the guys walked (Hoffman's) bike into the garage while he was standing there in the street." Patting Hoffman on the back, one of the suspects took him by the arm, "kind of smiled and said, 'Come on in and have a beer. . . . We're all pals here.' . . . People said he looked like he was quite frightened and didn't want to go in."

"Once they got in, they closed the garage door and that was it."

As they understand what happened, Baxter said, "The kid was physically abused . . . eventually killed, and his body was dismembered and disposed of. Placed in garbage bags and taken to an unknown location," or locations. The bike was sold part by part.

Although she is heartened by the arrest of two suspects in her son's case, Rose Hoffman still wants to find the remains of her son. That, and to keep what is left of her family intact, she said, as she walked around the deck of the rambling house the family moved to soon after Gus vanished.

"We're . . . almost normal," she said. "We'll never be really happy. But we can still live."

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