Monday, June 17, 2019

The Sad Story of Dominique Dunne

Dominique Ellen Dunne was born in Santa Monica, California on November 23, 1959.  She was the youngest child of author and producer Dominick Dunne and ranching heiress Ellen Beatriz.  Pretty much everyone in her family (brothers, uncle, aunt, even her godparents) were in some way tied to the movie industry, so it was no coincidence that she became an actress as well.

Her first film role was in the 1979 made-for-TV masterpiece Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker.  Here's a particularly creepy scene.   This led to a number of supporting roles in television series, including Lou Grant and Hart to Hart.  Here's a scene of her on the 80s cop drama Hill Street Blues, a series who's title I have never understood.  Sadly, this particular episode aired two weeks after she died.  But more on that later.

Say it with me now.
By 1981, Dunne had built up a sufficient enough resume to be cast in the soon-to-be-classic film Poltergeist, produced by Steven Spielberg.  Remember the trailer?  Watch it here.

That same year, Dunne began dating John Thomas Sweeney, a relationship that would ultimately prove fatal.  She bought a home with the up and coming chef, a modest, one-bedroom house in West Hollywood. 

Shortly after moving in together, the relationship began to deteriorate.  Sweeney became physically abusive with Dunne, even going so far as to yanking out entire handfuls of her hair during their frequent arguments.  She would often retreat to her mother's house, only to inevitably return to Sweeney.  That came to an end on September 26, 1982, when Dunne officially ended the relationship after he nearly choked her to death.  Sweeney moved out of the house and Dunne had all of the locks changed.

8723 Rangely Avenue, West Hollywood
Around this time, Dunne was cast in another soon-to-be-classic science fiction saga, V. She was cast as Robin Maxwell, the character destined to bear an alien offspring. 

On October 30, Dunne was in her home with V co-star David Packer rehearsing their scenes when Sweeney showed up.  She initially spoke to him through the locked door, but then agreed to meet him on the patio.  Packer remained inside.

Dunne had only been outside for a few moments when Packer started to hear an argument.  He later reported that he heard "smacking sounds, two screams, and a thud."  He called police, but was stymied when told that Dunne's house was outside their jurisdiction.  He then called a friend and informed him "if I'm found dead, John Sweeney is the killer."

David Packer (V, 1983)
Packer walked out the back door and approached the driveway.  There he saw Sweeney kneeling over Dunne.  He called police again, this time with success.  When units finally arrived, Sweeney met them in the driveway with his hands above his head as he declared "I killed my girlfriend and I tried to kill myself."

Dunne was still alive however, though unconscious due to oxygen deprivation.  She was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and placed on life support.  Over the next week, doctors performed a series of brain scans, each one confirming the other - no brain activity.  On November 4, just a few weeks shy of Dunne's 23rd birthday, her parents removed her from life support, donating her kidneys and heart.

On November 6, a funeral was held at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills.  She was buried in Pierce Brothers Westwood Village.

Pierce Brothers Westwood Village
Section D, L-193


John Sweeney was tried for second-degree murder.  On September 21, 1983, after eight days of deliberation, the jury found him guilty of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.  The judge sentenced him to a mere six years in prison, of which he only served three and a half.

After his release in 1987, Sweeney resumed his career as a chef.  He was hired by The Chronicle, a restaurant in Santa Monica, but it didn't last long.  Dominique's family handed out flyers declaring "the food you eat tonight was made by the hands that killed Dominique Dunne."  As the protests continued, Sweeney left the job and changed his name to John Maura. 

This practice continued for more than 20 years, as Dominick Dunne made it his life's mission to destroy Sweeney.  He hired protestors to picket any business that hired his daughter's killer and private detectives to follow him morning, noon, and night.  It wouldn't end until Dominick's own passing in 2009.

John Sweeney on trial, 1983, and John Maura, today.
So where is Sweeney/Maura today?  San Rafael, California, where he is the Director of Food Services for Smith Ranch Homes, a senior retirement community.  Interested in what the community has to say about that?  You can read their angry comments to management here.


  • Dominick Dunne authored a fascinating account of Sweeney's trial for Vanity Fair, entitled "Justice: A Father's Account of the Trial of his Daughter's Killer."  Read it here.

  • Dominick discusses his daughter's murder with the Archive of American Television.  Watch that interview here.

  • Poltergeist opened on June 4, 1982, the same day as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  Khan was tops at the box office that weekend, whereas Poltergeist opened in third place.  It was also beaten by Rocky III, which was in it's second week of general release.

  • Dunne is buried just a few hundred feet from her Poltergeist co-star Heather O'Rourke, who died in 1988.

  • Dunne filmed her appearance on Hill Street Blues just days after one of her beatings at the hands of Sweeney.  Appearing as an abused woman, the bruises you see on her face were largely her own.

  • According to V director Kenneth Johnson, Dunne actually appears in the completed film during the initial arrival of the alien motherships, though her face is never shown. 

  • As noted above, Dunne was to portray Robin Maxwell in V.  The character was impregnated by alien visitor Brian, and would subsequently give birth in the sequel V: The Final Battle.  Though completely unrelated to Dunne, watch that birth scene here.  You know you want to.


  1. It is a shame this man is still alive after beating a woman many times then killing her and only serving a little time.If there was any justice at all for her he would have never seen the light of day again.I just cant believe how California has no respect for law then or now,it has turned into a hell hole there.

  2. Thank you for raising attention to this. I guess he changed his name to John Maura

  3. Some people deserve second chances in life; he isn't one of them.

  4. This is the wrong guy, though! The recent image is of a guy named "John Mauro" from Florida!🤯

    1. This IS the right man. He moved to the Jersey Shore at some point and went back and forth between there and Florida for years before moving back to California.

  5. Great article, tragic. Is this him?
    It's hard to believe anyone would say such nice things about him if it is.