Who Killed 't.j. Hooker'?

updated 06/28/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/28/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE DEATH OF THOMAS WARREN HOOKER, 58, had all the trappings of a made-for-TV thriller. On April 19, an early morning fire broke out in the living room of Hooker's three-bedroom home in Littlerock, Calif., a tiny desert town north of Los Angeles. Hooker's third wife, Joy, 49, and his adopted son, David, 31, managed to leave the house uninjured. But Hooker, an invalid, did not. An autopsy later showed that the award-winning former LAPD hero cop—widely credited as the model for the TV character T.J. Hooker—died of smoke inhalation.

The plot thickened significantly six weeks later when Joy and David were charged with murder. According to legal documents filed in the municipal district court in nearby Lancaster, the couple confessed to setting the blaze but insisted they did not intend to kill Hooker. They said they only wanted to collect home insurance money. "They talked about how they were going to escape and make it look like an accident," says LAPD Homicide Sgt. Doral Riggs. "But not once did they mention what they were going to do for him."

Riggs ascribes a different motive to the crime. He says Joy and David had been having an affair since last fall, when David returned to Little-rock after spending nearly 10 years in a federal prison for bank robbery. "She said it was just like a miracle, him coming there," says Riggs. "They got so close to one another. Before they knew it, things just got out of hand."

The murder charges were no surprise to DeeAnne Eldridge, 27, Hooker's adopted daughter, who lives across the street from the house where her father died. She was suspicious of David and Joy from the moment Joy appeared at the Eldridge house in slippers and a robe, urging DeeAnne to call 911. "She had no reaction," says DeeAnne. "She kept saying: 'Wasn't it cold last night? We were so cold, we had to make a fire.' "

Hooker's life was as dramatic as his death. Born in Los Angeles, he joined the police force in 1960. The following year he was awarded the department's medal of honor for rushing into a burning apartment building to lead occupants to safety. During the 1965 Watts riots, he was implicated in the shooting death of a rioter but was later acquitted of any wrongdoing. Not long after the shooting, he was traumatized when his partner was shot and killed just a few feet in front of him. For many years Hooker was plagued with nightmares. Then, in the early 1970s, his marriage of 19 years ended in divorce.

Two years after he retired in 1980, the TV show T.J. Hooker, starring a post-Star Trek William Shatner, went on the air. It was based on the exploits of a veteran cop, hardened by divorce and the shooting death of his partner. Hooker—and various newspapers and magazines—were convinced the show was based on his career, although the show's creator, Rick Musky, denies any connection. "I'm sort of a Civil War buff, and I took the name from the Union General Joe Hooker," Husky says.

In 1983, Hooker, by then twice divorced, married Joy, the ex-wife of one of his LAPD colleagues. Five years later his health began to deteriorate. His diabetes look a dramatic turn for the worse, causing kidney failure, requiring the amputation of several toes and rendering him legally blind. For the next few years Joy was Hooker's nurse, homemakerand helpmate. She also managed his pension but eventually fell behind in mortgage payments. Then David got out of prison. He quickly assumed the role of man of the house, says DeeAnne. During the day he worked at a roofing business owned by one of Joy's sons from her previous marriage. At night he went out with Joy. "She was lonely, and my brother didn't have anybody," says DeeAnne.

Hooker didn't need his sight to sense what was going on, says DeeAnne. "After a while none of us were guessing anymore," she says. "We knew. We'd talk openly about it. He'd call and say, 'Oh, guess where the lovers went tonight?' " During the last three months of his life, DeeAnne says, Hooker felt trapped. "He'd call and tell me: 'I don't want them to have any of my money. I don't want him living here anymore.' I told him he could come live with us, hut he always said he didn't want to be a burden."

According to Joy's testimony, she fixed Tom a large dinner on April 18. Around 8 p.m., Joy gave Tom his medication, including an extra sleeping pill. David says he joined the couple to watch a video of Tales from the Crypt. Around midnight, Joy walked a groggy Tom to bed. She and David wailed until 2:30 a.m. to make their next move, they said. First, David rolled a log around in the fireplace, spilling burning embers onto a rug. Then he and Joy set a love seat on fire with blazing newspapers, winked a screeching smoke de-lector from the ceiling and went to their respective bedrooms. David periodically checked the fire's progress. An hour later he calmly helped Joy out of her window. She went to the Eldridge house across the street to get help.

"When they first got arrested, I cried for them," DeeAnne says. "I cried because they threw their lives away, all because of money." But DeeAnne also recognized a "cold and vindictive" side to Joy that was all too complementary to David's enthusiasm for troublemaking. "Put the two of them together," says Dee Anne, "and it was a murder plot just waiting to happen."

JOHNNY DODD in Littlerock

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