A karate expert and self-proclaimed psychic who appeared on several national TV shows in the 1980s wants a San Luis Obispo County jury to free him from a mental hospital. But the District Attorney’s Office says James Hydrick — also a reputed jail escape artist — is a dangerous sex offender who needs further treatment.
While Hydrick’s criminal past is appalling and extensive, his noncriminal past is both tragic and intriguing.
“He had a strange background,” forensic psychologist Theodore Donaldson testified Wednesday in San Luis Obispo Superior Court. “And, apparently, he crossed the line a number of times.”
Known as “Sir James,” the 54-year-old South Carolina native was a martial arts expert who had befriended Ed Parker, the man who taught Elvis Presley karate. In the early 1980s, he appeared on several national TV shows, including “That’s Incredible” and “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” claiming he could move objects across the room using only his powers of concentration.
But even as he appeared on national television, he was harboring dark secrets — including convictions for two kidnapping and torture cases from 1977. In 1989, he was convicted of molesting six boys in Huntington Beach, some of them runaways he had lured with his karate tricks.
“The kids were very attracted to that,” psychologist Jesus Padilla testified.
While Hydrick’s 17-year prison term ended years ago, he has been held involuntarily at state mental hospitals since.
According to California law, prisoners deemed sexually violent predators can be held at state mental hospitals indefinitely after their prison terms for treatment. Hydrick, who was initially sent to Atascadero State Hospital after his prison term, is allowed to petition a jury for his release.
During his current petition process, details about his past and crimes have slowly emerged.
As a child, Donaldson testified, Hydrick was “abused and abandoned and bounced around.” In a 1989 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Hydrick said he began learning karate at age 6 to protect himself and his siblings, after seeing one of his brothers beaten to death.
Despite his difficult background, he gained prominence for his karate and telekinesis. Yet while his psychic sleight-of-hand tricks earned him national TV exposure and a cult following, he was arrested repeatedly for crimes ranging from burglary to assault. His escapes from jails in three different states, meanwhile, earned him a reputation as an escape artist.
He once kicked through a concrete wall at a Georgia jail and broke through gates at a South Carolina prison. In 1982, he pole-vaulted over a fence at a state prison in Utah.
In a 1988 edition of Inside Kung-Fu magazine, a cover headline read: “Hydrick Escapes With His Life: No Guard Could Break Him, No Prison Could Hold Him.”
Wanted in California for the child molestation charges in 1989, Hydrick was apprehended after an off-duty Huntington Beach police officer saw him discussing psychic powers on the “Sally Jessy Raphael” talk show.
Private security guards transported him to jail in Arkansas, where he lived at the time the arrest warrant was issued. But they became concerned, thinking he was using supernatural powers to rock the van. When the frightened guards dumped him off at the Johnson County, Ark., jail, they warned jailers not to look him in the eye, saying Hydrick might cast a spell on them.
But Hydrick has been detained ever since his Orange County child molestation conviction. While he’s currently a patient at Coalinga State Hospital, his trial is being held in San Luis Obispo because he was initially a patient at Atascadero State Hospital.
After learning of his escapes and karate expertise, Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Duffy on Wednesday ordered that Hydrick be chained to a defense table.
During the trial, prosecution witness Padilla said Hydrick suffers from sex disorders such as pedophilia and paraphilia, and has an anti-social personality disorder. He has continued to have sexually deviant behavior while detained, Padilla said, and he has refused to participate in treatment programs.
“He doesn’t seem to have the ability to keep himself from engaging in this type of behavior,” Padilla said. “He’s been an extremely difficult patient.”
While Donaldson, testifying for the defense, said Hydrick’s behavior is not socially acceptable, he does not think he suffers from mental illness.
“I do not think he’s ever had serious difficulty controlling his behavior,” he testified. “Having urges doesn’t specify mental illness.”
The trial is expected to last through next week, when the jury will decide on his petition.