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Woman gets life in yacht murder case

Times Staff Writer

The wife of the alleged mastermind in the murders of Thomas and Jackie Hawks at sea was sentenced Friday to two consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole for participating in the plot to kill the retired couple, steal their yacht and plunder their life savings.

Before her trial, Jennifer L. Deleon, 26, a mother of two, turned down prosecutors’ offer of immunity in exchange for testifying against her husband, Skylar Deleon.

In November, she was found guilty by a seven-woman, five-man jury of two counts of first-degree murder and the special circumstances of murder for financial gain and multiple murder.

The slain couple’s son Ryan Hawks, speaking during Friday’s sentencing, declined to address Deleon. Instead he spoke to her relatives.

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“I know the defendant could care less about my family, how we feel, how this horrific crime has affected us,” said the 31-year-old. “I urge the defendant’s family to give up the children for adoption. The best possible future these children can ever have growing up is not knowing who their biological parents were, what they did, and how the children themselves were used as decoys [in the plot] to murder my parents for financial gain.”

Thomas Hawks’ cousin, Robert Gayle, read a statement on behalf of Jackie Hawks’ parents.

“I hope the defendant gets life in prison since she helped sentence my daughter to death,” the statement said.

Deleon did not address the court or the Hawkses’ relatives during the hearing, which lasted less than 10 minutes.

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She appeared to have lost weight in jail, seemed fragile in shackles and kept her back to the courtroom during the hearing. Her attorney announced that his client had started divorce proceedings against her husband and had reverted to her maiden name of Henderson.

Prosecutor Matt Murphy, who could see her from where he sat, said she showed no emotion during the hearing as Judge Frank F. Fasel sentenced her.

As bailiffs led Deleon out of the courtroom, she turned to her relatives and gave them a small smile. After the hearing was adjourned and the Hawkses’ family and friends left, Deleon’s family huddled in the courtroom, crying and comforting one another. They declined to comment.

Skylar Deleon, 28, will be tried in January with John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 42. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against the two men, describing them, respectively, as the brains and brawn behind the plot.

The Hawkses, fresh from two years of sailing in the Gulf of California , are believed to have been killed Nov. 15, 2004, after being tricked into a test sail of their 55-foot yacht, the Well Deserved. They had put the boat up for sale because they wanted to move back to Arizona to be closer to their newborn grandchild.

Skylar Deleon, Kennedy and a third man, Alonso Machain, 25, allegedly overpowered the couple between Newport Beach and Santa Catalina Island, forced them to sign transfer-of-title and power-of-attorney documents, then chained them to an anchor and tossed them overboard alive. They are presumed to have drowned, and their bodies have never been found.

A fourth man, Myron Gardner, 41, of Long Beach, also was charged.

Although Jennifer Deleon was not on board that day, prosecutors say she used her baby to gain the couple’s trust a week earlier, helped destroy evidence and lied repeatedly to investigators. The defense maintained that she hadn’t known what her husband was up to until the couple disappeared, and that she then cooperated with him out of fear.

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After the murders, prosecutors said, Deleon helped her husband with a variety of tasks: cleaning the boat, backdating the bill of sale and other documents, disposing of the Hawkses’ car in Mexico and going with him to the slain couple’s bank to try to withdraw their savings.

After the hearing, Ryan Hawks said he was pleased by the sentence, the maximum allowed, and was emotionally preparing for the other trials.

“It’s one down and three to go,” he said. “We’re not quite done yet. We’re working on it and staying strong. I told myself once before they won’t hear me break down and cry, but it’s very difficult when you hear one of the defendants say that my father knew his fate when that chain came around him.”

In a statement after the sentencing, Jackie Hawks’ mother said Deleon got the punishment she deserved.

“Our family -- me, my husband, son and three other daughters -- have been devastated by these events. Jackie was a wonderful person who did not deserve what they did to her,” said Gayle O’Neill. “Our hearts will never heal.”

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seema.mehta@latimes.com


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