SANTA ANA, Calif. – A 26-year-old mother of two young children was sentenced Friday to two terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole for her role in a plot to kill a wealthy couple for their yacht.
Jennifer Deleon was convicted last year of two counts of first-degree murder and murder for financial gain.
She was not on board in 2004, when the victims were tied to an anchor and thrown over the side of their 55-foot yacht, the "Well Deserved."
Authorities said, however, that Deleon helped her then-husband with the murders by using their infant daughter to gain the trust of victims Tom and Jackie Hawks. Deleon was also pregnant at the time.
She was also accused of helping cover up the crime by cleaning the yacht with bleach and lying to investigators.
During the brief sentencing hearing, Deleon was urged to give up her children by Ryan Hawks, 31, the son of the victims. The children are living with Deleon's mother.
"I know the best possible future they could ever have is them growing up in an environment not knowing who their biological parents were, what they did and how the children themselves were used as decoys to murder my parents for financial gain," Hawks said, holding back tears.
A handcuffed Deleon, who is now divorced and uses the name Jennifer Henderson, appeared emotional and tried to wipe away tears after making eye contact with family members in the courtroom. Her children were not present.
She did not speak before being sentenced by Orange County Superior Court Judge Frank F. Fasel.
Her ex-husband, Skylar Deleon, and another alleged accomplice, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, could face the death penalty if convicted of the murders at a trial expected to begin in January. They have pleaded not guilty.
Tom and Jackie Hawks vanished after taking Skylar Deleon and two of his friends on a test cruise off Newport Bay. The couple thought the men were interested in buying the yacht.
Two other men accused of participating in the plot will have a separate trial.
Prosecutors have said Skylar Deleon asked his wife to bring their 9-month-old daughter to the docks to put the victims at ease before the cruise.
Skylar Deleon called off an earlier plan to kill the Hawkses when he realized that Tom Hawks was a retired probation officer in good physical condition, according to testimony at Jennifer Deleon's trial.
Skylar Deleon then spent another week recruiting Kennedy and refining his plan before setting up the test cruise, Alonso Machain, another suspected accomplice, has testified.
Machain said the Hawkses were blindfolded and handcuffed after he, Kennedy and Skylar Deleon overpowered them on the open sea.
The victims were then forced to sign and fingerprint documents transferring ownership of the "Well Deserved" to Deleon before being tied to an anchor and pushed overboard, Machain testified. Their bodies have never been found.
Machain testified that Tom Hawks tried to hold his crying wife's hand and comfort her in the moments before they died.
Evidence at the trial also showed that Jennifer and Skylar Deleon were in cell phone contact the entire time the three men were on board the yacht.
Ryan Hawks said after the hearing that he is haunted because the bodies have never been found.
"Right now, I can tell you they are 3,600 feet below the cold Pacific Ocean, bound to an anchor, handcuffed and blindfolded, and I think that anchor will hold them down until justice has prevailed," he said.
"It's one down and three to go, so we're not quite there yet ... but we'll be there," he said.
Prosecutors contended that after the killings, Jennifer Deleon helped clean the boat and lied to investigators. She also conspired to make it seem as if the Hawkses had moved to Mexico. authorities said.
Defense attorney Michael Molfetta has said that his client wasn't aware of the plot when she brought the baby to the harbor. He said that after the killings, Jennifer Deleon went along with her husband's demands because she was afraid of what he might do to her.
Tom and Jackie Hawks, of Prescott, Ariz., had been living aboard the "Well Deserved" for about two years in what was the realization of a longtime dream, friends and family have said.
They later decided to sell the cabin cruiser and buy a smaller vessel and a home in Mexico.