SAN BERNARDINO — Millionaire Newport Beach developer James N. Hood was convicted Thursday of gunning down a former employee who prosecutors believe had earlier carried out orders to kill the boss' wife.
In a murder case that had all the makings of a gritty film noir, a San Bernardino County Superior Court jury deliberated four days before finding Hood, 50, guilty of first-degree murder for the shooting death of construction worker Bruce E. Beauchamp.
Hood, who once enjoyed a glitzy lifestyle and a warm welcome in Orange County social circles, showed no emotion as the guilty verdict was read. He was led away in handcuffs and now faces 30 years to life in prison when he is sentenced Jan. 28.
Hood's assertion that he shot Beauchamp on March 22, 1992, in self-defense was rejected outright. Juror Ann Ketsdever of Loma Linda and others said prosecutors convincingly showed that Hood lured Beauchamp to his death and then doctored the crime scene to boost his self-defense claim--planting a weapon in the victim's right hand.
Only problem was, Beauchamp was left-handed.
"The evidence turned out to be overwhelming," Ketsdever said.
"There was just no other conclusion after carefully going through the evidence," said juror Jim Haynes, a San Bernardino retiree.
When Hood's first trial ended with a hung jury in March, Deputy Dist. Atty. David Whitney declared that the developer "just dodged a bullet, and I'll aim better the next time."
After following through on that promise, Whitney said Thursday that he was elated with the jury's decision. Whitney called the murder a "setup by a vicious defendant.
"He made a mistake in planting the gun in the wrong hand," said Whitney, who said he believed it to be a pivotal point in a trial that dealt heavily with complex, scientific evidence.
Prosecutors said they believe Hood arranged for Beauchamp to kill his wife, Bonnie, in 1990, so Hood could collect on a $500,000 insurance policy. Hood then decided to silence the gunman, prosecutors alleged.
Jurors, however, were not allowed to hear evidence about Bonnie Hood's death after a judge deemed it "too prejudicial." That left the prosecutor to rely heavily on scientific evidence--such as blood splatters and palm prints--to prove that the victim was shot intentionally and not self-defense.
Whitney also said that law enforcement officials in Northern California, where Bonnie Hood was murdered, are investigating Hood's role in that murder. Hood has denied any involvement in his wife's death.
Defense attorneys said Hood feared Beauchamp because he had been harassing and threatening Hood's business partner. Hood shot Beauchamp after the construction worked stormed into Hood's Fontana office and brandished a .357 Magnum revolver, they contend.
At the time of her murder, Bonnie Beauchamp was with her lover, who was shot in the head but survived and later identified Beauchamp as the assailant. Despite that testimony, however, Beauchamp was ultimately acquitted.
The retrial was a far cry from Hood's first trial, which was marked by 41 days of testimony and four weeks of torturous deliberations before jurors gave up.
The first trial also was swarmed by the media, ranging from newspaper reporters and tabloid television camera people to authors looking for angles on a tale that chronicled the rise and fall of a wealthy Newport Beach couple and included sordid details about sex, murder and revenge.
At least one proposed book and television movie are based on the case. The second time around, much of the media lost interest in the case.
Also differing during the retrial was Hood's testimony from the witness stand.
During the first trial, the developer testified that after shooting Beauchamp several times, he shot the victim at close range after the wounded man deliberately raised his hand that contained a gun--seemingly in a dying attempt to kill Hood, Whitney said.
During the second trial, the developer toned down his testimony somewhat, telling jurors that he shot Beauchamp after he seemingly twitched the hand that contained the gun, Whitney said.
In an unusual move, the prosecutor brought in several jurors from the first murder trial to testify to the critical contradictions in the defendant's testimony.
Whitney said the judge's decision to bar evidence about Bonnie Hood's murder left prosecutors without a clear-cut motive, but also helped narrow the case for jurors. Hood's differing statements also worked against him.
"He kept tailoring his testimony to the evidence we presented," Whitney said.