Who is Dominique Dunne? The Heartbreaking Murder You Missed In “The People Vs. OJ Simpson”

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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.

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John Sweeney’s trial for the murder of Dominique Dunne began in August 1983. During the trial,

John Sweeney AP Photo/Wally Fong

John Sweeney AP Photo/Wally Fong

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.

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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.

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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.

Read more:

People

LA Times

Vanity Fair

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Photo: YouTube

  • Mickey

    They should leave the first time

    • polliwogg

      Yes. And not listen to all the promises. “I don’t know why I did it. I SWEAR it’ll never happen again”. He is going to do it again. And, if she stays, she is giving him permission.

  • Heather Jackson-Corlis

    It’s not always that easy. For everybody on the outside looking in its easy to say all those things but when it’s you that’s on the receiving end of the abuse there is so much holding you there, its scary and no one can help you. I know I’ve been there and with 3 little kids that he wouldn’t let me take if I did leave him. Maybe you should talk with an abuse survivor before telling people they should just leave and never go back.

    • flutiefan

      so you’re still in the relationship, subjecting your children to witnessing the abuse?

      • JustAcat

        It wouldn’t hurt if you’d research the subject. You would gain a better understanding instead of shaming Heather.

        For one, women and children are in grave danger after leaving an abuser. Knowledge is power, read-up. Better yet volunteer at a shelter.

    • Jaimie Black

      I know the feeling all to well…I was in an abusive relationship myself although Emotional abuse is just as bad as physical abuse…i was always threatened with if you leave i am taking the kids away from you…I used to be one of those women who said why don’t you just walk out?? i found out that its not that cut and dry to just walk out of the relationship…i used to get belittled in front of my kids, told i would never find someone better than him, made to come home at a certain time even though i was visiting with my daughter at that moment…if i didn’t get home i had my vehicle taken from me because he had put it in his name with the insurance as well..was so happy the day he made the mistake of putting the car i wanted in my name because he couldn’t use it against me…

      • Juliana

        I think it’s the emotional and psychological abuse that’s far more damaging. If you use to be one of those women that would say just leave and over the course of your own relationship you found out it wasn’t that easy. Then you have been damaged by that abuser emotionally to the point where you don’t even believe your own core value on abuse. The girl you were before the abuse would never tolerate any kind of abuse, right? But you stepped right into a abusive relationship and it suddenly became complicated? How do you think that happened?

        I’m not minimizing what happened to you, but the abuser you fell in love with changed everything you believed in and that’s really why you stayed. I had all of the same threats, physical and emotional abuse but I remembered myself and my beliefs and nothing stopped me from ending it. I threw him out while I was pregnant and while not completely dependent upon him financially I wasn’t working at the time due to the abuse during my pregnancy. I should have stayed if I am to believe what you’ve said yourself about it being more complicated to leave. I should have stayed and allowed all the abuse to continue. It’s very simple, you can just leave and hopefully no one reading this will think they should stay with a abuser because it’s not that easy to leave. I’m sure for all of us who did get out we should have left the very first time there was any violence, but we loved them, right? That’s why I stayed after the first time but my gut was telling me to run, run as fast as I could. You leave the first time it happens regardless of the excuses because it does become a matter of life and death.

        As I wrote to the previous poster about why women stay, we stop believing our gut and start believing what the abuser tells us. I always remember the first time with my abuser and how I should have just gotten out of the car we were in and ran. My grandmother’s house was a block away, I could have found safety immediately. When I did leave I never attracted abusive men again and I credit it to not having that tattoo on my forehead that abusive men could spot from a mile away that said, abuse me I’m easy!

    • Juliana

      I’m glad you survived the abuser in your life and I’m sorry you had to experience it at all, I really am. I’m also a survivor but I know what my first mistake was. It happened long before I married the man and had children with him. The very first time I got hit was the moment I should have run for my life. I go over it in my head and think why didn’t I just run then, but I didn’t. So I can’t really think I’m a victim any longer when I went on to marry him and had children, I permitted him to do it by not leaving after the first incident. But one child later and pregnant with my second I did leave and there was nothing stopping me at last. I had all the threats, the financial instability, and fears for mine and my children’s future at stake, but staying wasn’t a option. I had my 2nd child without him being in my life, I survived and rebuilt a better life for myself and my children.

      But unlike you I will always tell someone to just leave, just get out, get away, don’t look back, leave. There is nothing more precious than saving your own life and those of your children, not money, not security, nothing. It’s terrible that we give these abuser the power to mess with our heads to the point where we really believe them and their vile words or fists. It really is that simple and easy to just leave and grab the kids as you go, unless we allow the psychological warfare they’ve inflicted upon us to hold greater meaning to us than saving our own lives.

      • Jackson22

        You make absolutely no sense. Do some research on domestic violence. Just like people need help to beat addictions, victims of domestic violence need help to leave those situations.

  • Monica Seibert

    I remember her. Poor girl, and her poor parents.

  • Lesa L. Tatum

    I have never forgotten. Every time I watched Dominick Dunne’s TV show on A & E. I remembered. It was a popular show. When people talked about the show they would talk about the OJ Simpson trial but the also talked about Dominique.

  • Leslie James

    Dominick tried to get him fired from his chef position and essentially forced him to quit but yet it was okay to make a fortune writing a book about his daughter’s tragic death? Why even have trials if people are not going to accept the verdict and sentences?

    • Jeffrey Weinerslave

      Did you accept the O.J. murder verdict?

    • JustAcat

      How do you know he made a fortune? What’s wrong about writing about the murder of your daughter, and the following injustice? Abusers don’t have a great track record of rehabilitation.

      Why are you so quick to side with men who go free after murdering their victims, and referring to it as a “crime of passion.”

  • kariharper

    I’m still shocked at the fact that he only served 3 years. 3 YEARS?! For murder!?! Literally unfathomable to me. Also, these comments are chock-full of victim blaming. *sigh* Obviously it’s not a wise choice to be with an abuser. It’s not that simple. There is intense mind manipulation involved. People, go read about domestic abuse, and while you’re at it, find your inner empathy. This is 100% the MURDERER’S fault.