Tom and Jackie Hawks loved their life in retirement, sailing on their yacht, the Well Deserved. They had been living on board the vessel for a couple of years. 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.
Skylar Deleon and his pregnant wife, Jennifer, showed up as prospective buyers, with their baby in a stroller. The Deleons had champagne tastes, but were deeply in debt, despite substantial loans from Jennfier’s father, and their bills were mounting. They 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 Skylar’s ultimate dream. 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.
The Hawkses, however, thought they had a deal. Soon after a sea trial and an alleged purchase, however, the older couple disappeared and the Deleons promptly tried to access the Hawkses’ bank accounts.
Tom struggled. 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 and his accomplices placed duct tape over the couple’s eyes and mouths. On the deck of the trawler, Tom and Jackie were bound together and then tied to the yacht’s 66-pound anchor. Skylar and his associates threw the anchor overboard and the Hawkses — still alive — were dragged along with it into the icy cold Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Newport Beach on November 15, 2004.
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 Hawkses’ 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 Hawkses 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 Hawkses in order to complete some additional paperwork.
As police investigated the case, they not only found a third homicide victim with ties to Skylar, they also uncovered an unexpected and unusual motive: Skylar had wanted gender reassignment surgery for years. By killing the Hawkses with a motley crew of assailants and plundering the couple’s assets, the Deleons had planned to clear their $100,000 in debts and still have money for the surgery — which Skylar had already scheduled.
Following an intense, far-reaching, and skillfully orchestrated investigation, Jennifer refused a plea deal, divorced Skylar, and was sentenced to two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. Her parents took over raising the couple’s children. She is incarcerated the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California.
Skylar was convicted of three counts of murder and sentenced to death, destined to live out his days with some 700 other condemned men housed in California’s oldest and most notorious institution, San Quentin State Prison.
In the updated edition pf Dead Reckoning, New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother includes extensive new material and the latest developments in the case.
Since being convicted, Skylar has transitioned to a woman via hormones while residing in the condemned Psychiatric Inpatient Program (PIP) at San Quentin. She legally changed her name and gender to female, apparently a strategic step in her quest to obtain taxpayer-subsidized gender confirmation surgery — and a transfer to a women’s prison. That fact, combined with Governor Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on executions, announced shortly after his January 2019 inauguration, only adds insult to injury for the victims’ families. They want Skylar to receive the ultimate punishment for her crimes.
The crime may have been solved and the guilty parties convicted, but a seemingly infinite number of questions remain unanswered. In Dead Reckoning, Rother, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated investigative reporter, details in a straight-forward manner the unspeakable crime that garnered widespread media attention and outlines the painstaking investigation that culminated in the arrest and conviction of the Deleons and their several accomplices. It 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, a sense of entitlement, and immorality led to the Hawkses’ senseless deaths.
The early detective work by Tom’s brother started the investigation off. Because of his status as a recently retired, well-respected police chief, his concerns and refusal to accept the explanations provided by the Deleons were given immediate credence and attention by local authorities. Employing a “vertical advocacy” model which is also utilized by other law enforcement agencies, the Orange County investigators and District Attorneys worked as a team to ensure that every lead was pursued, every clue followed, and every question asked during well-timed interviews. The inquiry necessitated a tremendous dedication of resources: numerous detectives and the cooperation of several different agencies working together.
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
Rother explores one nagging question. Why didn’t Tom Hawks, a retired firefighter and probation officer, sense that the Deleons’ offer to purchase the yacht was too good to be true? He was a savvy former law enforcement professional. Why he didn’t he 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. And cost him his life, along with his wife’s.
Rother seamlessly synthesizes voluminous documentation into a coherent and compelling narrative that reads like a work of intricately-plotted fiction. She 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. 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. Rother recounts how Deleon fooled her parents. They 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 Hawkses and steal Well Deserved, along with their other assets, or another victim of Deleon is an unresolved mystery. One thing is clear: 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.
As for Deleon, Rother’s tautly-constructed telling of his story is fascinating and leaves open the question of whether sociopaths are born or made. Did the abuse that Deleon 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 Hawkses in order to obtain their yacht and access to their bank accounts? Or was he simply born lacking a conscious? Is the death penalty an appropriate punishment? Rother recounts the details of his trial, noting that 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 evokes sympathy 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, claiming that he acted out of love in a desperate attempt to please her.
The Hawkses’ bodies were never recovered and returned to their families. Many of the details about the crime forever remain buried with them at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean off the beautiful Newport coast.
Upon his arrival at San Quentin to begin serving his sentence, Deleon — like so many other condemned inmates — completed several stints at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville following multiple suicide attempts before being housed in the PIP unit at San Quentin. The bravado and arrogance displayed by Deleon throughout the investigation and trial quickly evaporated when confronted with the reality of his fate. That may be as close to a sense of justice having been served as the families of Tom and Jackie Hawks will ever experience, especially in light of recent events.
Courts in several states have ruled that transgender inmates have a right to be housed according to the gender with which they identify, rather than based on anatomy. The U.S. Department of Justice opined that a failure to provide “individualized and appropriate medical care” to transgender inmates suffering from gender dysphoria violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which “cruel and unusual punishment” or “deliberate indifference” to inmates’ medical needs. Prisons must provide “adequate” medical care. Rother recounts her visit with Deleon at San Quentin, recounting that “being locked in a cage with a transgender inmate who had murdered three people was one of the most bizarre and surreal situations in which I’ve found myself since I started writing about the mentally ill in jails and prisons twenty years ago.” The inmate she encountered bore little resemblance to the one she interviewed in 2009 — a direct result of the hormone treatment Deleon has received while incarcerated.
Should taxpayers foot the bill for gender confirmation surgery for inmates? Some courts have said yes. But it remains a highly controversial topic. For victims’ families, Rother explains, the “notion of relieving a killer’s emotional pain and suffering, especially someone like Skylar, infuriated those who had fought to give her the maximum punishment possible.” A retired member of the Newport Beach Police Department told Rother, “Why, so he can have peace of mind? . . . It makes no sense whatever. I hope he’s suffering every day, that’s the whole point of it. We’re not going to kill him and now we’re going to facilitate the surgery that he wanted in the first place? . . . In his twisted mind, he’s winning, and that just irks the [hell] out of me.” That same retired law enforcement officer questioned whether tax dollars would be better spent providing psychological help to the victims’ families — who have no voice in corrections’ officials determinations about inmate housing or the provision of medical treatment to inmates, including the delivery of hormone treatments for transitioning inmates and, ultimately, gender confirmation surgery.
For true crime fans, Dead Reckoning is mandatory reading, especially considering the ongoing dialogue about criminal justice and prison reform in the United States and the current emphasis on rehabilitation. Book clubs will be inspired by myriad details and timely issues that are sure to spark vigorous discussion and debate.
For now, at least, Deleon remains at San Quentin — the only California prison housing male condemned inmates — despite her feminine appearance and name. Whether she will stay there or, eventually, be housed in a female institution remains to be decided by corrections officials and, perhaps, the courts. Rother will surely be following the story. Connect with Caitlin via her website, or on Facebook or Twitter. Click here to see additional photos of the Hawkses, Deleons, and others associated with the story.
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My reviews of other books by Caitlin Rother:
Guest posts by Caitlin Rother:
- Why I Felt Compelled to Write Lost Girls
- The Back Story — Behind the Writing of Then No One Can Have Her
- And Now for Something a Little Different
- Quick True Crime Summer Reads
- The Glamorous Life of an Author — Juggling Cats is Next