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Murder Suspects' Trip Tipped Off Police : Slaying: Widower visited Las Vegas with mistress two days after his wife's death. The pair are now charged in the killing.

September 17, 1995|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — 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.

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