From Bee archive: Jury convicts Dave Hawk of murdering ex-wife, who's never been found

The Fresno Bee

Attorney Mark Coleman lays a hand on David Hawk after Hawk was found guilty in his murder trial in August 2009.
Attorney Mark Coleman lays a hand on David Hawk after Hawk was found guilty in his murder trial in August 2009.

This story originally was published in The Fresno Bee on Aug. 29, 2009.

Jurors convicted Dave Hawk on Friday of killing his ex-wife, with the foreman noting afterward they got "chills" from a secret recording in which Hawk talked hypothetically of dropping her body in a river.

On their third day of deliberations after a two-week trial, a jury of 10 women and two men found Hawk, 51, guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Debbie Hawk and of embezzling more than $300,000 from trust funds set up for the couple's three children.

But the verdict didn't solve the mystery that has transfixed Kings County since Debbie Hawk disappeared from her north Hanford home in June 2006: no sign of the 46-year-old has ever been found.

The murder conviction includes a special finding -- the crime was committed for financial gain -- that will land Hawk in prison for the rest of his life. Prosecutors alleged that Hawk killed his ex-wife to keep her from exposing his misuse of the trust funds set up by his parents for the children.

Prosecutors last fall opted not to seek the death penalty for Hawk, who showed no emotion as the court clerk read the verdicts.

Judge Daniel Creed, a visiting judge from Santa Clara County who presided over the trial in Kings County Superior Court, ordered Hawk back to court for sentencing Dec. 4.

The jury also convicted Hawk on five counts of tax evasion for failing to file tax returns from 2001 to 2005 and one count of perjury for falsely stating under oath that he had filed a tax return. Hawk pleaded no contest earlier this month to a charge of loan fraud.

Hawk's attorneys agreed that Hawk mixed money from the trust funds with a household bank account but denied that he killed his ex-wife. No physical evidence tied Hawk to her disappearance and murder, his attorneys said.

But jurors said other evidence outweighed the absence of a body.

Jury foreman Kenny Knutson, 33, of Lemoore, said that when a neighbor testified about hearing screams the night Debbie Hawk disappeared, Dave Hawk's reaction seemed to be as if he "was almost remembering, yeah, that's exactly how it happened."

"That's when I first started to think he was connected to it, " Knutson said.

Knutson said jurors spent time in deliberations listening to a conversation between Hawk and a friend, Keith Marshall, who secretly taped the conversation for investigators, including a passage in which Knutson recalled hearing Hawk say that "if he was a bad guy, he'd drop the body in the river."

"For some of the people, that just gave them chills, " Knutson said.

In the same conversation, Hawk denied killing his ex-wife.

Juror Dee Reed, 35, of Lemoore was persuaded by other evidence.

"For me, the deciding factor was his youngest daughter stating she saw her father the month before driving by house taking pictures, " Reed said. "If you've been divorced that long, why would you drive by your ex-wife's house taking pictures?"

Prosecutors never elaborated on why they presented Savannah Hawk's testimony.

The defense team was "tremendously disappointed" by the verdict, said Mark Coleman, one of Hawk's attorneys.

Coleman said Creed should have granted a defense motion to move the trial out of Kings County because of the intense publicity the case had attracted in the Valley. Once Creed denied the motion, Coleman said, the defense knew the trial would be hard to win.

He said the defense plans to file a motion for a new trial.

Deputy District Attorney Larry Crouch, who prosecuted the case, alluded to a civil case that Debbie Hawk brought against her ex-husband -- but did not live to see concluded -- over Hawk's theft from the trust funds. "Today is the day Debbie Hawk finally got her hearing, " Crouch said. "I'm happy about that."

Debbie Hawk, a pharmaceutical sales representative, was reported missing from her home on June 13, 2006, after her son and daughters returned from a custody visit with their father. The house was in disarray, and her van was gone.

The van was found a couple of days later in southwest Fresno -- keys in the ignition and a stolen license plate from Hanford on the rear bumper. Blood in the van and in Debbie Hawk's Hanford home was later found to be hers.

Intense searches of Kings County parks, fields and waterways in the following weeks yielded no sign of Debbie Hawk, and Hanford police classified the case as a homicide in July 2006.

In the months after Debbie Hawk's disappearance, several discoveries of unidentified remains in nearby counties stirred hope that at least part of the mystery might be solved. But each time, dental records and DNA comparisons determined the remains were not hers.

In one instance, bones found in a dairy drain near Dave Hawk's Lemoore home turned out to be animal remains.

In the courtroom Friday was Hawk's daughter Chelsa, 17, who along with her brother, Conrad, 19, and sister, Savannah, 13, testified during the trial. Chelsa Hawk emerged from the courtroom in tears after the verdict.

Sandy Brown, retired pastor of Lemoore Presbyterian Church, where Hawk was an elder, said he was disappointed by the verdict and is heartbroken for Hawk's daughters, who are living with their grandparents, Stan and Lois Hawk, in Lemoore.

Brown said he considers himself Hawk's pastor and friend and is holding out hope Hawk can get a new trial in a different county.

"I just want to have somebody say and publish that Dave Hawk is not the monster the prosecution has made him out to be, " Brown said. "He is a good man who has been caught up in something way beyond him."

Stan Hawk said he had no comment when reached by phone Friday afternoon.

Area attorneys offered mixed reactions to Hawk's guilty verdict on the murder charge.

"It's very difficult to convict anyone when there's no body unless you have an eyewitness to the killing, and they didn't have that in this case, " said former Fresno County District Attorney Ed Hunt.

Another former prosecutor, Fresno attorney Michael Idiart, said that from what he has seen and read, "the case wasn't the strongest in the world, " but added that Kings County's political conservatism may have helped prosecutors.

And then, Idiart said, "there's what I call a 'stench factor.' He's the most likely suspect and he had motive, and the jury looks for evidence to convict him."

Hawk's attorneys did not call him to testify in his own defense -- a move that would have opened him up to cross-examination by prosecutors.

Instead, the only words jurors heard from Hawk were in the secretly taped conversation.

"My experience, in 35 years as an attorney, is that jurors like to hear someone get on the stand and say, 'I didn't do it, ' " Hunt said. "But most of the time, a conviction isn't the result of any mistake by the attorneys, it's just the weight of evidence such that jurors can reach no other verdict."

Hawk timeline


June 13: Debbie Hawk, a pharmaceutical saleswoman, is reported missing by her family under suspicious circumstances. Her home has been ransacked.

June 15: Debbie Hawk's van is found abandoned on a southwest Fresno street. Police look into whether her disappearance could be

job-related. Ex-husband Dave Hawk is not a suspect.

June 17: Police investigate whether the May 18 shooting of Kim Aguirre, a family law attorney who represented Debbie Hawk during her divorce, is connected with her disappearance.

June 24: Dave Hawk's Lemoore home is searched for seven hours by police who also search the 60-acre ranch surrounding the home.

July 3: Dozens of Debbie Hawk's friends gather to celebrate her birthday.

July 7: After receiving an anonymous tip, police announce a 50-square-mile search for Debbie Hawk that will cover rivers, canals and other waterways, mostly in northern Kings County. About 150 volunteers help in the search.

July 11: Police reclassify Debbie Hawk's disappearance from a missing persons case to a murder investigation.

July 14: A second large-scale search is conducted in rural northern Kings County.

July 17: Officers search the homes of Dave Hawk and his parents. He is not considered a suspect in Debbie Hawk's disappearance.

July 20: Dave Hawk's home is searched a second time.

Aug. 1: Investigators search Lemoore Presbyterian Church for computer files used by Dave Hawk.

Oct. 31: Police Chief Carlos Mestas says he wants to "build an airtight" case against Hawk, who is named the prime suspect in his ex-wife's disappearance.


June 8: Hawk is arrested on suspicion of felony grand theft, tax evasion, embezzlement, child pornography, perjury and using

false information to obtain a loan. He pleads not guilty three days later.

June 16: A memorial service for Debbie Hawk is held at Hanford's Hidden Valley Park.

Photo: Members of the Hanford Police Department work during the investigation at Dave Hawk's house after his arrest in June 2007.


May 29: Police pull over Hawk's vehicle, arrest him in connection with the murder of his ex-wife and later haul evidence out of his house. He pleads not guilty the next day.

Aug. 14: Mary Royer, Hawk's former live-in girlfriend, testifies at a preliminary hearing that he once said legal battles with Debbie Hawk "aren't going to stop until she's dead." The next day Kings County Superior Court Judge Steven Barnes orders Hawk to trial.

Sept. 29: Prosecutors announce they will not seek the death penalty against Hawk.


Jan. 22: Two former Fresno County prosecutors, Dennis Peterson and Roger Wilson, join Hawk's legal team; lead defense attorney Mark Coleman asks for a change of venue, saying extensive news coverage will prevent Hawk from getting a fair trial in Kings County.

July 27: Jury selection starts.

Aug. 6: Visiting Judge Daniel Creed rules that Hawk's murder trial will remain in Kings County Superior Court.

Aug. 10: Trial begins.

Aug. 26: Jury begins deliberations.

Aug. 28: Jury finds Hawk guilty on all 10 counts, including first-degree murder with a special enhancement of financial gain.