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The Caper That the Oprah Winfrey Show Helped to Unravel

It was refreshing to see Jon Perkins in a suit again this week.

Sharply tailored, baby-soft wool better becomes the hyper-energetic Glendale police investigator than the patrolman’s uniform I last saw him in.

For Monday’s press conference, the investigatory climax of Glendale’s most glamorous crime, Perkins was resplendent in uncreased navy blue, with a hint of pin-stripe. It almost seemed that he had bought the suit just to announce the capture of his criminal nemesis, which had finally occurred all too perfectly on a fire-engine red yacht in a Mediterranean resort.

The jacket and tie, you understand, is the attire of the homicide detective. And John B. Hawkins, international playboy fugitive, was a prize worth dressing to the hilt for.

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In that story, now told many times over, Hawkins slipped away when authorities arrested his middle-aged lover and business partner, Melvin Hanson, and Glendale neurologist Richard Boggs. It was alleged that those two picked up a victim at a homosexual bar, killed him in the doctor’s office and turned in the corpse as Hanson, so Hawkins could claim more than $1 million in life insurance.

Boggs has been convicted of murder. Hanson is soon to be tried. Hawkins got away with $1.5 million.

As Hawkins was said to be the driving force in the crime, so Perkins became the leading personality in the relentless three-year chase. His investigative dashes across the country, his feisty encounters with other law-enforcement officers, his irreverent fervor in pushing the case to prosecution were recounted in no less chi-chi a publication than Vanity Fair.

The magazine described Perkins as “a bullet of a man.” He, far from shamed by the characterization, ordered up bullets with his name on them that he handed out as his calling card.

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Little noticed in all the media dazzle was the fact that Perkins was not a detective, but merely a brash young officer who had been recently reassigned from robbery/homicide to human relations and wanted nothing more than to be investigating homicides.

At the height of the case, Perkins’ identities became further crossed. He was put in a uniform and assigned to patrol.

That was the Perkins I ran into several months ago when I called at the police station, intending to chat with the homicide investigator. He was a forlorn sight, with bulletproof vest puffing his short bullet of a body into the image of a balloon. He received me in his office, a small cubicle cluttered with cardboard boxes full of evidence from his past cases.

We tried to talk about murder. But it was hopeless. He was supervising the afternoon shift. Every few minutes a call came in and he would have to drive somewhere to oversee the handling of an incident. It was the height of the Persian Gulf War. There were two bomb scares that day. There were also domestic squabbles and reports of people with guns.

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Perkins accepted the reassignment as a lesson in humility. Without a doubt, he needed it.

But that wounding insight was less than the whole truth. Perkins had taken the civil service exam for sergeant and passed. New sergeants are routinely assigned to supervise patrol, department spokesman Mario Yagoda said. It was a logical step toward assuming a supervisory role in homicide.

The promotion worked out awkwardly for Perkins, who was also called upon to fill the customary investigator’s role of sitting beside the prosecutor during the long Boggs trial, marshaling witnesses and digging for last-ditch evidence.

Now, with Hanson’s trial approaching, he’s been assigned to the graveyard shift. If he has to, he said, he’ll go to court every day after he gets off work at 7 a.m.

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Perkins is the kind of guy who’d do it too. In fact, he was in San Diego vacationing with his family--all the while coordinating the international manhunt by hotel phone--the day Hawkins was finally caught. He rushed right back.

Monday’s press conference was to be his show, and it was a good one.

Flanked by somber agents from other agencies, Perkins told how a betrayed heart had finally undone one of America’s most elusive fugitives.

It had all started, preposterously, with the Oprah Winfrey Show. A tape of the show was played. There was Perkins, in a crisp gray suit, standing in the audience, telling Oprah of Hawkins’ high-life flight from justice.

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Seeing this, a woman in Amsterdam turned bitter with the news that the playboy who had sailed from the Mediterranean to Northern Europe to see her was equally attracted to men. She turned Hawkins in. It took several days of hard investigation to track Hawkins down. Finally it was Italian police who nabbed him, guided by a U.S. naval intelligence agent. As you might expect, Perkins was in the middle of the scene, hammering the Italians by telephone over the quality of their evidentiary procedure.

It may be that Perkins is still too much of a peacock to submit to departmental regimen. But humility isn’t everything. If I was a killer, I wouldn’t want to have him after me.

On the subject of reassignments, it is time for me to say goodby. Starting Monday, I assume new administrative duties that will make it impossible to write regularly. Today’s column will be my last.


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