Dominique Ellen Dunne (November 23, 1959 – November 4, 1982) was an American actress. She appeared in several television films and series from 1979 to 1982, but was best known for portraying Dana Freeling, the oldest daughter, in the 1982 horror film Poltergeist.
On October 30, 1982, Dunne was strangled by her ex-boyfriend in the driveway of her West Hollywood home and went into a coma. She never regained consciousness and died five days later at the age of 22.
Dunne was born in Santa Monica, California, the youngest child of Ellen Beatriz “Lenny” (née Griffin), a ranching heiress, and Dominick Dunne, a writer, producer, and actor. She had two older brothers, Alex and Griffin Dunne, an actor.
She was also the niece of married novelists John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion. Her godparents were Maria Cooper-Janis, daughter of actors Gary Cooper and Veronica “Rocky” Cooper, and producer Martin Manulis. Her parents divorced in 1967.
Dunne attended Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, and Fountain Valley School. After graduation, she spent a year in Florence, Italy, where she learned Italian. She studied acting at Milton Katselas’ Workshop and appeared in various stage productions including West Side Story, The Mousetrap, and My Three Angels.
Dunne’s first role was in the 1979 television film Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker. She then got supporting roles in episodes of popular 1980s television series such as Lou Grant, Hart to Hart and Fame. Dunne also had a recurring role on the comedy-drama television series Breaking Away and appeared in several other television films.
In 1981, she was cast in her first feature film, Poltergeist. Dunne portrayed Dana Freeling, the teenage daughter of a couple whose family is terrorized by ghosts. Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, the film opened on June 4, 1982, and went on to gross more than $70 million.
After Poltergeist, she appeared in the final season premiere episode of CHiPs and the 1982 television film The Shadow Riders, starring Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott.
Shortly before her death, Dunne was cast as Robin Maxwell in the miniseries V. She died during filming and her role was recast with actress Blair Tefkin.
According to the DVD director’s commentary by series creator Kenneth Johnson, Dunne appears in the scene in which the Maxwells and others watch the L.A. mother ship glide in on the day the Visitors first arrive. Her back is all that is seen. The miniseries is dedicated to her.
Dunne met John Thomas Sweeney, a cooking hand at the restaurant Ma Maison, at a party in 1981. After a few weeks of dating, they moved into a one-bedroom house on Rangely Avenue in West Hollywood together.
The relationship quickly deteriorated because of Sweeney’s possessiveness and jealousy. The couple fought frequently and Sweeney began physically abusing Dunne. According to one account, he yanked handfuls of her hair out by the roots during an argument on August 27, 1982.
She fled to her mother’s house where Sweeney showed up and began to bang on the door and windows, demanding to be let in. Dunne’s mother told him to leave and threatened to call the police. A few days later, Dunne returned to their home and continued their relationship.
During another argument at their home on September 26, 1982, Sweeney grabbed Dunne by the throat, threw her on the floor, and began to strangle her.
A friend who was staying with the couple heard “loud gagging sounds” and ran into the room where Dunne was being attacked. Dunne told the friend that Sweeney had tried to kill her, but Sweeney denied the claim and told Dunne to come back to bed.
She pretended to comply, but snuck out of the bathroom window instead. When Sweeney heard Dunne start the engine of her car, he ran out and jumped on the car’s hood. Dunne stopped the car long enough for Sweeney to jump off the hood and then drove away. For the next few days, she stayed with her mother and at the homes of her friends.
She later called Sweeney and ended the relationship. After he moved out, she had the locks changed and moved back into the Rangely Avenue home.
On October 30, a few weeks after the breakup, Dunne was at her home rehearsing for the miniseries V with actor David Packer. While she was speaking to a female friend on the phone, Sweeney had the operator break into the conversation. Dunne told her friend, “Oh God, it’s Sweeney. Let me get him off the phone.”
Ten minutes later, Sweeney showed up. After speaking to him through the locked door, Dunne agreed to speak to him on the porch while Packer remained inside. Outside, the two began to argue. Packer later said he heard smacking sounds, two screams and a thud. He called police but was told that Dunne’s home was out of their jurisdiction.
Packer then phoned a friend and told him if she was found dead, John Sweeney was the killer. Packer left the home through the back entrance, approached the driveway, and saw Sweeney in some nearby bushes kneeling over Dunne. Sweeney told Packer to call the police.
When police arrived, Sweeney met them in the driveway with his hands in the air and stated, “I killed my girlfriend and I tried to kill myself.” Sweeney later testified that he and Dunne had argued but he could not remember what happened after their exchange and could only recall being on top of her with his hands around her throat
Dunne was transported to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles where she was placed on life support because her heart had stopped.
She never regained consciousness. Over the following days, doctors performed brain scans that showed she had no brain activity due to oxygen deprivation. On November 4, her parents removed her from life support. At the request of her mother, her kidneys and heart were donated to transplant recipients.
Dunne’s funeral was held on November 6 at The Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. Her godfather Martin Manulis delivered the eulogy. She was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery. Her Poltergeist co-star Heather O’Rourke was later buried there in 1988.
Her final television appearance was that of a teenage mother who is a victim of child abuse in an episode of Hill Street Blues titled “Requiem for a Hairbag.”
The episode was filmed on September 27, 1982, the day after Sweeney had physically assaulted Dunne which left visible bruises on her body and face. As she was playing an abused teen on the episode, she required no makeup to create the bruises seen. The episode aired several days after Dunne’s funeral and was dedicated to her memory.
The night of Dunne’s attack, responding officers found Sweeney standing by Dunne’s unconscious body in her driveway. A spokesman for the West Hollywood police later told reporters that Sweeney told officers, “I killed my girlfriend”. He was immediately arrested and charged with attempted murder.
Those charges were dropped after Dunne died on November 4, and Sweeney was charged with first-degree murder to which he pleaded not guilty.
Sweeney was later charged with assault with intent to do great bodily harm when he admitted during a preliminary trial hearing to the altercation with Dunne that occurred on September 26, 1982, the day before she filmed the Hill Street Blues episode in which she appeared with visible bruises. He denied assaulting Dunne claiming that he was only trying to prevent her from leaving their home.
Sweeney’s trial began in August 1983 and was presided over by Judge Burton S. Katz. During the trial, Sweeney took the stand in his own defense.
He testified that he had not intended to harm Dunne the night he arrived at her home. He claimed they had reconciled, were planning on moving back in together and had daily discussions about getting married and having children.
On the night of October 30, Sweeney said that Dunne had abruptly changed her mind about a reconciliation and told him that she had been lying to him about getting back together and had been leading him on. At that point, Sweeney said he “just exploded and lunged toward her.”
Sweeney claimed to have no recollection of attacking Dunne until he discovered he was on top of her with his hands around her neck. He then realized she was not breathing. Sweeney said he attempted to revive her by making her walk around but she fell down. He then attempted to give her CPR which caused Dunne to vomit.
Sweeney said that he also vomited, ran into the house and consumed two bottles of pills in an attempt to kill himself. He returned to the driveway where Dunne was and laid down beside her. He said he then reached into her mouth and pulled her tongue out of her throat, something he had done for his epileptic father in the past.
Sweeney’s court appointed attorney, Michael Adelson, said that his client’s actions were not premeditated or done with malice. He maintained that Sweeney acted out in the “heat of passion”, provoked by Dunne’s alleged deception.
Dunne’s family disputed Sweeney’s claim that she had reconciled with him. They insisted that he went to her home on October 30 to persuade her to change her mind because she had told him their break up was permanent.
The prosecution and police investigators also dismissed Sweeney’s version of events as there was no physical evidence that he had consumed pills at the time of his arrest. Upon their arrival, police said they found him to be “calm and collected”.
Deputy Frank DeMilio, the first officer to arrive at the scene, testified that Sweeney told him, “Man, I blew it. I killed her. I didn’t think I choked her that hard, but I don’t know, I just kept on choking her. I just lost my temper and blew it again.”
The medical examiner who performed Dunne’s autopsy determined that she had been strangled for at least three minutes. Police and prosecutors dismissed the “heat of passion” defense as they believed that, given the time taken to strangle Dunne, Sweeney had an ample amount of time to regain control of his actions which may have saved Dunne’s life.
To establish a history of Sweeney’s violent behavior, the prosecution called one of Sweeney’s ex-girlfriends, Lillian Pierce, to testify.
Pierce, who did not testify in the jury’s presence at the request of Sweeney’s attorney, stated that she and Sweeney had dated on-and-off from 1977 to 1980.
During the relationship, Pierce claimed that Sweeney had assaulted her on ten occasions and she was hospitalized twice for injuries he inflicted on her. During one such assault, Pierce sustained a perforated eardrum and a collapsed lung. She later suffered a broken nose.
During Pierce’s testimony, Sweeney became enraged, jumped up from his seat and ran towards the door leading to the judge’s chambers. He was subdued by two bailiffs and four armed guards. Sweeney was handcuffed to his chair and began to cry. He apologized for the outburst; Judge Katz accepted the apology.
Attorney Michael Adelson requested that Judge Katz rule Pierce’s testimony inadmissible as it was “prejudicial”. Judge Katz granted the request and the jury never learned of Pierce’s testimony until after the trial. Katz also refused to allow testimony from Dunne’s mother, Ellen Dunne, as well Dunne’s friends, ruling their statements “hearsay”.
On August 29, defense attorney Michael Adelson also requested that Judge Katz rule that there was insufficient evidence to try Sweeney on the charge of first-degree murder because there was no evidence of predetermination or deliberation. Judge Katz granted the request and instructed jurors that they were only allowed to consider charges of manslaughter or second-degree murder.
Deputy District Attorney Steven Barshop later said this decision, along with Judge Katz’s previous rulings barring the testimonies of Sweeney’s ex-girlfriend, and Dunne’s mother and friends, were serious blows to the prosecution’s case against Sweeney.
On September 21, 1983, after eight days of deliberation, the jury acquitted John Sweeney of second-degree murder and found him guilty of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. He was also convicted of misdemeanor assault for the altercation with Dunne that occurred on September 26, 1982.
Dunne’s family was outraged by the verdict, calling it an “injustice”. After Judge Katz excused the jury and told them that justice was served, Dominick Dunne yelled, “Not for our family, Judge Katz!” Before leaving the courtroom, Dominick Dunne accused Judge Katz of purposely withholding Sweeney’s ex-girlfriend’s testimony from the jury which would have helped to establish his violent history with women.
Victims for Victims, a victims’ rights group established by actress Theresa Saldana, protested the verdict by staging a march outside of the courthouse.
Afterward, several media outlets debated the events of the trial and the verdict. Several also criticized Judge Katz’s actions. One local Los Angeles television station polled viewers, who rated Judge Katz the fourth worst judge in Los Angeles County.
On November 7, Sweeney was sentenced to 6½ years in prison for manslaughter, the maximum sentence he could have received, plus six months for the assault charge.
At Sweeney’s sentencing, Judge Katz criticized the jury’s ruling of manslaughter, stating that he felt Dunne’s death was “a case, pure and simple, of murder, murder with malice.”
The jury’s foreman, Paul Speigel, later told the media that he and his fellow jurors were surprised by Judge Katz’s criticism and called his comment “a cheap shot”.
Speigel felt that Judge Katz’s criticism stemmed not from their verdict but from the harsh criticism he received after the verdict was given.
Speigel went on to say that had the jury heard all the evidence, they would have convicted Sweeney for murder.
On the advice of Tina Brown, Dominick Dunne kept a journal during the trial. His journal writings were published in an article entitled “Justice: A Father’s Account of the Trial of his Daughter’s Killer”, which was featured in the March 1984 issue of Vanity Fair.
Judge Burton S. Katz, who presided over the case, transferred to the Juvenile Court in Sylmar, Los Angeles, shortly after the trial. He later admitted that some of his controversial rulings in Dunne’s case “pained” him but reiterated his belief that Sweeney should have been convicted of murder and given a lengthier sentence.
Dominique’s mother, Ellen “Lenny” Dunne, founded Justice for Homicide Victims, a victims’ rights group, a year after her daughter’s death.
After the trial, John Sweeney was incarcerated at a medium security prison in Susanville, California. He was released in September 1986 after having served three years, seven months and twenty-seven days of his 6½ year sentence. Three months after his release, Sweeney was hired as head chef at The Chronicle, an upscale restaurant in Santa Monica, California.
Dunne’s brother Griffin and her mother Lenny found out where Sweeney was working and began handing out flyers to patrons that read, “The food you will eat tonight was cooked by the hands that killed Dominique Dunne.” Sweeney eventually left the job due to the protests from Dunne’s family and moved out of Los Angeles.
In the mid-1990s, Dominick Dunne was contacted by a Florida doctor who had read an article Dunne wrote about Dominique’s death. The doctor told Dunne his daughter had recently become engaged to a chef named John Sweeney and wondered if it was the same John Sweeney involved in Dominique’s death.
The man was, in fact, the same John Sweeney. Dominique’s brother Griffin later called the doctor’s daughter and tried to convince her to call off her engagement. Sweeney accused the Dunnes of harassing him and later changed his name.
In interviews, Dominick Dunne said that for a time he employed the services of private investigator Anthony Pellicano to follow and report on Sweeney’s whereabouts and actions.
According to Dunne’s father, Pellicano reported that Sweeney had moved to the Pacific Northwest and had changed his name to John Maura. Dunne’s father said that he later decided that he no longer wished to squander his life following Sweeney and therefore discontinued any attempts to keep tabs on him.