The family doctor in a small town often garners as much respect as the mayor, church leader, or the school superintendent. In the small town of Eldorado, Dr. John Dale Cavaness was a highly esteemed physician who treated the impoverished communities of Southern Illinois, often not even charging for his services to those who couldn’t afford it. He was known as a skilled doctor and surgeon, eventually serving as Chief of Surgery at Pearce Hospital. When he was accused of the unthinkable, the community rallied to support him. However, those closest to the doctor knew a different side of him.
John Dale Cavaness, known as Dale, was born in 1925 in the small Southern Illinois town of Eldorado. He was the only child of Peck and Noma Cavaness. As he grew into his teen years, he became fiercely competitive and found success in most things he attempted. He was an excellent student and star athlete. Despite his smaller size, he was gifted on the football field and proved his strength in physical fights. He was an “All American” boy and was on track for a successful future.
Towards the end of high school, Dale started dating Helen Jean Pearce. Helen was the daughter of a local physician. Dale and Helen’s father often talked about medicine and Dale’s future as an aspiring physician. When Dale graduated high school in the 1930’s, he joined the United States Navy. He was honorably discharged after two years of service and was now a World War II veteran. He married Helen Jean soon after.
Dale attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and later SIU Champaign-Urbana for his undergrad studies. He then attended Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Dale’s fellow students found him a blowhard and a know-it-all” (O’Brien, 1989). Dale proved to be competent and dedicated throughout medical school. Dr. Pearce, his father-in-law, was building a new hospital in Southern Illinois and named it the Pearce-Cavaness Hospital in anticipation of his son-in-law joining him in practice.
However, before Dale started his residency, Helen Jean left him for a friend of his. He was heartbroken and angry, but eventually found comfort with a friend, a nurse at Barnes Jewish Hospital. Mariann Newberry, who had also been a friend of Helen’s, was at first reluctant, but eventually the two began to date. When Dale began his residency in Baltimore, Mariann took a job with an airline and was based in New York. The two remained together and seemed to be a match made in heaven. Mariann loved the big city and was not impressed with Southern Illinois when she met Dale’s parents.
Dale and Mariann married October 3rd, 1952 in St. Louis. The couple returned to St. Louis so Dale could finish his education at the Maternity Hospital of St. Louis. Mariann assumed her life with Dale would be in St. Louis or another big city, but soon Dale announced they would be moving to Southern Illinois. Dale began working at Hamilton Memorial Hospital in McLeansboro, Illinois. Eventually, he transferred to Eldorado to Pearce Hospital, no longer called Pearce-Cavaness Hospital.
Despite the divorce and hospital name change, Dr. Pearce and Dale remained close and Dale became an excellent physician and surgeon. He put long hours into his job, as many physicians do. Mariann was not thrilled about living in Southern Illinois but tried to make the best out of it. One their first wedding anniversary, the two drank some wine and had a romantic evening. After drinking a few glasses each, Mariann mentioned maybe moving back to the city. Dale punched her in the face.
After that, Dale would often become abusive when he was drinking. He would later apologize profusely and Mariann would forgive him. It’s a vicious cycle of abuse that is so common in domestic violence situations. In 1954, the couple welcomed their first child. Dale delivered his son himself, naming him Mark Dale Cavaness. Another son soon followed, Kevin Dale Cavaness in 1956.
Dale became a popular physician in town as he diagnosed and treated those in the impoverished communities. He would stay late, come in early, even do house calls when needed. When people couldn’t pay for medical care, they didn’t need to worry. Dr. Dale as he became known, would still provide care. He would often refuse to allow his staff to send a bill to those he knew couldn’t afford it.
The office staff also knew another side of him, however. He was one of the only physicians to take workman compensation cases, making him very popular. However, he often urged his staff to falsify documents and other fraudulent activity. If someone quit or upset the doctor, he had a thirst for vengeance. He could get angry quick, especially if he was drinking. As time went on, he was often drinking at the office and even before performing surgeries.
In 1962, Sean Dale Cavaness was born to Dale and Mariann. The couple were now rooted in Eldorado and Mariann had given up her dreams of city living. Dale was drinking more than ever and pulling pranks that others found cruel. For instance, Kevin’s first memory of his father is Dale locking him in a closet and leaving him there until he cried. Then, his father scolded him for being a baby. The more Dr. Cavaness drank, the more violent and hateful he became with his family. However, the community only saw the good ol’ Dr. Dale he portrayed in the community.
As Dale’s practice grew and he became the most popular and prosperous physician in Southern Illinois, he began buying properties and farms. He wanted to branch out and venture into agriculture business. He bought expensive rare cattle breeds and opened a catfish farm. However, his business ventures didn’t result in the immediate success he had become accustomed to throughout his life. Ever determined to succeed, Dale continued to sink money into the businesses.
Mariann then found Dale at one of his properties with another woman, Martha Culley. Martha was a married woman and daughter of a judge. She left her husband and continued seeing the doctor. For whatever reason, perhaps being a mother of three boys in the 1960’s, Mariann stayed with Dale despite his ongoing affair, abusive behavior, and often not being around for her or the boys. He was an absentee father most of the time, and a violent and harsh father the rest of the time. Mariann learned she was pregnant again, despite her fractured marriage. Dale told her he no longer loved her and wanted to be with Martha. However, the two remained married as Dale moved in with Martha. Mariann gave birth to Patrick Dale Cavaness in 1966.
Although Dale was shacking up with Martha, Mariann held out hope for her marriage and stayed legally married and living in Eldorado for years while Dale came and went for her home and bedroom as he pleased. He financially supported the family but provided little else for his wife and children. He remained loyal and trustworthy in the community, however, and was regarded as a pillar of the community.
In 1972, Dale caused a car accident that killed a man and his 10-month-old daughter. The man’s wife was critically injured but survived. Dale was found to be intoxicated and was charged with reckless homicide. At this point, Mariann was done and filed for divorce. She moved with her boys back to St. Louis. You would think with such a serious incident and charges, the community would be outraged. A physician, trusted to save people and help them, was drunk driving and killed a man and child. However, the people of Southern Illinois were supportive and didn’t want to see anything bad happen to Dr. Dale. Unbelievably, Dale plead guilty and was given a slap on the wrist: three years of probation and a $500 fine (Monroe & Weil, 1984).
A few years later, a felony indictment charged Dr. Cavaness with deceptive practices for falsification of paperwork and improper billing related to cases billed to the Illinois Division of Rehabilitation Services (Monroe & Weil, 1984). Dr. Cavaness was successful in delaying the proceedings for several years but was eventually given a plea deal in which he plead guilty to a misdemeanor and received a year probation, $500 fine, and was ordered to pay $1,775 in restitution (Monroe & Weil, 1984).
Throughout the 1970’s, Dr. Dale’s business ventures continued to fail despite him sinking mounds of money into the farms. His child support payments to Mariann started to become late and eventually stopped. Then, something tragic and unthinkable happened.
In 1977, Mark Cavaness was twenty-two years old and down on his luck. He was not in college or pursuing big dreams like his father. He had bounced from job to job and couldn’t seem to find his way. He went to Southern Illinois to work on one of his father’s farms. Mark and Dale never got along, and Dale often referred to Mark as “worthless” and a “disappointment”. On Good Friday, Mariann and her younger sons came to Southern Illinois to visit Mark.
However, Mark never showed up that night at the trailer Dale had given them to stay in on his farm. When they didn’t hear from him by Saturday, they went looking. Eventually, Sean found his brother’s remains in a field on the Cavaness farm near his vehicle. Mark had been shot in the head, but not much of him remained. Animals had destroyed much of the body and mostly only skeletal remains were left. A shot gun was noted in the vehicle with the end of the case blown out (UPI, 1977). The matter of death was reported as accidental or even suicide, but investigators believed that it was a homicide. Although the lead investigator believed Dr. Cavaness was involved, he had no evidence and was unable to proceed with any charges.
In 1982, Dr. Dale was convicted of reckless driving after causing yet another accident. He didn’t kill anyone this time, so I guess that’s a plus. His driver’s license was suspended but eventually renewed (Monroe & Weil, 1984). Dale continued to have a strained relationship with his sons, which greatly impacted Sean. Sean was very hurt by his father’s rejection and began drinking. He soon had an alcohol problem and went to inpatient rehabilitation.
Kevin successfully completed college and married an Eldorado woman, Charli. The couple made their home in St. Louis were Sean stayed in an apartment after finishing alcohol rehab. Mariann remarried and moved to Wisconsin with her only son left at home, Patrick. Dale saw the boys occasionally, but not with any consistency. He was very critical of his sons, especially Sean. He was often heard commenting that Sean was a failure and disappointment, which he also called Marked before and after his death.
On the morning of December 13th, 1984, the body of Sean Cavaness was discovered in South St. Louis. He had been shot twice in the head and left in a remote area. At first, they could not identify him as his driver’s license and wallet were not present. However, fingerprints were matched to a previous arrest record Sean had in St. Louis. There were no suspects immediately in the case and the motive seemed unclear, possibly robbery.
However, upon interviewing Sean’s neighbors, police learned that a car had been circling the area the night before Sean’s body was found. The neighbors found it suspicious, so much so that they wrote down the license plate number. They described seeing Sean return home and embracing the man in vehicle before going up to his apartment and leaving a while later with the man. They recognized the man as Sean’s father, Dr. Dale Cavaness. The license plate was tracked to Dr. Cavaness as well. Dale had been the last person to see Sean alive.
When police first spoke with Dale, they asked him when he had seen his son last. He claimed it had been a few weeks, which police knew was not true. At this point, police felt they had found the murderer. At the memorial service, Dale acted as if he was throwing a wedding rather than a funeral, upsetting his other sons and ex-wife. He even told people at the service what a disappointment Sean was. As he prepared to leave St. Louis to return to Illinois, police arrested Dr. Dale for the murder of his son.
As this point, the clock started. The police had 24 hours to get an indictment, or they would have to release Dr. Cavaness. They knew he had the means as he owned several guns of the same caliber as the murder weapon. They knew he had the opportunity as they could place him with Sean just hours before the murder occurred. What they weren’t sure about, however, was the motive. Until they talked to Kevin Cavaness.
Kevin was somewhat shocked that his father had been arrested and didn’t want to believe his father had killed his brother, but he instantly knew it was true and why. He told authorities that his father had taken out life insurance policies on both himself and Sean a few months earlier. Police learned Dr. Cavaness had two policies on Sean totally approximately $140,000. They also learned that Dr. Cavaness had received $40,000 after the death of Mark Cavaness from an insurance policy. Now they had their motive. The indictment charged Dale Cavaness with first degree murder.
Many people in Eldorado and the surrounding area were in disbelief and believed in Dr. Dale’s innocence. They came together to raise money for the doctor’s defense attorney. Supporters commented to the media that they believed the St. Louis detectives were framing Dr. Dale and didn’t believe he was capable of murder. Mariann and Kevin, however, believed in Dale’s guilt and sought justice for Sean and Mark.
On December 24th, 1984, Dale admitted to police that he was with Sean the night of his death and claimed that Sean asked him to drive to the area and then asked for his father’s gun. Dale states he said, “Tell Mom I love her and I’m sorry” (UPI, 1985) before shooting himself in the head. Dale admitted to firing the second shot, stating he thought it would be emotionally easier for Sean’s mother to believe he had been murdered. Dale told authorities where they could find Sean’s ID and belongings on his Illinois farm. All the items, including the murder weapon, were hidden on the farm where Dale said they were.
The evidence showed that Dr. Cavaness came to St. Louis that night and drank with his young alcoholic son. In the early morning hours, he drove to the desolate area of the city. Ballistic evidence showed that the first wound was from behind to the back of the head and the shot to the side of the head was the second shot, making suicide impossible. He then took Sean’s items and the gun and hid them on his property. He went to a holiday party the next day and was noted to be acting normally and jovial despite knowing his twenty-two-year-old son was dead.
During the first trial in 1985, Dale Cavaness admitted that he “probably had threatened to kill Sean” (UPI, 1985) and “I was committed to making it look like it was a homicide” (UPI, 1985). However, a polygraph examination result showing Dale had failed his polygraph was shown to the jury, which was not admissible. A mistrial was granted.
In November of 1985, John Dale Cavaness was found guilty of first-degree murder after his second trail and was sentenced to death in Missouri’s gas chamber (Vespereny, 1985). However, Dr. Dale Cavaness was found in his cell hanging by some electrical cords. He had taken his fate into his own hands and committed suicide, avoiding the gas chamber. As calculated as ever, Dr. Cavaness committed suicide one day after a suicide clause on his life insurance policy expired. His beneficiary was Martha Culley. He was never charged with Mark Cavaness’s murder.
How does a man kill his own flesh and blood? John Dale Cavaness was likely a sociopath and pushed his boundaries throughout his life. He was deeply in debt due to failed business ventures and found little use for children other than as an insurance policy. This man portrayed a dedicated and caring physician to the community, but those who knew him best knew he was a mean and abusive drunk. He believed that he could get away with anything due to his position in the community, and he almost did. He made a mistake, however, when he committed the heartless murder of Sean outside of Southern Illinois.
O’Brien, D. (1989) Murder in Little Egypt; Open Road Integrated Media; Available for purchase at: Murder in Little Egypt: O'Brien, Darcy: 9781504008327: Amazon.com: Books
Killer Medics on Death Row (2016) John Dale Cavaness; Season 1 Episode 3; Retrieved at: Killer Medics On Death Row - Season 1 Episode 3 ''John Dale Cavaness'' - YouTube
Vespereny, C. (1985) Jury Recommends Death Penalty for Doctor in Slaying of Son; St. Louis Post Dispatch; Retrieved at: 21 Nov 1985, Page 6 - St. Louis Post-Dispatch at Newspapers.com
UPI (1985) Mistrial leaves doctor’s fate unsure; Record-Journal; Retrieved at: 15 Jul 1985, 8 - Record-Journal at Newspapers.com
Gayle, L. & Jackson, H.J. (1984) Illinois doctor charged in shooting death of son; St. Louis Post Dispatch; Retireved at: 20 Dec 1984, Page 1 - St. Louis Post-Dispatch at Newspapers.com
UPI (1977) Rural shooting investigated; Daily Republican-Register; Retrieved at: 12 Apr 1977, 11 - Daily Republican-Register at Newspapers.com
Monroe, C. & Weil, N. (1984) Murder charges shock doctor’s friends; Southern Illinoisian; Retrieved at: 21 Dec 1984, Page 1 - Southern Illinoisan at Newspapers.com