With the big smiles of Tom and Jackie Hawks looming above him in an Orange County courtroom Tuesday, the man accused of orchestrating their murders at sea prepared to acknowledge for the first time that he had a hand in the crimes.
Skylar Deleon, dressed neatly in a blue shirt, khakis and white sneakers, did not look up at the pictures of the Hawkses that were projected onto a giant screen only a few feet away as lead prosecutor Matt Murphy reconstructed the Arizona couple’s adventurous lives and terrifying last moments aboard their yacht.
When it was time for Deleon’s attorney to make his opening statement, he quickly laid out the defense’s strategy, using a marker to write the word “guilty” in large letters on an easel in front of the jury box and saying his goal was to spare his client the death penalty, which he faces if convicted.
Attorney Gary Pohlson said he would seek to prove, primarily through cross-examination, that the government’s version of events is not entirely accurate, and that Deleon was not the manipulative evil genius authorities have made him out to be.
Deleon is no more guilty than others charged in the plot to kill the couple, steal their yacht and plunder their bank accounts -- including his wife, Pohlson said.
The attorney also blamed Deleon’s late father, who was not charged in the case.
“Skylar was involved, but it’s up to you to decide how involved,” Pohlson told the jury.
The trial comes four years after the Hawkses were last seen alive in November 2004, leaving Newport Harbor aboard their 55-foot yacht, Well Deserved.
Their disappearance drew international headlines and sent waves of fear through boating communities stretching from Southern California to Baja California.
Deleon’s wife, Jennifer, was the first defendant to be tried. She was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life terms without possibility of parole after Murphy portrayed her as a coldhearted, money-hungry plotter in league with her husband, even using their 9-month-old baby to gain the trust of the Hawkses.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, described by prosecutors as the “brawn” behind the murder plot, is awaiting trial.
A fourth accomplice, Alonso Machain, is awaiting sentencing. He admitted being on board when the Hawkses were tossed off their yacht and helped the government figure out what happened to them.
On Tuesday, Murphy spent three hours reconstructing the lives and deaths of Tom and Jackie Hawks, accompanying his opening statement with a photo montage that began and ended with a snapshot that has come to symbolize the case, and the retired couple’s fun and loving relationship.
The picture was taken in 2003 while the couple were in Newport Beach for a family wedding and staying on their yacht. They are smiling from ear to ear, tanned and looking healthy. Tom is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and has one arm around Jackie, who is sporting a short, spiky haircut she chose once they decided to live aboard.
“These are two people who really loved each other,” Murphy said as the Hawkses’ two grown sons and a large group of family and friends looked on from the gallery.
Tom Hawks, 57, was a retired probation officer and bodybuilder, and his wife, 10 years younger, was a homemaker who had helped raise his 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 on 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, Murphy said, the couple agreed to take him and two pals, Kennedy and Machain, out for what they thought was a sea trial.
They headed out of the harbor the morning of Nov. 15, 2004. Though the boat returned, Tom and Jackie Hawks did not.
At the time, Deleon was out of work, facing mounting debt and had a second child on the way. He was living with his wife and their first child in a converted garage attached to her parents’ home in a working-class section of Long Beach.
Deleon, his wife and other co-defendants insisted for weeks that they had bought the boat outright and last saw the Hawkses alive and well in Newport Beach. But Machain eventually cracked, and he provided the first eyewitness account of what happened to the couple, whose bodies have never been found.
What Machain’s testimony and other evidence will show, Murphy said, is that the Hawkses were overpowered, handcuffed and held captive in a bedroom in a lower cabin, with their eyes and mouths covered with duct tape.
One at a time, the Hawkses were taken to the main cabin to sign and fingerprint documents that transferred the boat title to Deleon and gave him power of attorney, Murphy said.
Jackie Hawks cried and begged for her life, asking Deleon, “How could you do this to us? We trusted you. You brought your baby on board,” the prosecutor said.
She and her husband were reassured they would be released if they cooperated, Murphy said. Instead, they were taken out to sea, where they were tied together to an anchor, her back to her husband’s chest and their hands still cuffed behind them, he said.
In a last act of heroism, Tom Hawks kicked Deleon, sending him into a deck chair, Murphy said. Kennedy responded with a hard punch that left Tom Hawks staggering before Deleon lifted the anchor and threw it overboard as Kennedy gave the couple one final push.
“Into the ocean they go,” Murphy said. “And nobody has ever heard from them since.”
The men collected cash, jewelry and other valuables, according to the prosecutor, and Kennedy cracked open a beer, grabbed a fishing rod and fished all the way back to Newport Harbor.