UPI - Jurors recommended today that
Dr. John Dale Cavaness, a general practitioner from southern Illinois,
die in the gas chamber for murdering his son. The jurors found Dr.
Cavaness, 60 years old, guilty of first-degree murder Tuesday night,
then heard arguments on whether the doctor should die or be sentenced to
life in prison without parole.
A jury today convicted a debt-ridden doctor of
killing his son with two shots to the head to
collect more than $140,000 in insurance benefits.
Jurors deliberated less than
three hours in finding Dr. John Dale Cavaness, a
60-year-old general practitioner in southern
Illinois, guilty of first-degree murder in the
death of his son, Sean, 22, whose body was found
last December near Times Beach, Mo.
The jury was recessed until
Wednesday morning to begin the sentencing phase
of the trial. Dr. Cavaness, who showed no
emotion when the guilty verdict was read, faces
death in the state's gas chamber or life
It was the second time Dr.
Cavaness had been tried on the charges. His
first trial ended in a mistrial when the judge
determined that the jury had seen documents not
introduced as evidence.
Dr. John Dale Cavaness has been
sentenced to death in the gas chamber
for murdering his son to collect
$148,000 in insurance.
Judge Drew Luten
Jr. of St. Louis
was set. In
appealed to the
Sean, 22 years
old, was shot
dead Dec. 13,
1984 in an
near the St.
Louis suburb of
Times Beach. Dr.
The Deadly Dr. Dale
Malefactor's Register - MarkGribben.com
his patients in the Little Egypt area of
southern Illinois, Dr.
was an old-school healer who still made
house calls, often waived fees for those
unable to pay, and was willing to spend
as much time with them as they needed,
despite his busy practice.
Dale, as he was affectionately
called, was akin to Mother Teresa to his
patients and friends,Ē according to the
summary of his case in the acclaimed
Crime Classification Manual. ďCavanessís
family and closest office workers,
however, knew he had another, darker
grew up in the Little Egypt area and was
taught to be tough and stand his ground
by his gandy dancer father. A bright
young man, he was fortunate to come from
a family that was well off during the
Depression so he managed to scrape
together enough money to attend college
and medical school.
returning home to practice,
was abandoned by his first wife, and one
biographer speculates that this was
because he had already become a cruel
and violent man.
second wife, a nurse named Marian, soon
became the target of Cavanessís
frustrations and he began to physically
and emotionally abuse her. This occurred
about the same time that he began using
alcohol and drugs to excess. Marian put
up with the abuse for several years and
four sons before leaving him in the
pleaded guilty to reckless homicide in a
three-car crash that killed a 10-month-old
girl and her father. He was also charged
at the time with driving while
intoxicated and unlawful possession of a
loaded pistol and shotgun. He managed to
avoid prison for those crimes, receiving
two years of probation and a $1,000
was living a double life of abusing his
family while enriching himself through
his lucrative medical practice and
earning the admiration and accolades of
the people of the Little Egypt area.
divorce of his parents had a profoundly
negative effect on the eldest son, Mark
Cavaness, to the point where he
dropped out of high school. He never
really recovered, and this only inflamed
the vitriolic nature of his fatherís
the doctor, Mark would never amount to
anything and was a ďno-good pot smoker.Ē
Marian, who had subsequently moved to St.
Louis, Missouri, would later recount
that her telephone conversations with
her ex-husband consisted mainly of his
complaints and sarcastic comments about
Mark. She worried about what effect this
persecution was having on Mark, who
became profoundly depressed.
1977, 22-year-old Mark was doing odd
jobs around the Little Egypt area and
was working on his fatherís farm. Marian
decided over the Easter holiday that
year that the time had come for Mark to
return to St. Louis where he could get
help. Mark invited his mother and two
brothers, Sean and Kevin, to come to
Little Egypt for the Easter holiday and
April 9, 1977, Mark failed to show up at
house, and Marian, 15-year-old Sean and
19-year-old Kevin headed out to the
trailer where Mark was living on his
fatherís farm to see if he was there.
They found his Jeep pickup truck and as
Sean was walking up to it he discovered
the decaying corpse of his older brother
lying in the tall grass near the truck.
Despite the fact that Mark had only been
dead a little over 12 hours, there was
little left of his body. The
investigators surmised that scavenger
animals had quickly attacked the dead
flesh of his skull was completely gone,
with just one eyeball and his hair
remaining. His upper torso had been
skeletonized so that only a few
fragments of skin remained. His lower
body, encased in blue jeans and heavy
work boots was intact. Sean could only
identify Mark by his unique belt buckle.
The medical examiner made a positive
identification through dental records.
Although at the time investigators
had something to do with his sonís death,
the crime scene was somewhat
contaminated by the distraught family
members and the rapid attack by animals.
Robbery was ruled out because his wallet
was found near his body.
was lying on his back about 10 to 12
feet from the truck, with his feet
pointing toward the vehicle.
Criminalists could not determine where
Mark had been standing because of the
likely movement of his body by animals.
shirt was found some distance away from
his body and it was clear that he had
been wearing it when he was shot by a
12-gauge shotgun loaded with buckshot
because there was a 2.5- by 4-inch hole
surrounded by blood between the left
breast pocket and the centerline of
truck was a bloody mess. There was blood
on the driverís seat, floorboard, and
driverís side door panel. Also on the
floorboard was the shotgun, with the end
of the barrel extending out of a case.
coat hanger with a camouflage hunting
vest partly hanging off was attached to
the trigger of the loaded shotgun by the
hook end. The bottom of the vest had
been shut in the passenger side door.
Police surmised that Mark took a point-blank
blast to the chest when he reached for
the gun and pulled it toward him by the
barrel. It appeared that the coat hanger
pulled the trigger.
refused to believe the coronerís ruling
of accidental death, strenuously arguing
that his brother was much too
experienced with guns to ever grab one
by the barrel.
chief investigator agreed with Kevinís
assessment based on the fact that if the
shotgun, a Browning automatic, would not
have ejected the shell onto the
floorboard of the truck if it had, in
fact, been fired while still in the gun
case. Instead, the shell would have
remained in the case.
Equally disturbing to investigators was
the $40,000 life insurance policy
took out on his son, naming him as
beneficiary. It seemed odd at the time
that a man with such a low regard for
his child would want to insure him.
However, the lack of physical evidence
proved overwhelming and the accidental
death ruling stood up.
least for a few years. It wasnít until
tried an even more audacious scheme that
investigators reopened the death
the time Mark was discovered by his
family he was working for his father,
Cavaness, who was known
affectionately by his patients as Dr.
Dale. However, Dr.
was living a double life and treating
his family with none of the care and
affection he showed his patients.
beat his wife until she finally left him
and the doctor constantly belittled his
sons, calling Mark, who was traumatized
by his parentsí divorce and his fatherís
conduct, a ďno-good pot smoker.Ē
once told his ex-wife after a fight with
his son, Sean, that ďI donít care if I
go to jail. Iíll kill him.Ē
months before Mark died, his father took
out a $40,000 life insurance policy on
him, naming himself as beneficiary.
Cavaness abused alcohol and drugs, and
his son, Kevin, would later tell a court
that after he learned that his father
was involved in a drug deal,
threatened ďif you tell anyone, Iíll
1980, Dr. Cavaness pleaded guilty to
deceptive medical practice. It was his
second criminal conviction. In 1971, he
was sentenced to two yearsí probation
for a fatal traffic accident in which
two persons died.
was found guilty of driving while
years after his medical fraud conviction,
convinced his sons Sean and Kevin to
participate in an insurance investment
that would benefit them in the future
because of the borrowing power the
policies would accumulate. Dr.
told the young men that he would pay the
$1,000 monthly premiums and use this as
a tax deduction to offset his income.
However, by this time, his own drug
abuse and bad business deals had taken
its toll. He was consistently filing tax
returns that indicated he was sinking
further and further into debt and owed
close to half a million dollars ó making
any deductions against income
had been the first person to find his
older brotherís corpse, which had been
badly ravished by scavenger animals. He
never fully recovered from the
experience, and like Mark, sought to
appease his pain through alcohol and
drugs. Unlike Mark, however, Sean sought
help through a 12-step program and
inpatient treatment. According to family
and friends, Sean actively sought his
fatherís love and approval, and was
December 1984, Seanís dead body was
found by a farmer in a remote area near
St. Louis that had once been the town of
Times Beach. That ill-fated community
had been ordered abandoned by the
Environmental Protection Agency earlier
in the decade when it was found to be
heavily contaminated by high levels of
cancer-causing dioxin. The area had
subsequently been cleaned up as a
Superfund site and was reopened as a
park and bird sanctuary.
had been shot twice in the back of the
head by a .357 Magnum. His body, lying
on its back with both arms resting
parallel to his torso, was found by a
farmer beside what was once a gate. Sean
was dressed, and a search of the body
found no means of identification.
Police were able to indentify Sean by
fingerprints on file thanks to a
misdemeanor traffic stop in 1983.
were two entrance wounds to the back of
his head and ďone apparent exit wound
under the left eye.Ē The fact that his
body was still somewhat warm, indicated
that his death had been relatively
recent ó within three hours of discovery.
shot to the back of Seanís head just
right of the centerline of his skull had
traveled upward, exiting just below his
left eye. It had been fired from a
distance of one inch or less, but was
not a contact wound because of the
gunpowder stippling to the flesh. The
blood spatter analysis indicated that
Sean had been standing with his left arm
slightly raised when the shot was fired.
Forensic evidence indicated that the
second shot had been fired from a
distance of 12 to 18 inches as Sean lay
on the ground. It entered near the right
ear and was lodged in his brain.
Either shot would have caused death.
autopsy revealed that Sean had consumed
more than a dozen alcoholic drinks
before he died.
staging at the crime scene, particularly
the execution-style wound pattern along
with the absence of a wallet, at first
appeared to indicate that drug dealers
or robbers were to blame.
ďThese circumstances imply a a removed
killer with no personal attachments to
the victim and motivated by financial
gain to pull the trigger,Ē the analysis
of the crime in the Crime
Classification Manual states.
Manual, by some of Americaís
foremost criminalists and criminologists,
is the result of a decade-long project
by the FBIís National Center for the
Analysis of Violent Crime. By breaking
down the various types of homicide into
their component parts, the Manual
outlines a standard system for
investigating and classifying violent
crimes, and is designed to assist law
enforcement with insight into
of the types of homicides included in
the book is Insurance/Inheritance-Related
Death: Individual Profit Murder, of
which the murder of Sean
is almost a direct tissue match.
Unlike Markís death where the was not
sufficient evidence to charge the
policeís prime suspect, Dr.
Dale, authorities quickly focused
on Seanís father and found many clues
indicating his involvement.
Daleís first statement to police was
quickly dispelled by simple police work.
He claimed that he had not seen Sean for
several weeks. Police, however, had
eyewitnesses who placed him at Seanís
apartment the evening before Sean died.
Because he had been observed ďcruisingĒ
the area of the apartment, a couple who
also lived in the apartment building
made a note of his license plate on a
paper bag. However, when they observed
Sean and Dr.
embracing outside the apartment, they
recognized him as Seanís father and
forgot about the event until contacted
a.m. the couple heard two distinct sets
of footsteps leaving the apartment.
the evening of December 14, hours after
attended a Christmas party attended by
many people in his community. Questioned
by police, friends who saw him at the
party said he was acting perfectly
normal, laughing and drinking.
behavior was inconsistent for a man who
would later tell police of a tragic tale
of witnessing Seanís suicide. It was not
unusual for a cold-blooded killer who
had no qualms about murdering two of his
was confronted by the lie about seeing
Sean, he changed his story to an
unbelievable account that did not fit
the forensic evidence from the scene.
admitted that he and Sean had been
drinking and had gone out for a ride,
ending up at the park where Seanís body
was found. While standing outside the
car, Sean asked his father to see his
Holding the pistol to the back of his
head, Sean allegedly said to his father,
ďtell Mom Iím sorryĒ and then pulled the
trigger. Cavaness claimed this was the
shot that was entered by his right ear.
The doctor said he knew that a suicide
would have destroyed his ex-wife, so he
decided to stage a robbery scene. As
Sean lay on the ground,
took the pistol and fired a second
bullet into his son. He then took his
wallet and watch.
story did not jibe with the facts. The
blood spatter on Seanís body clearly
indicated that the shot
claimed to have been self-inflicted
occurred when Sean was on the ground. In
addition, experts said, Seanís 0.26
blood-alcohol content would have limited
his dexterity to such a degree that he
could not have shot himself with the
shot that exited below his left eye.
Combined with his behavior at the
Christmas party, which hardly fit the
expected behavior of a man who had hours
earlier witnessed his sonís suicide and
covered up the event by shooting his
dead or dying child in the head, his
financial benefit from Seanís death, and
the policeís past suspicions of his
involvement in Markís death, Dr.
was charged with murder.
the people of the Little Egypt region
who knew only kindly Dr.
Dale, his arrest was received
with disbelief. They refused to
acknowledge that he could have killed
two of his children, and set up a fund
to aid in his defense. When he went on
trial, the courtroom was filled with his
efforts, however, were for naught.
was convicted by a Missouri jury of
first-degree murder and given a death
sentence in January 1986.
November of that year, his conscience
must have finally gotten the better of
hanged himself in his death row cell by
fashioning an electrical cord into a
noose. He was 61 years old.