An American Tragedy That Brought Death to Actress Dominique Dunne Now Brings Outrage to Her Family
This is a story about love and death. It begins a few days ago in a large, bare Santa Monica courtroom. A young man in a black suit sits at a long table. His name is John Thomas Sweeney and he is 27. His face is as white as an egg and he is blinking rapidly. His large pale hands lie folded meekly over a Bible. Eleven months ago, in an act of violence that horrified the entertainment community like no crime since the Manson murders, the same hands closed around the throat of an actress named Dominique Dunne and brutally choked off her life.
The crime had overtones of high tragedy. Both victim and killer were young, talented, well on the way to success in creative professions. Dominique was a child of California’s cultural aristocracy—her father was movie producer Dominick Dunne (The Boys in the Band, Ash Wednesday); her brother Griffin was an actor and producer; her aunt and uncle were authors Joan Didion (Salvador, The White Album) and John Gregory Dunne (True Confessions, Dutch Shea, Jr.). Already, at 22, Dominique had shown impressive promise in dozens of TV roles and as the teenage daughter in 1982’s Poltergeist. And Sweeney was chief assistant to the renowned chef at Ma Maison, the glamorous L.A. restaurant where the show-business elite meet to meal and deal.
The affair between John and Dominique began about two years ago in a heady swirl of excitement. They met at a party, felt strongly attracted and in a few weeks had rented a house together. Physically they made a striking couple. He was large (6’1″, nearly 200 pounds) and powerfully muscled, an athlete who worked out regularly. She was petite (5’1″, 112 pounds), soft and girlishly aglow. At first they were thrilled by how much they had in common—they both liked Europe, languages, animals, cooking.
Difficulties began to surface before long, however: differences of temperament and schedules sharpened by the contrast between their backgrounds. Dominique had grown up in a family that loved her dearly and dealt with emotional problems (her parents divorced when she was 11) in a considerate way. She was comfortable with her feelings, sure of her worth, unawed by the famous and powerful.
John, in contrast, grew up poor in the Pennsylvania coal town of Hazleton, the eldest child of a troubled family. John’s mother says his father was an alcoholic who worked out his frustrations by beating her, often in full view of the children. The father developed epilepsy and was divorced by his wife when John was 14. John’s mother worked as a waitress and kept the family together. Bitterly ashamed of his family and filled with a sense of worthlessness because he was a member of it, John longed to escape into a larger and more exciting life. At 19, he took a culinary arts course at Luzerne (Pa.) Community College. At 20, diploma in hand, he took a bus to California and got a job in the kitchen of an L.A. restaurant named Picolo’s. A year later he was hired as a chef’s apprentice at Patrick Terrail’s Ma Maison.
Ferociously ambitious and genuinely talented, John worked double shifts and learned fast. After two years he took a leave of absence to spend a year at the L’Oasis restaurant on the French Riviera. Back at Ma Maison, he became chef Wolfgang Puck’s chief assistant. When Puck left to start the successful Spago restaurant, John ran the whole Ma Maison kitchen until owner Terrail could import a French master chef.
John loved his work, but he also loved the glamour of Ma Maison and longed to be part of the elegant world he glimpsed there. Dominique gave him easy entrée to that world, which enhanced the excitement of being with her. But there was angst as well as elation. Among Dominique’s clever friends, the poor boy from Hazleton felt his old sense of worthlessness surging back, and with it a dread that Dominique would reject him.
Fear became jealousy and jealousy possessiveness. John began to want more and more control of Dominique’s life, and he asserted it in the cunning guise of devotion. He went to her riding and acting classes. He showed up on the set when she was working. He questioned her eagerly about what she told the therapist they shared. The very idea that she might be playing love scenes with male actors made him frantic. He even berated her for having abortions that apparently existed only in his imagination.
Feeling stifled, she began to resist this emotional tyranny, and the more she resisted the more frightened he became of rejection. His fear often flipped into anger. Long bitter arguments ended with John in a rage and Dominique running out of the house. “Don’t live for me,” she wrote in a letter she never sent him. “Live for yourself. You do not love me. You are obsessed with me. The person you think you love is not me at all. It is someone you have made up in your head. I think we only fight when images of me fade away and you are faced with the real me. The only man I am interested in is you, but we are not compatible. When we are good, we are great. But when we are bad, we are horrendous. The bad outweighs the good…The whole thing has made me realize how scared I am of you.”
Her fear soon had reason to escalate. On Aug. 27, 1982, at the height of a quarrel, he grabbed her by her long, thick hair and, by one account, yanked her about so violently that handfuls came out by the roots. Terrified, she ran out and drove to her mother’s house. A little later John arrived and banged on the doors and windows, demanding to be let in. Mrs. Dunne told him to go home or she would call the police, and after a while he left. Some days later Dominique relented and went back to live with him.
Within a month a more alarming outburst occurred. Shortly after 3 a.m., John and Dominique quarreled. Suddenly he grabbed her by the neck, threw her to the floor and began to strangle her. Fortunately a friend who was sleeping in a nearby bedroom heard a series of loud gagging noises—”It was the worst sound I had ever heard”—and ran to her room. “He tried to kill me!” Dominique gasped. John denied it and insisted she come back to bed. Pretending to yield, Dominique slipped out the bathroom window. When John heard her car start up, he sprinted out of the house and flung himself on the front of the car. She drove off, stopped long enough to let him jump off, then raced away. Large, dark bruises lingered for days at the base of her throat.
For Dominique, that was the end of the affair. Convinced that he was dangerously out of control, she hid out at a friend’s house and at her mother’s, traveling around town when she knew he was at work. Wild with anxiety, John called dozens of her friends but couldn’t find her. Finally, several days later, she called him and persuaded him to move out of their house. When he did, she had the locks changed and moved back in.
Was there a reconciliation? At his trial John insisted that on Oct. 26 they made up, agreed to live together again and even discussed marriage. For all these claims, there is no evidence beyond John’s unsupported assertion.
What is known is that on Oct. 30, at 8:30 p.m., Dominique was talking on the phone with a woman friend when John had the operator cut in. “Oh God, it’s Sweeney,” she told the friend. “Let me get him off the phone.” Ten minutes later John appeared at her door. Leaving the chain fastened, Dominique cracked the door and spoke with him. Behind her stood an actor named David Packer, 22, who was there to rehearse a scene. “Do you want me to leave?” Packer asked. “No,” Dominique said. “I’ll talk with him on the porch.” She went out.
Packer soon heard angry voices. Then he heard loud smacking sounds as John hit the window ledge with his open hand. Then he heard two screams and a thud. Frightened, he called the police. The officer said that the scene of the disturbance was out of the police department’s jurisdiction. Packer telephoned an acquaintance and told him that if he was found dead, the killer was John Sweeney. Then he slipped out the back door. As he approached the driveway, he saw John crouching by the bushes. Their eyes locked. “Call the police,” John said. John met the police with his hands up. “I killed my girlfriend,” he said, “and I tried to kill myself.”
What had happened? At the trial John gave his version, the only one there will ever be—one that made Dominique seem two-faced and heartless. He said she “began to tell me that she didn’t want to reconcile…that she had been lying about it.” Shocked and upset, he asked her: “What about our daily discussions of children and getting married…Was that all lies?” According to John, Dominique said yes. Then he said: “You mean, all this time you have just been leading me on?” Again according to John, Dominique said, “Yes. I have been lying to you.” At that point, John told the court, “I just exploded and lunged toward her.”
John said he had no memory of what happened after that until he found himself on top of Dominique with his hands around her neck. Soon after that, he says, he noticed that she wasn’t breathing. He picked her up and tried to make her walk. She fell down. He tried to administer CPR. She vomited and he vomited too. Then, he says, he ran into the house and swallowed two bottles of pills. After that he lay down beside Dominique and reached inside her mouth to pull her tongue out of her throat, as he had done for his epileptic father.
That was Sweeney’s story. Police investigators do not believe it. One of the investigating officers concluded that John must have choked Dominique for a full five minutes. The medical examiner testified that she was choked for at least three minutes. In another investigator’s opinion, Sweeney had plenty of time to regain control and let Dominique live.
Investigators found no evidence that John had swallowed pills. Arresting police found him “calm and collected” and much more interested in his own fate than in Dominique’s. On the way to the police station he told a cop: “I fucked up…I can’t believe I did something that will put me behind bars forever…Man, I blew it. I killed her. I didn’t think I choked her that hard. I just kept on choking her.”
John’s first interrogation, about an hour and a half after his arrest, suggests that he was far from remorseful. He refused to let the interrogator use a tape recorder and wondered warily if anyone was listening outside the door. Later, when the officer remarked that Dominique had been doing quite well in her career, Sweeney replied: “Well, I was doing quite well in my career. I’m quite proud of what I’ve done.”
Meanwhile, Dominique lay at that time in a tragic trance that was really death rouged over. When she arrived at the hospital her heart had come to a full stop. Machines had it started again, but there was no way to reverse the death of her brain. After five days, on Nov. 4, her family signed her off the life-support systems. Her heart stopped instantly.
Sweeney was charged with murder. When the case came to trial in early August, there was new and damaging evidence against him. Investigators discovered that from 1977 to 1980, John had lived on and off with a woman named Lillian Pierce, a secretary, who testified that he had beaten her on 10 separate occasions. Once he put her in the hospital with a perforated eardrum and a collapsed lung; another time he broke her nose.
The prosecutor, hoping for a second-degree (unpremeditated) murder conviction with a minimum 15-year sentence, fought hard to have Pierce’s testimony admitted into evidence. But John’s court-appointed attorney, Michael Adelson, managed to convince Judge Burton S. Katz to exclude her account of John’s violent past as prejudicial. Adelson advanced a “heat of passion” defense, based on John’s testimony that Dominique had cruelly deceived him. Unaware of Sweeney’s violent history, the jury two weeks ago found him guilty merely of voluntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of six years in prison.
On hearing the verdict, Sweeney sighed and laid his head on his attorney’s shoulder. Then he nodded toward the jury. In fact, he did not have them to thank so much as the law. “The law protected him,” the jury foreman said later. “If I could have written the law, I would have written it for first-or second-degree murder.”
Dominique’s parents angrily agreed. When the judge told the jury they had “served justice well,” Dominique’s father objected firmly: “Not for our family.” And not for society, says the prosecuting attorney: Even if Sweeney gets the maximum sentence, he could be free in two and a half years. “The verdict,” a friend of the family adds, “almost says it’s okay to kill the one you love.”