January 28, 2018

The Ewell Family Murders

Glee, Tiffany and Dale Ewell

Sunday, April 19, 1992 was a mild, partly sunny day in Sunnyside, California, a perfect Easter Sunday afternoon.  Sunnyside, just over five miles from bustling Fresno - - the most populated city in the Central Valley and fifth largest in the state  - - was a small bedroom community in the San Joaquin Valley, comprised mostly of Caucasians.

Glee and Dale
Dale Ewell had been born in Ohio during the Depression, a hard worker who knew the value of a dollar.  Perhaps his upbringing in a family that endured the Depression fueled his drive and fire but Dale became a successful and wealthy businessman, following a stint in the Air Force.  He was president and owner of Western Piper Sales, Inc., a company that sold small aircraft.  He used some of the profits from Western Piper to invest in several farms, further bulking up his financial portfolio. He had married the former Glee Mitchell and the two became parents to Tiffany in 1967 and Dana in 1971.  His success allowed the Ewells a comfortable family home in Sunnyside, a beach house in Pajaro Dunes, luxury vehicles and designer clothing.

Dale, his wife Glee and their daughter Tiffany had spent that Easter weekend at the beach house.  Glee and Tiffany had returned directly to Sunnyside by car, while Dale chose to fly his private plane to his hangar and then pick up his car and head home. 

Glee and Tiffany had no way of knowing that someone waited for them, as they concluded their two and a half hour journey and entered the home. They were ambushed almost immediately, shot as they came through the door.  Tiffany, a 24 year old Fresno State graduate student, died first, shot in the head.  Glee, 57, a former teacher and very well liked civic activist, was shot four times. 

Thirty minutes later, as Dale pulled into the drive, he had very little time left to live.  The killer of his wife and daughter had stayed in the house, waiting for the final target.  Dale, 59, was shot once, as he opened the door from the garage into the home, before he knew what had happened to his family.

Two days later, Dana Ewell, Dale and Glee's son and youngest child at 21, contacted family friends in Sunnyside, telling them he had been unable to reach his parents.  Dana lived in the house with his parents but had spent the Easter weekend with his girlfriend, Monica Zent and her father, John, 200 miles away in San Francisco.  John Zent was an FBI agent.

Also on Tuesday, April 21, 1992, the Ewells' housekeeper arrived for work. When she entered the kitchen, she found Tiffany lying in a pool of blood, face down and with her hands beneath her. The stricken housekeeper ran to a neighbor's home and police were called.

Detectives investigating the crime scene found a very organized and planned execution. The killer's aim had been remarkable, only missing his or her mark one time, and had picked up the spent bullet casings.  A box of 9 mm shells, purchased by Dale, was discovered in the home and later determined to be used in the murders.  While the home appeared to be ransacked, nothing of value was taken.  No windows were broken, no doors were forced and the alarm, normally set, was off. The scene appeared to be staged in order to look as though a burglary had been in progress when the Ewells returned.

The victims and their backgrounds were thoroughly investigated, to see if something in their pasts had led to their homicides.  In the 1970s, Dale had sold airplanes for a California man later convicted for drug smuggling.  Dale had also been involved in a bad real estate deal with his brother, Ben, which had threatened to cost investors millions.  Both these incidences were later ruled out as having anything to do with the murders.

As the sole survivor of the Ewell family, and beneficiary to the estate, Dana became a suspect. Despite  his rock solid alibi, with an FBI agent, no less, police had a hinky feeling about him. 

He did little to calm their intuition.  Although he appeared upset about the murders, and offered a reward for information on the crimes, his grief didn't seem right.  He seemed far more concerned about the reading of his parents' wills, and claiming his inheritance, than his family's tragic end.  He invited a friend to "tour" the house on East Park Circle, with bloodstains and spatter still visible. He reportedly told the friend that police "will never solve this case. They are dummies." 

To throw gasoline onto the growing fire, Dale's brothers contacted authorities to point fingers at their nephew. They claimed that upon the reading of the wills, Dana had erupted in anger when finding out that trust provisions would keep him from having full access of the $8 million estate until he was in his thirties.  He had gone so far, they claimed, as to have punched the desk and shouted "How could he (Dale) have done this to me?"  

The Ewell brothers, before the funerals for Dale, Glee and Tiffany, had made efforts to block Dana's attempts to collect on what he considered his due.  However, Dana would receive around $300,000 in proceeds from an insurance policy that was not subject to the trust provisions or mistakenly overlooked.   

Detectives began to dig around Dana Ewell.  They found that from the time Dana was very young, he had a habit of fabricating stories.  It ran the gamut from where he was born to parental abuse. By the time he was a teenager, his lies had severely strained his relationship with his parents, most especially his father.  Dale had very little while growing up and had given generously to his children but it was never enough for Dana, who possessed a galling sense of entitlement.

When he left home for the University of Santa Clara, he did so in a BMW and fancy designer clothes. He attended classes in a suit and carrying a briefcase.  He told his classmates that he had been a stockbroker at eighteen and currently owned a company that grossed nearly $3 million per year.  Many saw his stories as bragging; others saw Dana as an overly ambitious young man.

One friend who believed Dana's tall tales was Joel Radovcich.  Joel, introverted, shy and very nearly the polar opposite of the outgoing and handsome Dana, was fascinated by his college buddy's ease with which he picked up girls and the wealthy lifestyle he enjoyed.  Unfortunately for Joel, and especially Dale, Glee, and Tiffany, he was a drug addict that obsessed over video games, guns and explosives.  His friendship with Dana gave him entry into parties and introduction to girls.

Not long after the murders, Joel dropped out of school.  Only weeks after his family had been slaughtered in the home, Dana and Joel were residing in the house. Additionally, they were making unusual cash purchases, like helicopter piloting lessons, despite Joel having no obvious source of income.

Both Dana and Joel were put under surveillance and it was noted they communicated by way of complex pagers and pay telephones.  Authorities had Dana's pager cloned and wiretapped his landline. In May 1993, Joel was overheard by an officer speaking on a payphone, saying "They don't have evidence. They will try to catch you in a lie."  Joel's statements were recorded by the officer. Another time, he was observed saying "Just play the game."

Dana continued living it up, buying his girlfriend a new car and paying her law school tuition.  After going through the insurance payout, he bilked his sick grandmother's account out of $400,000, leaving her a measly $2,000 to pay for her nursing home care.  Dana Ewell, ever the selfish prick.

In 1994 detectives turned their attention to the forensic analysis, which determined the murder weapon to be a specialty 9 mm assault rifle manufactured in Colorado.  Company records showed that one such rifle had been purchased by an Ernest "Jack" Ponce shortly before April of 1992.  Jack just so happened to be a high school friend of Joel Radovcich.  When questioned, Jack at first denied buying the gun and then tried to say he purchased it for himself as a birthday gift that Joel had never seen nor known about and furthermore, the gun had been stolen.

The noose was beginning to tighten around Dana Ewell and Joel Radovcich.

Detectives did their best to rattle Dana's cage when they visited him in his dorm room at USC and informed him they believed Joel Radovcich had murdered his family.  Dana said nothing but his face drained of color. Once the detectives left, and not knowing he was being watched, he and his girlfriend Monica, who was there that day, rushed to a phone and called Radovcich.

Dana under arrest
On March 2, 1995, the police were ready to move and arrested Dana and Joel.  Along for the ride were Peter Radovcich, Joel's brother and Jack Ponce.

Peter would make a deal with authorities in exchange for immunity and testify at trial against his brother and Dana.  He would tell cops that he had been the one to make the homemade silencer and weld it to the murder weapon, as well as dispose of the gun barrel, the tennis shoes Joel had worn during the commission of the murders and a stash of gun enthusiast magazines.  He did this in conjunction with Jack Ponce.

Joel under arrest
Jack, once arrested, told a very different tale about the gun in question. He admitted to buying it for Joel but denied knowing that it was going to be used for murder.  He also backed up Peter's statement that the two of them had disposed of evidence.  He too was given immunity in exchange for his testimony at trial.

Based on the statements of Peter and Jack, the barrel of the murder gun was unearthed in a dirt field in Reseda.

No deals were obviously forthcoming for Dana and Joel, who were both charged with three counts of first degree murder and special circumstances, making them eligible for the death penalty.

Dana on trial
As the wheels of justice move painfully slow, the trial did not start until late 1997.  The presiding judge did not allow television cameras into the courtroom but did allow a local radio station to broadcast the proceedings.  Dana and Joel, who had been close enough at one point to travel to Mexico together, take joint flying lessons and reside in the home that Dale, Glee and Tiffany had been shot to death in, had separate attorneys and took separate stances during the trial.  Prosecutors felt that Dana was motivated by greed and had promised Joel a share in the wealth. Dana's attorney argued that his client was innocent and that Joel and Jack had planned and executed the murders themselves.  Joel's attorney felt the evidence was overwhelming and wanted to save his client from the death penalty.

Joel on trial
Jack Ponce testified that not only had he purchased the murder weapon for Joel, and helped to dispose of it, but that Joel described what happened that April day in 1992.

Joel, acting as the trigger man for Dana, who did not want to wait for his inheritance nor share it with his sister, entered the Ewell home with instructions from Dana.  Having previously shaved his entire body, Joel waited for twelve hours, sitting on a plastic sheet, so as not to leave so much as an eyelash behind.  Tiffany had been the first to die.  She walked by Joel, unaware, and he shot her in the back of the head. She never saw him.  Glee, however, had. She had been struck by a bullet and, bleeding, ran for the office to escape.  He caught  up with her and pumped more bullets into her, straddling her. She had looked him in the eye, recognizing him as a friend Dana had brought home a month earlier. After killing Glee, he had changed magazines in the gun and put fresh gloves on his hands, waiting for Dale.

During Jack's testimony, and describing Dale's murder from Joel's point of view, he slipped up and stated "and I saw the eye."   The jury would find his testimony less than credible and believe him to be far greater involved than he had admitted but his immunity deal prevented him from being charged in any of the deaths.

On May 27, 1998, eight months after the start of the trial, the jury, not surprisingly, found Dana Ewell and Joel Radovcich guilty on all counts.  The jurors were unable to come to agreement on the sentencing however.  Joel was spared from death by two votes; Dana by only one. Given the mercy Dana's family was not, each was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Dana Ewell, P04759
Dana was sent to Corcoran State Prison, fifty miles south of Fresno, where his fellow inmates included Juan Corona and, until recently, Charles Manson.   His grandmother, the one he stole from and for whom Glee was named after, died in 1999.   Some three years after being convicted, Dana claimed to have found God and Christianity.  He is currently listed through an online prison pen pal group, where his profile states, in part: "A finance graduate from Santa Clara University, I was beginning my career in investment banking when some extraordinarily painful events turned my world upside down."  Today, as I write this post, is Dana's forty-seventh birthday.  Rather than being the successful and wealthy entrepreneur he always claimed and aimed to be, he's instead Inmate No. P04759.

Joel Radovcich, P04766
Joel Radovcich was sent to the Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, about two hours south of San Francisco, where he remains today as Inmate No. P04766.  Mule Creek housed or has housed such other infamous inmates as Tex Watson, Robert John Bardo, Lyle Menendez, Herbert Mullin and Suge Knight.  A newer facility, opened in 1987, it is home to nearly 3,100 residents - - well over its designed capacity of 1,700.

Peter Radovcich runs and owns a company in the L.A. area.

Jack Ponce went on to become an attorney and continues to practice today in southern California.

Monica Zent also went on to become an attorney. She practices at her own firm in central California.

Did Dana befriend Joel merely to recruit a hitman?  Could the desire for wealth have motivated Joel to kill the very people who welcomed him into their home a month earlier?  Or did the men share a close relationship that may have been physical, as inferred by more than one detective? 

Was Jack Ponce involved more than ordering the murder weapon and helping to dispose it?  Did Monica Zent know the car and law school tuition bought for her by Dana was done so with blood money?

Ultimately, what went wrong with Dana Ewell?  He was born into a secure and loving family, given every opportunity and luxury.  Did he become this greedy, selfish monster because he never had to work at anything or was this abnormal, dysfunctional and destructive personality there from the start, evidenced by Dana's propensity to brag, exaggerate and lie?  Did his obsession for wealth led to the execution of his family in April of 1992?  Or was it because Dale, having seen an article published in The San Jose Mercury News about Dana being one of America's most successful young entrepreneurs had become so offended at the blatant lies, threatened to cut his son off following his completion of school that summer?

To date, all appeals filed by Dana and Joel have been denied.

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