When A Silent Movie Icon Was Shot Dead In 1922, Police Suspected Two Of Hollywood’s Biggest Stars

In the early morning of February 2, 1922, a voice cries out in Los Angeles. Henry Peavey has just discovered the body of his boss, director William Desmond Taylor, who lies motionless inside his home in the Westlake area of the city. Later, it will also be determined that a single bullet had ripped through Taylor’s back on the evening before he was found. But as Peavey reels from what he has seen, he has no idea that cops will put two of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the frame for the crime.

And prior to his untimely death, Taylor had led a rather charmed existence. He had come into the world as William Cunningham Deane-Tanner on April 26, 1872, in County Carlow, Ireland. Then, after Taylor had turned 18, he left the Emerald Isle behind for the United States in order to work on a Kansas ranch. At the time, many wealthy families sent male offspring to America in the hope of turning their sons into gentleman farmers – individuals who cultivated the land for pleasure rather than for profit.

Once in Kansas, though, Taylor never became the gentleman farmer that his parents envisioned. Instead, he fell back into a hobby that he’d had before he moved overseas: acting. So, Taylor ended up leaving the Midwest behind for New York City, where he worked at an antiques store and started dating the owner’s daughter, Ethel May Hamilton.

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Then, on December 7, 1901, Taylor and Hamilton made their love official by tying the knot at NYC’S Little Church Around the Corner. A year or two after that, the couple also welcomed their first child – a daughter. But the newly married Taylor wasn’t entirely a family man. He had a lively social life that involved lots of drinking, for one, and that wasn’t even to mention the multiple affairs in which he had engaged while still wed to Hamilton. Some thought that he may be depressed, too.

Ultimately, in 1908, the couple’s situation came to a head, as in October of that year Taylor abruptly vanished. He hadn’t died or fallen victim to a crime, either; basically, he simply disappeared. And while no one really knows what he did in the immediate aftermath of leaving his wife and child behind, in 1912 he arrived in San Francisco using his new name of William Desmond Taylor.

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While in the Californian city, Taylor reunited with some of his New York City friends, who gave him the cash he needed to get to his next destination: Los Angeles. There, he’d finally pursue an acting career. And Taylor made a fast start, too, finding work as an actor in 1913. Mere months later, he even began to direct pictures.

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In 1918, however, Taylor took a brief hiatus from Hollywood in order to enlist in World War I. The then-46-year-old joined Canada’s Expeditionary Force and sailed to London with the rank of private. The conflict would take him across Europe, too, as the squadron of which he was a part was stationed at Dunkirk, then in Berguet, France. But after the war had ended, Taylor’s role slowly became superfluous to requirements. And in May 1919 Taylor was back in LA.

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Upon Taylor’s return, he attended a banquet in his honor thrown by the Motion Picture Directors Association. And from there, his directing career really took off. In fact, Taylor helmed films that featured some of the biggest stars of the time – including protegée Mary Miles Minter, who would go on to appear in Anne of Green Gables. Some even considered him to be the most famous director of the time.

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Shockingly, it took this long for Hamilton to realize that her ex-husband – whom she had officially divorced in 1912 – was still alive. After Hamilton and her daughter, Ethel Daisy, caught a glimpse of Taylor during his movie Captain Alvarez, the mom revealed the identity of the man to her offspring. And once Ethel Daisy had been clued in, she ended up sending her father a letter.

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Then, in 1921 – 13 years after he had disappeared from New York – Taylor returned to the city to see his ex-wife and daughter. From then on, he also made Ethel Daisy his heir if anything should something happen to him. Little did he know, though, that something would happen to him very shortly thereafter.

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Neighbors knew Taylor to work late into the night, so the fact that his light stayed on didn’t by itself raise any alarm bells on the evening of February 1, 1922. But the next morning, screams rang out in the upscale Westlake neighborhood after Taylor’s hired helper, Peavey, discovered the worst.

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According to Timeline, Peavey ran backward and forwards in the yard and shrieked into the quiet morning, “Mr. Taylor is dead! Mr. Taylor is dead!” Soon, a crowd formed inside the director’s bungalow, where he lay dead on the floor. And in time, someone claiming to be a doctor then examined the body.

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The self-proclaimed medical professional looked at Taylor’s body and decided he had suffered from a stomach hemorrhage that had killed him during the night. When forensic investigators arrived on the scene, however, they drew a very different conclusion. After the 49-year-old was flipped over, you see, a gunshot wound was clearly visible on his back.

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And with that discovery, neighbors started remembering things they had witnessed that could be connected to Taylor’s death. Some recalled, for example, hearing the backfiring of a vehicle at around 9:00 p.m. on the night of the murder. One couple had even apparently peered outside when the noise rang out and spotted a man walking from the director’s bungalow.

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In the meantime, police conducted an investigation of their own, during which they found that Taylor still had valuable items on his person. For instance, the deceased still held cash totaling $78 – the equivalent of about $1,200 today – while the diamond ring he sported appeared similarly untouched. As such, then, investigators assumed that the crime hadn’t been robbery-related.

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What investigators did narrow down, though, was the suspect list, and the sensational roster of names and motives grabbed the public’s attention. Stories about Taylor’s past emerged in the papers, too. And thanks to this reporting, people therefore learned that the famous director had once deserted his family. They also found out that he had once changed his name from William Cunningham Deanne-Taylor.

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On top of that, the search of Taylor’s bungalow had reportedly uncovered a plethora of women’s underwear as well as a collection of pornography. Without robbery as a motive, then, the needle instead pointed to a murder driven by passion. And the director’s colorful life afforded police a laundry list of suspects who may have wanted him dead.

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Understandably, the man who discovered the director’s body was first on that list. But while Peavey had his own rap sheet – including an arrest for social vagrancy a mere three days before Taylor’s murder – police ultimately ruled him out following a spell of intensive questioning.

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A man named Edward Sands – who had previously served as Taylor’s chef and valet – was also held under suspicion. And Sands had an even murkier history than his successor, having been found guilty of forgery, embezzlement and desertion from the military. He’d already committed crimes against Taylor, too.

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In the summer of 1921 – the year before Taylor’s murder – Sands had still worked for the director. And after Taylor had traveled to Europe, his then-valet had begun forging checks in his name. The hired helper also crashed the filmmaker’s car and robbed his house – during which he had left footprints in the bed. Even more suspiciously, no one ever heard from Sands again after the burglary.

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Because police couldn’t locate Sands, then, they went on to explore other avenues. And some of the people whom the cops had on their list just happened to be the era’s biggest stars. Two of them in particular – both women – stood out from the pack.

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First, there was Mabel Normand, who was a co-star of Charlie Chaplin and was well known for her comedic prowess. According to the police’s timeline of the crime, Normand was the last person to see Taylor alive. And, in fact, many people believed that she had captured the director’s heart.

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But a fairy-tale romance was never to be between the pair – not least because of Normand’s ongoing addiction to cocaine. Supposedly, the actress had reached out to Taylor for help, but while he did his best to get her treatment, she apparently continued to relapse – much to Taylor’s dismay.

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So, in an attempt to stop Normand’s drug use once and for all, Taylor reportedly decided to attack the source. It’s said that he contacted police and federal prosecutors, urging them to arrest the dealers who were supplying the star with cocaine. As such, some wondered if the drug gang had caught wind of the director’s move – and retaliated against him for it.

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Meanwhile, Normand confirmed that she was indeed Taylor’s final visitor before he died. Specifically, she had gone to the director’s house in order to retrieve two books: Thus Spake Zarathustra by Nietzsche and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Even these works ruffled the public’s feathers, though. According to The Guardian, the literature “[tied] two highly suspicious Germans into the tale.”

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But the books ended up being beside the point. Apparently, during Normand’s visit, Taylor had expressed his fears about Sands, as he had disappeared post-check fraud. The director also worried about Peavey after bailing him out of jail. Still, nothing was actually amiss between him and Normand, as far as authorities knew.

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Instead, Normand left Taylor’s bungalow with the books in hand at around 7:45 p.m. that evening. Then, she hopped into her limousine and drove away – but not before blowing kisses to the 49-year-old. Normand didn’t realize, either, that this would be the last time she’d see Taylor – nor that police would soon suspect her in his death.

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Yet while Normand underwent a rigorous line of police questioning, investigators uncovered nothing of interest. Ultimately, then, the authorities cleared her of suspicion – as have those who later reopened the case in the hope of finally solving it. Still, the actress’ life wouldn’t be the same in the aftermath of Taylor’s slaying.

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After Taylor’s funeral, you see, Normand’s career went into decline – especially once the world knew about her struggles with cocaine. And the star apparently never received any sort of closure about the director’s demise; in any case, she is said to have wondered aloud if the murderer would ever be caught just prior to her own death in 1930.

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But police were still looking at Minter, as it seemed that her relationship with Taylor had gone beyond the strictly professional. For starters, police had found love letters from the young woman to the director in the deceased’s home.

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Following the unearthing of these notes, then, newspapers ran salacious headlines alleging that the 49-year-old had embarked on an affair with Minter, who was only 19 at the time of his death. Yet many who knew the director refuted such reports. They countered that her affection hadn’t been reciprocated, as Taylor had supposedly thought the age difference between himself and Minter too great.

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So, maybe Minter’s unrequited love had led her to kill. That said, her potential relationship with Taylor created yet another suspect for police: the star’s mother, Charlotte Shelby. And subsequent retellings of the slaying and its list of suspects typically aren’t kind to Selby. She is often described as the quintessential stage mother, letting her greed guide career decisions for her daughter.

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Perhaps finding out that Minter and Taylor had engaged in a secret relationship enraged Shelby to the point that she sprang into fatal action. In any event, she seemed a more plausible suspect than either her daughter or Normand. For one thing, police thought that the stage mom came off as evasive and a liar during their interviews.

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Even more suspiciously, Shelby may have owned a pistol of the exact caliber that the police were looking for. In addition, she also used a very unique type of bullet – ammunition that was incredibly similar to the bullet that had ended Taylor’s life. And when rumors of Shelby’s gun ownership made the news, the mom reportedly acted in an extremely fishy manner by dumping her weapon into a bayou somewhere in Louisiana.

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Even after that alleged incident, Shelby continued to make herself look guilty by moving outside of the U.S. That way, she could dodge any questions from police or the press. Yet this relocation didn’t stop people from honing in on Shelby as the main suspect in the case. And not only did writers believe that she had killed Taylor, but her own family seemingly thought so, too.

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According to Timeline, Minter herself denounced her mom as Taylor’s murderer. “My mother killed everything I ever loved,” she supposedly once said. Shelby’s other daughter, Margaret – who was also an actress – apparently concurred with this, too. In the end, though, police just didn’t have enough evidence to charge Shelby with any crime.

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In fact, the authorities were never able to charge anyone with the director’s death – perhaps in part because police hadn’t managed the crime scene properly. And owing to this mishap and the improper storing of evidence, there isn’t much left for cold-case detectives to scrutinize in the hope of finding the person responsible.

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It didn’t help, either, that the Taylor case garnered as much press as it did. In the wake of the media circus, you see, some 300 people contacted their local authorities and admitted to killing the director – even if their claims seemed improbable. And more than 40 years after the slaying, former silent film star Margaret Gibson followed suit, asserting on her deathbed that she had actually murdered Taylor herself.

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Still, Gibson and the other people who admitted to Taylor’s murder probably didn’t do it. In fact, nearly 100 years on, the case remains unsolved, although the many movies, theatrical renditions and online videos that have retold the story or dissected the crime have helped keep it alive. Some people even claim to have solved the murder, although police have never given their official ruling.

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One thing was for sure, though, after Taylor’s death: Hollywood wouldn’t be the same. Neither Normand nor Minter could ever restart their careers after the scandal, while others demanded in the wake of the murder that the film industry clean up its standards. As a result, then, studio executives started writing morality clauses into actors’ contracts for years to come – all because of a vicious crime that took place in February 1922.

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And yet Taylor’s is far from the only murder to have changed Hollywood forever. Just consider, for instance, actress Dominique Dunne, whose high-profile death in 1982 sent shockwaves through Tinseltown. The young woman had been on the brink of a sparkling career, in fact, when her life was tragically cut short.

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It’s a day much like any other in October 1982, and actors Dominique Dunne and David Packer are reading lines in Dominique’s home in West Hollywood, California. But after an angry visitor arrives on the doorstep, what had been a regular rehearsal quickly turns into a nightmare when David discovers Dominique’s lifeless body in the yard. And days later, the starlet dies in hospital – a tragedy that marks the start of one of showbiz’s most infamous murder cases.

Born in October 1925 in Hartford, Connecticut, Dominique’s father, Dominick, came from a wealthy Irish Catholic background. And among his five siblings was John Gregory, who would grow up to become a successful novelist and critic. Dominick’s younger brother also ultimately married and started a family with the American journalist Joan Didion – herself a noted writer known for her work on the decline of the American dream.

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Dominick developed his own burgeoning career, though, by becoming a movie and TV producer before turning his hand to writing. And in 1954 he married Ellen Beatriz Griffin – an actress known by the nickname Lenny. Together, the pair moved to New York and later settled in Beverly Hills in California.

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However, Dominick’s marriage to Lenny was marred by tragedy, with the couple losing two infant girls to lung diseases. Fortunately, their third daughter, Dominique, survived along with two older sons: Griffin, who would also grow up to become an actor, and Alexander, who was known as Alex.

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Having entered the world in November 1959 in Santa Monica, California, Dominique was therefore just a young girl when her parents decided to divorce in 1967. As the future star grew up, though, she attended the prestigious Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles before enrolling at Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut and ultimately graduating from Colorado’s Fountain Valley School.

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As a young woman, Dominique then traveled to Florence, Italy, where she lived for a year and spent her time learning the language. And, eventually, she announced her dream of making it as an actress – a career move that came as no surprise to her doting father. So, after studying under director Milton Katselas in Beverly Hills, Dominique finally took her first steps into the showbiz world.

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To begin with, Dominique appeared in a number of stage productions, including The Mousetrap, West Side Story and My Three Angels, before landing her screen debut in the 1979 TV movie Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker. A succession of small parts flooded in after that, too. And the young actress began to make a name for herself after being cast in some of the era’s most iconic shows, such as Fame, Lou Grant and Hart to Hart.

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But it was in 1981 that Dominique got her big break. That year, she appeared in her first feature film: Tobe Hooper’s future cult classic Poltergeist. In the horror movie, she took the role of Dana Freeling – the eldest daughter of a family who appear to be plagued by violent ghosts.

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Thanks to the success of Poltergeist, then, Dominique’s Hollywood career went from strength to strength. And in 1982 she bagged another big role: Robin Maxwell in V, an NBC miniseries about an alien invasion of Earth. However, before the rising star could even finish filming the pilot, tragedy struck.

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And Dominique’s fate was ultimately tied up with that of one John Sweeney, whom the actress had met at a party the previous year. At the time, John was working as a cooking assistant at Ma Maison – a fashionable restaurant in West Hollywood. He came from a difficult background, too; one of five siblings, he had been a child of divorce and domestic abuse.

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But even though John’s past contrasted with Dominique’s privileged and wealthy upbringing, the pair apparently hit it off. Indeed, after only a few months of dating, the fledgling couple decided to move in together. Yet according to reports, the relationship soon began to crumble. By the time that Dominique’s family had met John, in fact, the cracks were apparently beginning to show.

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During that period, Dominique’s father, Dominick, was living in New York. Her mother, Lenny, by contrast, was still in Beverly Hills, although she had relocated to a smaller house in the Californian city that would be easier to manage after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Meanwhile, Dominique’s brothers, Griffin and Alex, were forging their own lives over on the East Coast near their dad.

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And according to Dominick, Dominique traveled to New York with John to introduce him to her family relatively early on in their relationship. Still, the father clocked pretty quickly that something was wrong. As Dominick recalled in a 1984 article for Vanity Fair, “That night, I phoned her mother and said, ‘He’s much more in love with her than she is with him.’”

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But that wasn’t all. Apparently, when Dominique, John and Alex were enjoying a night out in Manhattan, a disturbing incident unfolded. According to Dominick, John left his girlfriend to go to the bathroom, and in that time she was approached by an inebriated fan. Yet even though the encounter was seemingly innocent, Alex recalled the chef reacting with alarming anger.

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“There was no flirtation; it was the case of a slightly tipsy fan delighted to be in the presence of an actress he had seen in a film,” Dominick explained to Vanity Fair. “But when Sweeney returned to the table and saw the man talking with Dominique, he became enraged. He picked up the man and shook him. Alex said that Sweeney’s reaction was out of all proportion to the incident going on. Alex said he was scary.”

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Distressingly, Dominick’s suspicions about his daughter’s new boyfriend seemed to be on the money, as on August 27, 1982, another frightening incident was reported to have occurred. According to People magazine, on that date John physically assaulted Dominique – even apparently going so far as to pull out clumps of her hair. Afterwards, it’s said, the frightened actress was forced to take refuge in her mother’s home.

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Then, the next month, on September 26, Dominique and John argued again – this time after a night out with friends. And the disagreement reportedly culminated in another attack, after which the actress was left with bruises and marks around her throat. According to Dominick, the actress fled through a window before making a getaway to the home of her friend Norman Carby.

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At the time of the alleged assault, Dominique was working on police drama Hill Street Blues in the role of an abused teenager, and this led Norman to dryly joke that she wouldn’t need any makeup to get into character. But Dominique’s friend was also horrified by the actress’ appearance, prompting him to snap photographs of her injuries. Then, not long afterwards, Dominique called an end to her romance with John – and she changed the locks on the couple’s home to boot.

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And in October 1982 Dominique was getting on with her life away from her ex-partner by preparing for her role in the miniseries V. As a consequence, then, on October 30 – around five weeks after the breakup – she was running lines with her co-star David Packer in the home that she and John had once shared. But, apparently, while she was on the telephone with a friend, her ex-boyfriend – assisted by the operator – suddenly interrupted the call.

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According to reports, Dominique informed her friend that John was on the line and promised to get rid of him. Nevertheless, just minutes later, the chef apparently turned up at the actress’ home. At first, it’s said that she declined to meet with him, preferring instead to talk to him from inside the house. Ultimately, however, Dominique agreed to go outside.

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Meanwhile, David apparently stayed inside the house while Dominique and John spoke on the veranda. But before long, the actor heard an argument break out – and then a disturbing series of sounds. These reportedly consisted of whacking noises, followed by cries and a thud. Disturbed, David rang 911.

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Yet Dominique’s co-star later claimed that the authorities were unable to assist him owing to the actress’ address being in the wrong location. With that in mind, then, David reportedly left a desperate message over the telephone to a friend. According to Vanity Fair, he said, “If I die tonight, it was by John Sweeney.” Then, finally, the actor made his way outside, where he found a disturbing sight: his fellow star lying on the ground with John looming above her.

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Apparently, John subsequently instructed David to telephone the police. And after law enforcement arrived, Dominique’s ex-partner seemingly ended up making a startling confession. According to People, he told officers at the scene, “I killed my girlfriend, and I tried to kill myself.” That said, investigators subsequently found no evidence that suggested the chef had engaged in a suicide attempt.

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And in the early hours of October 31, police rang Dominick at his New York home to duly inform him that his daughter was in a critical condition at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. There, Dominique had been placed on a life-support machine. But although the actress’ distraught family flocked to her bedside, there was little they could do.

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“At first, I did not realize that the person on the bed was Dominique,” Dominick later recalled to Vanity Fair. “There were tubes in her everywhere, and the life-support system caused her to breathe in and out with a grotesque jerking movement that seemed a parody of life. Her eyes were open, massively enlarged [and] staring sightlessly up at the ceiling. [And] her beautiful hair had been shaved off.”

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However, a few days after the attack, doctors took the Dunnes aside with some heartbreaking news: their scans had revealed that Dominique was brain dead. And on November 4, the family therefore made the heartbreaking decision to disconnect the actress from the machines that were keeping her alive, with the star ultimately passing away later that day. Following Dominique’s death, her organs were donated, while her body was handed over to the coroner’s office.

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Then, two days after Dominique’s passing, her family and friends gathered at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills to say their final goodbyes. And after the ceremony, the late actress was finally laid to rest at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery – meaning the Poltergeist actress shares the same burial place as some of Hollywood’s greatest stars.

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Just six years later, moreover, Dominique’s Poltergeist co-star Heather O’Rourke was buried in the same cemetery after she died of intestinal stenosis at just 12 years old. And because both actresses passed away tragically at such young ages, some have speculated that the famous horror movie might have been subject to some sort of curse. However, most reject this idea as pure superstition and that the deaths were not linked at all.

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Meanwhile, after Dominique’s passing, her final role – that of the abused teen in Hill Street Blues – was eventually broadcast. Shot on September 27, 1982, the episode chillingly shows bruises on Dominique from John’s assault the day before. Nevertheless, the Dunne family would not find out the truth until the trial, during which the details of their daughter’s horrible ordeal slowly began to unravel.

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John had been taken into police custody at the scene of the attack, and although he had initially been charged with attempted homicide, this was changed to first-degree murder after Dominique’s death. At first, though, the chef maintained his innocence; he claimed that he had reconciled with the actress and that the pair were planning a future together.

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In July 1983, then, Dominick joined Lenny, Griffin and Alex in Los Angeles to prepare for what would become one of Hollywood’s most notorious murder trials. John took the stand the following month, where he claimed that he had never intended to hurt Dominique. According to him, she had reneged on their planned reconciliation, and this had subsequently caused him to lose his cool.

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During the trial, John also claimed to be unable to remember attacking Dominique – only becoming aware of the incident when his hands were already wrapped around her throat. The chef alleged that he had made several attempts to revive the actress, too, before trying to take his own life with an overdose of pills.

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But while John’s attorney called Dominique’s death a crime of passion rather than a premeditated murder, the Dunnes disagreed with this version of events. The family claimed, you see, that the actress had never planned to reconcile with her allegedly violent ex-partner. And investigators also disputed the idea that a remorseful John had attempted suicide. One officer testified, for instance, that Sweeney had admitted calmly to the crime, telling him, “I just lost my temper and blew it again.”

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And during the court proceedings, District Attorney Steven Barshop highlighted just how long it had taken Dominique to be choked to death: four minutes, which Barshop forced the courtroom to relive in real time. According to prosecutors, you see, such a period should have been long enough for John to get his temper under control. And yet his attorney continued to maintain that the slaying had been a crime of passion.

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During the trial, the court also heard from Lillian Pierce – a former girlfriend of John’s. And in her shocking testimony, she detailed the violent abuse that she had reportedly suffered at her ex-partner’s hands. According to Lillian, John had subjected her to ten separate beatings that had resulted in injuries such as a broken nose and a collapsed lung.

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Upon hearing Lillian’s words in court, however, John erupted with rage and had to be restrained by guards. Yet Burton Katz – the presiding judge – accepted the defendant’s apology for his behavior. What’s more, he ruled that the information about the chef’s previous relationship was not admissible. And as such, the jury never found out about John’s history of violence towards women until the trial had ended.

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But this wasn’t all. On August 29 the judge also decided that there was not enough evidence of premeditation in the case, leaving only manslaughter and second-degree murder on the table. So, during the following month, John was convicted of the former charge. And although he received the maximum sentence, this amounted to just six years behind bars – plus an extra six months for the September 26 attack.

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When the details of the trial came to light, then, many were outraged, with some media outlets duly denouncing the behavior of the judge. And faced with this heavy criticism, Katz chose to speak out against the jury, blaming them for the miscarriage of justice. The jurors themselves claimed, by contrast, that they had not been furnished with all of the facts they’d needed to make a murder conviction.

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Then, in the March 1984 issue of Vanity Fair, Dominick published his account of his daughter’s death and trial. And in the article, the writer made no attempt to disguise his belief that justice had not been served. Dominique’s mom, Lenny, meanwhile, threw herself into activism by starting the advocacy group Justice for Homicide Victims.

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Nevertheless, Dominique’s tragic fate continued to haunt the family whom she had left behind. And after John’s release in September 1986 – following just three and a half years behind bars – the Dunnes began protesting against his attempts to build a new life. According to reports, Dominick even hired a private detective to stalk his daughter’s killer, but the writer eventually stopped before his own death in 2009. Today, then, the actress is mostly remembered for her Poltergeist role – as well as the horrifying circumstances in which she met her untimely demise.

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