When Poltergeist premiered in 1982, it left an indelible mark on the landscape of horror movies. However, tragedy soon followed the film’s release when news broke that one of its stars, Dominique Dunne, was murdered. Here’s how Dunne’s family has continued to fight for justice.
She Met John Thomas Sweeney In 1981
Dominque Dunne was born on November 23, 1959 to ranching heiress Ellen Beatriz and writer Dominick Dunne. Through her father’s connections in Hollywood, Dunne easily broke into the acting world.
She studied the art form extensively before she landed her breakthrough role as Dana Freeling in Poltergeist. Her performance was lauded, and critics agreed that she likely had a bright future in the industry.
However, behind the closed doors of her West Hollywood home, Dunne was struggling. In 1981, Dunne began a relationship with John Thomas Sweeney.
Sweeney was a promising sous-chef at the upscale Hollywood restaurant Ma Maison where he worked directly under famed chef Wolfgang Puck. After just a few weeks of dating, Dunne and Sweeney moved in together.
It wasn’t long before the couple’s relationship deteriorated. In the months leading up to Dunne’s death, she made multiple attempts to leave Sweeney. She was finally able to end their relationship after a physical altercation on September 26, 1982.
She Died On November 4, 1982
People magazine extensively covered the details of Dunne’s murder as the trial unfolded in 1983. According to the publication, Dunne was at her home on October 30, 1982, rehearsing for the miniseries V with actor David Packer when Sweeney unexpectedly showed up at her home. He coerced Dunne to come outside to speak with him.
They argued, and eventually, Packer heard sounds of an altercation. When he came outside to check, Sweeney was kneeling over Dunne, and he told Packer to call the police. When the police arrived, there was no mystery; Sweeney confessed to strangling Dunne.
Dunne was still alive when paramedics arrived, but she was unresponsive. She was transported to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles where doctors found no brain activity due to oxygen deprivation. Her parents made the difficult decision to take her off of life support on November 4.
According to Sweeney, he had no intention of killing Dunne. He even alleged that after he realized what he’d done, he immediately tried to take his own life by ingesting pills. Although there was little evidence to support Sweeney’s version of events, there was a general consensus that he acted in the “heat of passion.”
Throughout the proceedings, Sweeney displayed a dangerously violent personality. When an ex-girlfriend testified against him, alleging that he physically abused her as well, Sweeney tried to lunge at her right there in the courtroom.
After eight days of deliberation, a jury found Sweeney not guilty of second-degree murder. Instead, they convicted Sweeney of voluntary manslaughter and a judge sentenced him to six years in prison. However, Sweeney was released in September 1986 after serving only three years and seven months behind bars.
Her Family Continued To Fight For Justice
Dunne’s father, Dominick, was an acclaimed journalist. As a means to turn his grief into action, Dominick documented Sweeney’s trial in a journal.
Eventually, he published his writings in the deeply personal article, “Justice: A Father’s Account of the Trial of his Daughter’s Killer,” in the March 1984 issue of Vanity Fair.
Dunne’s mother, Ellen, had similar motivations. She founded Justice for Homicide Victims—a victim’s rights advocacy group that’s still active today. After Sweeney’s early release, the Dunne family did everything in their power not to let their daughter’s killer fade into anonymity.
According to the LA Times, When Sweeney was hired at an upscale restaurant in Santa Monica California, Ellen and her son Griffin stood outside of the establishment handing out flyers to patrons that read, “The food you will eat tonight was cooked by the hands that killed Dominique Dunne.” Unable to handle the pressure, Sweeney left Los Angeles.
Her Father Kept Tabs On Sweeney For Years
Per the Telegraph, Dominick was contacted by a Florida physician in the mid-’90s who had read his article in Vanity Fair. The physician explained that his own daughter had become engaged to a man by the name of John Sweeney, and he feared that this was the same man who killed Dominique Dunne.
They found out that the man indeed was one and the same. Dunne’s brother, Griffin, contacted Sweeney’s fiancée and encouraged her to reconsider.
This led Sweeney to accuse the Dunne family of harassment. He changed his name and has managed to live out a quiet existence ever since.
At one point in time, Dominick hired a private investigator to watch Sweeney’s movements. However, in a piece written for Slate in 2007, Dominick explained that he was done keeping tabs on his daughter’s killer.
“I don’t know where he is,” he insisted. “I don’t want to know where he is… It’s much healthier. I just hope something terrible happens to him before he dies.”