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5 Hurt in Gunfire at High School Near San Diego; Student Is Held

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

For the second time in three weeks, a teenage gunman opened fire at a suburban San Diego high school, wounding five people Thursday before a policeman on duty at the campus brought a quick end to the attack, shooting the gunman.

Police identified the suspect as Jason Hoffman, 18, a Granite Hills High School senior variously described as a good student and a loner with emotional problems. He was shot in the face and buttocks. None of the injuries to him or others was critical.

Shortly before 1 p.m., Hoffman drove a pickup truck on East Madison Avenue and stopped outside the school administration office, authorities said. Then, they said, he knelt in a shooting position and opened fire from the street with a military-style, Mossberg pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, spraying the building, breaking windows and creating chaos in fifth-period classes throughout the 60-acre campus.

Four people were injured by flying glass or in the resulting rush to get out of the building.

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“A bullet whizzed within inches of my head,” said Chris Weston, a Granite Hills sophomore. Students screamed, teachers yelled orders and everyone dived under desks, waiting for police.

They didn’t have to wait long. The gunman was stopped in mid-spree even before he could use his second weapon, a .22-caliber handgun.

El Cajon Police Agent Rich Agundez Jr., a former SWAT officer recently assigned full time to the school, engaged in “an old-fashioned shootout” with Hoffman, said Liz Pursell, spokeswoman for the San Diego County district attorney’s office.

“The kid opened fire. The [officer] heard him. He was right around the corner. So he fired back,” Pursell said.

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Witnesses said Hoffman fired at least eight rounds from the shotgun, reloading at least once. Agundez was uninjured.

Hoffman has not been arrested but is in police custody at Sharp Memorial Hospital, where he underwent a five-hour surgery. Investigators said they will probably seek charges of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon. Prosecutors said determination of charges will depend on motive--and may have to wait until investigators interview the suspect. Sedated after his surgery, Hoffman was unable to speak.

The guns, police said, came from Hoffman’s home.

The injured include students Shanda Hughes, a junior; Toby Haltstead, 15; William Dietzler; Carina Scribellito, 17; Andrew “Sonny” Yafuso, 15; and teachers Priscilla Murphy, 53; and Fran Zumwalt, 47.

The shooting occurred about six miles from Santee, where two students were killed and 13 people were injured March 5. A 15-year-old freshman is accused of firing indiscriminately into a crowded Santana High School courtyard.

“It is unbelievable that another school shooting could happen in such close proximity to Santana High School and in such a short amount of time,” said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “It’s unbelievable. And it makes me sick to my stomach.”

Just weeks after surveying the tragedy at Santana, Jacob was again on a high school campus struggling to comprehend such mayhem. “If there was a simple answer we would have had the answer by now,” said Jacob, a former teacher. “The fact is, there is not a simple answer.”

There is no known motive for either shooting, or any immediately available information to indicate that the second attack was influenced by the first.

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“Whenever there is an episode of violence, particularly an episode that receives a lot of publicity and attention, there is clearly a risk of copycat threats and actual copycat incidents,” said David Fassler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt. “There are always kids who are literally on the edge.”

Other students did not describe Hoffman as on edge. Robert Stevens, 18, a senior, described him as just a “hothead” who “kept to himself” and occasionally got into trouble for mouthing off.

Some recalled what seemed to have been an odd overreaction to a bad test score, or a boy who would purposely walk on the road rather than the sidewalk. But those incidents hardly foreshadowed Thursday’s attack.

It was clear that Hoffman’s home life was troubled, said former neighbors Kelli and Dennis Baker. The tall youth would spend hours walking the neighborhood to escape his house--especially during family arguments, Dennis Baker said.

He seemed to have few friends.

Rather, he hung out in the garage with Baker, a Navy instructor, and peppered him with questions. Baker said Hoffman was fascinated by how things worked: remote control cars, boats, engines--and guns. Hoffman constantly read gun magazines and asked Baker about them.

“He did love his guns,” Kelli Baker said.

The couple, who first met Hoffman about eight years ago, said they never saw any sign that one day he would explode. He was frustrated but controlled, never overtly angry.

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“He was a good kid,” said Dennis Baker. “I never would have guessed this would happen.”

Classmates said Hoffman was high-strung and a perfectionist. Steven Shapley, a Granite Hills sophomore, recalled Hoffman exploding in curses last semester when he got 25 out of 30 on an economics test.

Hoffman kept his binders in perfect order and ironed his T-shirts.

El Cajon Police Chief James Davis credited Agundez’s quick action with preventing more serious injuries.

“We thank God that no one was killed,” Davis said. “Agent Richard Agundez really is the hero.”

Agundez, a 19-year police veteran, was in the school administration building when he heard shots. He looked out the double glass doors and saw the gunman. Agundez then opened fire and sprinted out of the building when the suspect “went down due to wounds,” said Police Capt. William McClurg.

San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputy Angela Pearl happened to be at the school on an unrelated investigation. She covered Agundez when he approached and handcuffed the suspect.

Jennifer Speidel, 17, a senior, was in government class when another student ran in and said someone had a gun and was shooting. As students dove to the floor, Speidel froze in fear. Then she looked at Hoffman’s face. She said he cocked the shotgun, looked directly at her, then turned and fired at the administration building across the way.

“He had no expression at all; he just looked like he was concentrating very hard,” she said.

Within 15 minutes, a SWAT team was combing the buildings of the Granite Hills campus and students were being frisked and escorted to a nearby park and middle school.

Georgette Torres, the Granite Hills principal, said the school has been working with El Cajon police and Agundez on revising its crisis plan. She said that new plan went into effect Thursday.

“It worked beautifully,” Torres said.

The school was locked down after the shooting and will be closed today.

The emergency call for assistance also drew news media and, quickly, parents.

“It was chaotic,” said Deputy Dave DiCarlo. “There were parents coming from all directions trying to find out what happened to their kids.”

Deputy Matt Ellis tried to stop one young woman from getting through the police barrier. “She said she didn’t care if she got shot,” Ellis said. “She needed to find out what happened” to her brother or sister.

Mike Wenhold, a ninth-grader, was in gym class when he heard gunfire.

“I saw a kid running. He had blood on the side of his face and on his shirt,” Wenhold said. “Then they took us inside the wrestling room and the SWAT team came in and asked us if we had any weapons or other possessions.

“The girls were all in panic. We tried to calm them down,” Wenhold said. “It was pretty scary.”

The students from two gym classes were marched outside, hands over their heads, until they reached the parking lot, where they were told they could lower their hands.

Throughout east San Diego County, the eerie echo of the Santee shooting left many people numb.

The memorial to the two dead students was still in front of Santana High School on Thursday, but the flowers were dead, the stuffed animals scuffed and dirty. The balloons were deflated and the candles had long since burnt down.

The two high schools are in the same district, but serve somewhat different student populations. El Cajon is nearly twice the size of Santee and more closely conforms to the image of a leafy suburban retreat.

It’s where the kids from Santee head when they want to go to town. Homes in the area of the high school are on much larger lots than in Santee; many have swimming pools.

Gov. Gray Davis was appearing at an event in Los Angeles with Mexican President Vicente Fox when informed of the shooting.

“We have to hear the signs of alarm for alienation or loneliness from kids and be able to take them aside and make them feel part of the community so these terrible incidents don’t keep happening,” he said.

The mother of Bryan Zuckor, one of the two students killed at Santana High School, said she was shocked to hear of the latest school shooting and the news “brings more painful memories.”

“It’s just overwhelming and awful and it’s got to stop,” said Michelle Zuckor from her home in Santee. “This is too much. I’m just sorry it happened.”

Zuckor said a friend called her to tell of the Granite Hills High shooting. She felt sick when she turned on the television news. “I hope no one got, got,” then her voice trailed off. “Did any one get, did anyone die?”

Zuckor was silent on the phone for several seconds after she was told it did not appear that anyone would die from the El Cajon shooting.

“It’s just awful that a kid does not get to come home because he got shot in school,” said Zuckor, who has not returned to her job as a cashier since her son was killed. “A kid should come home from school. It’s something that a parent just does not need.”

As Zuckor spoke of her son, Bryan, her voice brightened. For a while she spoke as if he was still with her.

“Bryan is just a very sweet boy who wants to make people laugh,” said the mother. “Bryan doesn’t say anything bad about anyone. He’s a very obedient kid.”

But then her voice got very quiet.

“It’s very bad because I really miss him a lot,” she said “Every day, I’m just trying to make every day pass by. It’s upsetting I won’t see him again. He’s not coming home.”

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Times staff writers Martha Groves, Michael Krikorian, Duke Helfand, Scott Gold, Noaki Schwartz and Terry McDermott contributed to this story.

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More Inside

Fear on the Web: Threats of campus violence have spread fast and furious, experts say, A28

Victims’ Reactions: Teachers, students and their families reflect on the school shooting, A29

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Shooting Scene

The shooting at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon occurred shortly before 1 p.m. Police caught the suspect about 5 minutes later. Here is a look at the scene:

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Suspect parks truck in bus drop off area.

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Suspect shoots into windows of administration building. Security officer inside exchanges shots with suspect.

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Officer chases suspect into street, where a second officer joins him. First officer catches suspect and handcuffs him.

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Sources: Staff reports; Granite Hills High School Web site


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