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Every body has a story.
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November 23, 1959—November 4, 1982
Content warning: this article contains potentially disturbing content, including references to divorce, infant death, domestic violence, severe medical conditions, gruesome homicide, and what some people (including myself) consider a gross miscarriage of justice. Please use your best judgment as to whether you wish to read this content. Language is PG-13, but some topics may be considered R-rated.
Dominique Ellen Dunne was born on November 23, 1959, probably in Los Angeles, California, to Dominick and Ellen (née Griffin) Dunne. She joined brothers Griffin and Alexander. Dunne was predeceased by a sister, also named Dominique, who had been born the previous year and only lived for 23.5 hours (July 28-July 29, 1958). The first Dominique died from cardiac arrest due to hyaline membrane disease (now called respiratory distress syndrome), which mainly occurs in premature infants. Dunne was also predeceased by a sister who lived for 31 hours (March 3-March 5, 1963) and died from the same disease as her oldest sister. She was not given a name.
Dunne’s father, a future best-selling author/immensely popular journalist, was just an average Joe at the time of her birth, but her mother was a wealthy heiress. Dunne grew up in a boxy but beautiful home at 714 Walden Drive in Beverly Hills, California, and lived a “comfortable” life—until she didn’t.
Dunne’s father’s brother was the famed writer John Gregory Dunne, who was married to fellow famed writer Joan Didion.
Though Dunne’s parents divorced in the mid-1960’s, they remained close for the rest of their lives. I believe neither remarried. Dunne lived with her mother throughout her childhood.
Dunne loved animals and for most of her life was an owner of/servant to a menagerie of pets. She tended to take in hard-to-adopt animals that had special needs.
Dunne attended high school at three schools: the all-girl Westlake half of Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles; Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut; and Fountain Valley School in Fountain, Colorado—all great schools, and all schools whose yearly tuition is roughly equivalent to the average US individual’s annual income.
There are reports that after high school she attended the University of Colorado or Colorado State University-Fort Collins for a year and/or studied at the Milton Katselas Workhop. Milton Katselas is a very well-known acting teacher I have never heard of before. I could not find any corroborating information about any of those educational claims. However, I could confirm that after high school she spent a year attending a Florence, Italy, school, where she learned the Italian language and presumably other educational things as well.
Then she came home and got down to the business of business. Her first television job was a supporting role in the 1979 television movie Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker. From there she was signed on for guest starring roles in long-running television shows Family and Lou Grant. She appeared in three episodes of the television series Breaking Away, but since the series itself only lasted for eight episodes, it’s unclear whether she was playing a recurring character or was featured in a three-episode story arc.
Although Dunne was steadily employed from just about the first day she started looking for work, she got her “big break” in 1981 when she was cast as Dana Freeling, one of the main characters in Steven Spielberg’s horror film Poltergeist (affiliate link).
Principal photography for Poltergeist wrapped up in August of 1981, and Dunne moved on to other projects, including an episode of the short-lived television drama series The Quest. Her character was called Italian Girl, so now we know she was able to make good use of her post-high school education.
Sometime later that year, Dunne attended a party where she met up-and-coming chef John Thomas Sweeney. The party might have taken place at Ma Maison, a très chic West Hollywood eatery of the day. Sweeney was employed there as a sous chef at the time, which had afforded him the opportunity to train under world renowned chef Wolfgang Puck for a while.
Dunne and Sweeney dated for only a few weeks/months before moving into a lovely Rangely Avenue, West Hollywood, house together. The house was less than a mile from Ma Maison; there’s no telling how long Dunne’s work commute was.
Poltergeist was released in the United States and Canada on June 4, 1982. It brought in almost $7,000,000 on its opening weekend. Dunne went from rising star to movie star practically overnight—although by all accounts she remained her fun-loving, grounded, kind self. Poltergeist ended up grossing over $75,000,000, so of course a sequel was called for. Dunne was slated to reprise her role.
In the mid-summer of 1982 Dunne and Sweeney traveled to New York City so she could introduce him to her father and brothers. According to all of them, Sweeney impressed none of them. They were all concerned about Sweeney’s overbearing and controlling attitude toward her, as well as his many displays of short-temperedness toward Dunne and others (he almost started a fistfight at a restaurant with a man who had the audacity to initiate a friendly chat with Dunne), but for the most part, her polite family voiced their negative opinions out of her earshot.
If Sweeney had not already begun physically abusing Dunne by this time, he started shortly thereafter. There was a report of a witnessed altercation in late August, when he beat her and pulled clumps of hair out of her head. She stayed at her mother’s nearby house for a few days after that, but ended up returning to Sweeney.
A month later he beat her and then threw her to the floor and started strangling her. Fortunately they had company at the time who heard the altercation and came to Dunne’s rescue. A terrified Dunne managed to sneak out of the house and get to her electric blue convertible Volkswagon Beetle. Sweeney heard the car start and came running out of the house. He managed to jump on the hood of the car, but when he realized that Dunne was not going to back down he climbed off, and she was able to escape to the home of a friend.
The very next day Dunne was scheduled to begin filming an episode of the Hill Street Blues television series, playing an abused teenager. When she showed up for work, they took one look at her and decided that she didn’t need makeup to make her look like a victim of abuse; her real injuries were graphic enough.
After she took a few days to recover from the shock of the most recent incident with Sweeney, she told him over the phone that the relationship was over. He moved out of their shared house, and she had the locks changed and moved back in. (In an article published in Vanity Fair magazine, Dunne’s father said that Sweeney always seemed to be broke, so it’s quite possible/probable that Dunne was the sole legal homeowner.) Friends said that from then on she would often admit to them how terrified she was of Sweeney and what he might do.
When Dunne’s Hill Street Blues obligation was completed, she moved on to start work on the television miniseries V (affiliate link), in which she was slated to play Robin Maxwell. Shooting had begun by October 30, and that evening she and co-star David Packer settled down in her living room for a rehearsal session. A short time later Sweeney showed up (he had just walked there from his place of employment after allegedly downing a couple of martinis) and insisted on talking to her. At first Dunne would only speak to him through the closed door, but she eventually agreed to step out onto the porch. It would be the last decision of her life.
Just moments later Packer, still inside the house, heard banging and screaming. He called the police, who basically said, “It’s not my job” (wrong jurisdiction). Why they didn’t give him the correct number to call, or why Packer did not ask them for it, has never been explained. Packer did, however, leave a message on a friend’s answering machine, saying that if he (Packer) was murdered that night, John Sweeney would be the killer.
For some reason Packer then decided to venture out of the house, where he found Sweeney and Dunne in/near the back yard. Sweeney was straddling Dunne’s limp body. Packer called the police again (reports differ on whether he came up with the idea on his own or whether he did so at Sweeney’s urging). The police responded this time, so apparently Packer had finally found a correct phone number.
By the time officers got there Sweeney was in the driveway with his hands up (didn’t want to chance getting himself a boo-boo, I presume). Allegedly he told them, “I killed my girlfriend, and I tried to kill myself.” (Sweeney claimed that in the short time between Packer’s second phone call to the police and the time police arrived, he had entered the house and swallowed the contents of “two bottles” of pills. He must have consumed the bottles as well, because they were never found. The police officers who responded to the call stated that Sweeney was “calm and collected” and showed none of the obvious effects they would have expected to see in someone who had overdosed.)
Although Sweeney had said he had killed Dunne, he hadn’t, in fact, done so—yet. He inflicted injuries that caused her to linger in a brain-dead state in her hospital bed in the Intensive Care Unit of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, which caused her family to suffer through days of untold emotional pain before then having to allow doctors to “pull the plug.”
Dunne was relieved of her earthly burdens on November 4, 1982. Her heart and both kidneys were donated to transplant recipients.
Her funeral was held at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills on November 6, sometime after which she was buried in Los Angeles’s Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.
Sweeney’s trial displayed the worst the American justice system had to offer. His defense team presented the scenario that poor, naive Sweeney was overwhelmed by the new, glamorous life situation he had found himself in because of his employment. He fell in love with a stuck-up and selfish celebrity who used him and then callously threw him aside, causing him to snap. The incident was not a murder, it was a “tragedy.”
My rebuttal: from 1977 through 1980 Sweeney had been in an on-again, off-again relationship with another woman, whom he had seriously beaten ten times. Two of these times resulted in her need for multi-day hospitalizations. The defense team had known all this since before Dunne had been officially declared dead. (There have also been other, unspecified reports from many sources about him committing violence against other women.) As for Dunne’s personality and behavior: she had a huge number of loved ones, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. The only people who ever said she was stuck-up and selfish were the lawyers representing her murderer. Of course, the judge did not allow testimony from/about the previous girlfriend to be presented, because, basically, it would make Sweeney look bad. He did, however, allow the unchecked character assassination of Dunne.
Sweeney was found guilty of misdemeanor assault for the September choking (he had admitted to being the one who inflicted her multitudinous injuries, but claimed they were all accidental) and voluntary manslaughter for the actual murder. He was sentenced to the time mandated by law, six and a half years. Since he had already been locked up for a few months during the trial and had earned an automatic sentence reduction because he was a good boy in prison (obviously he could control his uncontrollable rage when faced with people who could hurt him back), he was out on the streets about two and a half years after his conviction. Better than no sentence at all, I suppose—but barely.
Other lowlights of the trial: 1. Sweeney’s appointed public defender, Michael Adelson, has been called tough and ruthless, and probably could have handled the case by himself. However, according to Dunne’s father in his Vanity Fair article “Justice,” about the murder, trial, and aftermath, shortly after Sweeney’s final attack on Dunne, Ma Maison owner Patrick Terrail publicly defended “very dependable” Sweeney and said he “would obtain the best legal representation for him.” Subsequently Terrail denied he had anything to do with Sweeney’s legal team. He stated that Ma Maison’s high-priced legal counsel, Joseph Shapiro—who was present in the courtroom almost continuously throughout the trial; frequently visited Sweeney in jail; and had numerous discussions with defense witnesses, both with and without Adelson present—was just attending the trial to provide moral support for his friend Sweeney.
2. Presiding judge Burton S. Katz (who counted among his friends Defense Attorney Michael Adelson) made several controversial decisions favoring the defense. Besides not allowing in Sweeney’s ex-girlfriend’s testimony because its “prejudicial effect outweighed the probative value,” he made the same ruling for the same reason about Dunne’s mother’s potential testimony regarding the night Dunne came to her house after fleeing Sweeney’s rage-fueled battering. In another ruling the judge determined that the testimony of all of the witnesses the prosecution intended to put on the stand to testify about Dunne’s fear of Sweeney was hearsay. (I looked up the legal definition of hearsay to get the specifics, and I found several clauses that could be cited to refute his determination.)
In yet another decision Katz acquiesced to the defense’s request that the charges be amended from the choice of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, or manslaughter to just second-degree murder or manslaughter. The defense’s rationale was, “There is no premeditation or deliberation in this case.” The judge agreed and went on to point out that Sweeney did not bring a murder weapon with him. (I’m sure virtually everyone reading this would beg to differ.) The prosecution counter-argued that the jury should be responsible for deciding whether the charge of first-degree murder was applicable, saying that Sweeney had up to six minutes to deliberate—the time he spent strangling Dunne. The judge went on to remind everyone that Sweeney had made no attempt to escape (for the life of me, I cannot think why that would have any bearing on the charges), and then went on to rule in favor of the defense.
3. Sweeney had an outburst in the courtroom one day, but unfortunately it happened at a time when the jury was not there to see it. After that he became noticeably more subdued, and the prosecuting attorney suspected he was being medicated in order to control his temper. The prosecutor requested Sweeney get a blood test to find out one way or another, but the judge denied the prosecutor’s request.
4. Sweeney testified that he could not remember strangling Dunne, and it appears the jury believed him. Apparently he was never asked in court whether he remembered his September assault on Dunne, and it’s certain he was never asked in court whether he remembered the numerous other times he violently assaulted women, because those incidents were never allowed to be presented to the jury.
Sweeney also testified that Dunne had agreed to reconcile with him and that was what he wanted to talk to her about that night. He claimed that Dunne had abruptly changed her mind at the last minute, which caused him to lose control. It’s possible the jury believed this, as there was no contradictory evidence presented. Anyone who might have disagreed with him had either been previously barred from testifying by the judge or murdered by Sweeney.
4. Immediately after the verdicts for the two charges were read, the judge delivered the requisite instructions to the jury regarding their sentencing choices (he had reportedly written the instructions while he was supposed to be listening to the prosecuting attorney give his closing argument). After the sentencing hearing was done and over with, the jury foreman stated publicly that the jury hadn’t understood the judge’s instructions, and when they asked for clarifications—four separate times—they were told by the judge four separate times that everything they needed was in the instructions.
5. Immediately after the verdict was read, Defense Attorney Michael Adelson shouted, “Probation!”
Highlights of the trial: none.
While the Dunnes were trying to recuperate from the trial and prepare themselves for the next phase of the ordeal, someone let them know that if they spoke at the sentencing, Adelson intended to cross-examine them. (I didn’t even know that was a thing.) Adelson also planned to present testimony from psychiatrists who had ostensibly talked to Sweeney and deemed him to be a non-violent person, and also present a videotape of Sweeney “under hypnosis” reiterating his claim that he did not remember committing the offense. None of that happened.
I don’t know if Adelson still went through with his plan to seek probation, but if not, I’m sure he would have—and might have gotten it—if the following had not happened: as soon as the world outside of the courtroom learned of Sweeney’s practically nonexistent sentencing options, there was a public outcry by citizens and the media. Even though the jurors weren’t allowed to hear much of the evidence throughout the trial, after it was over everyone heard everything. Someone in news media took a poll, and Judge Katz tied for fourth-worst judge in Los Angeles county. (I’m a little surprised he scored that high.) On sentencing day, picketers descended upon the Santa Monica Courthouse steps to protest the verdict and the judge.
In an attempt to salvage his tarnished image Judge Katz did a complete turnaround, calling Sweeney at the sentencing a murderer who killed “with malice.” Throwing the jury directly under the wheels of the bus (figuratively speaking), he expressed shock and dismay at the ‘inadequate” verdict—the same verdict about which he said, in effect, “justice has been served” immediately after it had been rendered. Not to mention, he and only he had been responsible for taking the possibility of first-degree murder charges off the table. Of course, his public outrage meant nothing; Sweeney’s sentencing was locked in by the law, based on the crimes of which he was found guilty.
Shortly after the trial ended, Dunne’s mother founded the advocacy support group “Justice for Victims of Homicide.” When Sweeney was released on parole (less than four years after the murder) he quickly got a job cheffing at a swanky Southern California restaurant. When Mrs. Dunne’s support group got wind of it, members would stand in front of the restaurant during dinner service on the shifts Sweeney worked and hand out papers to incoming patrons. On the papers was written something along the lines of: “The food you will eat tonight was prepared by the hands that killed Dominique Dunne.” Soon after, Sweeney either quit or was fired. He then moved away, reportedly to the Pacific northwest of the US. He also changed his name to John Maura, which remained a secret for about a hot minute.
“Maura’s” last known residency was in the San Francisco, California, area, where allegedly he is or was head chef at a senior living facility. Heaven help them if he takes a shine to any of them.