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Trial of chef who said he cooked wife’s body goes to jury

September 25, 2012 |  1:26 pm

 

This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

Jurors are expected to begin deliberations Tuesday afternoon in the murder trial of David Viens, the chef who told authorities he cooked his wife's dead body to dispose of it.

Dawn Viens was 39 when she disappeared in October 2009. Her body has never been found, but in an interview last year with sheriff's investigators, her husband gave a grisly explanation as to why.

David Viens said he packed her body into a large drum and boiled it in water over four days, according to the interview played for jurors. He poured much of what remained into the grease trap of his Lomita restaurant and threw other remains in the trash, he said. In the weeks that followed, Viens tried to cover his tracks with a string of lies and fake text messages.

"He tried to manipulate everyone who asked, 'Where's Dawn?'" Deputy District Atty. Deborah Brazil told the jury. "Don't let him manipulate you as well."

Defense attorney Fred McCurry never challenged the premise that Dawn Viens was dead, nor did he suggest that she was slain by someone other than her husband. But he said the evidence didn't support the first-degree murder conviction the prosecution was seeking, which requires proof of premeditation.

"Dawn Viens died as an unintentional result of David Viens' actions," McCurry said. "That's not murder."

In the defense's telling, which mirrors the account Viens gave to his daughter, Viens duct-taped his wife's mouth, bound her hands and feet and fell asleep. When he woke up, she was dead. Convinced no one would believe his wife's lifeless body was the result of a mishap, Viens tossed it in a dumpster at his restaurant, Thyme Contemporary Cafe.

In February 2011, after Viens discovered investigators suspected that he had killed his wife, he leaped off an 80-foot seaside cliff in Rancho Palos Verdes. While hospitalized with multiple fractures, he gave two interviews to investigators that were played for the jury; in the second, he described a grisly body-disposal process that his attorney said was too fantastical to believe.

At the time, McCurry reminded jurors, Viens was suffering from "excruciating" pain and taking a cocktail of drugs that a defense expert suggested could impair his alertness and memory. During the interview, Viens spoke of being "confused" by his dreams and, while he told investigators that he'd stashed his wife's skull in his mother's attic, authorities never found it.

McCurry also brought up more practical matters. "Is it even feasible to boil a body in water?" he asked. And if Viens did so in a fully operating restaurant, wouldn't someone have complained about the stench?

"They wanted to get you with emotion to override your reason," McCurry said.

Brazil countered that Viens, according to testimony from the couple's friend Karen Patterson, had a pattern of abusing his wife. Patterson said that in August 2009, when she asked Dawn Viens about marks on the right side of her neck, Viens said her husband had choked her.

The next month, Patterson said, her frightened friend called her and said she'd locked herself in the bathroom to keep her enraged husband at bay. Patterson said she heard David Viens pounding on the door and screaming. She wanted to call the police, she said through tears, but Dawn Viens begged her not to.

On the night of Oct. 18, 2009, according to the couple's friend Todd Stagnitto, David Viens was convinced that his wife had been stealing money from their restaurant. "I'll kill that bitch," Stagnitto quoted him as saying. But a chef who was also present during the conversation, Charlie Negrete, testified that he didn't recall hearing that.

Sometime after midnight on Oct. 19, both sides said, Dawn Viens was dead.

Brazil pointed to Stagnitto's testimony as proof of premeditation, and reminded jurors that "a cold, calculated decision to kill can be reached quickly." She added that, without a body, there was no way to know whether Viens died in a more brutal way than her husband suggested; perhaps that's why he got rid of the evidence.

David Viens told his wife's worried friends and relatives that she'd left him. To them, he appeared oddly unconcerned. Within weeks, he started dating a Thyme waitress named Kathy Galvan, who was two decades his junior.

Meanwhile, his daughter, Jacqueline Viens, testified, her father admitted during a drunken conversation that his wife was dead. He also asked her to send a text message from his wife's phone to Patterson, to assuage her suspicions. But the message rang false, Patterson testified, particularly since it misspelled her friend's nickname, Pixie, as "Pixy."

In November 2009, Dawn Viens' sister — not her husband — reported her missing.

For the record, 5:56 p.m., Sept. 27: An earlier version of this post misspelled Todd Stagnitto's last name.

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— Ashley Powers

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