Charting Fall From Golden O.C. Lifestyle to Lurid Trial : Courts: James Hood of Newport Beach is accused of murdering the hit man he allegedly hired to kill his wife.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 charge 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 say that Hood, now free on $2-million bond, played no part in the murder of his wife and the wounding of her friend in 1990 and that he shot a threatening, disgruntled ex-employee in 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 slaying offered by each side--what one lawyer called "dueling diagrams."

Hood, 49, was never charged with killing his wife, Bonnie, but he is now on trial for murdering the ex-employee, Bruce E. Beauchamp, in an office he owned near Fontana. If convicted, Hood 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. This despite eyewitness testimony by a handyman, Rudy Manuel, who was in her room at the time of the shooting and who was wounded in the head.

But after her husband's death, Beauchamp's widow informed authorities that he told her he was paid $50,000 by James Hood to commit the murder. Other witnesses told police that after his acquittal on murder charges, Bruce Beauchamp consulted a free-lance writer about a book based on the killing and asked a paralegal whether he could ever be retried on criminal charges in connection with Bonnie Hood's death.

An Unusual Marriage

James Hood, known to acquaintances as Jim, is the son of a retired General Electric executive. He was raised outside San Francisco, in the posh community of Hillsborough, and attended San Jose State. It was there he met Bonnie Jean Marr, who came from the San Fernando Valley.

After college, the couple began what would be an adventurous relationship: Jim taking a civilian job in Vietnam; Bonnie working as a stewardess on flights 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 Hood's real estate holdings were thought to be worth millions, and the family's lifestyle reflected it. Bonnie Hood was also successful.

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. Bonnie was making plans to follow her dream.

As a child, she and her family vacationed regularly 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 around the turn of the century and continued over the decades as a lodge, bar and a 10-room motel were added. After the Hood's children were born, Bonnie and her family resumed visits to the Sequoia National Forest.

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 outlining the arrangement, the couple described how they got together on weekends, either in Newport 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 card.

All of 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 190 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.

However, as James Hood's trial for killing Beauchamp began last week, attorneys for each side outlined sharply differing versions of the Hood's family life after Bonnie moved to Tulare County.

In his opening remarks, Deputy Dist. Atty. David Whitney told the jury that Bonnie was thinking about divorce and that she had begun an affair with one of her employees, a resident of the nearby Tule Indian reservation. Rather than breaking even, Camp Nelson had become a money pit, sucking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Hood 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, a stocky man who became a prosecutor after 14 years as a defense attorney, said Hood, 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."

At 3 a.m. on Aug. 19, 1990, an intruder entered Bonnie Hood's room and fired at the two people in her bed. She was killed, and her employee, Rudy Manuel, was wounded in the head. Although she had several hundred dollars in her purse and expensive jewelry in the room, police found nothing missing.

According to Whitney, the person who killed Bonnie was Beauchamp, who was then working as a construction foreman for Jim Hood's company. Beauchamp, Whitney told jurors in San Bernardino, was paid to kill Bonnie by Jim, in part for a $500,000 insurance policy on her life.

Hood was called to the witness stand during Beauchamp's trial and denied any role in his wife's slaying.

All of this was disputed by Jim Hood's defense attorney, Philip C. Bourdette, who said his client "had no reason to kill Bonnie Hood, no motive as Mr. Whitney talked about. . . . And the evidence will show that there is no motive.

"I can spend a lot of time here like Mr. Whitney did going through all this stuff," the portly, gravelly voiced Bourdette said. "But let the evidence tell you, let the witnesses show you, that all he has here is gossip, rumor, suspicion. This is a great case for the National Enquirer. It's not a case for court."

Jim Hood bought Camp Nelson, Bourdette said, "for Bonnie, primarily as (fulfillment) of a life-long dream that she had." Bonnie Hood's affair with the employee, Bourdette said, did not happen, and "it's just another example of something that I don't think belongs in this case and is unfortunate."

Not surprisingly, the sensational nature of the case extends well beyond the polished, wooden banister separating the judge, jury, lawyers and defendant from the courtroom's spectator section.

At least one book is in the works, and Court TV, a cable network which airs controversial trials, begins broadcasting excerpts from the trial this week. TriStar Pictures has begun work on a movie-of-the week, based on the case, for ABC-TV. The director, Robert Markowitz, also directed "Love, Lies and Murder," based on the David and Cinnamon Brown case in Orange County.

Whitney acknowledged that the "soap opera" aspects of the case have drawn much media attention to the courtroom, which, he told jurors, accounted for his nervousness.

But, Bourdette told jurors, "the reason they're here is that Mr. Whitney is trying to introduce into this case the three elements that they always like on TV: sex, violence, and money. That's why they're here. None of those--the sex and the money--you will find from the evidence has (anything) to do with this case. There was violence in this case."

The killing of Bonnie Hood and the shooting of Beauchamp in self-defense, Bourdette said, "is a tragedy. It's a tragedy for Mr. Hood, in August of 1990, whose wife was violently murdered. He lost his wife of 19 years."

Video Re-Enactments

This story of a modern, unusual marriage of two of Newport Beach's "beautiful people" unfolds each day in a very traditional, 1920s courthouse.

The bailiff's morning invocation calls attention to the flag, "the symbol of freedom and justice." The rear wall of the courtroom is lined with portraits of 19th-Century judges, and the high ceiling is covered with gilded artwork.

The five-woman, seven-man jury is racially and ethnically mixed. Whitney said he tried to select intelligent, working-class jurors, who wouldn't be "overwhelmed" by Hood's glitzy lifestyle and bland good looks.

Although the murder of Bonnie Hood is an intricate part of the story presented to the jury, that will not be the case they will decide.

Beauchamp was acquitted of that charge on March 29, 1991, in part because jurors said they did not believe the testimony of Manuel, who retracted statements to police that he and Bonnie Hood were having an affair. Tulare County prosecutors have since said they had their suspicions about Jim Hood. They are monitoring this trial but have never charged him.

What the jurors must decide is why and how Jim Hood pumped seven slugs from his Glock 9-millimeter pistol into Beauchamp on March 2, 1992--almost a year after Beauchamp was acquitted.

Hood does not dispute that he shot Beauchamp, whose brother-in-law, had been involved in the theft of $15,000 worth of equipment from Hood's company, police said.

Both lawyers described Beauchamp as a tough customer--a physically imposing bearded biker with a violent police record, a heavy drinker, a marijuana dealer and an amphetamine abuser.

Beauchamp became tangled in a police sting that led to his brother-in-law's arrest and subsequent theft conviction and, defense attorneys said, left vaguely threatening phone messages for Hood and his partner. The meeting on March 2 was to discuss the burglary and, the prosecutor charged, Beauchamp planned to threaten Jim Hood for his complicity in Bonnie Hood's murder.

Only two people know what happened in Jim Hood's office in a Bloomington shopping mall he co-owned. One, Beauchamp, is dead, and the other, Jim Hood, is accused of his murder. During opening arguments attorneys for both sides played computer-animated diagrams of the shooting--silent, two-minute, color re-enactments--on a large-screen television monitor.

In the prosecution version--first shown during opening statements last week--Beauchamp strides into Hood's office, closing the door behind him. Almost immediately, Hood shoots him in the stomach and head, and Beauchamp crumples to the floor.

Standing over Beauchamp's body, Hood fires three more times. Then, from close range, he fires two more shots in Beauchamp's head. Finally, he places a Smith & Wesson .357-Magnum pistol in Beauchamp's right hand.

In the defense version--also shown last week--Beauchamp pulls the .357 from his waistband after the door to Hood's office is closed. Before he can get off a shot, Hood fires five times in rapid succession into his upright body. Then he fires twice more.

"This is a man who was in fear," Bourdette told jurors, "(who) had previously been threatened by this man, and there's a gun and he just fires away."

Jurors also heard the transcript of the 911 call Hood made to police after the shooting. In the transcript, Hood said:

"He just tried to kill me. . . . Beauchamp just tried to kill me in my rental office. . . . He's not moving. I shot him. . . . He threatened to kill me. . . . He has a gun. . . . He's made threats on my partner's and my life and so we were trying to protect . . . "

Asked by the 911 operator where he shot the man, Hood replied "In the chest. In the heart. In his head."

During a recess in the trial Thursday, Hood said that watching the defense animation account of the shooting didn't disturb him because he helped produce it. But he said that when he first saw the prosecution version, he said to himself, "That's not the way it happened!"

But Whitney, the prosecutor, insisted that that is exactly how it happened, while cautioning jurors that "this is just an illustration. This not a movie of the killing."

In addition to the animation, Whitney began presenting forensic and technical evidence to jurors. The prosecutor told jurors in his opening statement that witnesses would testify that Beauchamp was unarmed when he entered Hood's office; that he was left-handed; and that the second shot fired into his head severed his brain stem, making it physiologically unlikely for him to maintain a grip on a pistol.

To support his case, Whitney said he planned to call Sharon Beauchamp, who he acknowledged is "no Girl Scout."

Like her late husband and her brother, another Hood employee who was also involved in a dispute with his boss, Sharon Beauchamp was a heroin addict, Whitney said. In addition, he said, the three were, "in some instances, thieves."

Nonetheless, Sharon Beauchamp will testify that her husband showed her a cache of money he said was part of his payoff from Jim Hood, Whitney said.

Waiting to Testify

Jim Hood sits, shirt collar open, listening to testimony and waiting for the day when, his attorney told jurors, he will take the witness stand in his defense and subject himself to what is expected to be a grueling cross-examination of his life and lifestyle.

In earlier interviews, he has asserted his innocence, but on advice of his attorney, he declined to discuss details of the case until then. But, suddenly, Hood volunteers the fact that Camp Nelson, Bonnie's Hood's dream, is now for sale. Asking price: $2.5 million.

Jim Hood is a long way from the Newport Beach life he and Bonnie led just a few years ago. Jim Hood, defense attorney Bourdette told the jury, regrets his role in Beauchamp's death.

"He is sorry Mr. Beauchamp is no longer with us. He's not happy about this. He has to live with this the rest of his life. And you'll hear him testify about his feelings about this.

"But now he finds himself in this courtroom defending himself."

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