SYLMAR, CA — On April 17, 1991, Joan Dawley, 55, was bludgeoned to death in her suburban Los Angeles–area home, the result of what police initially believed to be a burglary gone wrong. The truth, however, would prove to be far more painful — and shocking.
Dennis Dawley, Joan’s 55-year-old husband, in fact, turned out to be the culprit. Accompanied by Brandita Taliano, his 33-year-old prostitute mistress, Dennis pummeled Joan with a blunt object until she was dead and staged a break-in to cover up the murder.
This ultimate act of cruelty was compounded by the illusion it shattered: specifically, that the Dawleys were a happily married couple who remained close to their two adult daughters and had long established themselves as well-liked, highly respected pillars of their community.
Worse still is that Dennis committed the atrocity for the most callous of reasons — financial profit — and that he and Brandita only acted after their attempt to hire a pair of hitmen for $12,000 proved fruitless.
Despite the outward veneer of a blissful home, Dennis and Joan Dawley’s marriage had been on the rocks for some time prior to the murder.
The couple’s differences only grew more pronounced after Joan came into $100,000 in cash and a house she inherited from her mother, which Dennis reportedly believed was pushing his wife toward divorcing him.
Dennis, a 21-year Air Force veteran and popular starter at the Encino-Balboa Municipal Golf Course, had proven successful in business and allegedly had no interest in splitting up his assets if Joan were to end their union.
He had also stepped outside the marriage for sexual and romantic fulfillment. Eventually, that led Dennis to Brandita Taliano, a heroin-addicted sex worker boasting a long criminal rap sheet, who he picked up while she was walking Sepulveda Boulevard. Dennis had reportedly fallen in love with Brandita.
With murder in mind, Dennis Dawley reached out to his friend Gregory Locke and convicted felon Gary Lee Ware (who Brandita knew through jail connections), offering them cash in exchange for murdering Joan. Testifying under immunity, Ware would later describe the deal as follows:
Dennis allegedly also invited the two would-be assassins to steal anything in the home that caught their fancy. Alas, after Ware got popped for a parole violation, the deal didn’t go down. That’s when Dennis and Brandita took matters into their own homicidal hands.
“He told me he wanted me to kill his wife. He said he didn’t care how I did it. I could rape her if I wanted to, as long as she was dead when it was over. He wanted it to look like a robbery-burglary.”
According to prosecutors, Brandita held Joan down while Dennis beat her to death. Prosecutors alleged that Dennis used a golf club, the tool of his daily trade.
Afterward, they ransacked the master bedroom and left a stepladder outside a back window. This was the extent of their clumsy attempt to stage a break-in. It didn’t work.
Marilyn Rush, a friend of Joan’s from work, dropped by the Dawley house later that day. She found the door open and stepped inside to discover Joan’s body on the floor.
Authorities initially chalked Joan’s death up to an intruder, but they never took their eye off Dennis. LAPD Detective Paul Tippin, in particular, worked the case until he cracked it right open.
Despite the lackluster staging of the bogus burglary (no fingerprints, no footprints, no signs of forced entry), Dennis Dawley’s downfall came as a result of the tacky and ill-advised spending spree he went on in the wake of Joan’s demise.Just two days after the funeral of his savagely murdered spouse, Dennis took off with Brandita on a first-class romp to Las Vegas. He also, in short order, purchased a new car, a Jacuzzi, a gazebo, and a waterbed.
In addition, Dennis rapidly put Brandita’s name on two car titles and the deed to his vacation home in Big Bear.
Meanwhile, investigators were combing through Dennis’s phone records and tracing his whereabouts around the time of the murder.
As the circumstantial evidence snowballed, police finally arrested Dennis Dawley and Brandita Taliano in 1995 on charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Dennis also faced a count of solicitation.
Their trial lasted three months in 1997. The testimony by failed knockoff-artist Gary Lee Ware proved especially powerful against the defendants, as did statements made by Dennis’s own daughters.
The most crucial piece of evidence, though, proved to be the discovery of Joan’s DNA under Brandita’s fingernails — the result of cutting-edge technology at the time that still took nearly a year to complete.
The jury convicted the couple on all charges, but voted against their receiving the death penalty. A judge sentenced both Dennis Dawley and Brandita Taliano to life in prison. Dennis died behind bars in 2003. Brandita, reportedly, is being considered for parole.
For more on the Dennis Dawley case, watch the “Stages of Grief” episode of Investigation Discovery’s American Monster on ID GO now!
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Main photo: Dennis Dawley [LAPD]