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Thursday, July 27, 2023

David Viens: The Chef Who Cooked His Wife

     In 2009, 46-year-old chef David Viens and his wife of 14 years, Dawn Viens, owned and operated a restaurant called the Thyme Contemporary Cafe in Lomita, a town in southwestern Los Angeles County. The hard-working couple had previously owned a restaurant in Bradenton Beach called the Beach City Market.

     In late 2009, Dawn Vien's sister filed a missing person's report after no one had seen Dawn for at least a week. When questioned by a Los Angeles County detective, David Viens said his 39-year-old wife had been angry over having to work 70 to 80 hours a week at the restaurant. After an argument on October 27, 2009, she moved out of their Holmes Beach apartment. But according to the couple's neighbors, Dawn had not been seen since the early hours of October 18.

     A few hours before daybreak on October 18, 2009, residents of the Holmes Beach apartment complex heard David and his wife arguing. There were also sounds of objects being thrown about the dwelling. Neighbors also heard Dawn storm out of the apartment, slamming the door. This was the last time any of the neighbors saw her.

     Over the next ten months David Viens told friends and acquaintances a variety of stories accounting for his wife's disappearance. He told some people that she was in a drug rehabilitation facility and informed others that she had left him and was living in the mountains. Eventually, after Dawn missed appointments, failed to pick up money she had stashed with a friend and wasn't seen by anyone, the county missing persons bureau turned the case over to the homicide division. In the meantime David Viens had acquired a live-in girlfriend named Kathy Galvan.

     Following the disappearance of his wife David Viens asked Jacqueline Viens, his 21-year-old daughter from his first marriage who was living in South Carolina, to move back to Lomita and help out at the restaurant. On February 21, 2011, when questioned by detectives with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, Jacqueline revealed that her father, one night when they were having drinks after work, said he had killed her stepmother. He said that back in October 2009 they had gotten into a terrible argument. He had been exhausted and had taken a sleeping pill to get some rest. But she kept pestering him and wouldn't let him sleep. Because she wouldn't leave him alone he had tried to lock her into the bathroom, even blocking the door with a dresser. When that didn't work he bound her arms and legs with rope and covered her mouth with duck tape. The next morning, after a good night's sleep, Mr. Viens found his wife dead. She had choked to death on her own vomit. He referred to Dawn's death as an accident and told his daughter that the method in which he had disposed of her body guaranteed that her remains would never be found.

     In the course of the police interview Jacqueline Viens admitted helping her father mislead detectives who were looking into her disappearance. Using her stepmother's cellphone she sent her father a text which read, "I'm OK. I'm in Florida and I have to start over." The detectives conducting the interview pressured Jacqueline to help them prove that her stepmother had been murdered. She did this by calling her father and informing him that she had just spilled the beans. "Dad," she said, "They are going to come after you. I told them everything."

     Earlier on the day Jacqueline Viens broke the news to her father that she had ratted him out to the police, a reporter with The Daily Breeze, a newspaper published in Torrance, California, informed David Viens they were coming out with a story about the police finding, on the walls of the the Holmes Beach apartment, traces of his missing wife's blood. (Viens and his girlfriend had since moved out of that apartment.)

     The next morning David Viens asked his girlfriend, Kathy Galvan, to accompany him on a ride to a quiet place where he could tell her something. While being surveilled by a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy, Viens and Galvan drove off in his 2003 Toyota 4Runner. Viens led the deputy to a spot not far from the Point Vicente Light House where he pulled the car onto the shoulder of the road and stopped. As the deputy approached, Viens, realizing that the was being followed by the police, sped off with the deputy giving chase.

     Viens pulled into the parking lot at the Point Vicente Light House and drove up to the fence at the edge of an eighty-foot cliff. He and Galvan got out of the SUV, and after a brief struggle, Viens climbed the fence and jumped off the cliff to the beach below.

     When emergency personnel reached Vien's body they were surprised to find him still breathing. Rushed to the County Harbor UCLA Medical Center, he underwent surgery. As it turned out he had broken his ankles, a femur and both hips. Doctors put him into an induced coma.

     A month following Viens's attempted suicide, while still recovering in the hospital, he admitted to detectives that he had accidentally killed his wife. Viens said he had been drinking that night and after finding Dawn dead in the bathroom the next morning, had dumped her body behind the restaurant. To the detectives he said, "You will never find her body."

     Following this quasi-confession, police officers searched the restaurant for Dawn's remains. (After her disappearance, Viens had the place completely renovated.) The officers dug up concrete and used cadaver dogs to sniff the soil underneath. After the two-day operation a police spokesperson announced they had discovered no evidence of the missing woman's body.

     A year later, in March 2012, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office charged David Viens with the first-degree murder of his wife. Prosecutor Deputy District Attorney Deborah Brazil, who obviously didn't buy the defendant's story of an accidental death, would have to prove her case without the corpse.

     The Viens no-body murder trial got underway on September 14, 2012 in downtown Los Angeles. The prosecution's first witness, the defendant's daughter, Jacqueline, told the story of his confession and mentioned that her father had once joked about how to get rid of a body by cooking it. "He's a chef," she said.

     Richard Stagnitto followed the defendant's daughter to the stand. On the night of October 18, 2009, Mr. Stagnitto was working in the restaurant with David and Dawn Vien. According to this witness the defendant told him that evening that Dawn, to keep herself in alcohol and drugs, was stealing from the business. "That bitch is stealing from me," David Viens allegedly said. "Nobody steals from me. I will kill that bitch." Mr. Stagnitto testified that he told Dawn what David had said about her. According to the witness, "She was very upset. She was crying and at times kind of incoherent and upset that Dave was not happy with her work." After that night the witness never saw Dawn Viens again. With this witness Deputy District Attorney Deborah Brazil established the defendant's motive and his intent to murder his wife.

     In a recorded interview session with the police as he lay in a hospital bed after jumping off the cliff, a recording played for the jurors, the defendant explained to detectives how he had disposed of his wife's body. "I just slowly cooked it and I ended up cooking her for four days." Viens said he had stuffed Dawn's 105-pound corpse face-down in a 55-gallon drum of boiling water and kept her submerged with weights. After four days of this the defendant dumped the drum's contents, minus some body parts, into a grease pit at the restaurant. Viens placed what was left of his wife's remains into garbage bags and tossed them into a dumpster. He said he took her skull to his mother's house in Torrance where he hid it in the attic. (Detectives searched that house without finding the skull.)

     When a detective at the hospital asked the suspect what happened on the night of his wife's death, the defendant said they had been using cocaine together, and that she kept pestering him while he tried to sleep. "For some reason," he said, "I just got violent."

     On September 20, 2012 David Viens informed the judge that he had lost confidence in his attorney, Fred McCurry and wanted to defend himself. The judge ruled that McCurry had represented Viens competently and that it was too late for the defendant to take over the case. A short time later, McCurry informed the judge that the defense had no further evidence to present. When Viens heard that he jumped out of his wheelchair and yelled, "Your honor, I object!" (After seeing the defendant leap to his feet like that, many people in the court room believed the wheelchair had been more of a prop than a necessity.)

     On September 25, 2012, following closing arguments, the jury retired to deliberate the defendant's fate. Two days later the jury returned with its verdict: Guilty as charged.

     On March 22, 2013 the judge sentenced David Viens to fifteen years to life.

1 comment:

  1. For those of us who are accustomed to the television shows tauting the preeminence of the DNA case, this is amazing. How a case was built and presented without a body or any DNA evidence at all. It definitely could not have happened without good people doing the right thing. May she rest in peace.