Home Horror SubgenresTrue Crime Remembering the Tragic Murder of ‘Poltergeist’ Star Dominique Dunne

Remembering the Tragic Murder of ‘Poltergeist’ Star Dominique Dunne

by Waylon Jordan
Dominique Dunne

In the Summer of 1982, actress Dominque Dunne appeared to have everything going for her. After a string of appearances in television shows and movies, she had just starred in what should have been the first of many milestones in her career as an actress as Dana Freeling, the oldest child in the haunted Freeling family in Poltergeist.

Dunne had come from a rather privileged background. Her mother, Ellen Beatriz was a ranching heiress, and her father, Dominick Dunne, was an acclaimed author. Her brother, Griffin Dunne, also an actor, had just appeared in the classic horror film An American Werewolf in London the year before.

Then, just a few short months after the film had opened and only days before her 23rd birthday, Dunne was murdered by her former boyfriend, John Sweeney.

Dunne had met Sweeney, a sous chef at the famed Ma Maison, at a party in 1981 and after only a short time dating, they moved into a small apartment together.

Sweeney was very possessive of Dunne, and became abusive almost immediately.

Various stories have been told about those early days. He reportedly pulled out handfuls of her hair by the roots in an argument in August of 1981 after which she fled to her mother’s home. Sweeney showed up at the house, banging on the doors and windows demanding to be let in to see her. Dominique returned to him a few days later.

In another heartbreaking account, according to IMDb, she was scheduled to appear as an abused teen in an episode of Hill Street Blues. She showed up on set with real bruises on her face from Sweeney, and rather than using makeup, they simply let her play the role with her own bruises on display.

By October of 1982, Dunne had finally ended their relationship, changing the locks to their home after he had moved out.

On October 30, she was rehearsing with actor David Packer for the miniseries V when Sweeney showed up at the residence demanding to speak to her. She went outside and Packer heard them arguing followed by screams and a loud thud.

Packer reportedly phoned a friend and told them that if he died, John Sweeney had done it. He then went outside where he saw Sweeney kneeling over Dunne in some bushes where he had strangled her. Sweeney told him to call the police and when they arrived, he was standing in the driveway with his hands raised in surrender telling them that he had killed Dunne and attempted to kill himself.

He would later testify in trial that, though he remembered the argument, he did not remember attacking Dominique that night.

Dunne was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles where she remained on life support for five days. On November 4, 1982, when it was established that no brain activity existed, her parents made the decision to remove the machines that were keeping her “alive.”

After a somewhat lengthy trial Sweeney was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter is defined as the killing of a human being in which the offender acted during the heat of passion, under circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed to the point that they can’t reasonably control their emotions.

Dunne’s family was rightfully enraged, in part, because the judge had not allowed testimony by a former girlfriend of Sweeney’s about his abusive tendencies to be heard by the jury.

Sweeney was sentenced to six years for voluntary manslaughter and additional six months for an assault charge. Of those six and a half years, he served only three and a half.

After he was released from prison, he sought work in Los Angeles but Dunne’s family would lead protests outside restaurants that hired him reportedly passing out flyers that read, “Your food here is prepared by the hands that murdered Dominique Dunne.”

He would eventually flee the state and go so far as to change his name.

Dominique was interred at Westwood Memorial Park, not far from where her Poltergeist co-star Heather O’Rourke would be laid to rest a few years later after dying from intestinal stenosis shortly after completing the third film in the franchise.

There is no way of knowing what kind of career the young star would have gone on to have, but she was certainly a talented young woman with her whole life ahead of her.