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Picks and Pans Review: Murder in Little Egypt

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by Darcy O’Brien

When Dr. Dale Cavaness was arrested for the murder of his son Sean in December 1984, patients and friends in southern Illinois who believed he was innocent—despite strong indications to the contrary—raised more than $36,000 to defend him. Cavaness contended that Sean had killed himself. But those who knew Cavaness best, his ex-wife, Marian Cavaness, and his son Kevin, realized the truth: The physician had shot his own son in the head to collect $147,000 in insurance money.

In this troubling book, O’Brien, a University of Tulsa English professor and author of Two of a Kind (about the Los Angeles Hillside stranglers’ case), writes about the detective work that fingered Cavaness. He also gives a wrenching account of how Cavaness’s family came to know that the doctor not only murdered Sean, 22, on a country road near Times Beach, Mo., but probably had killed another one of his four sons, Mark, seven years before. (Mark had been shot in the chest by a shotgun, apparently booby-trapped to go off when he picked it up; Cavaness was beneficiary of a $40,000 policy on Mark’s life.)

Although O’Brien states that “no man in Little Egypt was more admired than Dr. Dale,” what is largely missing from this book are the voices of those patients who argued that their doctor—who had delivered 4,000 babies, made house calls and didn’t worry if he wasn’t paid—could do no wrong. Even as youngsters, however, his children found Cavaness’s actions disturbing. Kevin recalled that when he was 4, Cavaness locked him in a closet and then told him not to be a crybaby. Kevin remembered “the sound of the lock clicking and his father’s footsteps fading down the hall. And then his father’s voice: disappointed in him and full of warning.”

O’Brien also writes that in 1980 Cavaness had been put on three years probation for medical benefits fraud. And insurance fraud was apparently all but a way of life for Cavaness from the time his house burned down in February 1970, leaving him $100,000 in benefits. Cavaness later collected fire insurance in 1983 when two mobile homes burned, and he was paid for the loss of a truck, a bulldozer and a tractor. Cavaness in fact drove around the countryside with a thermos of liquor on the front seat of his car and pleaded guilty to reckless homicide in a 1971 accident in which two people, including a 10-month-old baby, were killed. He was placed on probation.

O’Brien writes that Little Egypt, the section of southern Illinois where Cavaness lived, is “one of the most violent places in America.” But he fails to offer any satisfying explanation for what made Cavaness the man he became. All that’s certain is that Cavaness, convicted by a jury, was sentenced to death on Jan. 6, 1985, and hanged himself in his cell in Jefferson City, Mo., on Nov. 17, 1986. (Morrow, $19.95)