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Dr. John Dale CAVANESS





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - To collect insurance money
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: April 7, 1977 / December 13, 1984
Date of birth: 1925
Victims profile: His eldest son, Mark Dale Cavaness, 22 / His son, Sean Cavaness, 22
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Illinois/Missouri, USA
Status: Sentenced to death in Missouri in January 6, 1986. Committed suicide by hanging himself in his death row cell with an electrical cord on November 17, 1986

Jury Requests Death Penalty For Man Who Killed His Son

November 21, 1985

UPI - Jurors recommended today that Dr. John Dale Cavaness, a general practitioner from southern Illinois, die in the gas chamber for murdering his son. The jurors found Dr. Cavaness, 60 years old, guilty of first-degree murder Tuesday night, then heard arguments on whether the doctor should die or be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

A jury today convicted a debt-ridden doctor of killing his son with two shots to the head to collect more than $140,000 in insurance benefits.

Jurors deliberated less than three hours in finding Dr. John Dale Cavaness, a 60-year-old general practitioner in southern Illinois, guilty of first-degree murder in the death of his son, Sean, 22, whose body was found last December near Times Beach, Mo.

The jury was recessed until Wednesday morning to begin the sentencing phase of the trial. Dr. Cavaness, who showed no emotion when the guilty verdict was read, faces death in the state's gas chamber or life imprisonment.

It was the second time Dr. Cavaness had been tried on the charges. His first trial ended in a mistrial when the judge determined that the jury had seen documents not introduced as evidence.


Doctor Sentenced to Death

January 8, 1986

UPI - Dr. John Dale Cavaness has been sentenced to death in the gas chamber for murdering his son to collect $148,000 in insurance.

Judge Drew Luten Jr. of St. Louis County Circuit Court imposed the sentence Monday. No execution date was set. In Missouri, a death sentence is automatically appealed to the State Supreme Court. The doctor's son Sean, 22 years old, was shot dead Dec. 13, 1984 in an isolated area near the St. Louis suburb of Times Beach. Dr. Cavaness, 60, practiced in southern Illinois.


The Deadly Dr. Dale

The Malefactor's Register -

June 21, 2006

To his patients in the Little Egypt area of southern Illinois, Dr. John Dale Cavaness was an old-school healer who still made house calls, often waived fees for those unable to pay, and was willing to spend as much time with them as they needed, despite his busy practice.

ďDr. Dale, as he was affectionately called, was akin to Mother Teresa to his patients and friends,Ē according to the summary of his case in the acclaimed Crime Classification Manual. ďCavanessís family and closest office workers, however, knew he had another, darker side.Ē

He grew up in the Little Egypt area and was taught to be tough and stand his ground by his gandy dancer father. A bright young man, he was fortunate to come from a family that was well off during the Depression so he managed to scrape together enough money to attend college and medical school.

After returning home to practice, Cavaness was abandoned by his first wife, and one biographer speculates that this was because he had already become a cruel and violent man.

His second wife, a nurse named Marian, soon became the target of Cavanessís frustrations and he began to physically and emotionally abuse her. This occurred about the same time that he began using alcohol and drugs to excess. Marian put up with the abuse for several years and gave Cavaness four sons before leaving him in the early 1970s.

In 1972, Cavaness pleaded guilty to reckless homicide in a three-car crash that killed a 10-month-old girl and her father. He was also charged at the time with driving while intoxicated and unlawful possession of a loaded pistol and shotgun. He managed to avoid prison for those crimes, receiving two years of probation and a $1,000 fine.

By the mid-1970s, Cavaness was living a double life of abusing his family while enriching himself through his lucrative medical practice and earning the admiration and accolades of the people of the Little Egypt area.

The divorce of his parents had a profoundly negative effect on the eldest son, Mark Dale Cavaness, to the point where he dropped out of high school. He never really recovered, and this only inflamed the vitriolic nature of his fatherís personality.

To the doctor, Mark would never amount to anything and was a ďno-good pot smoker.Ē Marian, who had subsequently moved to St. Louis, Missouri, would later recount that her telephone conversations with her ex-husband consisted mainly of his complaints and sarcastic comments about Mark. She worried about what effect this persecution was having on Mark, who became profoundly depressed.

In 1977, 22-year-old Mark was doing odd jobs around the Little Egypt area and was working on his fatherís farm. Marian decided over the Easter holiday that year that the time had come for Mark to return to St. Louis where he could get help. Mark invited his mother and two brothers, Sean and Kevin, to come to Little Egypt for the Easter holiday and they agreed.

On April 9, 1977, Mark failed to show up at the Cavaness house, and Marian, 15-year-old Sean and 19-year-old Kevin headed out to the trailer where Mark was living on his fatherís farm to see if he was there. They found his Jeep pickup truck and as Sean was walking up to it he discovered the decaying corpse of his older brother lying in the tall grass near the truck.

Despite the fact that Mark had only been dead a little over 12 hours, there was little left of his body. The investigators surmised that scavenger animals had quickly attacked the dead body.

The flesh of his skull was completely gone, with just one eyeball and his hair remaining. His upper torso had been skeletonized so that only a few fragments of skin remained. His lower body, encased in blue jeans and heavy work boots was intact. Sean could only identify Mark by his unique belt buckle. The medical examiner made a positive identification through dental records.

Although at the time investigators suspected John Cavaness had something to do with his sonís death, the crime scene was somewhat contaminated by the distraught family members and the rapid attack by animals. Robbery was ruled out because his wallet was found near his body.

Mark was lying on his back about 10 to 12 feet from the truck, with his feet pointing toward the vehicle. Criminalists could not determine where Mark had been standing because of the likely movement of his body by animals.

His shirt was found some distance away from his body and it was clear that he had been wearing it when he was shot by a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with buckshot because there was a 2.5- by 4-inch hole surrounded by blood between the left breast pocket and the centerline of buttons.

The truck was a bloody mess. There was blood on the driverís seat, floorboard, and driverís side door panel. Also on the floorboard was the shotgun, with the end of the barrel extending out of a case.

A coat hanger with a camouflage hunting vest partly hanging off was attached to the trigger of the loaded shotgun by the hook end. The bottom of the vest had been shut in the passenger side door.

Police surmised that Mark took a point-blank blast to the chest when he reached for the gun and pulled it toward him by the barrel. It appeared that the coat hanger pulled the trigger.

Kevin Cavaness refused to believe the coronerís ruling of accidental death, strenuously arguing that his brother was much too experienced with guns to ever grab one by the barrel.

The chief investigator agreed with Kevinís assessment based on the fact that if the shotgun, a Browning automatic, would not have ejected the shell onto the floorboard of the truck if it had, in fact, been fired while still in the gun case. Instead, the shell would have remained in the case.

Equally disturbing to investigators was the $40,000 life insurance policy Dale Cavaness took out on his son, naming him as beneficiary. It seemed odd at the time that a man with such a low regard for his child would want to insure him.

However, the lack of physical evidence proved overwhelming and the accidental death ruling stood up.

At least for a few years. It wasnít until Dr. Dale tried an even more audacious scheme that investigators reopened the death investigation.

At the time Mark was discovered by his family he was working for his father, John Dale Cavaness, who was known affectionately by his patients as Dr. Dale. However, Dr. Cavaness was living a double life and treating his family with none of the care and affection he showed his patients.

Cavaness beat his wife until she finally left him and the doctor constantly belittled his sons, calling Mark, who was traumatized by his parentsí divorce and his fatherís conduct, a ďno-good pot smoker.Ē

Cavaness once told his ex-wife after a fight with his son, Sean, that ďI donít care if I go to jail. Iíll kill him.Ē

Just months before Mark died, his father took out a $40,000 life insurance policy on him, naming himself as beneficiary.

Cavaness abused alcohol and drugs, and his son, Kevin, would later tell a court that after he learned that his father was involved in a drug deal, Cavaness threatened ďif you tell anyone, Iíll kill you.Ē

In 1980, Dr. Cavaness pleaded guilty to deceptive medical practice. It was his second criminal conviction. In 1971, he was sentenced to two yearsí probation for a fatal traffic accident in which two persons died. Cavaness was found guilty of driving while intoxicated.

Four years after his medical fraud conviction, Cavaness convinced his sons Sean and Kevin to participate in an insurance investment that would benefit them in the future because of the borrowing power the policies would accumulate. Dr. Dale told the young men that he would pay the $1,000 monthly premiums and use this as a tax deduction to offset his income.

However, by this time, his own drug abuse and bad business deals had taken its toll. He was consistently filing tax returns that indicated he was sinking further and further into debt and owed close to half a million dollars ó making any deductions against income unnecessary.

As a teen, Sean Cavaness had been the first person to find his older brotherís corpse, which had been badly ravished by scavenger animals. He never fully recovered from the experience, and like Mark, sought to appease his pain through alcohol and drugs. Unlike Mark, however, Sean sought help through a 12-step program and inpatient treatment. According to family and friends, Sean actively sought his fatherís love and approval, and was constantly rebuffed.

In December 1984, Seanís dead body was found by a farmer in a remote area near St. Louis that had once been the town of Times Beach. That ill-fated community had been ordered abandoned by the Environmental Protection Agency earlier in the decade when it was found to be heavily contaminated by high levels of cancer-causing dioxin. The area had subsequently been cleaned up as a Superfund site and was reopened as a park and bird sanctuary.

Sean had been shot twice in the back of the head by a .357 Magnum. His body, lying on its back with both arms resting parallel to his torso, was found by a farmer beside what was once a gate. Sean was dressed, and a search of the body found no means of identification.

Police were able to indentify Sean by fingerprints on file thanks to a misdemeanor traffic stop in 1983.

There were two entrance wounds to the back of his head and ďone apparent exit wound under the left eye.Ē The fact that his body was still somewhat warm, indicated that his death had been relatively recent ó within three hours of discovery.

The shot to the back of Seanís head just right of the centerline of his skull had traveled upward, exiting just below his left eye. It had been fired from a distance of one inch or less, but was not a contact wound because of the gunpowder stippling to the flesh. The blood spatter analysis indicated that Sean had been standing with his left arm slightly raised when the shot was fired.

Forensic evidence indicated that the second shot had been fired from a distance of 12 to 18 inches as Sean lay on the ground. It entered near the right ear and was lodged in his brain.

Either shot would have caused death.

The autopsy revealed that Sean had consumed more than a dozen alcoholic drinks before he died.

The staging at the crime scene, particularly the execution-style wound pattern along with the absence of a wallet, at first appeared to indicate that drug dealers or robbers were to blame.

ďThese circumstances imply a a removed killer with no personal attachments to the victim and motivated by financial gain to pull the trigger,Ē the analysis of the crime in the Crime Classification Manual states.

The Manual, by some of Americaís foremost criminalists and criminologists, is the result of a decade-long project by the FBIís National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. By breaking down the various types of homicide into their component parts, the Manual outlines a standard system for investigating and classifying violent crimes, and is designed to assist law enforcement with insight into investigative techniques.

One of the types of homicides included in the book is Insurance/Inheritance-Related Death: Individual Profit Murder, of which the murder of Sean Cavaness is almost a direct tissue match.

Unlike Markís death where the was not sufficient evidence to charge the policeís prime suspect, Dr. Dale, authorities quickly focused on Seanís father and found many clues indicating his involvement.

Dr. Daleís first statement to police was quickly dispelled by simple police work. He claimed that he had not seen Sean for several weeks. Police, however, had eyewitnesses who placed him at Seanís apartment the evening before Sean died. Because he had been observed ďcruisingĒ the area of the apartment, a couple who also lived in the apartment building made a note of his license plate on a paper bag. However, when they observed Sean and Dr. Dale embracing outside the apartment, they recognized him as Seanís father and forgot about the event until contacted by authorities.

At 3 a.m. the couple heard two distinct sets of footsteps leaving the apartment.

On the evening of December 14, hours after Seanís death, Cavaness attended a Christmas party attended by many people in his community. Questioned by police, friends who saw him at the party said he was acting perfectly normal, laughing and drinking.

This behavior was inconsistent for a man who would later tell police of a tragic tale of witnessing Seanís suicide. It was not unusual for a cold-blooded killer who had no qualms about murdering two of his own children.

When Cavaness was confronted by the lie about seeing Sean, he changed his story to an unbelievable account that did not fit the forensic evidence from the scene.

He admitted that he and Sean had been drinking and had gone out for a ride, ending up at the park where Seanís body was found. While standing outside the car, Sean asked his father to see his pistol.

Holding the pistol to the back of his head, Sean allegedly said to his father, ďtell Mom Iím sorryĒ and then pulled the trigger. Cavaness claimed this was the shot that was entered by his right ear. The doctor said he knew that a suicide would have destroyed his ex-wife, so he decided to stage a robbery scene. As Sean lay on the ground, Cavaness took the pistol and fired a second bullet into his son. He then took his wallet and watch.

This story did not jibe with the facts. The blood spatter on Seanís body clearly indicated that the shot Cavaness claimed to have been self-inflicted occurred when Sean was on the ground. In addition, experts said, Seanís 0.26 blood-alcohol content would have limited his dexterity to such a degree that he could not have shot himself with the shot that exited below his left eye.

Combined with his behavior at the Christmas party, which hardly fit the expected behavior of a man who had hours earlier witnessed his sonís suicide and covered up the event by shooting his dead or dying child in the head, his financial benefit from Seanís death, and the policeís past suspicions of his involvement in Markís death, Dr. Dale was charged with murder.

To the people of the Little Egypt region who knew only kindly Dr. Dale, his arrest was received with disbelief. They refused to acknowledge that he could have killed two of his children, and set up a fund to aid in his defense. When he went on trial, the courtroom was filled with his supporters.

Their efforts, however, were for naught. Cavaness was convicted by a Missouri jury of first-degree murder and given a death sentence in January 1986.

In November of that year, his conscience must have finally gotten the better of him. Dr. John Dale Cavaness hanged himself in his death row cell by fashioning an electrical cord into a noose. He was 61 years old.


The case was chronicled in the book by Darcy O'Brien, "Murder in Little Egypt".



MO: Shot his own sons for life insurance.

DISPOSITION: Condemned, 1985; suicide in prison, Nov. 17, 1986.



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