Born in California in 1971, Dana Ewell became the central suspect in the brutal killings of his parents and sister in 1992. Despite Ewell's alibi, investigations eventually connected him to the gunman, his former college dormmate Joel Radovcich. In 1998, Ewell was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Dana James Ewell was born on January 28, 1971, in Fresno, California. His father, Dale, was a strict, hard-nosed businessman who built his fortune by setting small aircraft through Western Piper Sales, Inc. Dale had been brought up during the Depression, and later joined the U.S. Air Force. After successfully expanding his aircraft business, he invested his money in several farms, accumulating substantial wealth. His empire at the time of his death was worth around $8 million.
Dale's wife, Glee, a respected and much-liked civic activist, had once briefly worked for the CIA before becoming a teacher. From the outside, the Ewells appeared to embody the American success story.
At an early age, Dana Ewell showed a tendency to lie and fabricate stories. Having a comfortable home, money, expensive clothes and a secure future wasn't enough for the well-educated and highly intelligent child. Later, as a student at Santa Clara University, he felt the need to fabricate vainglorious stories about himself and achievements that simply didn't exist. Ewell managed to con fellow students and staff members into believing that he had become a stockbroker at 18, and had made millions as the president of his own aircraft company.
The lies were supported by Ewell’s conspicuous use of wealth. He obsessed over money and designer clothes. He had a BMW at his disposal, and enough money to spend whenever he wanted. What outsiders weren't aware of was the reality of a father-son relationship that was strained to the point of non-communication. However, there was no evidence of physical abuse nor any allegations that Dale had beaten his son, and as such there was seemingly little reason to believe that Ewell had the motivation to murder his family.
On Easter Sunday, April 19, 1992, Dale and Glee Ewell, along with their daughter, Tiffany, were fatally gunned down in their home in Sunnyside, California. The Ewells had just returned from a holiday weekend at their beach house in Pajaro Dunes, California. Glee and Tiffany were the first victims, as they had driven back home while Dale flew his private plane to its hangar. Dale was shot after entering the house about 30 minutes later. Ewell was 200 miles away at the time of the crime, on vacation with his girlfriend, Monica Zent, and her father, FBI agent John Zent.
It was assumed the family had disturbed a burglary upon returning home, but when homicide detective John Souza entered the crime scene two days later, he felt there was something staged about the incident. The killings had been perpetrated in unusually methodical fashion; the murderer waited on a sheet of plastic to avoid leaving clues, and then retrieved all the bullet casings from the scene, which indicated that he did not feel particularly rushed.
Ewell appeared to have a tight alibi, even producing receipts of purchases he had made around the time of the murders, but Souza and his fellow detectives weren't convinced that the intruder theory was cut and dry. Adding to their suspicion was the fact that Ewell seemed oddly unaffected by the brutal killings, and demonstrated annoyance that he would not immediately inherit his family's fortune.
While Ewell didn’t fake compassion and shock at the slaughter of his own family, he did feign concern by offering a $50,000 reward for the killer's capture. His main worry, however, was how to get his hands on his father's business and assets, a task complicated when his three uncles blocked access to Dale's funds. This meant Ewell had to secure money from elsewhere, such as his grandmother's trust account.
In the meantime, Ewell continued to live life as usual, while Souza and his fellow detectives kept tight surveillance. They had their suspect's pager cloned and set up wiretaps to his landline. As far as Detective Souza was concerned, the main motivation was money: Ewell wasn't prepared to wait for his inheritance, which was stated in his father's will to be distributed to his son on his 25th, 30th and 35th birthdays.
Supporting these allegations were documents uncovered during the investigations, which revealed that Ewell had raided hundreds of thousands of dollars from his grandmother's account. Among the expenses were law school tuition and a new car for girlfriend Monica Zent, as well as flying lessons for Ewell and his buddy Joel Radovcich, who was also suspected of being involved in the murders. At the height of his spending spree, Ewell had dozens of bank accounts, some held jointly either with his grandmother or girlfriend.
Arrest and Trial
A breakthrough in the case came in 1995, when the purchase of the suspected murder weapon was traced to a Radovcich acquaintance named Ernest Jack Ponce. Agreeing to testify in exchange for immunity, Ponce admitted to buying the weapon for Radovcich and recalled his friend's description of the killings. Thanks in large part to Ponce's testimony, both Ewell and Radovcich were tried on three counts of first-degree murder.
Superior Court Judge Frank J. Creede Jr. banned television cameras from the trial, although he did allow a radio station to cover court proceedings. The court case was a sensational affair due to the nature of the crime, its wealthy suspects and the length of time needed to secure arrests.
Deputy District Attorney Jim Oppliger of the prosecution stated to the jury that Dana Ewell hired former college dormmate Joel Radovcich to kill Ewell’s family at their home while Ewell, the planner and operator, vacationed with his girlfriend and her father in order to acquire an alibi. His star witness, Ponce, told the court that Radovcich put on several layers of latex gloves and sat on plastic sheets waiting for the Ewells to come home from a weekend trip. Using a silencer, he first shot Tiffany. Glee was then shot four times. Dale was shot just once from behind, as he entered the house from the garage.
Also called to testify during the trial were Dana's uncles, who recounted how their nephew had become upset upon learning his parents' will was structured to limit his inheritance for several years.
Monica Zent did not testify, but her father took the witness stand for the defense, making favorable statements about Ewell. The testimony did no good, however, and after a week and a half of deliberation, the jury convicted both Ewell and Radovcich. They received mandatory life sentences, but were spared the death penalty.
Ewell was sent to the Protective Housing Unit of Corcoran State Prison in California, which he shares with fellow prisoners Charles Manson, Juan Corona and other convicted murderers who need to be protected from the general prison population. All appeals for Ewell’s parole have been denied.
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