Dennis Dawley's undoing began with a jaunt to Las Vegas with his prostitute-mistress two days after burying his wife of 36 years.
The badly timed trip aroused the suspicion of Los Angeles Police Department Detective Paul S. Tippin of the Robbery-Homicide Division, who was assigned to investigate the murder of Dawley's wife, Joan.
Tippin said he already doubted the obvious explanation for the woman's demise--that she was bludgeoned to death during an April 17, 1991, burglary-gone-sour at the couple's tidy Sylmar home.
But hunches don't cut it in a court of law. It took Tippin and various partners four years to piece together what prosecutors say is a viable case of treachery--a case so complex it rivals any he and the attorneys involved say they have encountered.
When the story came out last week in court, the widower who partied when he should have mourned and his Las Vegas companion had ringside seats. They were handcuffed to their chairs and charged with Joan Dawley's murder.
The charges--solicitation to commit murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and murder--were filed in April after a new DNA technique evolved enough to enable police to identify the source of scrapings from under the victim's fingernails.
An expert is expected to testify Monday that the scrapings came from Dennis Dawley's Las Vegas date and co-defendant, Brandita Taliano, 39, a convicted prostitute and heroin addict with a long criminal record.
But the evidence being offered at a preliminary hearing presided over by Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Lloyd M. Nash is no dry science lesson. Rather, it is a shocker that has left disbelieving friends and relatives of the couple reeling from revelations that are coming from the witness stand.
"It doesn't get any easier, does it?" whispered Dawley's new bride, Carolyn, after hearing damning testimony against her husband on Friday.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert B. Foltz alleges that Dennis Dawley, 59, a military man who had retired from the Air Force and from a second career as a starter at Encino-Balboa Municipal Golf Course, was not who he seemed to be.
Testifying under a grant of immunity Friday, two felons said Dawley tried to hire them to murder his wife, an apparent way to cut the ties that bind without sharing the couple's nest egg. Their assets included two houses, two pensions and $70,000 in cash, hidden in a home safe, that Joan had inherited from her mother.
"He told me he wanted me to kill his wife," Gary Lee Ware, 32, testified. "He said he didn't care how I did it. I could rape her if I wanted to as long as she was dead when it was over."
Ware's testimony was supported by statements made by his lifelong friend from the Oakwood section of Venice, Gregory Locke, 35, who was present while the deal with Dawley was being struck.
In exchange for his testimony, prosecutors have promised to strike a prior conviction from Locke's record, saving him from a life sentence under the "three strikes" law in an unrelated drug possession case.
Ware, who is also serving time in prison, has yet to be rewarded for his account of his encounters with Dawley.
Both Ware and Locke said Dawley took them to the couple's middle-class Sylmar home on El Dorado Street. He showed them how to get inside, how to get away and invited them to steal anything they wanted from the house. Dawley also cautioned the pair to avoid a noisy, plastic runner on the white hall carpeting, they said.
"He wanted it to look like a robbery-burglary," Ware testified.
Dennis Dawley drove them to the Mission Hills Hallmark card shop where Joan worked and pointed her out, they said. Both of them correctly described the burgundy color of her car parked outside, a Chrysler.
As down payment for the hit, Dawley allegedly gave the two men $9,000 in $50 bills wrapped in aluminum foil that he retrieved from a microwave oven in the kitchen of the Sylmar house. Another similarly wrapped package of $3,000 was given to them later.
But the hired killers were unable to fulfill the contract. Ware was arrested on a parole violation. Without hired assassins available, prosecutors allege that Taliano held Joan Dawley down, while her husband beat her to death.
Her crumpled body was discovered by her boss and close friend, Marilyn Rush, who drove to the Dawley residence "with a sense of foreboding" because the always punctual woman did not arrive at 9 a.m. to open the card shop.
The master bedroom of the modest home had been ransacked. The victim's purse lay empty on a kitchen table. But a visible $100 in cash was left untouched.
Moreover, a window under which a stepladder was left showed no signs of forced entry. There was nary a trace of dirt or grass, nor a shoe print or fingerprint to indicate someone had crawled through the window, said Tippin, returning to court to testify after retiring from the force last month.
Though the alleged hit men's testimony was explosive, the foundation of the prosecution's case is an intricate web of circumstantial evidence, mostly phone records establishing and corroborating the relationship between the defendants and between Dawley and Ware.
In the weeks after the murder, Tippin acquired telephone records from public phones that he thought Dennis Dawley might use. Records from the pay phone at the golf course and Mission Bowl, where Dennis and Joan belonged to a league, as well as work and home phone numbers, allegedly tracked the defendants' plot.
Records from the Mission Hills Inn, where Dennis put Brandita Taliano up after her release from Sybil Brand Institute the month the murder took place, were also introduced in court.
Jail records, corroborated by Dawley's golf course time sheets, showed he visited Taliano in jail in the early months of 1991, when he is accused of soliciting his wife's murder. When Dawley allegedly asked Taliano to find someone to do a "big job" for him, she put him in touch with Ware, the brother of a jail mate.
Ware's phone numbers were found in Taliano's tiny, red Salvation Army phone book recovered by police during her arrest a month after the murder on an unrelated charge. The phone records showed calls from Dawley's home, work and the bowling alley to Ware and Taliano.
One call that stands out was placed from the Mission Inn to the Dawley residence at about 11:30 p.m. the night before Joan's body was found.
Police recovered a cache of jewelry from Taliano--jewelry the Dawleys' daughter, Debra Meyers, identified in court as belonging to her mother. The jewelry, Meyers testified, included a diamond pendant her mother never took off.
After her arrest in 1991, Taliano told police she was a cleaning woman for the Dawleys and that Joan had given her the jewelry, but Meyers and others say Joan Dawley did not have a cleaning woman.
Taliano claimed she was asked by Joan Dawley to provide sexual services for Dennis Dawley, so that he would not demand them from Joan, an assertion also rejected by friends and relatives of the dead woman.
Described as feisty and funny, Joan Dawley was by all accounts not the kind of woman who would make such an offer--or who would have put up with any shenanigans from her husband.
Foltz said he has evidence that Dennis Dawley, apparently unbeknown to his wife, engaged Taliano's services as a prostitute, beginning in the late 1980s. She was one of many prostitutes he hired from among the corps who walk Sepulveda Boulevard.
Taliano and Dawley were released after their arrests in 1991 for lack of evidence. Soon, the couple were living together in the Sylmar house. When Dawley retired from his golf course job in 1992, they moved to Big Bear City.
Documents presented in court showed Taliano was made co-owner of the couple's home and cars. Income tax records showed that Dawley claimed Taliano as a dependent.
Neither Dawley's attorney, Ray Fountain, nor Taliano's attorney, Lee Drabin, would comment on the case or their defense strategy. But observers predicted that the two defendants would split and blame each other for the murder.
When Taliano later was convicted on unrelated charges and sent to prison, Dawley was free to pursue other women. In January, he married the churchgoing Carolyn, who was flabbergasted at his arrest three months later.
"If he's guilty of this I'll be more fooled than I ever have in my life," Carolyn Dawley said outside court. "He's gentle, kind and a really lovely person in all respects. . . . I thought he was a picture of stability."
While acknowledging his friend of 42 years lost his head over a hooker, Walter Seeman is adamant that his old buddy is not guilty of murder.
"Did he do this? Hell, no," Seeman said.