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Death Times Two : Jim and Bonnie Hood had the good life. Then she was killed. Now he’s charged with slaying the man he allegedly hired to murder her.

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 contend 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 counter that Hood, free on $1 million bond, played no part in the killing of his wife and the wounding of her friend in 1990 and that he shot a threatening, disgruntled ex-employee last March only in self-defense.

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For what prosecutors say is the first time in California history, jurors will choose between competing animated re-enactments of the alleged hit man’s slaying offered by each side--what one lawyer calls “dueling diagrams.”

Hood, 49, was never charged with killing his wife, Bonnie, but he is on trial in the slaying of ex-employee, Bruce E. Beauchamp, in an office he owned near Fontana. If convicted, he 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--despite eyewitness testimony by her lover, handyman Rudy Manuel.

But after Beauchamp’s death, his widow informed authorities that he told her he was paid $50,000 by James Hood to commit the crime. And according to the widow, after his acquittal, Beauchamp consulted a free-lance writer about the possibility of a book based on the killing--and asked a paralegal whether he could ever be retried.

Jim Hood is the son of a retired General Electric executive. Raised outside San Francisco in posh Hillsborough, he attended San Jose State, where he met Bonnie Jean Marr from the San Fernando Valley.

After college, the couple began what would be an adventurous relationship: Jim took a civilian job in Vietnam; Bonnie worked as a flight attendant on planes 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’s real estate holdings were thought to be worth millions, and the family’s lifestyle reflected it.

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. And Bonnie was making plans to follow her dream: As a child, she vacationed regularly with her family 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 about the turn of the century and continued as a lodge, bar and 10-room motel were added.

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, the couple described how they got together on weekends, either in Newport Beach 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 cards.

All 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 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.

But as Jim’s trial began last week, attorneys for each side outlined sharply differing versions of the Hoods’ family life after Bonnie moved to Tulare County.

In his opening remarks, Deputy Dist. Atty. David Whitney told the jury that Bonnie had been thinking about divorce and that she had begun an affair with one of her employees, a resident of the nearby Tule Indian reservation. And rather than breaking even, Camp Nelson had become a money pit, sucking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the 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 said Jim, 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’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 said nothing was missing.

According to Whitney, the person who killed Bonnie was Beauchamp, then a construction foreman for Jim’s company. Beauchamp, Whitney told jurors, was paid by Jim to kill Bonnie, in part for a $500,000 insurance policy on her life. (Jim was called to the witness stand during Beauchamp’s trial and denied any role in his wife’s slaying.)

Jim’s defense attorney, Philip C. Bourdette, countered that his client had no reason to kill his wife.

“I can spend a lot of time here like Mr. Whitney did going through all this stuff,” 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.”

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 that airs controversial trials, taped the first two weeks of the proceedings. TriStar Pictures has begun work on a movie of the week.

But sensational or not, the killing of Bonnie Hood and the shooting of Beauchamp, 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.”

The 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 good looks.

Although Bonnie’s murder 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 were having an affair. Tulare County prosecutors have since said they have long had their suspicions about Jim. They are monitoring this trial but have never charged him.

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

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

Both lawyers described Beauchamp as a tough customer--a physically imposing biker with a 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 theft conviction and, defense attorneys said, he left vaguely threatening phone messages for Jim and his partner. The meeting last March 2 was to discuss the burglary and, the prosecutor charged, Beauchamp planned to threaten Jim for his alleged complicity in Bonnie’s murder.

Only two people know what happened in Jim’s office. One is dead, and the other is accused of his slaying. 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, Beauchamp strides into Jim Hood’s office, closing the door behind him. Almost immediately, he is shot 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 into Beauchamp’s head.

In the defense version, Beauchamp pulls a .357 Magnum pistol 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.”

To support his case, Whitney said he plans to call Sharon Beauchamp, who he acknowledged is “no Girl Scout.”

Like her late husband and her brother--who is scheduled to take the stand today--Sharon Beauchamp was a heroin addict, Whitney says. 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 says.

Jim Hood sits, shirt collar open, listening to testimony and waiting for the day when he will take the witness stand in his defense and subject himself to a grueling cross-examination of his life and lifestyle. But that day is not expected to come until January.

Although his children have not been attending the trial, they still live with him and support him, his attorney says.

In earlier interviews he has asserted his innocence, although on advice of his attorney he now declines to discuss details of the case until he testifies. Nevertheless, Hood volunteers the fact that Camp Nelson, Bonnie Hood’s dream, is for sale. Asking price: $2.5 million.

Hood is a long way from the Newport Beach life he and Bonnie led just a few years ago. But despite being in the middle of a murder trial, he shows few signs of giving up everything chic. Last Sunday he was in a crowd of 15,000 welcoming the Hard Rock Cafe to Orange County, listening to a free Neville Brothers concert. Dressed in a denim jacket, khakis and Topsiders, the developer seemed to be having a good time, grooving to the music and chatting amiably with friends.

Still, back in the courtroom, defense attorney Bourdette firmly told the jury that Hood lives with regrets, including those over 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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