In October 2009, 39-year-old Dawn Viens disappeared without a trace from the apartment she shared with her husband. David Viens, chef and owner of Thyme Contemporary Café in Lomita, Calif., told detectives that he and his pretty blond wife had been arguing over her alcohol use and that she just wanted to escape her life. “He said she needed time away,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Richard Garcia. “He said she walked away on the night of Oct. 18.”
Although they never found her body, police didn’t believe she was still alive. “There were no signs of life,” said Garcia. “There was no contacting any friends. There was no credit card or cellphone use. She left behind her clothing and vehicle.”
As detectives began closing in on Viens, he attempted to commit suicide by diving feet first off a Rancho Palos Verdes cliff. He survived, and in 2011, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office charged him with the murder of his wife.
The trial, which is now playing out in Los Angeles Superior Court, has all the makings of a made-for-TV movie, including chilling tapes played for the jury of Viens, recovering from his near fatal tumble, confessing to police that he accidentally killed his 105-pound wife, slow-cooked her remains in a 55-gallon drum, drained out the fat, and then hid her skull for safekeeping in his mother’s attic.
Prosecutors say Viens, now 49, killed his wife in a fit of rage over money missing from the sandwich shop they opened together in 2009. “In this case, you are going to learn about a once-happy couple, a couple who had hopes and dreams, and used their efforts to build a future,” said deputy district attorney Deborah Brazil during opening arguments last week. “The evidence in this case will reveal to you just how tragic a once-hopeful relationship can turn.”
Viens, who sat nearby in a wheelchair, has pleaded not guilty, saying he did not try to kill his wife intentionally. During the trial on Wednesday, he told superior court Judge Rand S. Rubin that he would not be taking the stand in his own defense.
The investigation into Dawn Viens’s disappearance began on Nov. 18, 2009, when her sister, Dayna Papin, and friends reported her missing.
In a police interview, David Viens told detectives that on Oct. 18, the night police believe she was murdered, he argued with his wife about her excessive drinking. “She was, uh, yeah, wasted at work,” Viens said. “You know, she had issues with everybody ... She ended up, you know, becoming a mean drunk.”
Earlier that day, Viens said, his wife was drunk again. She was so drunk, he said, that she lost money at the sandwich shop. The two, who met in the 1990s when David was still married to his first wife, went to dinner at California Pizza Kitchen, and he dropped her off at home and returned to work, he said.
He returned home later that night to find her gone and went to bed after taking an Ambien, he initially told police. His wife was still missing the following day, so he texted and called her a number of times.
Asked why he did not call the police, Viens said, according to Brazil: “After she left, a few days later, maybe a week to two weeks, I’m not exactly sure when it was, but I got a text message from her. And she said, ‘I’m OK. I’m with a friend.’”
“And by the way, I talked to her, my wife, Dawn, on the phone,” he said. “I talked to her the day I picked my daughter, Jackie, up from the airport. And when I spoke to Dawn on the phone, she told me she was with a friend, and she just needed time to herself.”
She finally came home on Oct. 25, he told detectives, and begged him to leave their life in Lomita and run away with her to the mountains. The following day, he told her she needed to check into rehab. The day after that, she was gone.
When customers at the sandwich shop asked about her, prosecutor Brazil said Viens offered various answers. “She’s gone to rehab,” he said. “She went to the mountains. She left for the East Coast to visit friends.”
During their hunt for Dawn Viens, missing persons detectives interviewed longshoreman Todd Stagnitto, who told them that on the night she disappeared he saw her husband going through the restaurant receipts and counting up the day’s tally. Viens appeared agitated, Stagnitto said, and told him the money was short for that day.
“He said, ‘That bitch is stealing from me. Nobody steals from me. I will kill that bitch,” he testified. Later that night, Stagnitto said he got a call from a distraught Dawn: “She was crying and at times kind of incoherent and upset David was not happy with her work.” A few days later, he received a text message purportedly from Dawn explaining that she was leaving town. “I need to clear my head,” he said the message read.
Detectives also interviewed Joe Cacase, the owner of a motorcycle repair shop adjacent to the sandwich shop. Prior to Dawn’s disappearance, he told detectives, she came to his work with an envelope full of money and asked him to hold onto it. She asked him not to tell her husband, he said. The night of her disappearance, she called Cacase again and said she had more money for him to hold for her. She told him she would stop by the next day, he said.
Dawn Viens’s disappearance remained a missing persons case until August 2010, when detectives turned over the case to the homicide unit of the sheriff’s department. Homicide detectives flew to South Carolina to speak with Viens’s daughter Jacqueline, who told police that her father had admitted he killed his wife. “The detectives asked Jackie to call her dad and let him know that she had talked to the police,” said Brazil. “And she did that … And she said to her dad in that phone call, ‘Dad, I told the police. They’re gonna come after you. I told them everything.’”
The following morning, Viens was obviously distraught, testified his girlfriend at the time, Kathy Galvan. He got up early and picked up a copy of The Daily Breeze, which had a story about his alleged involvement in his wife’s death. He apologized to Galvan, she testified, adding that he said: Dawn is “not coming back. It was an accident. I wanted to tell you. I wanted to tell you.”
Galvan recommended he talk to a lawyer, she testified, but instead he drove his car to Palos Verdes and threw himself off the 80-foot cliff as she watched.
The cops caught their first big break from Viens himself. As he lay in a hospital bed recovering from the fall, he told detectives who were taping the conversation that he didn’t mean to kill his wife. She began a fight with him that Oct. 18 night as he was trying to fall asleep, he said. When she wouldn’t stop, he dragged her to the living room and bound her with duct tape. “And that was it,” he said on the tape. “I said, ‘Good night.’” He woke up hours later and discovered that she was dead, he said, and panicked. Then he placed her body in a plastic garbage bag and drove her to work.
“For some reason, I just got violent,” he told the detectives. “Seemed like it had to deal with her stealing money.”
“So you found her with money and you snapped,” said Sgt. Garcia.
“Yes,” he replied.
At the restaurant, he told detectives, he stuffed his wife’s tiny body in a 55-gallon drum of boiling water, slow-cooked her remains for four days, and then disposed of what was left in the restaurant’s grease pit or garbage bags.
“I manipulated her so the face was, the face is down, and I took some, some things, like weights that we use, and I put them on the top of her body, and I just slowly cooked it and I ended up cooking her for four days,” he told detectives.
“You cooked on [her] body for four days?” asked Garcia.
“I cooked her four days,” he said. “I let her cool. I strained it out.”
He told detectives he hid his wife’s skull and jawbone for safekeeping in his mother’s attic in nearby Torrance.
“That’s the only thing I didn’t want to get rid of, in case I wanted to leave it somewhere,” he said.
Police later searched the attic and were not able to find Dawn Viens’s skull or jawbone.
The trial resumes Thursday.