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Woman’s role in sailing pair’s fate is debated as her trial starts

Times Staff Writer

In her final moments, Jackie Hawks screamed and cried out for mercy, saying she was “too young to die” as her husband tried to console her by stroking her hand, a prosecutor said Monday.

“That woman pleaded for her life,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Matt Murphy told jurors in his opening statement at the Santa Ana trial of Jennifer L. Deleon, accused of helping her husband, Skylar, and three other men in a plot to murder Jackie and Thomas Hawks, steal their yacht and plunder their savings.

Before being tied to an anchor and tossed overboard with her husband, Murphy said, Jackie Hawks also “begged to see her grandchild again,” and asked Skylar Deleon, “How could you do this to us? You brought your wife and baby on this boat. We trusted you.”

Jennifer Deleon was not on the yacht at the time of the alleged killings. Her attorney, in his statement, said his client didn’t know about the November 2004 killings of the retired Arizona couple until it was too late, and that she followed her husband’s plan for afterward only because she was scared to death of what he might do to her.

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“She had every reason to fear him, like everyone on this planet should,” said the attorney, Michael Molfetta.

Deleon, 24, a mother of two charged with two counts of murder and the special-circumstance allegation of murder for financial gain, faces life in prison without parole if convicted. Orange County Superior Court Judge Frank F. Fasel agreed to sever her trial from that of her husband and the other defendants.

The trial is expected to be a preview of the trial of Skylar Deleon, 27, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 41, scheduled to begin in January. Prosecutors, describing the two men respectively as the “brains” and “brawn” behind the killings, plan to seek the death penalty against them.

The Hawkses disappeared not long after advertising their 55-foot yacht, Well Deserved, for sale for $440,000. At the time, the couple had spent nearly two years plying the Sea of Cortez and other waters along Baja California, finally deciding to return to Arizona to spend more time with their first grandchild.

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On Nov. 15, 2004, the Hawkses sailed out of Newport Harbor for a “test sail” with Skylar Deleon, Kennedy and Alonso Machain, 22, authorities say. Once at sea, the couple were forced to sign transfer-of-title documents, then handcuffed and tied to the anchor between Newport Beach and Catalina Island, authorities say. Their bodies have not been found.

Jennifer Deleon is accused of gaining the Hawkses’ trust by bringing along her 9-month-old child when meeting them a week earlier, helping her husband clean up the crime scene with bleach, and destroying evidence.

The courtroom was packed Monday as Murphy, the lead prosecutor, reconstructed the lives and deaths of the Hawkses. There were few surprises as Murphy weaved a narrative based heavily on the detective work of the Newport Beach Police Department and statements from Machain, who has emerged as the key witness.

Machain, a former jailer at Seal Beach City Jail, met Skylar Deleon when Deleon was serving time for a home burglary. Machain fled the country after the killings but returned when he learned that an arrest warrant had been issued for him and agreed to cooperate, Murphy said. Machain spent eight hours being grilled by Newport Beach detectives and provided the chilling details of what happened to the Hawkses on the voyage.

“He’s going to tell you everything that happened in the boat,” Murphy told the jurors.

Murphy said Jennifer Deleon had told her parents to buy the supplies she used to help clean the boat. He also showed digital images captured on bank cameras that he said showed her and her husband trying to get funds from the Hawkses’ accounts.

Murphy said she told other witnesses that she and her husband -- who were facing mounting debt -- did it for the money. Murphy told jurors that by trial’s end, “you’re going to determine that Jackie and Thomas Hawks were fooled by Jennifer Deleon.”

“You are not going to be fooled by Jennifer Deleon,” he added. “You’re not going to let her get away with what she did.”

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Molfetta, Jennifer Deleon’s attorney, blamed it all on his client’s husband. He said Skylar Deleon, who the lawyer said had even solicited the murders of his own father and cousin from inside Orange County Jail, was like “Satan’s brother” -- so evil that he couldn’t refer to him as “him” because “it” was more appropriate.

“This is his gig,” Molfetta said.

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christine.hanley@latimes.com


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