Welcome to Pump Up Your Book’s Virtual Book Tour for Dead Reckoning
Tom Hawks struggled. His wife, Jackie, begged for her life. Presumably realizing that her pleas were going to be futile, when she executed the power of attorney form, under duress, she spelled her last name incorrectly, signing her name “Jackie Hawk,” a signal to her good friend and banker that something was seriously amiss.
And then Skylar Deleon and his accomplices placed duct tape over the couple’s eyes and mouths. On the deck of their fifty-five foot trawler, ironically named Well Deserved, Tom and Jackie were bound together, and then tied to the yacht’s sixty-six pound anchor. Deleon and his associates threw the anchor overboard and the Hawks — still alive — were dragged along with it into the icy cold Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Newport Beach on November 15, 2004.
Tom and Jackie had been living on board the vessel for a couple of years, enjoying their much deserved retirement. Fit, healthy, and devoted to their family, the couple sought a buyer for the trawler because they wanted to purchase a smaller boat and modest house in Prescott, Arizona, in order to spend more time with their beloved sons and new grandson.
Deleon and his wife, Jennifer, had champagne tastes, but were deeply in debt, despite substantial loans from Jennfier’s father, and their bills were mounting. They had one infant daughter and another child on the way, and were living in Jennifer’s parents’ garage. Jennifer was, by all accounts, a talented hair stylist, but could not support the couple’s lavish lifestyle or fund the gender reassignment surgery that Skylar desired. They were in no position to purchase a trawler worth in excess of $400,000. In fact, Deleon had already murdered for money on at least one prior occasion.
With Thanksgiving approaching, and neither Tom nor Jackie answering their cell phones or returning calls to family members, Tom’s brother, who had recently retired as the Carlsbad, California, Chief of Police, became suspicious. When he went to the Newport harbor and noted the condition of the boat, he was alarmed. Tom was fastidious about maintaining the vessel, but things were curiously out of place. Additionally, although the sale of the boat had supposedly been consummated, some of the Hawks’ belongings remained. They would never have left behind their custom-made wet suits or Tom’s prized surfboard. Jennifer’s story about watching the couple drive off after completing the sales transaction did not add up. Neither did her claim that the Hawks had expressed and intent to head down to their favorite spot in Mexico, and that she and her husband were also trying to locate the Hawks in order to complete some additional paperwork.
Following an intense, far-reaching, and skillfully orchestrated investigation, Jennifer Deleon (who refused a plea deal, but divorced Skylar) was sentenced to two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole which she is currently serving in a California women’s prison situated near Chowchilla. Her parents are raising the children.
Skylar Deleon and one of his accomplices, John F. Kennedy, were both sentenced to death and are among the nearly seven hundred men awaiting the exhaustion of their automatic appeals and, assuming their convictions are upheld, eventual execution at California State Prison – San Quentin.
The crime may have been solved and the guilty parties convicted, but a seemingly infinite number of questions remain unanswered. Author Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated investigative reporter, details in a straight-forward manner the unspeakable crime that garnered widespread media attention, as well as the painstaking investigation that culminated in the arrest and conviction of the Deleons and their several accomplices. Dead Reckoning is one of the most frightening tales of premeditated murder imaginable, its impact even more chilling because of Rother’s unembellished account of how greed, envy, and immorality led to the Hawks’ tragic deaths.
Early competent detective work by Tom’s brother undoubtedly started the investigation off on the right foot, and, because of his status as a recently retired, well-respected police chief, caused his concerns to be given immediate credence and attention by local authorities. Employing a “vertical advocacy” model, also utilized by other law enforcement agencies, the Orange County investigators and District Attorneys were able to work as a team to ensure that every angle was pursued, every question asked during every well-timed interview. Still, the inquiry involved numerous detectives and the cooperation of several different agencies working together to solve the case.
This is a quintessential story of good versus evil. . . . Skylar is a complex character, whose gender confusion makes for quite a fascinating case study of a sociopath who loves his wife Jennifer so much he will do anything not to lose her – and yet wants a sex change operation so badly he’s willing to kill to pay for one. The murder-theft conspiracy scheme he devises with her is so heinous and callously carried out that it is mind-boggling.~ Author Caitlin Rother
One nagging question concerns why Tom Hawks, a retired firefighter and probation officer, did not sense that Deleon’s offer to purchase Well Deserved was too good to be true. After all, he was a savvy former law enforcement professional. Why he did not make more effort to investigate Deleon’s background, perhaps calling upon his brother for assistance, remains unknown. By all accounts, Hawks was a highly compassionate man who tried to help the probationers with whom he worked. Perhaps his generous nature, coupled with his desire to begin the next chapter of his life in Arizona with his infant grandson, caused him to be too trusting.
Synthesizing voluminous documentation into a coherent and compelling narrative that reads like a work of intricately-crafted fiction, Rother describes Deleon’s upbringing by a small-time drug dealer and crook who abused his son emotionally and physically. Abandoned by both his mother and stepmother, Deleon enjoyed a modicum of success as a child actor, appearing in a few commercials and a small supporting role on the popular children’s program, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. But Deleon was dishonorably discharged from the military and became a prodigious liar, telling wildly exaggerated tales about serving in various special operations units and claiming to have been one of the stars of the children’s series. He also claimed to be a hermaphrodite in need of sexual reassignment surgery in order to remove his diseased female internal organs and survive.
Friends and family alike were stunned by Jennifer Deleon’s participation in the crime because, by all accounts, she was raised in a loving, Christian home where she was a good student, well-liked, and seemed to be an honest, compassionate young woman. Deleon was able to fool her parents who initially liked him and welcomed him into the family, even paying for an elaborate Newport Beach wedding ceremony. Whether Jennifer was actually the mastermind behind the plot to kill the Hawks and steal Well Deserved, along with their other assets, or another victim of Deleon is a mystery not answered by Rother’s book. One thing is clear, however: She remained loyal to Deleon long after the two were incarcerated separately and awaiting trial, and continued corresponding with him for quite some time before she finally filed for divorce and cut off all communication with him. Still, she refused a plea bargain that would have netted her a lesser sentence. Instead, she will spend the rest of her life in a California prison.
As for Deleon, Rother’s tautly fascinating telling of his life story leaves readers to ponder on their own whether sociopaths are born or made. Did the abuse that he suffered at the hands of his father cause him to grow into a man lacking even the slightest bit of empathy for others, capable of plotting and carrying out the cold-blooded murder of the Hawks in order to obtain their boat and access to their bank accounts? Or was he simply born lacking a conscious? And is the death penalty an appropriate punishment for Deleon? His defense counsel wisely opted not to contest his guilt, but unsuccessfully argued that, in light of his background, he should have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, rather than death. Rother’s description of the horrifying abuse to which he was subjected will evokes sympathy in readers but, as the expert who testified on behalf of the prosecution noted, many people survive childhood abuse and do not grow up to be cold-blooded murderers. Subsequent to his conviction, Deleon granted a number of interviews in which he confessed to the murders but portrayed himself as a victim of his wife, Jennifer, claiming that he acted out of love, desperately trying to please her.
The Hawks’ bodies were never recovered and returned to their families. Many of the details about the crime will forever remain buried with them at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean off the beautiful Newport coast. This much is certain, however: Upon his arrival at California State Prison – San Quentin to begin his sentence, Deleon, like so many other condemned inmates, went “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” according to San Quentin Correctional Lieutenant Rudy Luna, and spent several months in the California Medical Facility at Vacaville before eventually taking up residence on Condemned Row. The bravado and arrogance displayed by Deleon throughout the investigation and trial quickly evaporated when confronted with the reality of his fate. And in many readers’ opinion, that may be as close to a sense of justice having been served as the families of Tom and Jackie Hawks will ever experience.
For fans of true crime stories, Dead Reckoning is a not-to-be-missed volume that would be especially appropriate for book clubs because of the myriad issues and details — far too numerous to be discussed in this forum — that inspire consideration and discussion.