Murder Victim ‘Had a Tendency to Upset People’
The folks in this desert community hard by the Colorado River don’t mince words when the subject is John T. Hancock VI.
For many months, they hadn’t seen the man who departed unexpectedly and left a trail of legal woes here. Many people said--and court records verified--that Hancock was one step ahead of angry local tenants, banks and law enforcement officials.
So locals, from the condo development he helped build to the riverfront bar where he hung out--were hardly surprised to learn he was murdered Wednesday in a rented mansion in Orange County.
“He had a tendency to upset people,” said Desinee Bottorff, a former apartment manager who said she quit Hancock’s employ several months ago because he refused to return tenants’ security deposits on their condominiums. “I guess he just stepped on a few too many toes.”
Police have not determined a motive in the shooting deaths of Hancock and his 76-year-old mother, Helen Bauerle Hancock, a Northridge woman who was staying temporarily with her son. The hilltop mansion in exclusive Lemon Heights where they lived was set on fire after the slayings.
But many believe that Hancock’s decades-long trail of fraud and deceit--with ties to California and Arizona as he moved from place to place--might have ultimately led to his death. And police are not ruling out that theory.
“He has a long history,” said Orange County Sheriff’s Lt. Ron Wilkerson, who added that no motive has been established. “We’re looking at everything.”
By most accounts, Hancock made enemies easier than he made friends. And that has made it all the more difficult for law enforcement officials trying to figure out who wanted him dead, and who would have killed his mother too.
Unlike her son, Helen Hancock was liked by nearly everyone who knew her, said neighbor Richard Bradshaw, who lived near Hancock’s Northridge home.
“She was a very nice lady, a nice, warm, friendly lady. She had no enemies as far as I know,” Bradshaw said, speculating the woman was simply an innocent witness to whatever occurred.
In recent years, Bradshaw said, the son would periodically come to live with his mother. Bradshaw said he got the impression the woman was disappointed in her son, saying, “She mentioned a long time ago he hadn’t found himself yet.”
One family acquaintance who spoke on condition he not be identified said of John Hancock: “I think he’s made God knows how any people unhappy over the years. That someone would come after him and do something like this, I think there is a good chance of that.”
Hancock’s criminal history stretches at least to 1977, when he was convicted of assault and of price-fixing in unrelated cases. In the mid-1980s he faced federal charges accusing him of failing to repay more than $3 million owed to banks and business lenders before he sought bankruptcy protection.
In 1988, the self-styled entrepreneur was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to fully repay his lenders as part of his punishment--which never happened, according to court records.
Most recently, Hancock is believed to have used information from Douglas McDonald, a tenant in the condominium complex Hancock co-owned, to get an American Express credit card account in McDonald’s name and run up $40,000 in bills. Authorities recently served a search warrant at Hancock’s home, looking for evidence of fraudulent credit card use.
Arizona court records and interviews suggest Hancock--a well-spoken, well-kempt man who lived the high life--continued illicit activities unabated in recent months.
In November, about the same time he left for California, he was sued in La Paz County Superior Court for failing to repay a $6,000 loan he allegedly used to buy a fancy Yamaha Jet Ski and a boat trailer.
The suit was dismissed last month because Hancock’s whereabouts were unknown.
In March, Parker Home & Industrial Supply Inc. also sued Hancock for $12,239 for services performed at Sandpiper Resorts, a 35-unit condominium complex located in a picturesque desert setting near dual red clay mountain ridges and overlooking the Colorado River. Hancock rented the units for up to $700 a month.
Bottorff, who managed the rentals for Hancock, said her former boss also passed her two bad checks, one for $1,200 and the other for $1,300, in addition to the $3,500 he owed her company for management services.
Tenant Tim Prater had reason to find Hancock rude after their first meeting. Prater, who has only one leg, said Hancock was only interested in making sure his new tenant signed documents stating Hancock would not be held liable if Prater fell on his property.
“He was all just worried about the money,” Prater said.
Hancock often would stop in for a cocktail at the Roadrunner Restaurant, a nearby riverfront floating bar, and demand exceptional treatment, a bartender said.
“He carried himself like he was God’s gift to the world,” recalled Tammy Giger. “I didn’t treat him like he was special, and he didn’t like that.”
Hancock also earned the wrath of this popular retirement community with a scheme to sell a nearby sewage treatment plant to the 1,700 residents, all of whom rely on septic tanks. Hancock financed the plant to serve the Sandpiper development.
He wanted $1.5 million for the plant, whose worth was assessed at only about $200,000, recalled Wayne Oliver, a former member of the Buckskin Sanitation District Board.
Despite several negotiation sessions, Hancock refused to lower the price, Oliver said.
Then, in an act that many saw as retaliation, Hancock wrote several letters in 1994 and 1995 to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, which regulates the area’s waste water, to complain that local residents’ septic tanks were not in compliance with state codes, recalled Brad Vandermark, an environmental program specialist for the state.
More than 25 individuals in the area were ultimately cited for failing to comply, Vandermark said.
In the local press, he was hailed as a heroic environmentalist dedicated to cleaning the fouled waters of the Colorado River, demanding that others be held accountable for their actions.
“Why does the county and now the state allow this?” Hancock was quoted as saying in a July 1995 article. “Where does the responsibility lie?”
Mary Dahl, community development director for La Paz County, said she believes Hancock was misunderstood, a visionary who often had trouble communicating his ideas, and often misjudged his opponents.
“He was his own worst enemy,” Dahl said. “He had the potential to do a lot of things, but the way he approached people and problems seemed to have the exact opposite outcome of what he was hoping for. John didn’t have a real sense of how human beings respond to things.”
But others were still bitter.
“He really tried to pull a quick one on the community and it just didn’t work,” Oliver said. “The guy was, at best, shady.”
Times staff writer John Chandler contributed to this report.