Skylar DeLeon in court in January 2005. (Robert Lachman / Los Angeles…)
A Santa Ana jury Thursday voted for the death penalty for a 29-year-old man convicted of three murders, including those of a Newport Beach couple who were lashed to the anchor of their yacht and thrown into the ocean.
Skylar Deleon was convicted Oct. 21 in the 2004 slayings of Tom and Jackie Hawks, who had spent nearly two years plying the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean before deciding to sell the boat to move closer to family in Arizona. Deleon was also found guilty of the 2003 killing of John Peter Jarvi, an Anaheim man found dead in Mexico after Deleon stole $50,000 from him.
Deleon's attorney, Gary Pohlson, had conceded his client's guilt but told jurors that Deleon deserved to be spared the death penalty because he had been abused as a child and was not the manipulative genius that prosecutors made him out to be. Family members testified that Deleon had an extremely troubled childhood and that he was emotionally and physically abused by his father.
But the five-man, seven-woman jury was swayed by the prosecutors' arguments that Deleon had committed the murders out of greed and plotted with accomplices to steal the Hawkses' yacht and plunder their back accounts. Lead prosecutor Matt Murphy also called on an expert witness who testified that being abused does not lead to murder.
Jurors deliberated a day and a half before deciding that Deleon should die by lethal injection rather than spending the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
As the verdict was read, Deleon remained expressionless. "I told him to expect it," Pohlson told reporters outside court. "He was hopeful. We were all hopeful."
Ryan Hawks, 32, Tom Hawks' son from a previous marriage, hugged jurors outside the courtroom and thanked them. He smiled despite his tears. He sat in court every day of the trial and testified during the penalty phase.
"It's just a sigh of relief," Ryan Hawks said. "We've waited four years for this. It was difficult for the jury to make a decision on somebody's life, but I absolutely agreed with their decision."
Jarvi's family was also at the courthouse. "This is a victory for me and my family," said Jeff Jarvi, 51, John Jarvi's older brother.
The jurors were visibly shaken and many had tears in their eyes as the victims' families and friends thanked them. "This was a difficult decision for all of us," said one juror who declined to state her name. Another juror told Pohlson that he tried to persuade fellow jurors not to call for the death penalty.
For Ryan Hawks, the verdict was bittersweet. "I think of my parents every single day," he said. The Hawkses married in 1989; it was the second marriage for both. Ryan and his brother were raised by Jackie, whom he considered his mother.
"I think of this as a small piece of justice being done," he said. "They are still stuck down there at the bottom of the sea. It's not going to bring them back."
Deleon is scheduled to be formally sentenced in January. He is the second defendant to be tried in the Hawkses' deaths. Two years ago, Deleon's wife, Jennifer, was convicted of helping to plot the murders and is now serving two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.
Another alleged accomplice, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is accused of two counts of murder and could also face the death penalty if convicted; his trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 5. Alonso Machain, who admitted he was on board the yacht when the Hawkses were killed and helped the government piece together what happened to them, awaits sentencing.
The couple were last seen in November 2004 leaving Newport Harbor aboard their 55-foot yacht, Well Deserved. Tom Hawks, 57, was a retired probation officer and bodybuilder. Jackie, 47, was a homemaker.
They had spent two years on their yacht cruising the Pacific Ocean.
They had decided to return to their home port in Newport Harbor and sell their boat so that they could move closer to their first grandchild.
They met Deleon, who convinced them that he was a serious buyer. At the time, Deleon was out of work, faced mounting debt and was living with his wife and first child in her parents' converted garage.
Prosecutors showed in court that Deleon plotted to kill the Hawkses and schemed to take their life savings and their yacht. Deleon, prosecutors said, also conspired with his wife to gain the Hawkses' trust by taking their 9-month-old baby to meet the Hawkses on their boat.
According to court testimony by Machain, who provided the first eyewitness account of what happened to the couple, the Hawkses agreed to take Deleon and his two friends, Kennedy and Machain, out to sea for a trial run. The men overpowered the Hawkses, handcuffed them and held them captive. The couple were forced to sign and fingerprint documents that transferred the boat title to Deleon and gave him power of attorney, prosecutors said.
Jackie Hawks cried and begged for their lives, and they were assured they would be released if they cooperated. Instead, testimony shows, they were handcuffed, tied together to an anchor and thrown out to sea.