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Estranged during various periods of their lives because of business and financial conflicts, John T. Hancock VI, 49, and his mother, Helen B. Hancock, 77, were tragically united at the time of their deaths.
On May 8, 1996, the two were shot in the rented hilltop mansion they shared in upscale Lemon Heights in California. The house was set ablaze after the slayings. One charred body was found in the backyard, another was in the kitchen. The arson unit established that an accelerant had been used.
At the time of its discovery, Helen Hancock’s body was “burned so badly we couldn’t tell if it was a male or a female,” Bob Blackburn, a former investigator for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, told Oxygen's “The Real Murders of Orange County,” airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen.
It took fingerprint and dental records to confirm that it was the matriarch and not one of Hancock’s children — daughter Ashley, 17, or son John, 15 — from his failed second marriage.
Following standard procedure, detectives considered the teenagers as possible suspects, but both were cleared after being questioned. They did give key information: They reported that a family car, a red Mustang convertible, was missing.
As they explored the case detectives grappled with finding a motive for the murders. Why was there so much violence against the victims?
It turned out that Hancock’s business dealings in California and Arizona had generated a laundry list of enemies, the Los Angeles Times reported inn 1996. That made it even harder to determine which person to focus on.
Hancock was a man “who always seemed to be fighting with the world,” Jonathan Volzke, former reporter for the Orange County Register, told producers.
Detectives learned that Hancock had scrapes with the law too. In the late 1980s he served prison time for swindling lenders, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1996. In the mid-1990s, Hancock was suspected of credit card fraud worth $40,000 that was tied to a tenant living in a condominium complex that he owned.
The latter incident led authorities to serve a search warrant at the Hancocks’ Lemon Heights home, just two weeks before the slaying. To gain access to the mansion, authorities kicked in the door of the home.
But although Hancock’s past was littered with enemies, investigators were unable to come up with evidence needed to arrest any of them.
Then, a pivotal detail shared by Hancock’s children changed the course of the investigation, Paul Fuzzard, a former investigator for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, told producers.
They revealed that the day before the murders, 19-year-old Tynickia Sherikia Thompson, came to the Lemon Heights home and wanted to speak with their father.
The conversation turned heated. She demanded money and waved a gun in Hancock’s face. Afterward, Hancock thoroughly downplayed the incident with Thompson.
Meanwhile, another woman in Hancock’s life, ex-girlfriend Kimberly Wakefield, 27, an occasional artist who lived in Anaheim, became yet another puzzle piece in the case.
Hancock’s support for Wakefield extended to helping her pay rent and purchasing one of her paintings. Investigators learned that while Hancock was looking for a permanent relationship, Wakefield wasn’t.
Officials also found out that Wakefield’s babysitter was Thompson. She lived with her mother in the same apartment complex. Wakefield had introduced Thompson to Hancock in March and a relationship grew.
“She was obsessed with the stories of him and his money,” Wakefield would later say about Thompson, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.
Investigators from the OC Sheriff’s Dept. interviewed Thompson’s mother, who admitted that she had a gun in her apartment. However, the case in which she kept the firearm was empty.
When investigators interviewed Thompson, she deflected suspicion from herself. She told them that Hancock had assaulted Ashley — but Hancock’s daughter said that the abuse never happened in a follow-up interview.
On May 13, the missing Hancock car was found in Long Beach. Authorities hoped that the Mustang would reveal clues to forensic experts about the identity of the killer.
But in fact, the break investigators needed to crack the case came from a landscaper working next door to the Lemon Heights mansion on the day of the murders.
The witness reported seeing a woman trying to gain access to the house and hearing loud popping sounds shortly before seeing the smoke and flames. It had taken time for the witness to put together everything before contacting authorities.
In the meantime, fingerprint analysis from items inside Hancock's abandoned car led authorities to speak with Dana Warren, a boyfriend of Thompson.
After agreeing to a polygraph, Warren’s response when asked if he knew who shot John Hancock indicated that he had knowledge of the crime.
Warren agreed to be wired so that police could covertly record a conversation between him and Thompson, the L.A. Times reported at the time. During that talk, Thompson copped to the crime.
Thompson was arrested on May 24 and charged with the murders of John T. Hancock and his mother as well as for setting fire to their house.
She would later be charged for an alleged plot with another inmate to seek retaliation against Warren.
“The facts,” Blackburn told producers, “show a cold-hearted killer.”
In April 1997, the Orange County district attorney’s office announced that it would seek the death penalty in the crime. Thompson pleaded guilty to the murders to take capital punishment off the table.
In her testimony Thompson said that Hancock wasn’t living up to financial promises he’d made. “She felt like she had been Hancock’s whore,” Volzke told producers.
Helen Hancock’s murder, meanwhile, was unplanned but collateral damage of Thompson’s rage.
At age 20, Thompson was given two life sentences. In a January 2020 appeal, her sentence was affirmed.
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