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Trial of chef who said he cooked wife’s body nears end

September 24, 2012 | 10:37 pm

 Dawn and David Viens.

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

In the prosecution's telling, David Viens was an abusive, conniving husband who murdered his wife, cooked her body to dispose of it and then tried to cover his tracks with a string of lies and fake text messages.

In the defense's telling, Viens did kill his wife -- but by accident. After duct-taping her mouth, binding her hands and feet and falling asleep, he awoke to find her 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 Lomita restaurant.

Jurors heard the two versions of the October 2009 slaying Monday during closing arguments in Viens' murder trial; the attorneys are scheduled to wrap up their cases Tuesday. Viens, 49, is accused of killing his wife, Dawn, whose body has never been found. In February 2011, after he discovered investigators suspected he'd killed her, he leaped off an 80-foot seaside cliff in Rancho Palos Verdes.

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 prosecution's evidence didn't support a first-degree murder conviction, which requires proof of premeditation.

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

McCurry also challenged the veracity of the prosecution's most haunting piece of evidence: an interview with sheriff's investigators in which Viens said he boiled his wife's body over four days and dispatched much of what remained in his restaurant's grease trap.

At the time, McCurry reminded jurors, Viens was hospitalized from his cliff jump, 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 noticed a rotten stench?

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

Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Deborah Brazil countered that Viens, according to testimony from his wife's friend Karen Patterson, had a pattern of abusing Dawn Viens. 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 Viens’ friend Todd Stagnitto, the chef was convinced that his wife had been stealing money from their restaurant, Thyme Contemporary Café. "I'll kill that bitch," Stagnitto quoted Viens as saying. A chef who was also present during the conversation, Charlie Negrete, testified that he didn't recall hearing that.

Within hours, Brazil 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 Dawn Viens died in a more brutal way than her husband suggested; perhaps that's why he got rid of the evidence.

Though David Viens shared a similar story about his wife's final hours with his daughter and girlfriend, both of whom testified for the prosecution, Brazil told jurors he'd proved himself capable of a cover-up. In the weeks after his wife's death, Viens told friends and a sheriff's detective that she'd left him. According to his daughter, he also had her send Patterson a text message from Dawn Viens' phone to assuage her suspicions.

"Every time someone asked for information about Dawn Viens," Brazil said, "a lie came out of his mouth."

For the record, 6:01 p.m., Sept. 27: An earlier version of this post misspelled Todd Stagnitto's last name.


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--Ashley Powers

Photo: Dawn and David Viens. Credit: KTLA-TV, Channel 5