‘He did it. I know he did it,’ man says of son

Times Staff Writer

As the westbound Amtrak streaked across the sun-splashed plains of Kansas, John Jacobson finally talked about his sons -- the good one, and the other one.

He was headed to Kingman, Ariz., to pass along the family business to his younger son, an 18-year-old who had just beaten a drug problem and had found new hope in religion.

Farther down the line, in a jail cell in Orange County, was his elder boy -- the one the father was certain had committed a crime so evil that he deserved to spend life in prison.


“I wanted him to be so different from me,” Jacobson said, indifferent to the passing scenery enrapturing the other passengers in the train’s glass-covered lounge car. “I did everything I could to bring him up right.”

He paused, clearing his throat, perhaps swallowing some pride.

“And he turned out worse than me.”

For 20 hours, between doses of medication for illnesses he prefers to keep private, the 51-year-old bumper sticker salesman talked about “Johnny” -- the son he named after himself but who now calls himself Skylar Deleon -- and the barbaric crime he allegedly orchestrated on an autumn day in 2004.

If the cops have it right -- and Jacobson believes they do -- Deleon talked a Newport Beach couple into taking him and two accomplices on a test sail on their 55-foot yacht, convincing them he wanted to buy the handsome vessel. At sea, investigators say, Tom and Jackie Hawks were overpowered, lashed to an anchor and tossed overboard, alive.

“He did it. I know he did it,” Jacobson said. “And I want him to step up and confess.”

Always a handful

As a kid, Johnny Jacobson was a bundle of energy while growing up in Huntington Beach. He surfed, studied martial arts and took acting classes.

But he was always a handful, doctoring report cards and barely squeaking through high school before joining the military. He went AWOL and eventually was dishonorably discharged. Then he got married, had a baby, moved into a garage with his small family and dodged bills.

To make ends meet, he landed a job at a mortgage firm but then was promptly arrested in a burglary. He was carrying a gun and plastic handcuffs, cops said. He got a year in jail.

Always something of a charmer, Deleon told people he’d been a child actor and pretended to have had a role in the “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” television show in the early 1990s. He was a convincing guy. And police say that’s probably what won over Tom and Jackie Hawks.

Tom Hawks, 57, was a retired probation officer and bodybuilder, and his wife, 10 years younger, was a homemaker who had helped raise Tom’s two boys from an earlier marriage. It was the second marriage for both, and friends said they shared a love of adventure after they were married in 1989. The couple spent nearly two years aboard their yacht, Well Deserved, plying the Sea of Cortez and Pacific Ocean, fishing and diving, kayaking and surfing, and cruising from port to port.

Eventually they decided to return to Newport Harbor, their home port, and sell the boat so they could be closer to their first grandchild, in Arizona.

That’s when they met Deleon.

Thinking he was a serious buyer, authorities say, the couple agreed to take him and two pals, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Alonso Machain, out for a sail. They headed out of the harbor the morning of Nov. 15, 2004. Though the boat later returned, Tom and Jackie Hawks did not.

According to Machain, a rail-thin former jail guard who is now cooperating with prosecutors, the Hawkses were overpowered with stun guns, forced to sign power of attorney and title transfer documents, then tied and handcuffed together to an anchor and thrown overboard somewhere between Newport Beach and Santa Catalina Island.

Deleon’s wife, Jennifer, was later convicted as an accomplice in the crime and awaits sentencing. Skylar Deleon and Kennedy are scheduled to go on trial this summer. Deleon also is accused of trying to hire someone to kill his father to eliminate him as a potential witness.

Father’s shady past

Discussing his demons aboard the cross-country train, Jacobson says he feels a deep responsibility for whatever happened aboard Well Deserved that day.

He did jail time himself and wasn’t always a role model. He said he associated with shady characters as a restaurant owner and then as a road manager for rock bands. Then he became a drug dealer and in the 1980s spent 18 months in a federal prison camp in Lompoc for trafficking in cocaine and methamphetamine. He later sold neon signs and other odd items at swap meets to make ends meet.

But the guilt that eats at him is his failure to inform Newport Beach police about his growing sense that his son was up to something evil. He said Deleon talked to him about the plot before the Hawkses were lured to sea. It was only a fierce combination of denial and parental instincts, he says, that kept him from going to the cops.

“It’s a natural instinct, as a father, to want to protect your son,” Jacobson said.

As the train pushed on -- following Old Route 66 through New Mexico and Arizona -- Jacobson reconstructed what he says he knew about the crimes, stopping to point out the moments when he now believes he should have called the cops. He said he was willing to testify against his son and even do time in prison himself for obstructing, or at least slowing, justice.

“You have to draw the line somewhere,” he said.

Jacobson said his son didn’t tell him the names of the people who owned the boat. Instead, he said, his son spun a wild yet convincing story that his intended victims were involved in a drug dispute with Israeli gangsters.

Deleon told him he’d been hired as a hit man by the Israelis, Jacobson said, and given two options: collect $50,000 for taking the couple out to sea and handing them over to assassins on another boat, or do the dirty work himself for $100,000 and keep the couple’s assets as a reward.

He seemed to know specifics about the couple’s finances, Jacobson said, and asked Jacobson to accept a wire transfer of the funds after the murders, and then they could leave the country together.

“He told me it was going to be the simplest money he ever made,” Jacobson recalled.

The most surreal moment, Jacobson said, was when Deleon visited him one day to show off a pair of new stun guns. He said his son chased him around the room with “something scary as hell in his eyes” and “laughing hysterically,” trying to test out the guns.

Not long afterward, he said, his son called and told him the couple had been tossed overboard and that he was feeling fortunate because he had found $10,000 in cash aboard the boat.

“He told me he did it. It was a done deal,” Jacobson said. “I didn’t want to believe it. I thought maybe he was lying.”

Still, as the Hawkses’ family appealed to witnesses to come forward and explain the couple’s disappearance, Jacobson kept silent. Two months passed before Deleon and the others were arrested, thanks primarily to old-fashioned detective work by Newport police.

A family’s remorse

The train stops in Albuquerque. Jacobson and his son Justin follow a procession to a local ice cream shop.

Jacobson walks slowly and breathes heavily. He seems much older than he is. He believes he is dying.

Justin keeps track of his father’s level of pain and makes sure he sticks to his medication schedule.

Jacobson says he is glad to have this son by his side.

What’s not lost on either of them is that the devastation to their family doesn’t come close to that of the Hawkses’, and that in a small way, this train trip symbolized the type of father-son experience Deleon stole from them.

“I can’t imagine how their sons must feel,” Jacobson said. “I want the Hawkses to know that we’re human and we do care. And if we can change things around, we would. But sometimes, life doesn’t work that way.”

Night has fallen in the desert by now. The train is streaking through old trading post towns in a blur of neon and white light. Just ahead is Flagstaff, Ariz., a gateway to the Grand Canyon. The final stop will be Kingman, a city of about 20,000 that boasts of being “The Heart of Historic Route 66.” There, Jacobson and his son will try to rustle up some customers.

Before stepping into the Arizona darkness, Jacobson says he plans to meet with police to come clean and wants to visit his son in jail to convince him he needs to do the same.

“If he has any heart left in him at all, he’ll confess,” he said.