John Hawkins: From Just Sweats to Eternity

This Abomination Will Live On
(“Mistaken for Dead,” Forensic Files)

With any crime that involves a lot of money and at least one commercially attractive offender, you can pretty much count on a TV movie and a book or two.

Captured: John Hawkins in police custody in 1991

The last blog post mapped out a timeline for the murder-insurance fraud fiasco perpetrated by two entrepreneurs and a neurologist in 1988. The post before that one offered a cheat sheet listing the cast of characters.

For this week, I compiled a list of the various shows and books about the case. But first, a superquick summary of the crime for readers new to the sordid mess.

The story starts in Columbus, Ohio, where a  young con man named John Hawkins and his middle-aged lover, Gene Hanson, opened a store selling colorful workout clothes in 1985. The business did so well that in a few years, they had 22 stores in Ohio and Kentucky.

But they had expanded too fast, overbought, and probably spent too much on TV commercials, which starred the nubile Hawkins decked out in the likes of a lemon-yellow tank top paired with periwinkle-blue shorts.

With the business on the edge of bankruptcy by 1988, the duo decided to fake Hanson’s death and try to cash in on his $1.5 million in life insurance.

A Just Sweats store in the chain’s juggernaut days

Neurologist Richard Boggs, a recent acquaintance from California who had money problems of his own, procured a dead body — by killing an innocent man named Ellis Greene — to pass off as Hanson.

Utter disaster followed, with authorities figuring out what happened and nabbing Hanson and Dr. Boggs fairly quickly. Hawkins escaped to Europe, triggering a three-year international manhunt. Like his pals, Hawkins ended up behind bars, but he got out on parole after 20 years.

Here are some other sources of information and entertainment related to the case (in addition to Mistaken for Dead, a favorite Forensic Files episode).

Cheating Death by Edwin Chen. This nonfiction paperback written by the reporter who covered the crime for the Los Angeles Times got a mixed review from New York Times writer Bill Kent, who described the tome as having “brief, breathless chapters” and said its “just-the-facts style of reporting is long on information but short on analysis.” (Onyx, 1992, 320 pages.)

Insured for Murder by Robin Yocum and Catherine Candisky. Written by two Columbus Dispatch reporters who followed the case from the beginning, the nonfiction hardback contains some tantalizing details about the plot. The book got decent reviews. You can check out excerpts free online before buying. (Prometheus Books, 1993, 286 pages.)

The Dirty Nasty Truth: 18 True Crime Stories to Stop Juvenile Delinquency by John Barrett Hawkins. The former Just Sweats partner, who now counts motivational speaker as part of his reinvented self, came out with his own book that “chronicles his descent from successful entrepreneur … to convicted felon.” Amazon carries the book. (Dark Planet Publishing, 2012, 192 pages.)

If Looks Could Kill, a TV movie starring soap opera actor Antonio Sabato Jr. as John Hawkins and Maury Chaykin (who Entourage watchers may remember in a role as a Harvey Weinstein-like movie producer) as Dr. Richard Boggs. Produced by America’s Most Wanted in 1996, it got mediocre reviews, but it sounds like fun and you can check out the 80-minute drama for free on YouTube. (Don’t wait too long. A different link that worked just a week ago has already been taken off YouTube.)

America’s Most Wanted did a great segment about the case on its regular TV show back in 1990, when John Hawkins was still on the loose. Unfortunately, the vignette (except for a short promo) isn’t on YouTube. A couple of sources gave links to the AMW episode on Lifetime and Hulu — but they no longer work. If anyone knows of a way to watch online, please leave a clue.

Killer Couples, an Oxygen Network series, features one episode about the Just Sweats case. It includes the real John Hawkins discussing the crime on camera. There’s an interesting promo on YouTube, and you supposedly can watch the episode on the Oxygen website, although it’s not clear whether it’s free.

John Hawkins circa 2012

Blood, Lies, and Alibi, a 2012 series from the Investigation Discovery Network, devotes a Season 1 show called “Doctor of Death” to the Just Sweats murder. It features interviews with Columbus Dispatch reporter Catherine Candisky and legal authorities directly involved in the case. You can watch the episode on YouTube.

Murder by the Book, a Court TV show in which true-crime authors devote an hour to cases that intrigue them, featured the Just Sweats crime in 2006 in Episode 4 of Season 1  with writer Jonathan Kellerman. I couldn’t find any trace of the the episode on YouTube or anywhere else online, however. If anyone knows where to watch it, please share the evidence.

That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. R.R.

Fraud, Murder, Bike Shorts: A Just Sweats Timeline

 Just Sweats Chronology
(“Mistaken for Dead,” Forensic Files)

Last week’s post provided a cheat sheet for the principal characters in a murder-insurance fraud case perpetrated by a trio of friends.

A young John Hawkins

The conspirators were grown men who really should have known better: Dr. Richard Boggs, Gene Hanson, and John Hawkins.

Dr. Boggs was a California neurologist with a Harvard degree and, at one time, a good reputation and lots of money.

Ohio residents Hawkins and Hanson staked their own glory on Just Sweats, a chain of stores they opened to sell workout clothes.

Hawkins and Hanson were also lovers, although some sources suggest that the boyishly handsome Hawkins preferred women and was just using Hanson.

Once Just Sweats faltered, they should have simply filed for bankruptcy and gotten jobs selling health club memberships or real estate.

Instead, they hooked up with Dr. Boggs in California, took the life of an innocent fourth party, and ruined all their own lives.

A number of viewers who left reader comments on the YouTube webpage for “Mistaken for Dead” — the Forensic Files episode about the case — mentioned the plot of the murder-insurance fraud case was hard to follow. So a timeline seems in order.

Dr. Richard Boggs, a respected neurologist, helps create Satellite Health Systems, one of the first HMOs in the United States.

Boggs’ onetime mansion

1971 to 1976
Satellite Health Systems grows spectacularly but fails to make a profit. Dr. Boggs is millions of dollars in debt.

Dr. Boggs declares bankruptcy. Friends say he is never the same afterward.

Lola Boggs leaves Dr. Boggs after a marriage of more than 20 years and four children.

He moves out of the couple’s luxurious Tudor-style house in Glendale, California, and gets an apartment in West Hollywood. He begins partying with young men there.

Lola Boggs takes her ex-husband to court over $33,000 in unpaid child support.

1981 to 1988
Dr. Boggs continues to spend lavishly, buying a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith II. He incurs huge debts.

He is accused of performing unnecessary surgeries on patients. Medical organizations expel him.

At some point in the 1980s, he meets the two Just Sweats entrepreneurs from Ohio: sexy high school dropout John Hawkins and middle-aged former department-store shoe buyer Melvin Eugene “Gene” Hanson.

Hanson becomes Dr. Boggs’ patient.

Hawkins and Hanson open their first Just Sweats store, in Columbus, Ohio. It carries a large inventory of colorful exercise clothing.

The store is a huge success.

The duo open more Just Sweats for a total of 22 stores in Ohio and Kentucky. They offer such deals as Lycra bike shorts for $4.99.

Hawkins appears in TV commercials for the business and becomes “a household name across central Ohio,” according to the Columbus Dispatch.

But Hawkins and Hanson begin mismanaging the business. They start selling off the stores’ assets for cash.

At some point, the two men begin plotting a crime that will relieve them of the financial hellhole Just Sweats has become.

Hanson starts applying for life insurance. He ultimately obtains three policies totaling $1.5 million and names Hawkins sole beneficiary. The plan is to fake Hanson’s death and get their hands on the insurance money.

Richard Boggs, M.D.

They invite Dr. Boggs in on their plan. His assignment: to procure a body to pass off as Hanson’s.

Meanwhile, Hawkins and Hanson do a Herculean job of hiding the financial problems at Just Sweats. As a Columbus Dispatch story stated:

“Propelled by a series of seemingly ubiquitous TV commercials — all of which featured the wavy-haired, always-smiling entrepreneur — the chain’s annual sales were approaching $10 million. Would-be franchisees were lining up, and major players in the athletic-wear industry were looking to invest.”

Any prospective Just Sweats investors would require to see an audit, which Hawkins and Hanson can’t allow.

With Just Sweats sinking fast, Hawkins and Hanson get serious about an illicit plan for a way out.

Gene Hanson starts telling people that he has AIDS and is dying. Neither claim is true: Hanson is setting up a story to make his upcoming “death” believable.

April 9, 1988
Dr. Boggs makes his first attempt at acquiring a dead body by killing someone.

The would-be victim, a computer professional named Barry Pomeroy, complains to the Glendale police that Dr. Boggs tried to murder him by prodding him with an electric device after meeting him at a bar called The Spike and inviting him to his office for an EKG.

The district attorney declines to press charges because of a lack of corroboration. At least one source says authorities dismissed the incident as a lovers’ spat.

Also, Dr. Boggs retains some remnants of his former success: A detective who hears of Pomeroy’s claim notes that Dr. Boggs has an excellent reputation in town.

April 15, 1988
Another try: Dr. Boggs — and possibly Hanson as well — chat up a stranger named Ellis Greene and somehow entice him to Dr. Boggs’ office. The doctor tasers Greene and murders him by suffocation, then puts Gene Hanson’s driver’s license, credit card, and birth certificate in the dead man’s wallet.

April 16, 1988
Dr. Boggs calls 911 and says a longtime patient named Gene Hanson (who was in reality alive and well and hiding) died from a heart attack in his office; he tried CPR, but it was no use.

Paramedics note that rigor mortis already set in. Dr. Boggs claims he tried to call 911 earlier but the line was busy.

Late April 1988
John Hawkins jets to California, identifies Greene’s body as Hanson’s, and puts in a claim for $1 million of the insurance money.

At some point, Hawkins has “Gene Hanson’s body” cremated to destroy evidence.

July 1988
Farmers New World Life Insurance sends Hawkins a check for $1 million.

A few days later, a case worker at the insurance company discovers Ellis Greene’s thumbprint taken at the morgue doesn’t match Gene Hanson’s thumbprint on record at the DMV.

Two other insurers deny claims filed by Hawkins.

Hawkins panics. He withdraws $400,000 from Just Sweats accounts and flees to Amsterdam. He buys a boat so he can travel freely.

Hanson also abandons Just Sweats stores, and flees separately.

Security workers at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport notice a nervous-looking man with plastic surgery scars on his face.

Suspecting he’s a drug courier, they detain the man and find he’s carrying $14,000 in cash.

Melvin Eugene Hanson

Although he gives his name as either Wolfgang von Snowden or George Soule (sources vary), he has Ellis Greene’s driver’s license. He’s also carrying a Dade County library book called How to Change Your Identity.

He is Gene Hanson. Police take him into custody.

Hanson claims he paid Dr. Boggs $50,000 to supply a corpse but had nothing to do with the murder of Ellis Greene.

John Hawkins is still at large.

October 10, 1989
The Los Angeles Times runs an in-depth article called “The Rise and Fall of Dr. Boggs.”

Dr. Boggs claims that he didn’t kill Greene; he was already dead. He also said that he only took part in the insurance fraud scheme because Hanson threatened to out him as gay.

Regardless, Dr. Boggs is convicted of murder and insurance fraud and gets a life sentence.

April 29, 1990
With John Hawkins still missing, America’s Most Wanted airs a segment about the sweatpants gang’s crime and asks for help locating him.

Oprah Winfrey has America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh on her show to discuss the manhunt.

A former girlfriend of Hawkins in Amsterdam sees the Oprah episode and offers info about his whereabouts.

August 1991
Authorities find Hawkins off the coast of Sardinia in a red catamaran named Carpe Diem. He angrily denies that he’s John Hawkins. They seize him anyway.

August 8, 1995
Gene Hanson goes to trial. He maintains that he thought Dr. Boggs was going to use a cadaver, not murder someone.

Nonetheless, a jury convicts him of murder and insurance fraud.

August 10, 1995
It’s Hawkins’ turn to go to trial. Like Hanson, he claims that Dr. Boggs was supposed to use a cadaver; the state drops the murder charge against Hawkins.

But Hawkins is found guilty of insurance fraud.

August 21, 1995
Gene Hanson receives life in prison without the possibility of parole.

October 13, 1995
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Paul G. Flynn gives John Hawkins 25 years to life — a lighter sentence than what his associates got.

Dr. Boggs dies in Corcoran State Prison in California at age 69.

March 2012
Hawkins wins early release from Donovan State Prison in San Diego in part because he participated in Convicts Reaching Out to People, or CROP, a program to help teens stay out of trouble.

May 2014
A Columbus Dispatch story reveals Hawkins lives with his mother in a San Diego recreational vehicle park and continues to work with troubled young people.

John Hawkins circa 2014

In a Columbus TV station WBNS-10 interview, Hawkins says he was an arrogant youth. He admits to participating in the insurance fraud scheme but again insists no one was supposed to die.

Hawkins tears up on camera and says he’s glad to have a second chance.

Hanson remains in prison at Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, California.

That’s all for this post. True Crime Truant will be on vacation next week and back with a new post on July 13. Until then, cheers.

Update: Read Part 3.

Just Sweats Gang Cheat Sheet

Smart Pants, Foolish Men
(“Mistaken for Dead,” Forensic Files)

The tale of how two sweatpants entrepreneurs and a friend used insurance fraud to bail themselves out of a financial hole was a five-star smorgasbord for any Forensic Files watcher.

The cast includes a brilliant doctor turned wicked, a two-timing male model, and a third accomplice who faked his own death and then (wait for it) got plastic surgery and hair transplants to change his identity.

Mistaken for Dead,” the Forensic Files episode about the case, weaves a Hollywood-worthy tangled web, to be sure.

The story plays out as something of a glam precursor to the Molly and Clay Daniels debacle, except with better dental work.

Unfortunately, the sweatpants gang actually killed someone (Molly and Clay only robbed a grave).

A number of readers who commented on the “Mistaken for Dead” episode on YouTube mentioned having trouble keeping the plot and the characters straight.

So this week’s post will be a cheat sheet for the 1988 crime’s four principals:

Dr. Richard Boggs, age 55
Role: Killer and conspirator
Who: Respected neurologist with a Harvard degree, a Tudor-style mansion in Glenwood, California, and an ex-wife and kids.
Why: Boggs was secretly living in a financial house of cards. He needed money.
Participation in crime: Lured Ellis Greene to his office, then murdered him as part of an insurance fraud plan hatched with Gene Hanson and John Hawkins.

Gene Hanson, age 46
Role: Conspirator
Who: Entrepreneur who co-owned a chain of 22 Just Sweats stores in Kentucky and Ohio with his lover and business partner John Hawkins.
Why: Just Sweats expanded too fast and was a financial disaster. Hanson wanted to disappear to escape responsibility for the business. He needed money.
Participation in crime: Faked his own death so his cohorts could collect $1.5 million in insurance payouts to be divided among him, Boggs, Hawkins.

John Hawkins, age 25
Role: Conspirator
Who: Young David Hasselhoff lookalike who co-owned Just Sweats chain. Hawkins appeared in commercials for Just Sweats before the bottom dropped out of the business. He ultimately became the object of a three-year manhunt.
Why: Like Hanson, Hawkins wanted to escape the financial disaster engulfing the retail clothing chain. He needed money.
Participation in crime: Served as the bagman. He was the beneficiary of Hanson’s $1.5 million in life insurance policies. After Hanson faked his own death, Hawkins flew from Ohio to California, collected $1 million from one of the policies, and vamoosed.

Ellis Greene, 32
Role: Victim
Who: Friendly accountant who lived in North Hollywood, California.
Why: One or two of the conspirators probably spotted Greene at a bar and realized he looked something like Hanson. Then, Dr. Boggs invited Greene to his medical office, assaulted him with a stun gun, and suffocated him. Dr. Boggs called 911 and said Greene’s dead body belonged to Hanson. That way, the three conspirators could get their hands on Hanson’s life insurance money.
Participation in crime: None. He was murdered by someone he thought was a new friend.

That’s all for this week. The next post will provide a timeline of the crime. Until then, cheers. — RR

Update: See the Just Sweats crime timeline.