It’s a day much like any other in October 1982, and actors Dominique Dunne and David Packer are reading lines in Dominique’s home in West Hollywood, California. But after an angry visitor arrives on the doorstep, what had been a regular rehearsal quickly turns into a nightmare when David discovers Dominique’s lifeless body in the yard. And days later, the starlet dies in hospital – a tragedy that marks the start of one of showbiz’s most infamous murder cases.
Born in October 1925 in Hartford, Connecticut, Dominique’s father, Dominick, came from a wealthy Irish Catholic background. And among his five siblings was John Gregory, who would grow up to become a successful novelist and critic. Dominick’s younger brother also ultimately married and started a family with the American journalist Joan Didion – herself a noted writer known for her work on the decline of the American dream.
Dominick developed his own burgeoning career, though, by becoming a movie and TV producer before turning his hand to writing. And in 1954 he married Ellen Beatriz Griffin – an actress known by the nickname Lenny. Together, the pair moved to New York and later settled in Beverly Hills in California.
However, Dominick’s marriage to Lenny was marred by tragedy, with the couple losing two infant girls to lung diseases. Fortunately, their third daughter, Dominique, survived along with two older sons: Griffin, who would also grow up to become an actor, and Alexander, who was known as Alex.
Having entered the world in November 1959 in Santa Monica, California, Dominique was therefore just a young girl when her parents decided to divorce in 1967. As the future star grew up, though, she attended the prestigious Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles before enrolling at Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut and ultimately graduating from Colorado’s Fountain Valley School.
As a young woman, Dominique then traveled to Florence, Italy, where she lived for a year and spent her time learning the language. And, eventually, she announced her dream of making it as an actress – a career move that came as no surprise to her doting father. So, after studying under director Milton Katselas in Beverly Hills, Dominique finally took her first steps into the showbiz world.
To begin with, Dominique appeared in a number of stage productions, including The Mousetrap, West Side Story and My Three Angels, before landing her screen debut in the 1979 TV movie Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker. A succession of small parts flooded in after that, too. And the young actress began to make a name for herself after being cast in some of the era’s most iconic shows, such as Fame, Lou Grant and Hart to Hart.
But it was in 1981 that Dominique got her big break. That year, she appeared in her first feature film: Tobe Hooper’s future cult classic Poltergeist. In the horror movie, she took the role of Dana Freeling – the eldest daughter of a family who appear to be plagued by violent ghosts.
Thanks to the success of Poltergeist, then, Dominique’s Hollywood career went from strength to strength. And in 1982 she bagged another big role: Robin Maxwell in V, an NBC miniseries about an alien invasion of Earth. However, before the rising star could even finish filming the pilot, tragedy struck.
And Dominique’s fate was ultimately tied up with that of one John Sweeney, whom the actress had met at a party the previous year. At the time, John was working as a cooking assistant at Ma Maison – a fashionable restaurant in West Hollywood. He came from a difficult background, too; one of five siblings, he had been a child of divorce and domestic abuse.
But even though John’s past contrasted with Dominique’s privileged and wealthy upbringing, the pair apparently hit it off. Indeed, after only a few months of dating, the fledgling couple decided to move in together. Yet according to reports, the relationship soon began to crumble. By the time that Dominique’s family had met John, in fact, the cracks were apparently beginning to show.
During that period, Dominique’s father, Dominick, was living in New York. Her mother, Lenny, by contrast, was still in Beverly Hills, although she had relocated to a smaller house in the Californian city that would be easier to manage after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Meanwhile, Dominique’s brothers, Griffin and Alex, were forging their own lives over on the East Coast near their dad.
And according to Dominick, Dominique traveled to New York with John to introduce him to her family relatively early on in their relationship. Still, the father clocked pretty quickly that something was wrong. As Dominick recalled in a 1984 article for Vanity Fair, “That night, I phoned her mother and said, ‘He’s much more in love with her than she is with him.’”
But that wasn’t all. Apparently, when Dominique, John and Alex were enjoying a night out in Manhattan, a disturbing incident unfolded. According to Dominick, John left his girlfriend to go to the bathroom, and in that time she was approached by an inebriated fan. Yet even though the encounter was seemingly innocent, Alex recalled the chef reacting with alarming anger.
“There was no flirtation; it was the case of a slightly tipsy fan delighted to be in the presence of an actress he had seen in a film,” Dominick explained to Vanity Fair. “But when Sweeney returned to the table and saw the man talking with Dominique, he became enraged. He picked up the man and shook him. Alex said that Sweeney’s reaction was out of all proportion to the incident going on. Alex said he was scary.”
Distressingly, Dominick’s suspicions about his daughter’s new boyfriend seemed to be on the money, as on August 27, 1982, another frightening incident was reported to have occurred. According to People magazine, on that date John physically assaulted Dominique – even apparently going so far as to pull out clumps of her hair. Afterwards, it’s said, the frightened actress was forced to take refuge in her mother’s home.
Then, the next month, on September 26, Dominique and John argued again – this time after a night out with friends. And the disagreement reportedly culminated in another attack, after which the actress was left with bruises and marks around her throat. According to Dominick, the actress fled through a window before making a getaway to the home of her friend Norman Carby.
At the time of the alleged assault, Dominique was working on police drama Hill Street Blues in the role of an abused teenager, and this led Norman to dryly joke that she wouldn’t need any makeup to get into character. But Dominique’s friend was also horrified by the actress’ appearance, prompting him to snap photographs of her injuries. Then, not long afterwards, Dominique called an end to her romance with John – and she changed the locks on the couple’s home to boot.
And in October 1982 Dominique was getting on with her life away from her ex-partner by preparing for her role in the miniseries V. As a consequence, then, on October 30 – around five weeks after the breakup – she was running lines with her co-star David Packer in the home that she and John had once shared. But, apparently, while she was on the telephone with a friend, her ex-boyfriend – assisted by the operator – suddenly interrupted the call.
According to reports, Dominique informed her friend that John was on the line and promised to get rid of him. Nevertheless, just minutes later, the chef apparently turned up at the actress’ home. At first, it’s said that she declined to meet with him, preferring instead to talk to him from inside the house. Ultimately, however, Dominique agreed to go outside.
Meanwhile, David apparently stayed inside the house while Dominique and John spoke on the veranda. But before long, the actor heard an argument break out – and then a disturbing series of sounds. These reportedly consisted of whacking noises, followed by cries and a thud. Disturbed, David rang 911.
Yet Dominique’s co-star later claimed that the authorities were unable to assist him owing to the actress’ address being in the wrong location. With that in mind, then, David reportedly left a desperate message over the telephone to a friend. According to Vanity Fair, he said, “If I die tonight, it was by John Sweeney.” Then, finally, the actor made his way outside, where he found a disturbing sight: his fellow star lying on the ground with John looming above her.
Apparently, John subsequently instructed David to telephone the police. And after law enforcement arrived, Dominique’s ex-partner seemingly ended up making a startling confession. According to People, he told officers at the scene, “I killed my girlfriend, and I tried to kill myself.” That said, investigators subsequently found no evidence that suggested the chef had engaged in a suicide attempt.
And in the early hours of October 31, police rang Dominick at his New York home to duly inform him that his daughter was in a critical condition at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. There, Dominique had been placed on a life-support machine. But although the actress’ distraught family flocked to her bedside, there was little they could do.
“At first, I did not realize that the person on the bed was Dominique,” Dominick later recalled to Vanity Fair. “There were tubes in her everywhere, and the life-support system caused her to breathe in and out with a grotesque jerking movement that seemed a parody of life. Her eyes were open, massively enlarged [and] staring sightlessly up at the ceiling. [And] her beautiful hair had been shaved off.”
However, a few days after the attack, doctors took the Dunnes aside with some heartbreaking news: their scans had revealed that Dominique was brain dead. And on November 4, the family therefore made the heartbreaking decision to disconnect the actress from the machines that were keeping her alive, with the star ultimately passing away later that day. Following Dominique’s death, her organs were donated, while her body was handed over to the coroner’s office.
Then, two days after Dominique’s passing, her family and friends gathered at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills to say their final goodbyes. And after the ceremony, the late actress was finally laid to rest at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery – meaning the Poltergeist actress shares the same burial place as some of Hollywood’s greatest stars.
Just six years later, moreover, Dominique’s Poltergeist co-star Heather O’Rourke was buried in the same cemetery after she died of intestinal stenosis at just 12 years old. And because both actresses passed away tragically at such young ages, some have speculated that the famous horror movie might have been subject to some sort of curse. However, most reject this idea as pure superstition and that the deaths were not linked at all.
Meanwhile, after Dominique’s passing, her final role – that of the abused teen in Hill Street Blues – was eventually broadcast. Shot on September 27, 1982, the episode chillingly shows bruises on Dominique from John’s assault the day before. Nevertheless, the Dunne family would not find out the truth until the trial, during which the details of their daughter’s horrible ordeal slowly began to unravel.
John had been taken into police custody at the scene of the attack, and although he had initially been charged with attempted homicide, this was changed to first-degree murder after Dominique’s death. At first, though, the chef maintained his innocence; he claimed that he had reconciled with the actress and that the pair were planning a future together.
In July 1983, then, Dominick joined Lenny, Griffin and Alex in Los Angeles to prepare for what would become one of Hollywood’s most notorious murder trials. John took the stand the following month, where he claimed that he had never intended to hurt Dominique. According to him, she had reneged on their planned reconciliation, and this had subsequently caused him to lose his cool.
During the trial, John also claimed to be unable to remember attacking Dominique – only becoming aware of the incident when his hands were already wrapped around her throat. The chef alleged that he had made several attempts to revive the actress, too, before trying to take his own life with an overdose of pills.
But while John’s attorney called Dominique’s death a crime of passion rather than a premeditated murder, the Dunnes disagreed with this version of events. The family claimed, you see, that the actress had never planned to reconcile with her allegedly violent ex-partner. And investigators also disputed the idea that a remorseful John had attempted suicide. One officer testified, for instance, that Sweeney had admitted calmly to the crime, telling him, “I just lost my temper and blew it again.”
And during the court proceedings, District Attorney Steven Barshop highlighted just how long it had taken Dominique to be choked to death: four minutes, which Barshop forced the courtroom to relive in real time. According to prosecutors, you see, such a period should have been long enough for John to get his temper under control. And yet his attorney continued to maintain that the slaying had been a crime of passion.
During the trial, the court also heard from Lillian Pierce – a former girlfriend of John’s. And in her shocking testimony, she detailed the violent abuse that she had reportedly suffered at her ex-partner’s hands. According to Lillian, John had subjected her to ten separate beatings that had resulted in injuries such as a broken nose and a collapsed lung.
Upon hearing Lillian’s words in court, however, John erupted with rage and had to be restrained by guards. Yet Burton Katz – the presiding judge – accepted the defendant’s apology for his behavior. What’s more, he ruled that the information about the chef’s previous relationship was not admissible. And as such, the jury never found out about John’s history of violence towards women until the trial had ended.
But this wasn’t all. On August 29 the judge also decided that there was not enough evidence of premeditation in the case, leaving only manslaughter and second-degree murder on the table. So, during the following month, John was convicted of the former charge. And although he received the maximum sentence, this amounted to just six years behind bars – plus an extra six months for the September 26 attack.
When the details of the trial came to light, then, many were outraged, with some media outlets duly denouncing the behavior of the judge. And faced with this heavy criticism, Katz chose to speak out against the jury, blaming them for the miscarriage of justice. The jurors themselves claimed, by contrast, that they had not been furnished with all of the facts they’d needed to make a murder conviction.
Then, in the March 1984 issue of Vanity Fair, Dominick published his account of his daughter’s death and trial. And in the article, the writer made no attempt to disguise his belief that justice had not been served. Dominique’s mom, Lenny, meanwhile, threw herself into activism by starting the advocacy group Justice for Homicide Victims.
Nevertheless, Dominique’s tragic fate continued to haunt the family whom she had left behind. And after John’s release in September 1986 – following just three and a half years behind bars – the Dunnes began protesting against his attempts to build a new life. According to reports, Dominick even hired a private detective to stalk his daughter’s killer, but the writer eventually stopped before his own death in 2009. Today, then, the actress is mostly remembered for her Poltergeist role – as well as the horrifying circumstances in which she met her untimely demise.