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Doctor John Dale Cavaness and Why He Murdered Two Sons

Updated on May 22, 2016
Cairo, Illinois as it is today
Cairo, Illinois as it is today | Source

Dr. John Dale Cavaness was well-liked by his patients around the Little Egypt area in southern Illiniois. He was one of those old-school doctors that was becoming a rarity by the 1970s. Dr. Cavaness still made house calls and often waived his fees for patients who were unable to pay. And his patients never felt rushed, despite Dr. Cavaness’ heavy workload.

But this was only his public, professional persona. His family was subjected to a mean-spirited, drunken man who frequently took out his frustrations by verbally insulting his wife and four boys while he pummeled them with his fists and threw breakables about the house.

Dr. Cavaness was a latter 20th century Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, of sorts. Well liked and respected for years as a hometown doctor, he would make a complete transformation in 1977 to a murderous monster willing to sacrifice his sons for his own personal financial gain.

Early Family Life

Thrown back into bachelorhood following a divorce, in late 1951 Dr. Cavaness, or Dale as everyone called him, met nurse Marian Newberry. After a whirlwind courtship, the couple wed in 1952.

Dr. Cavaness provided well for his family, which rapidly grew to include four sons. The family lived in a luxurious home (see photo above) in the center of Harrisburg, Illinois – the heart of the area known as Little Egypt. And in his free time, Dale enjoyed tending to his livestock at Hickory Handle Farm in Eldorado, often accompanied by his boys.

Dr. John Dale Cavaness
Dr. John Dale Cavaness | Source

It would appear the Cavanesses were a scene fit for a Normal Rockwell painting, but behind closed doors it was a life more reminiscent of a horror flick.

Dale enjoyed drinking. A lot. Unlike the friendly, good old boy persona he presented to patients, his family suffered a cruel, bitter Dale whose slurred tongue rolled off insults and his healing hands became a creator of bruises. And if he wasn’t beating or insulting his wife and boys, then Dale could use be found out and about, bedding an assortment of women – something his wife and even his parents attempted to corral to no avail.

In 1972, Dale’s drinking finally caught up to him when he killed a 10 month-old baby and her father in a three car accident which occurred as a result of his intoxication. Dale was also charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI) and unlawful possession of loaded weapons but, after entering a guilty plea, he managed to skip away with two years probation and $1,000 fine.

This seemed to send the already troubled marriage into a tailspin finale and Marian moved to Saint Louis, Missouri. The Cavaness boys went with their mother.

Life After Divorce

Mark Dale Cavaness struggled with his parents divorce. He began hanging out with undesirables and experimenting with marijuana and alcohol. Eventually Mark dropped out of school altogether and moved back to Illinois with his father. Dale obviously couldn’t see himself in Mark and was outraged at the boys behavior. Dale loudly declared to anyone who would listen, including Mark and Marian, that Mark was a “no good for nothing pot-smoker.” These remarks only caused Mark to sink deeper into a depression and his self-medicating methods increased in frequency.

Mark Cavaness
Mark Cavaness | Source

By 1977, Mark was struggling just to survive. He worked odd jobs around the Little Egypt area and helped out on his father’s farm. Marian was very concerned about her 22 year old son and insisted it was time for him to return to Saint Louis where more resources were available to help Mark with his drug and alcohol issues.

On Easter Sunday 1977, Mark had agreed to visit with his mother and younger brothers when they returned to Illinois. But after their arrival, Mark never showed up as planned so they went in search of him. Their first stop was to Dale’s farm where Mark was living in a trailer on the property. A knock on the door produced no one, so his 15-year-old brother Sean started toward his Jeep parked in the drive to see if it would tell them anything about Mark’s whereabouts.

Before Sean even made it to the vehicle, he found his brother lying dead in the tall grass surrounding the area. Marian and 19-year-old Keven rushed over to Sean and saw only a little of Mark’s flesh remained. Even though it was determined later Mark had been dead somewhere around 12 hours, the animals had scavenged his body.

Investigators were certain Dale Cavaness had a hand in his son’s death but, unfortunately, they couldn’t prove it. Mark’s family members had contaminated the scene and the medical examiner declared it an accidental death – one of a suicidal nature, but that wasn’t in the record.

Marian grieved immensely over the death of her son. Dale collected $40,000 in life insurance.

Downfall of Dr. Dale

Life went on as usual for Dale Cavaness after the death of his son. He continued to treat the ails of his patients while gaining their utmost trust and respect.

Behind closed doors, however, Dale’s alcoholism had led to drug use. Later his son Kevin would tell of witnessing his father’s involvement in a drug deal. Realizing Kevin had knowledge of the transaction, Dale told him, “If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you.”

Kevin didn’t tell.

Everybody's gotta die sometime

— Dr. John Dale Cavaness

For a while, anyway.

In 1980, Dale was convicted of medical fraud but it did little to slow him down. Four years later, he convinced Sean and Kevin, who were too fearful of their father to say no, to participate in an insurance scheme that would serve as a great financial benefit to them in the future because of the borrowing power against the policy amounts. Dale paid the $1,000 monthly premiums for the policies on his sons and used them as income tax deductions.

Sean Cavaness, now an adult, had never gotten over discovering his oldest brother’s body and tried to erase the images with drugs and alcohol. When coupled with his father’s same addictions, the relationship between Dale and Sean was extremely volatile. After one of their many fights, Dale told Marian, “I don’t care if I go to jail. I’ll kill him.”

That statement would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Unlike Mark, Sean sought help for his additions through a 12-step program and came to realize his problems stemmed not only from his brother’s death but from his constant seeking of love and approval from his father and the repeated rebuffs for his efforts.

Sean continued to visit his father in Little Egypt, hoping to gain his father’s acceptance. But Sean’s efforts would be to no avail. He was, in his father’s eyes, only a tool to be used in a pursuit of financial happiness.

On December 14, Sean’s body was discovered by a farmer in a remote area of Saint Louis once known as Times Beach. He had been shot twice in the head. Police were able to identify him from fingerprints taken during a prior misdemeanor arrest.

An autopsy later revealed Sean had consumed at least 12 alcoholic beverages before his death, which was estimated to have occurred within 3 hours of his discovery.

At first, investigators believed Sean may have died as the result of a drug deal gone wrong. It was obvious the killer or killers had staged the scene and his wallet was missing. But when they learned about Mark’s death, detectives turned their attention to Dale.

Dale told investigators during his first interview that he had not seen Sean in several weeks. But they knew this wrong as a couple had witnessed him cruising around the apartment complex where Sean lived on the evening of the young man’s death. His driving around the lot had seemed so suspicious that the coupe had written down his license plate number should a crime be reported in the area. Later, however, they had witnessed Sean and his father hug and quickly forgot about the incident.

Confronted with eyewitness account of his presence on that fateful evening, Dale began singing a different tune. And quite a tune it was.

Dale told investigators he and Sean had gone out drinking and, after a while, ended up in the area where Sean was found. As they stood outside the car, Sean asked his father to see his pistol. Dale thought nothing of it and handed over the weapon.

Dale then claimed Sean put the gun to the back of his head and said “tell Mom I’m sorry” before pulling the trigger. Knowing that a suicide would emotionally destroy his ex-wife, Dale decided to stage the scene to make it look like a robbery. Standing over his son’s body, Dale fired a second shot into his head then took his wallet and watch before leaving.

Former home of Dr. Dale Cavaness
Former home of Dr. Dale Cavaness | Source

These statements were not consistent with the evidence. Forensics had clearly shown the shot Dale claimed was self-inflicted was fired while Sean was on the ground. Additionally, Sean’s level of intoxication would not have allowed him the dexterity necessary to fire the shot.

With this information and knowledge of the insurance policy on Sean’s life which named his father as beneficiary, police arrested Dr. Dale and charged him with first degree murder of his son.

Someone should have told the doc, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…”

So Long, Doc

Dale’s patients back in Little Egypt refused to accept that the kind and gentle doctor had killed his son, much less two as police suspected. They even founded a defense fund for him.

But the people of Saint Louis had little trouble believing Dale had killed Sean and found him guilty of such on November 19, 1986, after less than three hours of deliberation. Dale was then sentenced to death.

Whether it was because his conscience got the best of him, his health problems became too burdensome, or if Dale was so intent on being the master of his own life, no one may never know but, in November 1986 he fashioned a noose out of an electrical cord and hung himself in his cell at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri.

Old timers around Eldorado and Harrisburg still recall the story of Dr. Cavaness and fondly remember him as a gentleman doctor who carried immensely for his patients. Others, however, saw the dark side of the man who so coldly murdered his sons and think Dale did the world a favor when he decided to end his life.

Would Periodic Psychological Evaluations of Physicians Be Effective In Preventing Tragedies Such As This?

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© 2016 Kim Bryan

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