Karen Klaas’ friends stand at the back door of her California home and shout out for her. In response, though, they only hear a muted cry – a shocking sound that sends them running in fear. Then, after racing around from the back of the house to the front, the group see a man exiting the door. Little do they know that he has just strangled Klaas – and it will take 40 years for investigators to figure out who he is.
But before we delve further into the tragic events of January 30, 1976, let’s discover a bit more about Klaas. While attending California’s Santa Ana High School, she counted Bill Medley as her best friend. And things took a romantic turn when she showed up at one of Medley’s gigs. You see, he just so happened to be a musician – both as a solo artist and as part of the duo The Righteous Brothers.
In 2017 Medley recalled to People that he had once peered out into the crowd and seen someone familiar. He added, “Of all the people that were standing in the audience, I just could see her smiling face, and I said, ‘Wow. That’s Karen.’ So I got her number and I asked her out, and there you go.”
Klaas and Medley ultimately got married in 1964, with their union producing one son named Darrin. Yet their partnership didn’t last long, as six years later the former high school buddies filed for divorce. The pair stayed on good terms, however, even as Klaas welcomed another son, Damien, and wed someone else – although that marriage would later end, too.
Plus, Medley had his music to focus on post-divorce, as his career as part of The Righteous Brothers had since taken off. In 1965 the duo had a chart-topping smash with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.’” Amazingly, the track now stands as the song most frequently broadcast on U.S. radio.
Famously, The Righteous Brothers also had a hit with the classic “Unchained Melody.” And after Medley chased a solo career, he similarly saw a few successes along the way. In 1969, for example, he sang The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” at the Grammys, with this performance subsequently leading to a record deal. Then, three years later, a song called “Freedom and Fear” earned him a Grammy nomination of his own.
Medley didn’t know at the time, though, that he’d soon be putting his musical career on an indefinite hiatus. You see, life for him, his son, Darrin, and his ex-wife Klaas was about to be altered forever following the events of January 30, 1976. Yet according to Detective Tom Harris, who spoke to True Crime Daily in 2017, the morning of that day was meant to have been a pretty normal one for Klaas.
Harris told the website, “[Klaas] was supposed to go to coffee with her neighbors after she took her child to school.” When the 32-year-old mother of two never made it to the meeting, however, her friends became worried, and they decided to go to her Hermosa Beach home to make sure that everything was okay.
Then, when the group arrived at Klaas’ house, they could tell something was amiss before they went inside. Harris explained, “They get to the back sliding door, [and] it was open a little bit.” So, Klaas’ buddies called out for the former Mrs. Medley – and they heard a very faint response from inside the house.
With that, Klaas’ friends knew that something was seriously wrong. And upon hearing the muffled sound, they ran for help from the back of her house toward the front. As the group turned the corner, though, they found themselves in even more shock when they saw someone emerging from the front door of Klaas’ house.
Detective Larry Brandenburg recalled to True Crime Daily, “The front door opened, and a gentleman came out with bushy, kind of long hair and a beard. And he said, ‘Hi, ladies,’ and this really startled them.” So, Klaas’ friends quickly called the police, who arrived on the scene and discovered the mother of two naked and bound on the floor of her bedroom.
Someone – perhaps the man who had fled through the front door – had tied one leg of a pair of pantyhose around Klaas’ hands. Investigators later determined that the individual had then used the other leg and a bra to strangle the 32-year-old. But the assailant’s attempt to kill Klaas hadn’t succeeded; while she laid on the floor unconscious, she was still living. It seemed, in fact, that Klaas’ neighbors had managed to interrupt her attacker before he’d completed his crime.
As such, first responders rushed Klaas to the hospital in an effort to save her. Meanwhile, in Lake Arrowhead, California, ex-husband Medley received a phone call that would change his life. At that moment, he learned that his ex-wife was in the hospital in a coma – and her prognosis was grim.
Medley told People in 2017, “There was no coming back [for Karen], and everybody knew it.” But while Klaas remained in a coma for five days, he had hoped for a miracle. The star remembered, “I said to her, ‘Come on honey, the boys need you. We all need you.’ Real positive stuff.”
Tragically, though, Medley’s encouraging words did nothing to turn Klaas’ situation around, as she ultimately died five days after the attack. And of that dreadful period, her ex-husband would later recall, “I was a wreck. It was a big-time out-of-body experience. I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe I am here looking at caskets for Karen.’ It just didn’t make sense. She was beautiful and alive and a wonderful lady.”
Losing Klaas meant that Medley’s life drastically changed in another way, too, as her death left their son, Darrin, with only his dad to look after him. Medley explained to People that, at the time, he had been “a single bachelor living on the beach in Newport Beach.” He went on, “[Then] all of a sudden I was a single parent… I took some time off to get Darrin’s life back together.”
While Medley and his son worked to rebuild their lives, though, police found themselves stumped by Klaas’ case. In 1976, you see, they didn’t have DNA testing and profiling as part of their investigative arsenal; such procedures only really came into their own in the 1980s. Still, law enforcement did gather up the pantyhose and bra used to strangle Klaas as well as a towel left in the vicinity of the crime scene.
Of course, there was one more potential lead, as Klaas’ friends had seen that possible suspect leaving her home on the morning of the attack. And although police found themselves unable to solve the case even with the physical evidence and a description of that man, they continued to work on Klaas’ case as DNA testing and profiling became more and more advanced.
For instance, in the 1990s detectives told the public what they knew about Klaas’ suspected killer. According to The Washington Post, he had been “a shaggy-haired, bearded man in a trench coat and blue jeans.” In 1999 investigators also utilized DNA from the towel at the crime scene to rule out five men whom they had previously considered to be suspects.
This DNA testing also exonerated Medley and the other men in her life at the time. As Detective Tom Harris told True Crime Daily, “[Klaas] had remarried and then was divorced again. She had a boyfriend. We checked his DNA; we also checked her husband’s DNA [and] her ex-husband’s DNA. Everybody was cleared.”
In addition, detectives used a growing DNA database to see if Klaas’ killer had committed any other crimes and subsequently had his genetic information recorded. But after that test didn’t provide any matches, law enforcement went back to square one. In 2009 cold-case investigators thus began to get back in touch with sources from the original case files.
That year, Harris told the Ventura County Star that he hoped a second round of interviews might drum up an old forgotten memory that could crack the case. On top of that, he said, “We start all over… see if we can identify people that hadn’t been contacted before.”
Ultimately, though, even these further efforts left Harris, Brandenburg and the rest of the investigators without answers. But, as it happens, all was not lost, as a forensic biologist who had long worked on the Klaas case came up with an idea. According to Brandenburg, the scientist called him up and asked him, “Ever thought about doing familial?”
Specifically, the forensic biologist was referring to a more modern analytical technique known as familial DNA testing. This method allows investigators to compare a genetic sample to those from criminals in a DNA database. And in this way, they can sometimes find partial matches by identifying family members of a suspect, which in turn may eventually lead them to the person whose DNA resembles the sample perfectly.
Yet although this technique provides investigators with a great resource for finding criminals, it has come under scrutiny. In 2008 American Civil Liberties Union science adviser Tania Simoncelli told The Washington Post, “If [famililal DNA testing was] practiced routinely, we would be subjecting hundreds of thousands of innocent people who happen to be relatives of individuals in the FBI database to lifelong genetic surveillance.”
Nevertheless, those investigating Klaas’ murder decided to use familial testing. Indeed, as Brandenburg later told True Crime Daily, he felt as though it was “all [the team had] left” to try. So, the case’s forensic biologist submitted the suspect’s DNA and awaited word as to whether or not Klaas’ case was approved for such treatment.
After all, familial DNA testing can’t happen in every case; it’s only permitted in a handful of states in the U.S., for starters. Plus, as Brandenburg has since described, access is limited to both the technology and data needed. He added, “You have to go through with the state, [and] they’re very protective of it. It’s very stringent; [there are] restrictions on it.”
Apparently, the California panel took months to decide whether or not to accept the Klaas case. But they eventually did – although another waiting game then began. Would the killer’s DNA prove to be a familial match with anyone else in the system? Well, Brandenburg fielded the response. He reported to True Crime Daily, “They ran [the sample], called me and said, ‘Nothing.’”
It appeared, then, that the failed test was yet another dead end. Nevertheless, the Klaas case investigators didn’t give up on their quest to find her killer. And, fortunately, the team turned out to have someone – or, rather, something – in their corner. In 2016, you see, Brandenburg answered a phone call that would finally crack the case wide open – a whole 40 years after Klaas’ death.
According to Brandenburg, the familial DNA lab phoned him one last time. And of that moment, he later recalled to True Crime Daily, “[They] said, ‘You want us to rerun this? We don’t do that too often, but we’ll do it on this case.’” Brandenburg agreed, saying, “Sure. I got nothing.” Once again, then, the wait was on.
This time, though, the search would end in a strange phone call from the DNA lab. Workers there promised that they had some information to share, but it took them up to two months to do so. Before the results were finally revealed, however, a lab technician apparently told Brandenburg to sit down. Then, according to True Crime Daily, she informed the investigator, “They got a hit.”
It turned out that just after the familial DNA panel had run the first test on the Klaas sample, someone from the killer’s family had committed a crime. As a consequence, then, this individual’s genetic code had entered the system in time for the 2016 test. And after the experts had found the initial match, they performed further analysis in order to confirm that Kenneth Troyer had slain the mother of two in 1976.
Troyer had a lengthy criminal history, too, comprising mostly of sexual assaults that he had committed in California. But while he eventually landed in jail, he managed to flee in 1982. And while police finally found Troyer in March of that year, he would never return to being incarcerated, as those in pursuit of the criminal ultimately shot and killed him.
Furthermore, in spite of Troyer’s lengthy rap sheet, none of his DNA had ever been stored or recorded. You see, even up until the time of his death, no legislation existed that mandated this information be added to a database. When detectives had the technology to process Troyer’s DNA in the 1990s, then, they never found a match.
But even with Troyer’s identity finally confirmed, investigators couldn’t answer every question about Klaas’ murder; they couldn’t discern the killer’s motive, for instance. They did know, on the other hand, that Troyer had had one relative who had lived close to Klaas’ Hermosa Beach home – clarifying, perhaps, why he had been in the locale in the first place.
Nevertheless, Klaas’ family still found solace in finally knowing the identity of the person who was responsible for her death. According to a 2017 report by The Washington Post, her son Darrin said that he could finally “experience the joy of closure.” He also lauded the methods through which investigators had solved the case.
Darrin added, “I couldn’t be more blown away with the technology. I want to give hope to other families that this kind of technology can be utilized to identify criminals. It’s extremely important.” His father, Medley, shared a similar sentiment with People after learning the identity of Klaas’ killer.
Medley also tried to describe just how much Klaas’ unsolved murder had bothered him over the years. He said to People, “It is really resting on a different nerve that I never have felt before. I’ve been on stage in front of presidents, and that is just a different nerve. This is so ugly.”
“But it is also so wonderful that they put an end to all of this so we can close the book on this,” Medley continued. And the singer apparently felt a sense of relief that Klaas’ killer had died long ago. He admitted, “I thought I would want to look the guy in the eye and deal with him, but now I am just real grateful there won’t be any court.”
In fact, Medley had come up with his own way to deal with his grief and anger: music. In January 2017 he said that he planned to finish writing “Beautiful Lady” – a song that he had started to pen in honor of Klaas. He added during his interview with People, “That actually will be a good distraction. The stage has always been a lifesaver for me.”
But sadly, of course, Klaas’ is far from the only high-profile case of its kind. In fact, the entertainment industry is littered with disturbing crimes. Just consider, for instance, Dominique Dunne, whose mysterious murder in 1982 sent shockwaves through Hollywood. And the strange circumstances surrounding her death initially left police baffled.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ultimately found no evidence that suggested the chef had engaged in a suicide attempt.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.