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Getting to the unknown unknowns

— From an interview with Assistant Chief (ret.) Dale Ferranto

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
— Donald Rumsfeld

Two of the most powerful skills in law enforcement are the ability to think creatively — sometimes VERY creatively — and to be able to identify, then leverage the right information sources, particularly when you think you’ve hit a wall in your investigations. It’s then, Dale Ferranto, Assistant Chief (Ret.) with the California DOJ suggests, that these two skills can make or break your case. In a discussion with Police1, Ferranto shared an excellent example. You may have heard of this high profile incident, but you may not know about the out-of-the-box thinking that came into play. It helped nail the suspects and could help you open your mind during your own investigations.

A California couple interested in selling their large yacht agreed to take a family — husband, wife and baby — and a male friend on a “test cruise.” At the end of the day, the boat, the family and the friend return, but the owners don’t. A homicide investigation is launched, but investigators can’t find anything. They’re convinced the supposed buyers killed the owners, but they’ve got nothing to prove it. They’re stalled.

The creative-thinking DA, however, isn’t ready to give up. He was a surfer who had befriended the skipper of a similar yacht during one of his trips. “He called his friend,” says Ferranto, “and said, ‘Here’s my dilemma. I’ve got this beautiful yacht, I’ve got two missing people, I’ve got three murder suspects but no real evidence to go on.’” During the conversation the skipper tells the DA that whenever a boat is sold an inventory, which in marine terms is called a survey, is taken of all the gear that’s required to make it seaworthy. “If you think these people were killed at sea,” the skipper says, “take a look to see how many anchors are on board, because a boat that size will have two, and then match that against the survey.”


Two anchors were listed on the survey but one was on the boat after the test cruise. This was the break in the case. “The DA needed to know what to look for because he was stumped,” Ferranto concludes, “and in this particular case there was a document that exists because of the nature of a certain kind of transaction that any person serious about making that transaction would demand to look at. This DA didn’t know such a document existed, but by turning to his friend he was able to find an avenue to pursue.”

The lesson: When you’re stuck, remember that there are experts in all kinds of things that you can approach (obviously, without revealing anything you shouldn’t) who can help you get to the “unknown unknowns.”

An Important Post Script
The victims in this case were Thomas and Jackie Hawks. They were last seen leaving the Newport Harbor on their 55-foot yacht, the Well Deserved, on November 15, 2004.

The Los Angeles Times, reporting on this case during the 2008 trial of the murderous conspirators, said: “With his hands bound behind his back and eyes covered in tape, Tom Hawks seemed to realize that certain death awaited him and his wife, Jackie, if he didn’t act quickly. So he mustered all the force he could and delivered a blow with his foot that sent one of his three attackers reeling into a deck chair. It would be the last act of heroism for a man who made a living in law enforcement.”

Thomas and Jackie Hawks were murdered by Skylar James Deleon, his former wife Jennifer Henderson, and John Kennedy. Deleon and Kennedy were sentenced to death, while Henderson was sentenced to two life terms without parole. The baby was used as a prop to convince the Hawks that they were dealing with a legitimate family.

The bodies of these victims have never been recovered.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.