Leaving behind a scribbled note of rage and despair, a mentally ill teenager who admitted shooting five people at an El Cajon high school committed suicide in his jail cell Monday, officials said.
Jason Anthony Hoffman, 18, hanged himself by looping strips of a bedsheet around the grillwork on an air vent, said Lt. Jerry Lewis of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. Hoffman was set to be sentenced next week to 27 years to life in prison for the March 22 rampage at Granite Hills High School.
Lewis said Hoffman had spent several weeks in a padded “suicide-watch” cell but a month ago was cleared by a doctor to be returned to a regular cell.
He was found dead about 1 a.m. during a routine bed check. Officials said he left a one-page note full of doodles and profanity but no reference to suicide or remorse for the shooting.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Dan Lamborn called the suicide “a sad ending to a very troubled young man.”
Hoffman had a history of mental illness and was on antidepressant medication in the months before he went to Granite Hills and opened fire with a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun.
Hoffman fired at a school vice principal and missed. He then wounded three students and two teachers before being shot in the jaw by an El Cajon police officer. Hoffman allegedly believed the vice principal was responsible for the Navy rejecting his bid to enlist.
The five wounded people all have recovered.
Within minutes of the Sheriff’s Department announcing that Hoffman had committed suicide, administrators at Granite Hills relayed word to his victims and offered to provide counseling.
“It went very smoothly,” said Mark Pettis, spokesman for the Grossmont Union High School District. “There was no great reaction one way or another.”
Hoffman’s defense attorney, Bill Trainor, said Hoffman’s mother “is genuinely devastated by the loss of the son she loved. She has no answers to why he committed this serious crime or decided to take his life. She just can’t explain it.”
William LaFond, one of the city’s top criminal defense attorneys for teens accused of violent crimes, said the suicide did not surprise him.
“Without exception, nearly every juvenile I’ve represented in a murder case has tried to kill himself,” LaFond said. “Many of these kids feel helpless and depressed and don’t understand why they did what they did. When they try to understand their feelings, they can’t handle it.”
Hoffman had recently undergone lengthy interviews by officials at the Probation Department who were developing a sentencing recommendation for Superior Court Judge Herbert Exarhos.
Under a plea bargain, Hoffman was facing up to 27 years to life in prison after pleading guilty to one count of attempted murder and five counts of assault with a deadly weapon.
LaFond said he did not fault the Sheriff’s Department for failing to prevent Hoffman from killing himself. Defendants hide their suicidal feelings because they hate to be put in the suicide-watch cell, where the lights stay on continuously and the surroundings are spare, LaFond said.
“The self-reporting of depression and suicidal thoughts is very low,” LaFond said.
Lewis said the note contained Hoffman’s despair about his life and his anger about the unfairness of the world. References were also made to musical groups, Lewis said.
“You can only theorize that he didn’t like being 18 and in jail with what he was facing,” he said.
Hoffman was being held in a single cell with a small window, Lewis said. Prisoners in the “administrative segregation” section of the downtown jail spend 23 hours a day inside their cells, leaving only for exercise, showers and phone calls.
Court records indicate that Hoffman’s mother and father had a tempestuous relationship that included violence and alcohol abuse. Hoffman was living with his mother at the time of the attack; his father lives in Los Angeles.
A senior at Granite Hills High, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Hoffman had been receiving counseling in anger management.
The March 22 shooting came just 17 days after an outburst of violence at nearby Santana High School in Santee, which left two students dead and 13 others injured. A 15-year-old freshman, Charles Andrew Williams, is charged in that case.
If Hoffman had gone to trial and been convicted, he could have been sentenced to 55 years to life in prison. His plea bargain would have made him eligible for parole in 24 years.
Times staff writer H.G. Reza contributed to this report.