Dominique Dunne played Dana Freeling, the eldest daughter in Poltergeist (1982). On 30 October 1982, just a few months after Poltergeist was released, she was strangled to death in her driveway by her ex-boyfriend, a chef named John Sweeney. Evidently, he had become enraged when she tried to end their relationship. The 22 year-old actress clung to life in a coma for five days before passing away at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre.
When the presiding judge came to sentencing Sweeney to 6 years gaol for ‘involuntary manslaughter’ in November 1983, he angrily told the defendant: ‘You hung on to this fragile and vulnerable woman and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed the oxygen from her while she flailed for her life…This is an act qualitatively not of manslaughter but of murder’. ‘Qualitatively’? One wonders, what additional ingredient did this merciless act need to elevate it from involuntary manslaughter to outright murder?
As if the verdict of involuntary manslaughter wasn’t insult enough to the victim, a former girlfriend of her killer was not permitted to give testimony that he had beaten her several times, causing her to suffer a broken nose and a collapsed lung. In fact, Dominique herself had appeared on TV sporting facial bruises inflicted upon her by Sweeney some months before. This evidence, it seems, would have created an unfair impression of the man’s character had it been presented. Heaven forbid! But it gets even worse. Despite the totally inadequate 6-year sentence, Sweeney was released in June 1986, having served less than three years for his crime.
When he secured a head chef’s position at ‘The Chronicle’, a high class Santa Monica restaurant, the dead girl’s parents were understandably outraged. They picketed the place every evening, displaying signs reading: ‘the hands that will prepare your meal tonight also murdered Dominique Dunne’. He resigned soon afterwards, eventually moving to the northwest of the USA and changing his name to John Maura. Dunne’s family no longer harass him, endeavouring to put the whole ordeal behind them. Put in perspective; instead of being convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, this brute did just two and a half years, was allowed back into society, and lost his job! Something is terribly wrong with the system.
Little Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol in the picture and utters the catchphrase ‘they’re back’, died at the age of 12 in 1988 from congenital intestinal stenosis, the tragic result of an incorrect diagnosis according to her mother. Bit player Lou Perryman (billed as Lou Perry here) played a construction worker named Pugsley in the film. In 2009, at the age of 67, he was murdered in his Austin, Texas home. A man named Seth Tatum beat his mother’s room-mate with a garden tool, then walked about three miles before entering Perryman’s house and killing him. The two men had never met before. Sadly, Poltergeist turned out to be a horror picture in more ways than one.