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Restaurant owner's daughter testifies in father's murder trial

Jacqueline Viens recounts a drunken talk with David Viens in which he said his wife choked to death on her own vomit after he tied her up and taped her mouth.

September 14, 2012|By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • Dawn and David Viens. Jacqueline Viens testified at her father's murder trial Wednesday.
Dawn and David Viens. Jacqueline Viens testified at her father's… (KTLA )

One night in 2009, during a drunken conversation, Jacqueline Viens said her father told her why her stepmother had recently vanished.

Dawn Viens had been needling him and he just wanted to sleep, Jacqueline Viens recalled her father saying. He'd tried barricading their bedroom door with a dresser to keep his wife out. When that didn't work, David Viens tied her up and taped her mouth, according to his daughter. The next morning, Dawn Viens was dead.

Jacqueline Viens said her father told her that his wife had choked on her own vomit. He also said, through tears, that her body would never be found, his daughter said.

She shared the story with rapt jurors Wednesday, the opening day of her father's murder trial in downtown Los Angeles. He has pleaded not guilty to killing Dawn Viens, 39, who disappeared in October 2009.

In 2011, after he learned that his daughter had spoken to detectives, David Viens leaped off an 80-foot cliff in Rancho Palos Verdes. His injuries were so severe that he appeared in court Wednesday in a wheelchair, wearing a gray suit and glasses and scribbling intently on a notepad.

After his arrest, investigators said, David Viens told them a story similar to the conversation Jacqueline Viens remembered. Authorities tore up the walls and floor of his Lomita restaurant, Thyme Contemporary Cafe, in hopes of finding his wife's remains.

On Wednesday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Deborah Brazil's questions hinted at a macabre theory to explain why their efforts failed. One time, Jacqueline Viens testified, her father joked about how to get rid of a body: by cooking it. "He is a chef," she said.

Viens, 22, who also testified at her father's preliminary hearing, was visibly uncomfortable on the stand. Once, during a break in testimony, she stole a glance at her father, then quickly looked away.

Defense attorney Fred McCurry tried to pick apart some of her recollections, particularly of the drunken conversation she and her father allegedly had about his wife's final hours. Viens admitted that she'd also smoked marijuana that night and that her memory was somewhat fuzzy. She also said she'd never seen a fight between her father and Dawn Viens turn physical.

"They seemed like they loved each other," Jacqueline Viens said, and a photo of the couple displayed in the courtroom suggested the same thing. Against the backdrop of a celluloid-worthy sunset, David Viens beamed next to his blond wife.

David Viens and Jacqueline Viens' mother had split up when she was a toddler. He started dating Dawn Viens a short time later, and Jacqueline Viens visited them several times a year, she said. Dawn Viens taught her to write cursive and tie her shoes, Jacqueline Viens testified.

"Did you love Dawn?" Brazil asked.

"I did," Viens said.

But, she added, Dawn Viens was no saint. "She'd wake up in the morning and drink all day long," said Jacqueline Viens, who testified that she and her stepmother had done cocaine together.

In October 2009, David Viens asked his daughter, who was living in South Carolina, to come back to California and help at his restaurant. When she arrived, Dawn Viens was gone. David Viens said his wife had stormed off after an argument, Jacqueline Viens testified.

Soon after, David Viens asked his daughter to bag up some of Dawn Viens' clothes and take them to a storage unit. She tossed other clothes into a dumpster at the restaurant. Jacqueline Viens said she had help from Kathy Galvan, a waitress who soon moved in with David Viens.

Eventually, Viens said she and her father had their drunken exchange about what happened to Dawn Viens while driving back from the restaurant. Afterward, she testified, her father asked her to send a text message from Dawn Viens' phone to one of his wife's friends.

Jacqueline Viens recalled it saying: "This is Dawn. I'm OK. I'm in Florida and I'm here to start over." Then she got rid of the phone.

"You were trying to protect your dad, weren't you?" Brazil asked.

"Yes," Viens said.

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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