Though she left behind several notable turns on television and one bonafide blockbuster in "Poltergeist" (1982), actress Dominique Dunne's lasting fame came as a result of her violent death at the hands of a deranged boyfriend in 1982. The daughter of film producer-turned-journalist Dominick Dunne and ranching heiress Ellen Griffin, she was a feisty presence in her TV appearances and in "Poltergeist," where her anguished, terrified cry of "What's happening?" in the film's final moments perfectly encapsulated the reaction of the characters and the audience to the film's onslaught of terror. Sadly, her murder would cut short any promise offered by the film, though the efforts of her family to bring some semblance of justice to her killer's abbreviated sentence helped to make her an enduring symbol of the rights of crime victims everywhere.
She was born Dominique Ellen Dunne in Santa Monica, CA on Nov. 23, 1959, a member of a celebrated family that included novelists John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion and her brother, actor-director Griffin Dunne. Her earliest years, spent in Beverly Hills, were filled with the trappings of privilege and celebrity; her parents counted major figures from film, television and other arts among their closest circle, and Dunne was educated in some of the better schools on both coasts, including the Westlake School in Los Angeles and the Taft School in Watertown, CT. However, life inside the Dunne home did not match its idyllic trappings; her parents divorced when she was 11, and Ellen Griffin was stricken with multiple sclerosis in 1975.
For a year after graduation from high school, Dunne studied art in Italy and England before returning to the States to work briefly as a translator and receptionist at the Italian Trade Commission. Acting, however, held greater interest to her, and after a year of learning her craft at Colorado State University, she winged her way back to Los Angeles to land her first role as a doomed teenage mother in the alarmist TV-movie, "Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker" (ABC, 1979). More work on television soon followed; by 1980, she had logged repeat appearances on "Breaking Away" (ABC, 1980-81) and in TV features like "The Day the Loving Stopped" (ABC, 1981), with Dunne playing a role close to home as the daughter of a divorced couple.
Dunne made her feature film debut with 1982's "Poltergeist," a big-budget, special effects-driven supernatural thriller produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by horror auteur Tobe Hooper of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) fame. Dunne was praised for her role as the eldest, tart-tongued daughter of the ghost-plagued Freeling family, and hopes were high that the film would lead to more movie roles. However, just as in "Poltergeist," a malevolent outside presence was slowly beginning to dominate her life.
In 1981, Dunne met 25-year-old John Thomas Sweeney, a chef at the upscale Ma Maison restaurant in Los Angeles. The pair quickly became a couple, and within a few weeks, were living together in West Hollywood. However, the initial sweep of romance soon gave way to Sweeney's uncontrollable emotions. Having grown up in poverty, he felt intimidated by Dunne's wealth and Hollywood connections, and attempted to make up for his perceived shortcomings by becoming an overwhelming presence in her life. Sweeney seethed over jealous feelings towards Dunne's male co-stars, and was a frequent and disruptive presence on sets or at acting classes. The growing tension exploded into violence behind closed doors at the couple's apartment. An argument in August 1982 resulted in Sweeney assaulting her so violent that he tore fistfuls of hair from her head. Dunne fled to the house of her mother, who threatened to call the police, but within days, Dunne had forgiven Sweeney. Unfortunately, the truce was short-lived. Within a month's time, Sweeney became so enraged that he began choking Dunne, and might have killed her had a friend not stepped in to intervene. On a 1981 episode of "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1981-87) that would serve as her final screen appearance, bruises were clearly visible on Dunne's neck and, sadly, no makeup was necessary to create the illusion.
Soon after, Dunne broke off the relationship and changed the locks to their home, fearing for her safety. In the fall of 1982, she began work on the science fiction miniseries "V" (NBC, 1983), and shot scenes for the first two of three eventual episodes. On the evening of Oct. 30, 1982, while rehearsing scenes with her co-star, actor David Packer, Sweeney arrived at her home to beg forgiveness. Dunne stepped outside on the front porch to confront him and refused to reconcile. Sweeney became enraged and grabbed Dunne, dragging her to the property of the house next door, where he strangled her. Instead of rushing to her aid, the cowardly Packer waiting inside while she screamed, phoning a friend to tell them "if I'm found dead, John Sweeney did it" before calling the police. He eventually ran outside and found Sweeney standing over her body, apparently trying to revive her. She was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where after lingering in a coma for five days, she died on Nov. 4, 1982. Dunne was just 22 years old. Some of the crasser scribes would later attribute her death to the "Poltergeist" curse, which swirled around the sudden and unexpected deaths of several cast members from the original film and its 1986 sequel, "Poltergeist II: The Other Side."
Sweeney's trial for the murder of Dominique Dunne began in August of 1983. His attorney attempted to reframe the crime as one "of passion" based on Dunne's elitist attitude and an attempt to deceive Sweeney about reconciliation, which caused him to "snap." Sweeney also testified that he blacked out while strangling the actress, and immediately tried to revive her. Upon discovering that he could not, Sweeney alleged that he attempted to commit suicide. However, police reports dispelled the notion of the suicide attempt and Sweeney's distraught attitude after the crime; in fact, he seemed more concerned with his own fate than Dunne's condition. Further testimony from the medical examiner revealed that Sweeney had strangled Dunne for five minutes - more than enough time to come to his senses.
Unfortunately, some of the most damning evidence against Sweeney was excluded from the trial at the urging of his defense attorney. Testimony from a former girlfriend about a history of violent abuse during their relationship was ruled out by the ridiculous judge, along with testimony from friends and peers that Dunne lived in fear of Sweeney. In 1983 the jury bought the "crime of passion" plea and handed down a sentence of voluntary manslaughter to Sweeney. The maximum amount of jail time required for the sentence was six and a half years, with the chance of parole after only two to three years. Jurors later stated that their rulings would have been much more severe had the testimony from past abused girlfriends been included.
Reaction from Dunne's family and friends as well as Hollywood in general was an outpouring of shock and grief. Dunne's father, whose problems with alcohol had ushered him out of the film world, had recently reinvented himself as a novelist, and immediately set about putting his emotions to paper in an article for Vanity Fair magazine called "Justice: A Father's Account of the Trial of His Daughter's Killer." The piece not only shed important light on the judicial system's shortcomings in regard to victim's rights, but also helped to establish him as one of journalism's most forceful voices in crime reportage - a crusade he would take on for the rest of his life.
Sweeney was released from the medium prison facility in Susanville, CA on June 21, 1986 after just two and a half years, returning as if nothing happened to Los Angeles where, astonishingly, he landed another high profile job as a chef at The Chronicle. Dunne and his outraged family launched an all-out campaign against him by distributing leaflets to diners at the establishment that "the hands that had prepared their pricey dinners had throttled the life from a young woman." The publicity cost Sweeney his job, so he headed north under an assumed name, where he found employment again as a chef. Dunne hired controversial private investigator Anthony Pellicano to track Sweeney for several years, after which he gave up the hunt, citing no further interest in allowing Sweeney to consume his life. Sweeney's whereabouts were unknown as of 2009.