A Lomita chef who said he loved his missing wife and hoped she returned home safely was found guilty Thursday of murdering her and cooking her body in boiling water to destroy any trace of the crime.
The panel in Superior Court in downtown Los Angeles took about five hours over three days to convict David Viens of second-degree murder, a crime that carries a sentence of 15 years to life in prison.
“My opinion is if he was innocent he wouldn’t have jumped off a cliff,” said juror Tal Erickson, 46, of West Los Angeles.
The 49-year-old owner of the defunct Thyme Contemporary Cafe stared straight ahead and appeared to look toward the ceiling as the court clerk read the verdict. As a bailiff wheeled him from the courtroom, Viens gestured to his mother, Sandra Viens, that he would call her.
His mother, contacted later by the Daily Breeze, refused to comment and hung up the phone.
The verdict brought an end to a three-year mystery that began when 39-year-old Dawn Viens disappeared. She was last seen on Oct. 18, 2009.
“It’s very, very difficult trying to find the words to express what this ordeal has been like,” said Dawn Viens’ sister, Dayna Papin, who sat through the two-week trial, listening as prosecutors played a recording of Viens’ confession, describing how he bound and gagged her sister with duct tape, and later boiled her body for four days.
Detectives had told Papin and her family about her sister’s horrifying fate more than 15 months ago. She was unable to tell anyone until it was revealed during Viens’ trial.
“My family, it’s very difficult for them to understand this situation,” Papin said after the verdict, drinking water to calm nausea. “It’s so surreal. This experience has been so surreal.”
The mystery of “Where is Dawn?” began in October 2009, when Dawn Viens suddenly vanished, failing to accompany her friend, Karen Patterson, to a doctor’s appointment. Patterson had just learned she had cancer, and her friend vowed to see her through the treatment.
Patterson went looking for her friend at the restaurant, where Dawn Viens worked as a hostess in the family business. She found David Viens agitated, sweaty, with a bandage covering a burn on his arm.
Three weeks later, Patterson, her husband, Mike Wade, and Papin filed a missing person report with the Sheriff’s Department.
Nobody at the time knew that Dawn Viens was already dead, her body liquefied in boiling water and poured into the restaurant’s grease trap, her skull and jawbone hidden in David Viens’ mother’s attic.
From the start, David Viens refused to help, telling Patterson and Wade his wife had packed her Louis Vuitton bag and walked away from their Oak Street apartment when she refused his demand that she go to drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
In the days that followed, friends received text messages from Dawn Viens’ cellphone, telling them she was fine and would contact them soon. But Patterson knew something was wrong: Dawn Viens rarely texted and had misspelled her own nickname “Pixie” with a “y” in one of them.
Days passed. Months passed. Viens took on a new girlfriend, Kathy Galvan, a Thyme waitress who stepped into Dawn Viens’ job at the restaurant. Viens refused to do interviews. An attorney told the Daily Breeze he would not talk because “the husband is always considered a suspect.”
In April 2010, a Daily Breeze reporter confronted Viens outside his kitchen. He spoke of his wife in the past tense.
“I loved my wife. I miss her,” he said. “I want to put up a cash reward, but I’m broke.”
Viens said he expected his wife to come home one day, probably when ski season was over. Asked if he wanted his wife of more than 15 years to return, he said, “I want her to be safe.”
In August 2010, a Sheriff’s Department missing person detective – unable to find any bank transaction, any traffic ticket or anything else to prove Dawn Viens was alive – handed the case to homicide detectives to investigate. Viens and Galvan moved to Torrance, allowing detectives access to the Lomita house Viens once shared with his wife. They found blood spatter in a bedroom and a blood stain in the bathroom.
Suspecting Viens had killed his wife, investigators put Viens under surveillance, placing a camera on a pole outside his restaurant and wiretapping his cellphone.
Trying to see what Viens would do, the detectives supplied information about the blood and their suspicions about Viens to a Daily Breeze reporter, figuring a news story might “stimulate” their suspect into making a phone call or doing something incriminating while they were listening and watching. The reporter informed Viens that an article would appear the next morning.
At the same time, a homicide detective was in South Carolina, talking with Viens’ daughter, Jacqueline Viens. Jacqueline Viens knew the truth, just not everything.
She told detectives that while drinking with her father one night in Los Angeles, he admitted to accidentally killing his wife. He said he covered her mouth with duct tape because she was “raising hell” when he wanted to sleep. He took an Ambien and went to sleep. When he awakened four hours later, she was dead.
He told her he put her stepmother’s body in a trash bag and tossed it into a garbage bin behind his restaurant.
And, she told detectives, her father had once joked that if he had to ever get rid of a body, he would cook it.
“I’m a chef,” he told her.
The next morning, Feb. 23, 2011, Viens awakened early and went out to pick up the newspaper. The headline declared him a “person of interest” in what detectives believed was a homicide. Viens returned home upset, crying and apologizing to his girlfriend, admitting he had killed her.
“No one will believe me,” he told her.
A despondent Viens drove his girlfriend toward Rancho Palos Verdes, receiving a call from his daughter telling him she had talked. Deputies, who had been watching Viens and listening to his phone calls, pulled in behind him. Galvan grabbed the steering wheel as Viens drove up to 80 mph toward the cliff, fearing he was about to drive over the edge.
Viens stopped next to the cliff, got out and climbed a fence. Galvan and a deputy tried to stop him from jumping, but he leaped feet-first, his arms outstretched, screaming as he fell.
Rescued quickly, and without any head injuries, Viens survived the 80-foot drop that shattered a leg, his pelvis and other bones, and put him in a wheelchair. In the hospital six days after the plunge, as deputies and coroner’s officials dug up his restaurant in search of his wife’s remains, Viens confessed to detectives.
“Duct tape,” he said, explaining he threw her body in the garbage.
Two weeks later, Viens asked the detectives to return. He wanted to talk again. He had something to get off his chest. He explained how he disposed of his wife’s body, boiling her at night for four days in his restaurant kitchen. During the day, while the restaurant was open for customers, he wheeled the huge pot with her body inside to a storage shed at the restaurant’s rear, detectives said.
When he was done serving customers during the day, he spent the nights cooking his wife’s remains.
Viens told detectives he hid his wife’s head and jawbone, the only thing that could identify her, in his mother’s attic. They have never been found.
In court this week, Viens’ attorney, Fred McCurry, told jurors that Dawn Viens’ death was an accident, not a murder. Viens had gagged his wife before and did not intend to kill her.
But homicide Sgt. Richard Garcia and Deputy District Attorney Deborah Brazil did not believe the death was an accident. The night Dawn Viens died, Viens told a friend he suspected his wife of stealing a few hundred dollars from the restaurant. “I’ll kill the bitch,” he threatened.
And, Patterson testified, Viens had choked his wife previously, causing marks to her neck.
For two weeks, jurors listened, faced with the decision of premeditated first-degree murder, a lesser second-degree charge, or manslaughter. An acquittal was unlikely, although Viens’ attorney told jurors they should disregard the confession Viens made describing his gruesome body disposal.
Erickson, the juror, said the panel considered first- and second-degree murder, and settled on second “based on the evidence.” The threat Viens made to kill his wife was not enough for first-degree, he said, adding plenty of people have made similar threats.
Jurors used Viens own words from his confessions to convict him, Erickson said.
“His testimony basically said what he did,” the juror said. “He was read his Miranda rights. Everything you say can be used against you in a court of law.”
Some jurors, he said, had trouble sleeping after listening to the disturbing confessions.
“I think he has anger management problems,” Erickson said. “He’s shown no remorse, no apology, nothing.”
Papin said she started crying the minute the jury buzzed the courtroom three times at 10:30 a.m. Thursday to indicate they had reached a verdict.
She bowed her head and wept as the verdict was read.
Papin later thanked the detectives, prosecutors, jurors, Patterson and Wade, and others for their work in pursuing Viens and bringing justice.
“It means he has to pay for what he did,” Papin said. “He tried to get away with it.”
Patterson, who often socialized with the Vienses with her husband, and helped design his restaurant kitchen, said she “loved Dawn like a sister.”
“My good friend murdered, my good friend,” she said.
Patterson said she remains upset that she chose not to call the police when Dawn Viens told her about the domestic violence incidents, including one where she had locked herself in the bathroom. Dawn Viens had told her not to.
“We all need to listen to friends who reach out to us,” she said.
Patterson said she might visit Viens in prison to tell him how much his wife loved him.
“Through all of this he is still my friend,” Patterson said. “I hope he knows that the week before he killed her, Dawn loved him so much.”
Judge Rand Rubin scheduled sentencing for Viens on Nov. 27. Viens, who has been behind bars since his suicide attempt from the cliff, previously served a short prison term in Florida for drug dealing.
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