With help from new DNA technology, authorities Wednesday charged a former Sylmar man with the murder of his wife four years ago.
Dennis Dawley, 59, was charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation to commit the murder of his wife, Joan, whose bludgeoned body was discovered in her home on April 17, 1991.
Dawley's arrest Tuesday at his Big Bear residence ended a complex, four-year investigation that included a lengthy wait for DNA technology to improve to the point that scrapings taken from under the victim's fingernails could be matched with an alleged female accomplice now imprisoned on another charge.
Police say that Dawley and Brandita Taliano, a convicted drug abuser with an extensive criminal record, conspired to kill Dawley's former wife for financial gain.
Detective Paul S. Tippin of the Los Angeles Police Department said Joan Dawley, 55, had inherited an unspecified sum of money and a house in Van Nuys from her parents. Dennis Dawley was the primary beneficiary of his wife's life-insurance policy.
The incident was initially thought to be a burglary that went wrong, police said. The Dawleys' home on El Dorado Avenue was ransacked and jewelry, money and a handgun were missing. Joan Dawley was on the floor in her nightgown, fatally beaten with an object that was never found.
Tippin said Dennis Dawley was considered a suspect within the first month of the murder and was arrested in May, 1991. He was released soon after because police lacked enough evidence, said Tippin, the lead investigator on the case.
Dawley, a golf starter at the Encino Golf Course, told police that his wife was asleep when he left home the day of the slaying.
Dawley quit his job at the golf course a year after the slaying and bought a home in Big Bear, where he was living with his new wife, Carolyn, whom he married in January of this year.
Carolyn Dawley was not arrested.
Aside from the 1991 arrest, Dawley had no previous police record. Tippin described the Dawleys as a normal, middle-class family. Joan and Dennis Dawley were married for about 35 years.
A year after the slaying, an analysis of material taken from the victim's fingernails revealed what police said was a foreign substance. But in 1992, police didn't have the technology to make a definitive DNA match, Tippin said.
"I talked to a lab technician who said DNA was advancing so quickly that if I wanted to wait, the process to do analysis was getting better," Tippin said. "So we decided to wait."
Detectives preserved the material before doing a final DNA analysis about two months ago, which linked the scrapings to Taliano.
Taliano, 39, whose record includes convictions for prostitution and narcotics possession, is expected to be arrested today on the same charges as Dawley, police said. She is currently being held in the women's prison at Frontera on an unrelated conviction.
"The DNA analysis really was what put the investigation over the top," Tippin said. "We might not have had a filing without it."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen L. Cooley said the case involved "phenomenal police work. The DNA was the final piece of the puzzle . . . but we wouldn't have these sets of charges against these defendants with only DNA."
Because of an allegation of murder for financial gain, Dawley and Taliano could face the death penalty, Cooley said. Dawley is being held without bail.