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Charting Fall From Golden O.C. Lifestyle to Lurid Trial : Courts: James Hood of Newport Beach is accused of murdering the hit man he allegedly hired to kill his wife.

November 02, 1992|MARK I. PINSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN BERNARDINO — James Newman Hood sits in a quaint, ornate courtroom, rocking slowly in his wooden chair, as lawyers and witnesses chart his descent from the golden existence and happy family life he once knew to the prospect of financial ruin and a life behind bars.

In a scenario worthy of a film noir, prosecutors charge that the financially troubled Newport Beach developer had his wife murdered as she slept with her lover, collected half a million in insurance, and then--a year and a half later--lured the hired hit man to a fatal rendezvous.

Defense attorneys say that Hood, now free on $2-million bond, played no part in the murder of his wife and the wounding of her friend in 1990 and that he shot a threatening, disgruntled ex-employee in March only in self-defense.

For what prosecutors say is the first time in California history, jurors will choose between competing animated re-enactments of the slaying offered by each side--what one lawyer called "dueling diagrams."

Hood, 49, was never charged with killing his wife, Bonnie, but he is now on trial for murdering the ex-employee, Bruce E. Beauchamp, in an office he owned near Fontana. If convicted, Hood faces a sentence of 30 years to life.

Beauchamp was acquitted in 1991 of killing 46-year-old Bonnie Hood at the Sierra Nevada resort she and her husband owned. This despite eyewitness testimony by a handyman, Rudy Manuel, who was in her room at the time of the shooting and who was wounded in the head.

But after her husband's death, Beauchamp's widow informed authorities that he told her he was paid $50,000 by James Hood to commit the murder. Other witnesses told police that after his acquittal on murder charges, Bruce Beauchamp consulted a free-lance writer about a book based on the killing and asked a paralegal whether he could ever be retried on criminal charges in connection with Bonnie Hood's death.

An Unusual Marriage

James Hood, known to acquaintances as Jim, is the son of a retired General Electric executive. He was raised outside San Francisco, in the posh community of Hillsborough, and attended San Jose State. It was there he met Bonnie Jean Marr, who came from the San Fernando Valley.

After college, the couple began what would be an adventurous relationship: Jim taking a civilian job in Vietnam; Bonnie working as a stewardess on flights carrying military personnel to Japan and Taiwan.

In 1969, the winsome pair married and settled in Orange County, where Bonnie's parents had retired. They bought a home in Newport Beach, had two children and began successful careers: Jim as a developer of commercial complexes; Bonnie in corporate real estate.

The couple prospered. Jim Hood's real estate holdings were thought to be worth millions, and the family's lifestyle reflected it. Bonnie Hood was also successful.

By the late 1980s, the marriage had taken a decidedly non-traditional turn. Jim was taking exotic vacations, visiting the Amazon and running with the bulls at Pamplona. Bonnie was making plans to follow her dream.

As a child, she and her family vacationed regularly among the redwoods of the southern Sierra in Tulare County, about 30 miles from Porterville. Work on the rustic 43-acre resort where they stayed, called Camp Nelson, began around the turn of the century and continued over the decades as a lodge, bar and a 10-room motel were added. After the Hood's children were born, Bonnie and her family resumed visits to the Sequoia National Forest.

In 1987, when the resort was offered for sale, the Hoods bought it.

Bonnie moved to Tulare County to run the resort, leaving Jim to care for the children, who by then were teen-agers. In a glowing, 1989 newspaper article outlining the arrangement, the couple described how they got together on weekends, either in Newport or at Camp Nelson. For the most part, they said, they were connected by daily calls on the family's six phone lines and by faxes, which were used to review the children's homework and to send Jim's Christmas card.

All of the family members extolled the arrangement, the children explaining how it improved intimacy. Bonnie spoke of the joys of leaving behind her world of charge cards and trading her Mercedes 190 for the simpler transportation of an Arabian steed. After the first few years, Jim said the lodge was breaking even, and Bonnie announced plans to restore the 50-year-old tourist cabins.

However, as James Hood's trial for killing Beauchamp began last week, attorneys for each side outlined sharply differing versions of the Hood's family life after Bonnie moved to Tulare County.

In his opening remarks, Deputy Dist. Atty. David Whitney told the jury that Bonnie was thinking about divorce and that she had begun an affair with one of her employees, a resident of the nearby Tule Indian reservation. Rather than breaking even, Camp Nelson had become a money pit, sucking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Hood family finances.

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