Inside The Murder Of Actress Dominique Dunne At The Hands Of Her Abusive Ex-Boyfriend

Published December 22, 2021
Updated November 15, 2023

On October 30, 1982, Dominique Ellen Dunne was brutally strangled by John Thomas Sweeney. He only served three and a half years for the crime.

Dominique Dunne had all the ingredients necessary to be a Hollywood superstar. Pretty, talented, and with an enviable resumé, Dunne’s star was on the rise with roles in such films as Poltergeist and Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker.

But on October 30, 1982, Dunne was attacked by her ex-boyfriend, and subsequently fell into a coma. After floundering on life support, she died on November 4, 1982.

Despite the brutality of the crime committed against her, Dominique Dunne’s killer, John Thomas Sweeney, got only six years in prison. What’s more, Sweeney was hired as a head chef at an upscale restaurant in Santa Monica, California. And when her family campaigned for justice and founded a victim’s advocacy group, Sweeney himself claimed he was being “harassed” by the grieving family.

This is the disturbing but true story of Dominique Dunne’s death — and what her family felt was justice denied.

Dominique Dunne’s Rising Star

Dominique Dunne With Poltergeist Cast

MGM/GettyDominique Dunne, center left, with Oliver Robins, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke and JoBeth Williams on set of the film ‘Poltergeist’ in 1982.

By all accounts, Dominique Dunne had all the stars aligned in her favor — literally and figuratively. Her father was the acclaimed journalist Dominick Dunne (for whom she was named), and her mother, Ellen Griffin, was the heiress to a ranching fortune.

She had two older brothers — Alex and Griffin, the latter of whom is best known to television watchers as Nicky Pearson on the acclaimed NBC series, This is Us. She was also the niece of the novelists John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, and her godmother was the daughter of the Hollywood legend Gary Cooper.

By all accounts, Dominque Dunne was raised in a life of privilege. Despite her parents’ divorce in 1967, she attended the best schools, including the prestigious Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles. After she graduated high school, she spent a year in Florence, Italy, where she learned how to speak Italian.

Upon her return to the States, she took acting classes at Colorado State University, and ultimately began getting cast in film productions like Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker and in television shows like The Day The Loving Stopped.

Her defining role, however, would also be her only major appearance on the silver screen. In Poltergeist, Dominique Dunne played Dana Freeling, the sardonic teenage daughter of the family who was terrorized by an in-house supernatural presence. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, Poltergeist earned Dunne high praise and Hollywood cache, and many critics believed that this role would be the first of many to come for her.

Unfortunately, just like in her most infamous film, a sinister force was making its way into her life.

Dominique Dunne’s Brutal Murder

In 1981, Dominique Dunne met John Thomas Sweeney, who was a chef at the upscale Ma Maison Restaurant in Los Angeles which was best known for giving Wolfgang Puck his start in the culinary world. After only a few weeks of dating, Dunne and Sweeney moved in together — but their relationship deteriorated very quickly.

Sweeney was jealous and possessive, and soon began physically abusing Dunne. After much back and forth, Dunne finally snuck away from her abuser on Sept. 26, 1982, and subsequently ended the relationship. Sweeney moved out of their shared apartment, and Dunne — who was staying with her mother until Sweeney moved out — moved back in, changing the locks as she did so.

But her safety was short-lived. On Oct. 30, 1982, Dominique Dunne was rehearsing for the TV series V with her co-star, David Packer, when Sweeney showed up at her door. According to Packer, he then heard a scream, a smack, and a thud. Packer tried to call the police, but was informed that Dunne’s house was out of their jurisdiction. He then phoned a friend and told him that if he ended up dead, John Thomas Sweeney was his killer. Finally, he went outside to find Sweeney standing over the lifeless body of his girlfriend.

When the police came, Sweeney put his hands in the air and claimed that he tried to kill his girlfriend, and then himself. He was booked on attempted murder charges, and Dominque Dunne was taken to Cedars-Sinai, where she was immediately put on life support.

She never regained consciousness, and Dominique Dunne died on Nov. 4, 1982. She was only 22 years old.

The Trial Of John Thomas Sweeney

After Dominique Dunne’s death, John Thomas Sweeney was charged with second-degree murder. According to the Daily News, Sweeney couldn’t be charged with first-degree murder because a judge ruled there was “no evidence” of premeditation on his part.

Sweeney later testified that he only recalled standing over her body when the attack was over. Furthermore, while Sweeney insisted that he and Dunne were getting back together, Dunne’s family insisted that their breakup was permanent — and Sweeney’s murder of Dunne was due to his refusal to accept that the relationship was over.

The judge also struck testimony from Sweeney’s ex-girlfriend, Lillian Pierce — who testified that Sweeney sexually assaulted her, perforated her eardrum, broke her nose, and collapsed her lung — on the grounds that the testimony was “prejudicial.” The judge also wouldn’t allow Dunne’s family to testify to what they witnessed between Sweeney and their daughter, with the Honorable Burton Katz claiming that their observations were hearsay.

The jury ultimately only found John Thomas Sweeney guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, which carried a maximum sentence of six-and-a-half years in prison. The jury foreman, Paul Spiegel, later commented that had the jury been allowed to hear all the evidence that was stricken and withheld, they would have unquestionably found Sweeney guilty of malice murder.

Nevertheless, after serving only three years in prison, Sweeney was set free.

Griffin And Dominick Dunne Deal With The Aftermath

Dominique Dunne Headstone

Wikimedia CommonsDominique Dunne’s headstone in Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles.

After John Thomas Sweeney was set free, he was hired as an executive chef in Los Angeles, “as if nothing ever happened.” In protest of this move, actor Griffin Dunne and other members of Dominique Dunne’s family stood outside the restaurant handing out fliers letting patrons know about Sweeney’s conviction.

Under growing pressure, Sweeney quit his job, moved away from Los Angeles, and changed his name to John Patrick Maura. A Reddit group subsequently revealed that as of 2014, he was living in northern California and working at Smith Ranch Homes retirement community in San Rafael, in the dining services department.

The Dunnes, however, never truly found peace.

Griffin Dunne said that “if she had lived, she’d be an actress everyone in the world would know. He [Sweeney] is a murderer, he’s murdered, and I think he will do it again.” In 1984, Lenny Dunne founded what is now known as Justice for Homicide Victims, an advocacy group that she ran until her death in 1997.

But it was Dominick Dunne who was most profoundly affected by his daughter’s death. In 2008, just one year before his own death, he penned a memorial in Vanity Fair for his brother John Gregory Dunne, and once again made reference to the life of the sweet, irreplaceable Dominique Dunne.

“The major experience of my life has been the murder of my daughter,” he said. “I never truly understood the meaning of the word “devastation” until I lost her.”

Now that you’ve read all about the horrific murder of Dominique Dunne, read about Stephen McDaniel, who was interviewed on television about a murder — only for him to turn out to be the killer. Then, read all about Rodney Alcala, the “Dating Game Killer.”

Bernadette Giacomazzo
Bernadette Giacomazzo is a New York City-based editor, writer, photographer, and publicist whose work has been featured in People, Teen Vogue, BET, HipHopDX, XXL Magazine, The Source, Vibe, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.
Erik Hawkins
Erik Hawkins studied English and film at Keene State College in NH and has taught English as a Second Language stateside and in South America. He has done award-winning work as a reporter and editor on crime, local government, and national politics for almost 10 years, and most recently produced true crime content for NBC's Oxygen network.
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Giacomazzo, Bernadette. "Inside The Murder Of Actress Dominique Dunne At The Hands Of Her Abusive Ex-Boyfriend.", December 22, 2021, Accessed May 18, 2024.