It’s a cold February day in Connecticut, and Dylan McDermott hears a gunshot coming from his family home. He sees his mother wheeled out on a stretcher; a court later records a verdict of accidental death. Four decades later, he’s a successful Hollywood star – but questions still remain about what really happened on that fateful day.
Dylan McDermott was born on October 26, 1961, in Waterbury, a city some 30 miles southwest of Hartford, CT. As a teenager, he saw movie stars like Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart on the big screen and aspired to be like his idols. Then, when he was 15, he got the break that he had been looking for.
His father, Richard, had married Eve Ensler, the playwright who would go on to write The Vagina Monologues. Aged just 23, she adopted Dylan – who was known as Mark at the time – and encouraged him to follow his dreams. In fact, she even created roles in her plays specifically for the teenager to perform.
Touchingly, Eve and Dylan were so close that when she suffered a miscarriage, he began going by the name that she had intended to give to her unborn son. And even though Eve and Richard eventually divorced, she continued to support Dylan in his acting path. Soon, her confidence in him would pay off.
In 1989 Dylan completed his first big role in the disaster movie Twister. From there, he built a reputation as a renowned actor, winning a Golden Globe for his performance in TV series The Practice in 1999. But despite his success, his past holds some dark moments that only recently came into the public realm again.
Dylan’s parents had him when they were young. Mom Diane was just 15 years old and dad Richard only 17. Sadly, their relationship was a short one, and by 1967 the couple were divorced. With Richard out of the picture, Diane moved in with John Sponza, a local gangster well known for his connections to drugs and crime.
In fact, Sponza had committed his first criminal offense at only 15 years old. Over the years, many rumors had built up around him, such as the claim that he had once shot someone in the face. However, his father worked in law enforcement in New Haven, CT, and he seemed to always have his son’s back.
For Dylan, sharing a home with Sponza was tough. According to a friend of Diane’s, the gangster would regularly shout at the boy. Sometimes he would even threaten him with a gun. Meanwhile, he was also abusive towards Diane and would often beat and humiliate her in front of his friends. “I think Dee Dee stayed with him because she was terrorized,” Sharon Rotella told the Republican-American in 2012.
Despite the difficult situation, Diane did her best to protect young Dylan. Apparently, her ex-husband Richard had spent time in jail, and she once warned Sponza that Richard would kill him if the abuse continued. According to Rotella, things got better after that – although Dylan still remembers it as a violent and frightening time.
On February 9, 1967, Sponza kicked Dylan out of the family home. Despite the bitter cold, the five-year-old found himself hanging around outside, waiting to be let back in. But then Dylan heard something that he would never forget. He picked up shouting coming from the house, followed by the sound of a gunshot.
Soon, the emergency services arrived. Diane was brought out on a stretcher, with bandages covering a wound in her head. But even though the injury was fatal, Dylan believed that his mother had merely been hospitalized. In fact, his grandmother Avis kept up the charade for over a year, afraid to tell Dylan and his seven-month-old sister Robin the truth.
In the meantime, police began to investigate Diane’s death. And even from the start, Sponza’s version of events appeared suspicious. At first, he informed officers that he had been in the kitchen at the time of the incident, cleaning his pistol. Diane, he claimed, had been cooking a meal and had shot herself by mistake after touching the weapon.
Then, when speaking to the head of the investigation, Sponza’s story changed. This time, he said that Diane had taken the gun into the kitchen store room and shot herself. However, the location of the gunshot wound did not support his claim that Diane had pulled the trigger.
However, in spite of the evidence piled up against him, Sponza was not charged with any involvement in Diane’s death. In fact, the shooting was recorded as accidental. And for the next 44 years, the matter seemed to be settled. Even though there were rumors that Sponza’s contacts had helped him to escape justice, no convictions were ever made.
Meanwhile, Dylan and Robin had moved in with Avis and were trying to get on with their lives. After a while, Dylan began visiting his father in New York City, where he first fell in love with the silver screen. There, he met Eve Ensler and started on the trajectory that would see him become a successful actor with an award-winning career.
But to do so, Dylan had to gloss over the trauma that had tainted his childhood years. He buried the events of that February day in Connecticut. Then, in 2011, he finally found himself at a point where he was able to confront his past.
That year, Dylan finally got in touch with the authorities. He had questions about his mother’s death, he told them, and wanted them to reopen the case. Accordingly, three officers from the Waterbury Police Department started digging into the old investigation. And soon they realized that something was amiss.
Shockingly, the officers discovered that many official documents from the initial investigation had gone missing. Moreover, it would no longer be possible to quiz Sponza about the shooting. In fact, he couldn’t be asked about anything at all: he had been found murdered back in 1972. His body had been discovered in the parking lot of a grocery store in Massachusetts, stuffed into a car trunk.
Not to be dissuaded, however, the officers spoke to informants and reviewed press coverage from the time. Eventually, they were able to piece together a picture of what had happened in Waterbury four decades before. And just as Dylan had expected, they decided that Diane had indeed been murdered – and that Sponza had pulled the trigger.
Although it is too late for justice to be done, Dylan must take some comfort in the fact that his mother’s murder has finally been solved. And now today, as a recovering alcoholic with two children of his own, he can continue to come to terms with the tragic events of 44 years ago.