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Death Times Two : Jim and Bonnie Hood had the good life. Then she was killed. Now he's charged with slaying the man he allegedly hired to murder her.

November 12, 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 contend 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 counter that Hood, free on $1 million bond, played no part in the killing of his wife and the wounding of her friend in 1990 and that he shot a threatening, disgruntled ex-employee last 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 alleged hit man's slaying offered by each side--what one lawyer calls "dueling diagrams."

Hood, 49, was never charged with killing his wife, Bonnie, but he is on trial in the slaying of ex-employee, Bruce E. Beauchamp, in an office he owned near Fontana. If convicted, he 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--despite eyewitness testimony by her lover, handyman Rudy Manuel.

But after Beauchamp's death, his widow informed authorities that he told her he was paid $50,000 by James Hood to commit the crime. And according to the widow, after his acquittal, Beauchamp consulted a free-lance writer about the possibility of a book based on the killing--and asked a paralegal whether he could ever be retried.

Jim Hood is the son of a retired General Electric executive. Raised outside San Francisco in posh Hillsborough, he attended San Jose State, where he met Bonnie Jean Marr from the San Fernando Valley.

After college, the couple began what would be an adventurous relationship: Jim took a civilian job in Vietnam; Bonnie worked as a flight attendant on planes 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's real estate holdings were thought to be worth millions, and the family's lifestyle reflected it.

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. And Bonnie was making plans to follow her dream: As a child, she vacationed regularly with her family 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 about the turn of the century and continued as a lodge, bar and 10-room motel were added.

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, the couple described how they got together on weekends, either in Newport Beach 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 cards.

All 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 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.

But as Jim's trial began last week, attorneys for each side outlined sharply differing versions of the Hoods' family life after Bonnie moved to Tulare County.

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

When Bonnie received a $250,000 inheritance, Whitney said, she and Jim quarreled because he wanted her to use the money to cover costs of the resort.

At the same time, the prosecutor said, things weren't going well for Jim's businesses.

Whitney said Jim, who claimed assets of $8 million, "had his fingers in so many pies that even though he claimed to be a multimillionaire, in fact he was in a precarious financial condition."

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