Dominique Dunne grew up in a wealthy family, her mother also descended from a rich family in Arizona. During her childhood, she lived in Beverly Hills, where her parents owned a large house. She went to several schools, first to Westlake School in Los Angeles, then for her first two high school years to Taft School in Watertown / Connecticut. Later, she switched to the Fountain Valley High School in Colorado, where she spent for her junior and senior years and where she also graduated from in 1977 (Dominique was one of the first sixteen girls among two hundred boys, just after the school had gone co-ed). For one year, she went to Florence /Italy where she studied art and Italian at the Michelangelo-School and at the British Institute. Back at home, she worked for a while as a receptionist and translator at the Italian Trade Comission in Los Angeles, but then she drifted into acting. Dominique enrolled at the Colorado State University in Ft. Collins to study acting, but she left after only one year, and after a few weeks back in L.A., she got her first role in a film.
But Dominique Dunne's childhood and youth was not that carefree as it seems. Her parents got divorced when she was eleven years old, and in 1975, her mother fell ill with multiple sclerosis.
During her first three years as an actress, Dominique appeared in several guest roles in well-known TV series of that time, like “Family” , “CHiPs” or “Fame” and she also acted in four films made for TV, until she had her first appearance in cinema – as Dana Freeling in “Poltergeist”.
(More about in her filmography)
At a party in autumn of 1981, she made the acquaintance of 25-year old John Thomas Sweeney, who was a chef at the fashionable restaurant “Ma Maison” in Los Angeles. They felt strongly attracted, not at least due to the many of common interests they seemed to share, and so they begun an affair. Only some weeks later, they rented a house together in Rangely Ave at West-Hollywood. But it took not a too long time until they had their first quarrel. Dominique was very liked by her friends and she was already quite known at the Hollywood scene. Sweeney, who grew up poor as the eldest child of a troubled family from Hazleton / Pennsylvania, felt ashamed of his descent and more and more as an outsider among Dominique's clever friends. Further, he became jealous of every person who came in contact with her. More and more, he tried to patronize and to dominate her. He showed up when she had to work at the set, being jealous of Dominique's male colleagues and he wanted to come to her rehearsals and to the acting classes she took. Dominique couldn't do something on her own without having a loud discussion with her boyfriend after it. And the more struggles they had, the more he became physically abusive. The first showdown happened on August 27 1982, during another endless discussion, when Sweeney suddenly grabbed Dominique by her hair and knocked her head on the floor so violently, that he pulled out handfuls of her hair. Dominique fled in panic to her mother's house, pursued by her angry boyfriend. But Dominique's mother would banish him, warning him that she would call the police if he would not leave. It took a few days until Dominique forgave him and went back to live with him. But only one month later, on September 26, they had another quarrel where Sweeney became physically abusive, more violent than ever before. At the peak of their fight, he suddenly took her by her neck and threw her to the floor. Then he started to choke her. Fortunately, a friend was present and he heard the noise in the next room. He stepped in and he could settle their quarrel. Dominique pretended to comply with, but she went to the bathroom and escaped through the window and fled to the home of a friend. The next day, she had to work at the set of an episode of “Hill Street Blues”, where she had to play an abuse victim. Dominique almost didn’t need make-up, the bruises she had on her neck and in her face were more than realistic for her role (See a screenshot of it). The following days, she had to hide from Sweeney who was angrily searching for her. Finally, she finished the relationship with him and she could drive him to leave their common home so that she could move back in alone, but still fearing his unpredictable anger and violence, she had the locks of the house changed before.
In the autumn of 1982, the work at the set of the science fiction series “V” begun. Dominique got the role of Robin Maxwell for the three episodes of the miniseries. The scenes for the first episode were already shot and the second one was also nearly completed, when she met with another actor from the cast of “V”, the 20-year old David Packer, on October 30 at her home to rehearse some scenes together with him. At about 8:45 p.m. John Sweeney showed up, only ten minutes after he had already phoned Dominique. David Packer asked, if he should leave, but Dominique wanted him to stay, while she went outside to speak with her ex-boyfriend. On the driveway, they started to argue. Sweeney begged for reconciliation. But Dominique, tired of all the discussions and his violence, obviously refused him and wanted him to leave. But like in the quarrel they had five weeks before, he suddenly grabbed her by her neck and dragged her along the driveway up to the back yard of the house next door, where he started to strangle her. The petite actress (5'1'' / 1.55 m, 112 pounds) had no chance to resist against the physical strength of John Sweeney (6'1'' / 1.84 m, nearly 200 pounds).
In the meantime, David Packer witnessed their loud discussion outside with fear. He later stated, that he feared for his own life because of John Sweeney's obvious anger and jealousy. Suddenly, he heard two screams and a thud. Scared, he called the police, but the officer told him that the scene was out of his department's jurisdiction. Then, Packer tried to phone a friend, leaving a message on the tape of his answering machine, saying that if he was found dead, the killer was John Sweeney. After a while, he went outside. Nearby the driveway, he saw Dominique lying on the ground without moving and John Sweeney crouching beside her. Sweeney wanted him to call the police, and so David Packer did again. After a few minutes, the police arrived. They found Dominique unconscious and so they called for an ambulance, which arrived five minutes later at the scene. They rushed Dominique immediately into the nearby Cedars Sinai Hospital. On the way, her heart had come to a full stop, but it was possible to restore her to life after she arrived at the hospital. But the results of the examinations showed, that Dominique's brain was heavily damaged because of the anoxaemia during the strangulation, and that there would be no real chance to reverse the death of her brain. Nevertheless, the doctors made every effort to restore the cerebral functions, but without a success. After five days, on November 4, her parents signed her off the life-support systems, and Dominique died instantly, at 11:00 a.m. After she died, her heart and her kidneys have been donated to the hospital for transplants.
The violent death of Dominique Dunne was a terrible shock, not only for her family and friends, but also for the entire Hollywood scene and all the people who knew her. And so it was not a big surprise, that hundreds of people came to her funeral on November 6. The funeral service took place at the catholic “Church of the Good Shepherd” in Beverly Hills, where Dominique already was baptized more than 22 years before. She was then buried at the Westwood Memorial Park near Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, John Thomas Sweeney was charged with murder. The case came to trial early in August 1983 at the court in Santa Monica, with the presiding judge Burton S. Katz. Sweeney's lawyer Michael Adelson based the defense on the testimony of his mandator, according to which Dominique Dunne provoked the violent struggle because she refused Sweeney although she should have agreed to reconcile before. Sweeney stated, that he “just exploded and lunged toward her” after she had confessed that she was lying when she had promised him to live with him again. Sweeney further stated, that he has no memory of what had happened until he found himself with the unconscious Dominique, his hands around her neck. He said, that he tried to make her breathing again immediately. Then he ran into the house, panicked by what he had done, and tried to commit suicide by swallowing two bottles of pills, Sweeney testified. According to Michael Adelsons explanations, Dominique was in addition to it a snob who constantly reminded Sweeney of his social descent, provoking most of the discussions they had, maybe drunk sometimes. Finally, it was a tragedy and not a real crime, an act of passion and despair, Adelson argued.
But there was no evidence for Sweeney's story, and the police investigators didn't believe his statement. During his first interrogation, Sweeney showed no remorse for what he had done. And according to the police officers who arrested him, Sweeney seemed to be quite calm and collected and much more interested in his own fate than in Dominique's, after they arrived at the scene of the crime. When they brought him to the police station, he said to one of the officers: “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. I just lost my temper and blew it again”. And according to the investigators, there was also no evidence for a suicidal attempt. On the other hand, they found out, that John Sweeney obviously choked Dominique for about five minutes, and the medical examiner confirmed that the duration of the strangulation was for at least three minutes, what makes it quite improbable that he didn't noticed what he was doing when he choked Dominique; he had enough time to regain control and let her live. (See pictures of John Sweeney at the trial)
An important evidence for the prosecutor, the district attorney Steven Barshop, was the testimony of a former girlfriend of John Sweeney. She stated, that during her relationship with him between 1977 and 1980, he had abused her on ten seperate occasions. He put her into hospital for two times, once with a perforated eardrum and a collapsed lung, another time with a broken nose. This statement showed, that John Sweeney seems to abuse women regularly and that Dominique's homicide was obviously not a unique crime of passion. But Sweeney's attorney managed to convince the judge to exclude her testimony from the trial, argueing that it is prejudicial.
Dominique's friends and fellow actors stated, that she was far away from reconciliation. In the last five weeks of her life, she lived in permanent fear of her ex-boyfriend. But agreeing with Adelson again, judge Katz ruled out that those testimonies must be considered hearsay and could not be used by the prosecution. Although this was an irreplaceable loss of important evidence, the prosecution still hoped for a second-degree murder conviction with a minimum sentence of 15 years.
Dominique’s friends found a letter written by Dominique and addressed to John Sweeney, but obviously not sent to him. It was read to the jury during the trial..
At the end of September 1983, the murder trial came to an end and the jury had to adjudge in this case. It was a shock for Dominique Dunne's family, when the jury found John Sweeney guilty merely of voluntary manslaughter. Several jury members later stated, that they would have found him guilty of second-degree murder, if they would have known about his violent history. “The law protected him”, they said. The sentencing followed on November 10. John Sweeney only got 6 ½ years in prison, the maximum sentence for voluntary manslaughter, instead of 15 years or more for murder. And this also meant, that he could be free after two or three years.
Indeed, John Sweeney only spent 2 ½ years in jail (3 years and 8 months including the time he spent in detention pending trial), most of it at the medium-security state prison in Susanville /California. After his release on June 21, 1986, he moved back to Los Angeles and he got again a well paid job, as head chef at “The Chronicle”, a trendy restaurant in nearby Santa Monica. But Dominique's family and friends didn't want to accept this fact. They distributed handbills among the passers-by and guests in front of the restaurant, with the words “The hands that prepared your food, strangled Dominique Dunne on October 30, 1982” printed on. Sweeney was instantly fired. In 1989, he left Los Angeles and moved to Seattle where he probably still works as a chef (according to some sources, he is employed as an executive chef for a restaurant chain), and he changed his name to 'John Maura'.
More about Dominique and her family...
According to Dominique's friends and family, she was anything but a snob. She was known as an always kind and friendly person. Her father wrote about her, that she “was always totally at ease in a sophisticated world without being sophisticated herself”. She preferred casual clothes like jeans and shirts instead of more fashionable. She drove a blue VW Bug convertible. Dominique loved animals, especially unwanted stray animals, and her home became an asylum for a lot of them, like several cats and dogs, a cat with lobotomy and a large dog with stunted legs among them. She also had a snake and a rabbit. Further, she loved cooking, foreign countries and languages (Dominique spoke Italian well) and playing baseball.
She was very superstitious and she believed in supernatural phenomena. Once, she just had moved into a new apartment and she met with a friend. They talked about ghosts and spirits and her friend denied their existence. In the same moment, two candlesticks fell down from a bookcase and smashed on the ground. They tried to pretend, that it was only the air conditioning, but suddenly the whole bookcase that was attached to the wall came apart and all the books were shed on the ground. After this occurence, she moved out pretty fast. This happened just before she played in 'Poltergeist'.
Dominique loved her job. She was an enthusiastic and talented actress and her death was a big loss for all the people who had to work with her. To improve her acting abilities, Dominique took acting classes at Milton Katselas’ “The Beverly Hills Playhouse”. Some of her own favorite actresses were Julie Andrews, Jane Fonda, Susan Hayward and, of course, Natalie Wood, who was a close friend to her family. And from the actors of her own generation, she very liked Kristy McNichol and Timothy Hutton.
The Fountain Valley Highschool in Colorado Springs has founded an annual festival for young filmmakers and renamed it in memory of their former student; the ”Dominique Dunne Memorial Video Competition & Festival”.
Her father Dominick Dunne, son of a family of Irish descent, grew up in Hartford /Connecticut. He begun his career in Hollywood as a stage manager of TV shows and serials, later as a film producer. He left Hollywood during the 70's, after more and more personal problems occured. Finally, he moved to New York and started a second career as a writer and journalist. He became the author of several novels and of non-fictional books, too. The death of his daughter and the trial against her murderer always influenced his work, so he became an observer of various famous murder trials and he wrote articles about, which have been published in the Vanity Fair magazine and in several books. He became especially well-known for his articles on the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Some of his successful novels are “The two Mrs. Grenvilles”, “An Inconvenient Woman” and “People like us” .
Dominique's mother Ellen Beatriz Griffin-Dunne's (she was called 'Lenny' by her friends) parents owned a large ranch in Nogales / Arizona. Her wealthy family has originally made its money in the railway industries. Although she suffered from multiple sclerosis since 1975, she became a victim's rights activist after the murder of her daughter and she founded the organisation “Justice for Homicide Victims”. She died on January 9, 1997 at the age of 64.
Dominique has two elder brothers, Griffin and Alexander.
Griffin Dunne started his acting career in 1975 with the film “The Other Side of the Mountain”. He co-starred with David Naughton in the John Landis movie “An American Werewolf in London” in 1981. He also became a successful film producer and director. Among others he produced “Running on Empty” and “White Palace” with Susan Sarandon, and he directed “Practical Magic”, starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. He lives in New York, where he also runs his own production company “Double Play”.
Alex Dunne lives in Northern California and works as a teacher and writer.
Further, her uncle John Gregory Dunne and his wife Joan Didion are well-known authors of numerous bestselling novels. John Gregory Dunne died on December 30, 2003 at the age of 71.