A 35-year-old former nuclear submarine officer and NASA researcher pleaded guilty Tuesday to killing a man in a high-speed drunk-driving crash in Cleveland Heights.
Thomas “Hunt” Hawkins drank half-a-bottle of “the good kind” of whiskey, jumped behind the wheel of his Chevrolet pickup truck and sped his way to the VA hospital, according to police, court records and his attorney. Before he got there, Hawkins killed 65-year-old Eugene Rankin Jr., a retired laborer on his way home from working late.
Hawkins, dressed in an orange jumpsuit with his hands cuffed behind his back, pleaded guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide, failure to stop after an accident and drunken driving charges. He faces a minimum of two years in prison, and as much as 11 years behind bars.
Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Shaughnessy scheduled a sentencing hearing for March 11.
Hawkins, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, left his post on the USS Tennessee in 2016 for a position at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland as a project manager researching microgravity for the International Space Station, according to officials at each agency. He was suspended that same month after he emailed anti-Buddhist threats to a Southeast Asian colleague, records show.
Jan Wittery, a NASA spokeswoman, said Hawkins submitted his resignation last month.
Defense attorney Marcus Sidoti told cleveland.com that Hawkins was in the throes of a mental-health crisis that left his marriage in shambles and his career in a tailspin.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever represented a client as selfless as this guy,” Sidoti said. “He never wanted to hurt anyone, and was devastated when he found out that other driver died.”
‘I’m on my way home, babe’
The drunk microgravity scientist sped his way through intersections between his home in Solon and Cleveland Heights about 11 p.m. Aug. 15. When he came upon a red light at Mayfield and Taylor roads at about 11 p.m., Hawkins pressed the accelerator to the floor.
Rankin, a retired grandfather, was on the way to his Garfield Heights home from a job rehabbing homes he took to stay busy. He worked late that day — something his wife said he never did — and called her when he finished up.
Michelle Rankin told cleveland.com in an interview that she recalled her husband’s last words to her.
“’I’m on my way home, babe,’” she recalled. “An hour and a half later, police were knocking on my door telling me he was gone.”
Eugene Rankin was driving south on Taylor Road when a black pickup blew through a red light and slammed into the driver side front door of a Chevy sedan, witnesses later told police. The impact of the crash sent the cars careening more than 100 feet.
Hawkins got out of his truck and started to walk away from the scene, but bystanders who saw the crash chased him down and held him until police arrived, court records say.
Paramedics rushed both Eugene Rankin and Hawkins to a hospital. A Cleveland Heights police officer’s body camera captured video of the ride.
“Just kill me,” Hawkins said, according to court filings. “Just let me go. Let me die.”
Eugene Rankin was pronounced dead in the hospital. Hawkins suffered minor injuries and was later released into police custody.
Crash investigators recovered the black box from Hawkins’ truck. The data pulled from it show the truck’s gas pedal was pressed at full throttle for five seconds before the crash, court records say. Hawkins was going 71 mph when he slammed into Rankin’s car, the records say.
They also found a flight training manual and a knife inside the truck, records say.
A sample of Hawkins’ blood taken at the hospital showed he had a blood-alcohol content level of .199, more than twice the legal limit of .08, according to records.
‘Good thoughts, bad thoughts’
After Hawkins’ arrest, Cleveland Heights Sgt. David Speece uncovered police reports that chronicled the extent of the decline in his mental health in the weeks leading up to the crash.
NASA placed Hawkins on administrative leave Aug. 6 after he blind-copied another researcher, Padetha Tin, on a series of emails Hawkins sent to himself, Speece testified at an October court hearing. Hawkins identified himself as a Christian in the emails, and wrote that Buddhism, which Tin practiced, “was a poverty stricken religion, and that their worship and their ways were not welcome in the United States,” Speece testified.
Hawkins went on to suggest that nuclear weapons could be used to eradicate Buddhist people and take back land and resources in India, Speece said.
Hawkins, who was also facing marital troubles at the time, left work after his suspension and cellphone records show he drove to an old address where his wife once lived, Speece said.
After a stop at a hardware store, Hawkins set off for the Buddhist Meditation Center in Illinois, where Tin worshipped, Speece said.
Hawkins sat outside the facility for several hours and conducted surveillance of the center and of Tin, Speece said. In a later interview with police, Hawkins said he had “some good thoughts and some bad thoughts” while he was watching the center from his truck, Speece said.
Hawkins’ cellphone battery died on his surveillance quest. His wife worried when she couldn’t reach him and filed a missing persons report. The two were in the process of splitting up at the time, and she was so concerned about Hawkins’ mental health that she called up his parents in Florida and asked them to come to Ohio to help.
Hawkins returned to the home in Solon the next day. Police spotted his truck in the driveway, and interviewed him.
Hawkins told the officers that he suspected Tin, whose work for NASA focused on liquid crystals and the International Space Station, was using his research to control people’s minds, Speece said. He said he believed Tin controlled the mind of the 24-year-old man who shot and killed nine people at a bar in Dayton, Speece said.
Hawkins told the officers that the previous day’s emails were his attempt to expose Tin’s thought-control efforts.
Sidoti said the two were involved in a work-related disagreement, and that Hawkins never directly threatened harm to Tin and did not intend to harm any Buddhists.
Police also learned during the interview that Hawkins owned several weapons that were in his house. They arranged for Hawkins’ in-laws to take the guns and store them in their home in Summit County until his health improved, records say.
Hawkins declined to seek mental-health treatment at the urging of police. Hawkins told police that he was worried about the effect medication would have on his “high intellect,” Speece said. Eight days later, Hawkins stuck and killed Rankin.
He posted bond Aug. 29, and less than a week later again expressed suicidal thoughts to family members and disappeared from his home. Police tracked him down, and he expressed dismay that his life had been ruined, Speece said. Officers talked him into voluntarily seeking help and took him to a hospital for treatment.
Hawkins also was examined by the Common Pleas Court’s psychiatric clinic, which determined in a report handed over in November that he was competent to stand trial.
A family grieves
Eugene Rankin’s family members who attended Tuesday’s plea hearing remembered the man who went by the nickname “Butch” as a loving, caring husband, father, grandfather and uncle. He cared for his wife, who had multiple sclerosis, and also loved his dog, an American Bulldog named Buster, Michelle Rankin said.
The widow said she lost her caregiver. She added that Buster died earlier this month.
“[Hawkins] tore the family apart,” she said. “It’s hard for everybody.”
Otis Rodgers Jr. credited his uncle with raising him to be the man he is today. Rodgers, 52, spent time in an orphanage as a toddler before he went to live with his grandparents, who are Eugene Rankin’s parents. Rodgers said his uncle got him involved in wrestling as a child, which boosted his self-confidence and gave him a sense of toughness that he carried into a career in the U.S. Army.
Rodgers is now 52 and retired. He walks with a cane, and wore a three-piece suit with a purple felt fedora to court Tuesday.
“He knew that if you do something positive in life, and you help somebody and you encourage somebody, you give them an opportunity to be a better person, and that’s what he did for me,” Rodgers said. “You never know what seeds you planted until you see it bloom years later.”
Rodgers wept as he remembered a recent hobby he, Eugene Rankin and his now-22-year-old son picked up together — riding bicycles along the Towpath Trail. He laughed as he described the funny looks his friends would give him when they saw him in spandex.
“Every man has to have an older man to look up to, and now mine’s gone,” Rodgers said. “And I’m wondering, dear lord am I going to be enough for my son.”
© 2020 The Plain Dealer
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.