"I sat down with a killer the other day," begins Tina Dirmann's feature in the March issue of Orange Coast. "Funny, I thought, how, up close the face of evil often doesn't look so very evil at all."
Dirmann's subject is Skylar Deleon, the former Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers actor turned con man, drug dealer and murderer who, with his co-conspirators, tied a husband and wife to an anchor on their yacht in 2004 and pushed them overboard somewhere in the Pacific Ocean to steal their boat.
It was a good start for the article but I'm sure that Dirmann's observation wasn't fresh to her. Journalists who routinely cover crime know that a certain class of ruthless premeditated killers doesn't look the part. That fact often draws us to try to explain the contradiction as if killers should look and act like, well, killers--folks with menacing eyes, crooked noses, strange tics and who are constantly spewing hate.
The 2007 trial for Jonathan Tran--a baby-faced 21-year-old and, by all accounts, a sweetheart to everyone in his life except the Santa Ana teenage hookers he sexually assaulted and robbed at gunpoint--grabbed my attention after a veteran police detective confided to me that Tran was "the nicest killer I've ever met." Tran was convicted of murder after one runaway hooker, the 15-year-old great, great granddaughter of the founder of Montessori schools, leaped to her death from Tran's truck near a seedy section of Harbor Boulevard.
Dirmann plowed this theme before in her 2005 paperback Such Good Boys about the two seemingly ordinary Riverside County sons (20 years old and 15) who killed their whiny, abusive mother and, based on a scene from The Sopranos, decapitated her in the bathtub in preparation for disposal in Orange County.
In pursuit of Deleon, she's got a target who has a soft face; is a little guy; in his 20s; willing to look wounded by pulling his knees to his chest and stare at his bare feet; speaks passionately of his innocence; once attempted to chop off his penis--rationalizing the castration would require his relocation to the "girls" wing of the jail; is the father to two young kids (ages 4 and 5); and loves to grin and smile even though he's on his way to San Quentin State Prison's notorious death row.
Dirmann's article, based in part on her 2008 book--Vanished at Sea--about the deaths of Thomas and Jackie Hawks, chronicles her jail interviews with Deleon over a three-year-period. And though it's a stretch to believe that she actually thought there was a chance he'd show her remorse and confess his sins after his convictions, it's fascinating material. She didn't expect Deleon to "be so jovial" during her last post-verdict interview and confronted him.
Deleon replied, "What's 'jovial' mean?"
She pointed at him and said, "To smile, be happy. You're looking at a death sentence."
The killer, she observed, shrugged his shoulders, laughed and said, "It is what it is. I mean, it sucks. But there's nothing I can do."
There you have it. Another journalist, like myself, fighting a losing battle to make sense of the nonsensical--of a fellow human being without an iota of conscience. But Dirmann isn't satisfied accepting this reality. She ended their jail relationship by allowing "my professional restraint" to "drain away." She'd tired of "trying to make sense" of this man and playing the role of objective reporter.
"I believe you did these [murders]," she tells Deleon "with fire in my voice . . . I want him to know: I'm not buying [his denials]."
The outburst didn't spark the confession Dirmann wanted either, but it must have felt satisfying to deliver her own moral judgment.
Did she feel guilty that, in the interest of getting the story, she'd played friendly to Deleon up to this point?
Anyway, the killer, she concluded, recoiled at her rebuke "like a scolded puppy."
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At least, that's the dangerously erroneous interpretation that went through her mind. Regardless of what we may believe is a recognizable emotion on their faces, killers like Deleon--unlike puppies--aren't capable of being scolded.
I don't think that's the case with Tran. He's never shot, stabbed or pushed anyone to their death. His hidden quirk involved an urge to sexually dominate and frighten prostitutes--not kill them. Though locked in prison for the next 63 years, he's proclaiming he didn't get a fair trial.
In a recently filed appeal, attorney William J. Kopeny argues that:
--The jury heard no evidence that Montessori died as a result of either an attempted rape or attempted robbery and thus can't be held legally responsible for her death after she jumped from his vehicle;
--Tran's defense team was unprepared, didn't know when to object, failed to perform basic investigations of key police evidence and inexplicably called an expert who gave testimony that supported a murder theory that even veteran homicide prosecutor Cameron Talley thought was preposterous--that Montessori was killed with a brick and her corpse later dumped on a residential street in Santa Ana.
Such errors, when considered by a "reasonable observer," require the court of appeal to overturn Tran's verdicts, according to Kopeny.
I'm waiting to see the California Attorney General's reply.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly