Dominique Dunne’s father was in the courtroom every day of the eight and a half month OJ Simpson trial in 1995. In 2016, Robert Morse of Mad Men fame would go on to depict him in the FX series, The People vs. OJ Simpson.
But just as Dominique’s story begins, it is almost immediately snuffed out and forgotten well before an entire generation reading this was even born.
The beautiful Dominique Dunne launched her acting career in 1979 in the made-for-TV movie Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker, a title not unlike something you might see on the guide for present-day Investigation Discovery. It was the story of — you guessed it — a teenage hitchhiker, who is hitching rides at the same time a psychopath is roaming the streets and preying on young girls.
Dominique would go on to act in many other made-for-TV movies and television series, but most notably she starred as Dana Freeling in the 1982 Steven Spielberg movie Poltergeist, where she plays the eldest daughter of a couple terrorized by ghosts.
But there was a very real predator in Dominique Dunne’s life who would leave actual bruises that were visible to an entire American audience — if you weren’t looking away.
On the set of the television series Hill Street Blues in 1982, Dominique Dunne was portraying Cindy, a young woman abused by her own mother. But the makeup department didn’t need to do anything to Dominique’s face to get her ready for the role. Dominique’s boyfriend, John Sweeney, had already battered her, leaving her black-and-blue.
Dunne met John Sweeney in 1981 at a party, and within weeks they were inseparable and living together in Santa Monica, California. Sweeney, who was 6’1”, 200 pounds, and five years her senior, towered over the petite five-foot-tall Dominique. They had so many interests in common that it was hard to see how it could fall apart so easily.
Despite outward appearances, the fractures were there, and soon Dominique would be fighting for her life against the man who supposedly loved her.
It’s a familiar story and all too common throughout the world. According to the Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, about one third of female murder victims aged 12 or older are killed by an intimate partner. Even with that staggering statistic, it’s difficult to say that the writing seemed to be on the wall for Dominique Dunne.
Dunne grew up in a loving, supportive, and wealthy family with their own individual rights to fame. Her brother Griffin Dunne is most well known for his starring role in the Martin Scorcese comedy film After Hours, and Dominique’s father, Dominic Dunne, was a famous movie producer.
Though John Sweeney had managed to make a name for himself in his early 20s in the culinary industry as Wolfgang Puck’s chief assistant at Ma Maison restaurant in Los Angeles, Sweeney had a rougher upbringing. The pains from his childhood surfaced with his possessive, jealous, and controlling tendencies.
The couple, as quickly as they had fallen in love, had begun to tear apart at the seams, resulting in fights that would lead to Sweeney physically abusing Dunne. Dunne would be forced to leave the home she shared with Sweeney to escape the abuse, but would return after a few days spent decompressing at her mother’s house.
The relationship was as tumultuous as it was off-and-on again. During one particular fight 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 was able to escape by sneaking out of the bathroom window.
Shortly after this traumatic event, Dunne officially ended the relationship, forced Sweeney to move out, had the locks to the house changed, and moved back in – by herself.
On October 30, 1982, a few weeks following the breakup, Dominique was running lines with actor David Packer at her home for the TV miniseries V, when John Sweeney showed up at her door unannounced and certainly uninvited. After speaking to him briefly through a locked door, she reluctantly agreed to talk to him on the porch while David Packer remained inside. Dunne and Sweeney quickly began to argue, and Packer later said he heard smacking sounds, two screams, and a thud.
When police arrived at the scene in Santa Monica, Sweeney met them in the driveway with his hands in the air and stated, “I killed my girlfriend and I tried to kill myself.”
On November 4, 1982, after 5 days on life support, Dominique Dunne died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. It was just 19 days before her 23rd birthday.
John Sweeney’s trial for the murder of Dominique Dunne began in August 1983. 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. Sweeney convinced the jury Dunne lead him on, deceived him into believing they would reconcile, and the result was Sweeney acting in the heat of the moment with violence.
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.
John Sweeney was sentenced to six and a half years in prison.
He would go on to serve only three years, seven months, and twenty-seven days of this sentence.
Three months after his release, Sweeney was hired as head chef at The Chronicle, an upscale restaurant in Santa Monica, California. It is alleged that Dunne’s brother Griffin and her mother Ellen 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.
On the advice of Tina Brown, then-editor of Vanity Fair, Dominique’s father Dominick Dunne kept a journal during Sweeney’s trial. His 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.
Dominick Dunne and the rest of the Dunne family never got the justice they coveted for their daughter and sister.
The elder Dunne would go on to sit through the 1995 trial of OJ Simpson for the murders of OJ’s wife Nicole Brown, and her friend Ron Goldman. Dunne strongly believed in Simpson’s guilt and wished to seek justice and solace for the Brown and Goldman families through his weekly column published in Vanity Fair. In the FX series, The People vs. OJ Simpson, Judge Lance Ito is depicted as urging Dominick Dunne to sit next to the Goldman family during trial proceedings to help them cope, because he too had suffered through his own child’s violent murder.
In the end, we know what happened to OJ. It is a story as inescapable as taxes. But no one has ever served a day in prison for Nicole Brown or Ron Goldman’s murders, and somewhere throughout our cultural history, we forgot about (or in my case, didn’t even know about) Dominique Dunne’s tragic story. We must not forget about any victim of domestic abuse, no matter how much we want to look away.