I sat down with a killer the other day.
I’ll never forget walking down the cold, concrete corridor that makes up the Orange County Jail’s visitors’ block and finding him sitting there, behind a Plexiglas panel, looking thin and pale, an orange jumpsuit draping his frame. He’d grown a beard since I’d last seen him. But he seemed dainty. Harmless.
Funny, I thought, how, up close, the face of evil often doesn’t look so very evil at all.
Then he flashed a goofy, childlike grin and I wondered, perversely, if this was the face Skylar Deleon showed his pal Jon Peter Jarvi just before robbing him of $50,000 and slitting his throat in 2003? Did he grin like that again, months later, after duping Thomas and Jackie Hawks into taking him for a yacht cruise off Balboa Peninsula, then handcuffing them to an anchor and tossing them, still alive, into the ocean?
Skylar is 29 now. I’ve known him for nearly three years, since I began researching his case for a book I wrote detailing his murder spree. We met shortly after his arrest. At the time, my intention was to chronicle the story of the Hawkses, who, by all accounts, were good, honest people.
Fifty-seven-year-old Thomas Hawks was a retired probation officer who’d dedicated his life to helping ex-cons return to society. Jackie was 47, a loving stay-at-home mom who helped her husband raise Matt and Ryan, his sons from a previous marriage. The couple had been living on their boat for two years. In November 2004, Skylar led a small crew of accomplices, including his pregnant wife, Jennifer, to murder the Hawkses for one simple reason: He wanted to steal the yacht the couple called home.
But I couldn’t tell the tale of these victims without also telling Skylar’s. It’s the nature of crime reporting. The criminal’s story intertwines with the victims’. My writing shines a spotlight on both sides. The victims stumble reluctantly into that light, but the killers often revel in it. It’s their moment, and I struggle with my part in contributing to their infamy.
And so Skylar, against the advice of his attorney, talked with me every time I came to see him. He did it because he was lonely, bored. But mostly, Skylar—a failed child actor whose biggest role was an extra on the “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers”—did it because he craved the spotlight.
“I really can’t talk to you,” he’d say, pulling ever so slightly away from that old, beat-up orange phone receiver we used to communicate in the jail’s barren visiting center. But he never hung up.
Both times I interviewed him in jail, we talked the entire 40-minute visiting period. I believe he was convinced he could manipulate me into championing his cause. He was wrongly accused, he said. His dad, John Jacobson, was the real killer. (Jacobson, a drug runner in his younger days, was dying of AIDS at the time.)
And the Hawkses? They led double lives, Skylar said. They smuggled drugs in the belly of that yacht on trips from Mexico to California. This was all a drug deal between the Hawkses and his dad that went bad.
He once told me: “All I can say is when I left the boat, they were still alive.”
Lies, all of it. Still, Skylar, the self-absorbed con man, thought he could make me believe. He started calling me at my office, collect. It creeped me out to hear his soft voice on the other end of the line, reaching out beyond the jail’s visiting room. It meant he’d looked me up, somehow, and found my number. I felt vulnerable.
Once, he had one of his friends call me. “Skylar wants to see you,” the voice said.
I didn’t go. And by then, I had stopped taking his calls. I needed to set boundaries. I needed him to understand I was not his friend. During an in-person interview in 2006, when I told him point-blank I didn’t believe the Hawkses were drug smugglers, a desperate look crossed his face.
“I know,” he whined. “But it’s true!”
He made me promise, then, that I’d come back after the trial. That’s when he’d tell me everything.
So here I am, making good on my promise to a killer—but not because I believe there’s another side to the story.
The Newport Beach Police Department put together a solid case against Skylar. While investigating the Hawkses’ slayings, detectives discovered that, a year earlier, Skylar killed Jarvi. In October, a jury convicted him on three counts of first-degree murder. And 17 days later, jurors voted to give him the death penalty. A judge is scheduled to pronounce sentence March 20.
The decisions came two years after Skylar’s wife was given two consecutive life sentences without parole for helping plan and cover up the boat murders. Three others still have trials and sentences pending. Alonso Machain, 25, and Myron Gardner, 45, will be offered a plea deal for cooperating with police. Defendant John Kennedy, 43, a former Long Beach gang member, is expected to go to trial this spring. He’s also facing the death penalty for his role—he allegedly kicked Thomas Hawks in the back after Hawks was tied to the anchor, so he could not fight its weight pulling him and Jackie seaward.
Still, I wanted to hear what Skylar had to say for himself, now that he was facing a death sentence.
During his trial, Skylar’s defense attorney, Gary Pohlson, didn’t deny his client fatally stabbed Jarvi, a 45-year-old petty counterfeiter nicknamed JP. They’d met in jail in 2003, when Skylar was serving time for a botched robbery. Skylar spun a con, bragging of an investment deal of a lifetime. Upon his release a few months later, Jarvi promptly refinanced his Anaheim condo, his only possession, to get the cash. Before Jarvi figured out he’d been duped, Skylar—still a jail inmate at the time, but allowed out from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. thanks to a poorly supervised work-release program—took the money and drove his friend into Mexico. It was there, down a lonely dirt road, Skylar plunged a knife into Jarvi’s throat.
Pohlson also acknowledged, during trial, that Skylar drowned the Hawkses shortly after reading their for-sale ad in a yachting magazine. He didn’t argue that Skylar was insane at the time, or suggest his client suffered from mental illness. Pohlson asked only that the jury not kill Skylar, who, he said, had been turned into a killer by all the physical and mental abuse he endured at the hands of his father. (Skylar also claims he was molested by one of his father’s friends and recently told a reporter that he was sorry, without accepting full blame for the killings. Ryan Hawks doesn’t believe him: “The only thing Skylar is sorry for is that he got caught.”)
Since the verdicts, Skylar had been on suicide watch, but now was allowed to see visitors again. I expected to see a broken man. I was prepared to see a man finally ready to speak the truth.
But he’s smiling. It’s shocking in its absurdity.
‘I didn’t expect to find you so jovial,’ I say.
“What’s ‘jovial’ mean?” he asks, grinning ear to ear.
“That,” I say, pointing at him. “To smile, be happy. You’re looking at a death sentence.”
He shrugs and laughs. “It is what it is. I mean, it sucks. But there’s nothing I can do.”
When he giggles again, I get angry. Where does he get off, laughing like a kid without a care in the world? I want the weight of what he’s done to settle on his shoulders, in his eyes. Instead, I see delight. He looks genuinely carefree. Even now, knowing he will someday die for his crimes, he shows no remorse. I know how little he values others’ lives, but I thought he might place some value on his own. I think back to my relationship with Ryan, the Hawkses’ older son and the spitting image of his handsome father—same ebony hair, movie-star smile, chiseled jaw, and a frame toned from a life of active, outdoor living. Ryan, 32, the family spokesman, had become not just a source for my book, he’d also become a friend. As I got to know him, and to learn more about his parents, I grew protective of the remaining Hawks clan (Ryan and Matt, 30; their biological mom, Dixie, who died last year at 59; and Thomas’ brother, Jim, 66). These were loving people. The kind you’d want as friends and neighbors.
When Thomas and Jackie were married, more than a hundred friends and relatives attended their backyard wedding. And after they disappeared, hundreds of fellow boaters in Newport Beach rallied to distribute flyers. The Hawkses were so social that their sudden silence could only mean foul play. No one believed Skylar’s bogus tale—that this unemployed actor and his hairdresser wife paid $485,000 cash for the boat and last saw the Hawkses drive away in their Honda, bound for Mexico.
It took me a while to earn Ryan’s trust. And after he learned I had interviewed Skylar in jail, he was furious. I’m sure it felt like a betrayal. In his view, if I were writing his family’s story, why was I visiting his parents’ murderer? I don’t know if I ever told Ryan how awful I felt after that. But eventually, I think he understood that I wasn’t making Skylar a pal. It was my job to give Skylar a chance to explain himself.
Still, it sometimes feels like a betrayal to sit here, chatting with the man I know killed the relatives of people I’ve grown to care about. I struggle with that, especially when he laughs and acts so cavalier. But I push on.
‘Why did they place you on suicide watch?’
“Just a precaution, I guess.”
“Because you tried to hurt yourself?”
In March 2008, Skylar used a dull razor to try to sever his penis. Guards stopped him before he could do much damage.
“Yeah, that’s why. When I look down there, I don’t like what I see. I can’t explain it.”
Before he went to jail, he’d looked into a sex-change operation. Detectives found the paperwork while searching his house after his arrest.
“Are you gay?”
“No. I’ve just always gotten along better with girls. And I thought if I cut it off, I’d go to the girls’ side of the jail. You know, if I have to be with one sex for the rest of my life, I’d rather be with girls.”
Again, he laughs. And it strikes me how he keeps saying “girls,” not “women,” as if to take any sexual connotation out of the reference. He speaks softly, in a shy kid’s voice. I strain to hear his words.
“Do you ever see your kids?” He has two—Kaleb, 4, and Haylie, 5—with Jennifer. Both live with her parents.
“I write them, but I never get a letter back.”
“Does anyone visit you?”
No one, he says.
Loneliness probably is the harshest punishment for a man as ego-maniacal as Skylar Deleon. From jail, Jennifer divorced him. His mother hasn’t spoken to him since his arrest, though she testified on his behalf in the death-penalty phase of his case. And the biggest influence in his life, his abusive father, died in early 2008.
“I hated that man more than anyone in the world,” he says of his father. “But I was still sad that he died. He could be the devil one minute, but after he was done degrading you, he could totally flip the switch and it was a different story.”
I wonder if Skylar realizes the significance of what he just said. “You know, you could be talking about yourself. The devil one minute, a man who looks too timid to hurt anyone the next.”
“I’ve had doctors tell me that. They say my head is all messed up. They say I have manic episodes. Really up one minute, really down the next.”
He says prison psychiatrists have prescribed him Depakote and Zyprexa, medications that treat bipolar disorder. The manic episodes keep him from sleeping, he says. At night, he often passes the hours pacing his cell, singing his favorite Sarah McLachlan songs.
I wonder if he’s having a manic episode as we speak, if that’s why he keeps giggling. No, Skylar says, the medications seem to be working today.
I tell him I’d heard that ABC’s “20/20” and CBS’
“48 Hours” want to interview him.
He grins. “I’ll only do it if I get to be hooked up to a polygraph. I need people to believe me. No one ever believes me.”
And there it is. He’s still trying to convince me he’s innocent. Even after the trial, after his own attorney acknowledged his guilt, after co-defendant Machain testified in detail how Jackie sobbed and begged, “Please don’t. I’m too young to die.”
Still, Skylar wants to con me.
I stare beyond the Plexiglas and into that smiling face, searching for some humanity. Is there, possibly, some mental illness at work? I doubt it. I’ve known him long enough to know that even the bipolar stuff could be an act. This is a man who had to be put in solitary confinement after cops learned that, from his cell, he was deftly planning a hit on his dad. He’s smart, or, as prosecutor Matt Murphy once crudely put it, a “retarded genius.” The murders were so intricately plotted. The drowning deaths of the Hawkses, far away at sea, left no bodies to recover, no DNA evidence, precious little physical evidence at all. Skylar was only caught because his frightened co-conspirators turned on him to save themselves.
“Are you trying to tell me there’s still more to the story?” I finally ask. “And if there is, now is the time for you to tell me, Skylar, because I will probably never see you again. This is it for me.”
There’s a long pause, and then he says: “Boy, you know, I wish I could. But I can’t. My attorney won’t let me.”
I should have expected it. He’s a killer, not someone who holds tight to any moral code. But I had treated him with respect, with courtesy. I’d held up my end of the bargain, returning one last time to hear him out. And I want more than what he’s willing to give.
My professional restraint drains away. Skylar is a murderer. He’d had a fair trial, and now I can say it out loud: He repulses me. Here I am, trying to somehow make sense of a man whose entire life has been senseless. But it’s an exercise in futility. I look him in the eye. “If there was more to this story, your attorney would’ve brought it up in court.”
“I tried to get him to,” he says, “but he kept telling me to shush. My attorney is a nice man, but there’s so much he never told the jury. Lots of things they never understood.”
Liar, I think. Jon Jarvi is dead. Thomas and Jackie Hawks are dead. And you sit there, grinning. Our visit is running short. So I let fly.
“Skylar, I’ve never lied to you before, so I won’t now. I believe you can’t tell me because you have nothing more to say. You hide behind your excuses, your attorney. But in reality, there’s nothing more to tell. I believe you did these things. You killed Jon Jarvi and you killed Tom and Jackie Hawks.”
There’s fire in my voice. I want him to know: I’m not buying it.
He pulls his knees to his chest and rocks on his metal stool. He looks at his bare feet and shrugs, like a scolded puppy. “I wish I could tell you, but I can’t.”
Maybe Skylar conned me after all. Because in the end, here I am, still talking to him, still asking him to make sense for me. Against my better judgment, I reach out once more, thinking maybe, if nothing else, he wants to offer words of solace. I ask if there’s anything he wants to say to the Hawks or Jarvi families. He thinks for a moment.
“No. I don’t think so.”
No regrets. No tears. Nothing except that dopey grin. Skylar, his wife, and their conspirators, killed out of greed. And maybe that’s the scariest realization of all: There’s not always some grand explanation behind a life stolen. Some people kill because it’s convenient, it’s opportunistic, it’s easy, it’s profitable, just because.
Within weeks, Skylar would be entertaining other visitors. He would talk with reporters from The Orange County Register, “20/20,” and KCAL-TV Channel 9, and with each interview he would edge closer to admitting his role in the killings. He would tell KCAL he intended only to “subdue them and drop them off in Mexico somewhere and just leave them [but] it escalated so fast and didn’t really seem real.”
I’m guessing Skylar will keep talking, with increasing candor, until he’s old news and the media move on, until he’s finally, desperately alone with the truth.
The guards knock on the glass door behind him, signaling our interview has come to an end. Before I can say anything else, he drops the orange receiver and walks away.
Good riddance, I think. End of story.
illustrations by Chang Park
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.