Tom Hooker loved to tell his family stories about his glory days on the Los Angeles Police Department.
And, if some of his yarns were strikingly similar to those in the “T.J. Hooker” television series of the mid-1980s, Hooker had a story for that, too. Retired from the force, Hooker was working as a security guard when the TV drama first aired, starring William Shatner as a hardened hero cop shaken by a tattered marriage and the shooting death of his partner. He said the story had been cribbed from his LAPD file.
Whether or not he was the real T.J. Hooker--and writer Rick Husky denies he was--the true story of the final days of Thomas Warren Hooker is stranger than fiction.
Police say Hooker was killed a week after Easter by his third wife, Joy, and adopted son, David, who police say were lovers despite an 18-year age difference. During police questioning, they admitted using newspapers and fireplace embers to torch a living room love seat in a scheme to collect insurance money. They rescued the dog but did nothing to save Hooker, who was legally blind because of diabetes, according to court records.
Defense attorneys Al Budde, for Joy, and Richard Loa, for David, had no comment.
But the investigating detectives, Sheriff’s Sgts. Tom Harris and Doral Riggs, laid out their case in documents filed in Antelope Municipal Court, where Joy Hooker, 49, and David Hooker, 31, were charged last month with first-degree murder, arson and related offenses: “Thomas Hooker was an invalid and was left to die in the house while the suspects watched it burn for about an hour before attempting to extinguish it.”
Joy and David Hooker, who face the death penalty if convicted, are scheduled to be arraigned Thursday, launching a real-life courtroom drama that has already drawn attention from national magazines and tabloid TV.
With its elements of love, greed and desperation, the story is a natural. The characters come straight from Central Casting: Hooker, the gruff and hardened street cop; Joy, the desperate caretaker of her ill husband, a woman who bedded her stepson; and David, the wayward genius adopted son.
Growing up in West Los Angeles, Thomas Hooker always wanted to be a cop. As a rookie in 1961, he won the department’s Medal of Valor for braving 40-foot flames to rescue residents from a burning apartment building on West 38th Street. A plaque commended him: “Without regard for his own safety, Officer Hooker plunged into the burning building and in the face of stifling heat and billowing smoke, searched the apartments on the lower floor.”
Hooker, the plaque went on, led several dazed and confused residents to safety and then “carried a lone and helpless occupant of another room out of the inferno.”
Hooker quickly rose to the rank of sergeant, but that was as far as he would go. After the 1965 Watts riots, he was investigated for fatally shooting a rioter. Not long after that, his partner was gunned down before his eyes.
He was cleared of wrongdoing in the Watts riots, his sister-in-law said, after a series of trials and grand jury actions that dragged on into the early 1970s. The ordeal drained his finances and gave him nightmares.
“It beat him in the end, it really did,” daughter DeeAnne Eldridge said.
Occasionally, as Hooker reminisced about his days on the force, he would say he was the real “T.J. Hooker.” But writer Husky said “T.J. Hooker” was his own creation. As for Hooker and his tales, “if he got some pleasure out of it, more power to him.”
But, as with the television hero, Hooker’s first marriage fell apart under the weight of work pressures. Trouble with son David also scarred the 19-year marriage. At one point, the Hookers desperately tried to track down David’s biological parents to learn whether his behavior could be traced to something in his medical history, relatives said.
Family members described David as having genius-level intelligence, but he also was a hyperactive child prone to violence; once, he held a knife to a cousin’s throat. Since the age of 8, he had spent almost as much time in juvenile facilities as he did at home. As an adult, he went to federal prison for a decade, convicted of robbing a bank with a pistol that was not loaded. An additional year was tacked onto his sentence because he threatened the President from his Colorado prison cell.
While David was in prison, his father sent him money and blue jeans and spoke with him by phone every Sunday.
But by the time David was paroled to his father’s house last September, Thomas Hooker’s health had deteriorated and he was physically dependent on Joy, whom he had married after divorcing his second wife in 1982.
Joy seemed to be handling the burden well, Eldridge said, but money was a constant problem, despite a police pension that should have covered basic expenses. After Hooker’s death, family members learned the mortgage payments on the couple’s three-bedroom ranch house had not been made for more than a year. The bank was foreclosing on the property.
Still, Eldridge said, Joy never missed an appointment at the beauty parlor or nail salon. She frequently bought expensive outfits for her grandchildren.
When David came home, he felt unsure in social situations and Joy volunteered to teach him about life on the outside. She took him dancing, and to restaurants and movies.
According to court records, one of Joy’s sons by an earlier marriage caught them undressed and entwined on a couch.
David collected about $15,000 in insurance in January, when he broke his ankle at the house.
Despite the windfall, the bills continued to mount. David offered to rob another bank, but Joy wouldn’t hear of it, so they decided to start a fire and collect the insurance money, according to court documents.
“It seems like you never really know who’s on your side,” homicide investigator Harris said. “You think you do, but you don’t. The guy’s ready to die anyway through illnesses he acquired over the years, and his family takes his life. It doesn’t make sense.”
The deputy coroner who performed the autopsy told Hooker’s relatives he was in such bad shape that he probably had no more than a month to live. He was diabetic, his heart and kidneys were failing, he was legally blind and he’d lost several toes. He was only 58.
He also knew about the affair between his wife and his son.
“He’d call and say, ‘Guess where the lovers are tonight? . . . They think I’m stupid. I’m blind, but I’m not deaf,’ ” Eldridge said. “He cried on the phone. They were always together, they’d leave him home alone. They were killing him on the inside.”
According to court records, Joy telephoned her first husband, Robert Laughton, about three weeks before the fire and asked to borrow $4,000 to prevent the foreclosure. He confronted her with rumors about her affair with her stepson, and she didn’t deny it “but just went on asking for money, stating she had taken all she could take from Tom,” a police report stated. The report went on:
“She was tired of having to take care of him and would like to figure out a way to kill him, if she could make it look like an accident. She talked about how she had thought about pulling the car out in front of a big truck so it would hit his side, but she was afraid she might also end up getting hurt herself. Joy Hooker referred to how the victim would be better off dead several times during the conversation.”
At home she made no secret of her feelings, and Hooker shared his fears with family and friends, including the nurse at his thrice-weekly kidney dialysis sessions.
His brother, Ken Hooker, was so alarmed by the warnings, he drove to his brother’s house several times to check on him. Joy told him that the medication was making Tom talk crazy, according to Ken Hooker’s wife, Vicki.
On the last night of his life, April 19, Hooker went to bed shortly after midnight, after sitting up with David and Joy as they watched a horror video, “Tales From the Crypt.”
According to Eldridge and court records, Joy had fed him a big dinner and clipped his toenails. She gave him an extra sleeping pill.
Shortly before 4 a.m., Hooker succumbed to smoke and died on the floor of his bedroom, inches from the doorway that could have led him to safety.
At first, investigators assumed the fire was accidental. But things didn’t add up. Eldridge and her husband, Robert, were bothered by David’s and Joy’s blandness.
On the night of the fire, Joy seemed unusually composed, dressed in slippers and robe when she banged on the Eldridges’ door, directly across the street, to say her house had caught fire.
“I thought, if my house was on fire, I wouldn’t be thinking about putting on my slippers,’ ” Eldridge said.
And, according to court records, when Bob Eldridge raced into his father-in-law’s house, he found David hosing down the love seat.
“Where’s Tom?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” David responded.
Eldridge crawled down the smoky hallway and found Hooker. He began cardiopulmonary resuscitation, eventually joined by David, who had been studying to become an emergency medical technician.
After several agonizing late-night family discussions, the Eldridges told police of their suspicions. Investigations showed the fire couldn’t have happened the way David and Joy claim it did.
The funeral Joy arranged for Hooker was small, attended by about 15 people. Eldridge said the photograph of her father used at the service was still sooty from the fire. Afterward, when police arrested Joy on June 3 they found the urn with Hooker’s ashes in her car.