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SPECIAL REPORT: The Sherri Dally Murder Case

Mystery, Strong Emotions Surround Dally Case

Crime: Friends, witnesses, police and prime suspect Diana Haun provide a few of the pieces in the slaying that has intrigued many residents.

June 30, 1996|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — It has been 48 days since Sherri Dally dropped off her sons at school, bought her mom a Mother's Day gift, then died a grisly death at the hands of a kidnapper.

Friends still struggle against tears when they consider the last years of the Ventura homemaker and mother of two, who ended up stabbed and beaten in a ravine north of town.

They choke back anger when they discuss husband Michael Dally's past treatment of his slain wife and his outspoken support for longtime lover Diana Haun.

And they try to piece together a clear picture of Haun, the prime suspect in the slaying--a woman often described as shy and soft-spoken who says she likes to joke about being a witch and who acknowledges taking cocaine while involved with Michael Dally.

The unfolding story of these three Ventura County residents--a loving mother, her adulterous husband and his girlfriend--has captured locals' imaginations like few others in recent years.

And those trying to solve the Sherri Dally murder case are approaching it with a special intensity.

"It is often referred to as a soap opera, but it's really a tragedy,' Ventura Police Lt. Carl Handy said. "Sherri Dally is just someone everybody likes. She went out of her way to make a bad marriage work, then she's taken out and murdered."

The case's emotional tug is felt even by veteran detectives who have worked extra shifts for seven weeks to solve it. Six investigators took their families to the Dally funeral on their days off two weeks ago.

"I've never seen that happen before," Handy said.

Sherri Dally was kidnapped from the parking lot of the Ventura Target store May 6. Her body was found three weeks later.

Haun, 35, and Dally, 36, grocery clerks who worked night shifts together until last month, have both professed their innocence.

"I am not guilty. I had nothing to do with it," Haun said last week in an interview with The Times, insisting that she had been "set up" by the real killer.

She stressed that she had even passed a lie detector test during an early grilling and that Dally had said he passed one, too.

Police have refused comment on the tests.

But they do say they are confident they now have a good circumstantial case against Haun, who they arrested two weeks after Sherri Dally's abduction, then released for lack of evidence.

"There is a mosaic of circumstantial evidence that entirely surrounds Diana Haun," one source said last week.

Law enforcement sources say there are two main suspects, and Dally is one of them. They also are looking into the possibility that a third suspect was involved.

At the same time, Diana Haun's lawyers have tried to fend off a rush to judgment in the case.

"I don't know why they arrested her," said Neil Quinn, Haun's public defender, the day she was released from jail. "But at some point soon, she hopes this cloud of suspicion can be lifted from her head."

Every twist in the case is headline news.

"I can't go anywhere in this county without somebody asking about this case," Handy said. "We just tell them it's ongoing and we'll put them away. . . . Everybody's got some anxiety waiting for the ax to fall."

*

If the ax falls on Haun, it will strike a woman most often described as polite, soft-spoken and shy, but who harbors a fascination for the odd and occult and who can flash a sudden, inexplicable anger.

From her days at Hueneme High School through her current job at the deli counter at Vons in Port Hueneme, teachers, friends, co-workers and roommates characterize Haun as naive, even childlike, in her demeanor. But not easily rattled.

"I don't know if you'd say she was reclusive, but she didn't seem to interact with the other students like normal high school students would," recalled teacher John Grenfell.

Indeed, Grenfell said that probably the only reason he could remember Haun at all was because as a high school sophomore in 1977 she was struck a glancing blow on the head by a collapsing basketball backboard.

That trauma, which she vividly recounts to friends, left her in a coma for three days with a bleeding brain and ended in a lawsuit settlement that provides her $1,077 a month until age 65. She still sees a psychologist regularly.

Even as Haun grew older and worked a series of jobs--clerk, waitress, bank teller, vending-machine stocker and postal worker--the world saw a surprisingly consistent image of her.

"She was nice, very quiet-speaking, she talked in very low tones," said George Pirie, whose son, John, worked with Haun at the post office in the late 1980s and who operated a vending machine company as a side business with her for several years. "She thinks hard. She's not going to say something outspoken."

By 1991, Haun was working at Bakers Square, first as a hostess and then a waitress.

"Diana was like a strange person in that mousy way--that's what everybody thought. You don't run into people who are so shy and timid to the point where they're background, but she was," said a co-worker at the Oxnard restaurant.

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