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2 Could Face Death Penalty in Yacht Trial

O.C. prosecutors call the alleged plot to toss Thomas and Jackie Hawks overboard, steal their boat and money `cruel and coldblooded.'

September 07, 2006|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Orange County prosecutors said Wednesday they would seek the death penalty for two Long Beach men accused of handcuffing and tying a retired couple to an anchor and tossing them overboard while at sea off Newport Beach.

Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas described Skylar J. DeLeon, 27, as the "brains" and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 41, the "brawn" behind the "cruel and coldblooded" plot to murder Thomas and Jackie Hawks, steal their yacht and plunder their bank accounts.

DeLeon's wife and two other defendants are accused of helping carry out the crimes.

Rackauckas said he based his decision on the recommendation of a special committee of prosecutors that met last week to review evidence against DeLeon and Kennedy, and weigh a number of potential aggravating and mitigating factors.

The committee considered, among other things, the criminal histories of both men, including allegations that DeLeon tried from behind bars to have his father and cousin killed to eliminate them as witnesses.

Depicting the Hawkses' final moments of anguish in the "deep, frigid ocean," Rackauckas added that the callous nature of the murders could not be ignored. "This couple literally watched their dreams float away as they were drowning," Rackauckas said at a news conference in the law library at his Santa Ana office.

DeLeon's attorney, Gary M. Pohlson of Lake Forest, was invited to make a case before the committee, but did not. Pohlson said Wednesday that prosecutors had indicated "long ago" that they expected to seek the death penalty, so he has been preparing accordingly. Without elaborating, he said the defense would present evidence during the guilt and penalty phases of trial that "will change the public's perception of the case."

Kennedy's attorney, Winston K. McKesson of Beverly Hills, did appear at the hearing. He said Wednesday that he was disappointed by the district attorney's decision. He said Kennedy got a bad start in life because he was raised without a father and gravitated toward gangs to protect his family -- but he had turned his life around and became an ordained clergyman who counseled troubled youths. McKesson said the evidence against Kennedy was "particularly weak" and based on inconsistent statements of another defendant.

DeLeon is accused of masterminding the plan after finding the couple's 55-foot yacht, Well Deserved, advertised for sale at $440,000. At the time, the Hawkses, who had spent nearly two years plying the Sea of Cortez and other waters along Baja California, decided to buy a smaller boat and return to Arizona to spend more time with their first grandchild.

On Nov. 15, 2004, the couple sailed out of Newport Harbor for a test-sail with DeLeon, Kennedy and Alonso Machain, 22, authorities say. Once at sea, the couple were forced to sign the transfer of title documents, overpowered, then handcuffed and tied to the anchor and tossed into the sea between Newport Beach and Santa Catalina Island, authorities say. Their bodies have not been found.

Jennifer L. DeLeon, 25, is accused of gaining the Hawkses' trust by bringing her 9-month-old child to meet them, helping her husband clean up the crime scene with bleach, and destroying evidence. If convicted on all charges, she could receive life in prison without parole.

Skylar DeLeon's father, John Jacobsen Sr., said Wednesday he was "shocked" by the district attorney's decision and did not understand why his daughter-in-law would not face the same penalty as his son.

Jacobsen said he was opposed to the death penalty and troubled by his son's possible fate. "If they find him guilty, he has to pay his dues to society," he said. "I wasn't prepared for this at all."

DeLeon and Kennedy are scheduled to go to trial in January, with Deputy Dist. Atty. Matthew D. Murphy leading the prosecution.

christine.hanley@latimes.com

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