Tag Archive for Missouri

Deadly Doctor Dale

It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism.
~Carl Jung Psychology of the Unconscious.

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.
“Dr. Dale, as he was affectionately called, was akin to Mother Teresa to his patients and friends,” according to the summary of his case in the acclaimed FBI Crime Classification Manual. “Cavaness’s family and closest office workers, however, knew he had another, darker side.”
n.b. The CCM, like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), makes for great bathroom reading. For fun, leave it where guests will see it.
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 Cavaness’s 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 father’s personality.
To the doctor, Mark would never amount to anything and was a “no-good pot smoker.” 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 father’s 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 father’s 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 son’s 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 driver’s seat, floorboard, and driver’s 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 coroner’s 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 Kevin’s 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 wasn’t until Dr. Dale tried an even more audacious scheme that investigators reopened the death investigation.When Mark Cavaness, the troubled 22-year-old son of a beloved southern Illinois doctor was found dead from a single shotgun blast to the chest, his death was reluctantly put down as an accident despite its bizarre nature and crime scene clues that failed to reassure his family and investigators.
As a teen, Sean Cavaness had been the first person to find his older brother’s 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 father’s love and approval, and was constantly rebuffed.
In December 1984, Sean’s 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 identify 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 “one apparent exit wound under the left eye.” The fact that his body was still somewhat warm, indicated that his death had been relatively recent — within three hours of discovery.
The shot to the back of Sean’s 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.
“These circumstances imply a a removed killer with no personal attachments to the victim and motivated by financial gain to pull the trigger,” the analysis of the crime in the Crime Classification Manual states.
The Manual, by some of America’s foremost criminalists and criminologists, is the result of a decade-long project by the FBI’s 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 Mark’s death where the was not sufficient evidence to charge the police’s prime suspect, Dr. Dale, authorities quickly focused on Sean’s father and found many clues indicating his involvement.
Dr. Dale’s 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 Sean’s apartment the evening before Sean died. Because he had been observed “cruising” 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 Sean’s 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 Sean’s 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 Sean’s 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 Sean’s 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, “tell Mom I’m sorry” 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 Sean’s body clearly indicated that the shot Cavaness claimed to have been self-inflicted occurred when Sean was on the ground. In addition, experts said, Sean’s 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 son’s suicide and covered up the event by shooting his dead or dying child in the head, his financial benefit from Sean’s death, and the police’s past suspicions of his involvement in Mark’s 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.

Death House Conversions

The story of Dennis Skillicorn prompts us to consider issues like how much credit should we give a cold-blooded killer who repents and demonstrates remorse through good works.
In the 1990s Skillicorn killed three people as he and a couple of friends made their way across the Midwest from Missouri to California in a drug-induced frenzy of violence and mayhem. A decade later Skillicorn, now a death row inmate whose last, best hope to avoid the needle is a sympathetic governor, is the editor of a national bimonthly publication of prisoners’ essays, letters, and poetry, called Compassion. One of the magazine’s notable accomplishments is to raise money for scholarships to help family members of murder victims get through college.
Skillicorn described his spiritual rebirth as his “Road to Damascus conversion” in an article on Compassion in Mother Jones magazine in 2006, and he states upfront in the article that “(it’s) not an attempt to extinguish the pain we’ve created. You really can’t do that. But it gives guys like myself an opportunity to give something back to those people that have been victimized by violent crime.”
The American criminal penal philosophy is punishment tempered with rehabilitation. The system does not have any place or use for redemption, but Skillicorn’s case raises the issue of redemption by asking whether it is possible for a condemned prisoner to work his way off death row through good works. If so, how much atonement will change a death sentence into a life term?
Death penalty opponents don’t have to worry about those questions. No capital punishment is OK in their view. But supporters of executing convicted murderers do have to look at inmates like Skillicorn and wonder if redemption is possible in a justice system that exacts the ultimate penalty for some crimes.
William James, in his book Varieties of Religious Experience, examines conversions like the one Skillicorn says he had. Religious experiences have four things in common, he wrote. The commonality that concerns us today is that a spiritual awakening is transformative. It changes the person who is converted.
What follows is the story of what Dennis Skillicorn was like before his conversion. The old Dennis Skillicorn earned a ticket to the death house. Readers can visit the Mother Jones article above and decide for themselves what the new Dennis Skillicorn has earned.
In late August 1994, Skillicorn, Allen Nicklasson, and Tim DeGraffenreid headed east in a broken-down Chevy Caprice from Kansas City in search of drugs.
After their car broke down and they turned down a state trooper’s offer of help, the trio decided to burglarize a nearby home, stealing guns and money. They used the money to pay for a tow to nearby Kingdom City, Missouri, where a mechanic managed to make their beater driveable.
The trio then drove the car back east toward the site of the robbery when the car stalled again.
Richard Drummond was driving by and saw the stranded group. Being a Good Samaritan, he stopped and offered to take them to use a phone.
The three loaded their swag into the trunk of Drummond’s car, and got in, with DeGraffenreid in the front, and Skillicorn and Nicklasson in the back. Nicklasson pulled a gun on Drummond, forcing him to drive them at gunpoint.
According to Skillicorn’s later statement to the FBI, as Nicklasson held a gun to Drummond’s head, Skillicorn asked Drummond questions ostensibly in order to calm him down, but included in the questioning whether Drummond’s “old lady” would miss him. As Drummond drove east, Skillicorn “got to thinking…if we let this guy off, he’s got this car phone.”
Skillicorn told Drummond that they would have to disable the car phone, and take Drummond “out in the woods somewhere on one of these side roads” and “lose” him. Skillicorn claimed that Nicklasson told him that Nicklasson was going have to “do something to this guy.”
They directed Drummond to a secluded area off an exit on I-70 — the road dubbed “America’s Sewer Pipe” by law enforcement because of the crime and mayhem that it brings as it meanders across the country — just east of Higginsville, Missouri. As Nicklasson prepared to walk Drummond through a field toward a wooded area, Skillicorn demanded Drummond’s wallet.
“We decided we was going to take his car and leave him out in the middle of the woods,” Skillicorn told the FBI. Knowing that Nicklasson carried a loaded .22 caliber pistol, Skillicorn watched as Nicklasson led Drummond into the wooded area.
Nicklasson walked Drummond into the forest, ordered him to kneel, told him to say his prayers, and shot him in the head twice.
Allen Nicklasson“I started to get a warm feeling in the center of my body and it spread as I looked at him kneeling in front of me,” he later confessed. “I put the gun to the top of the back of his head, told him to say a prayer, and bam! bam! I shot him.”
Drummond’s remains were found eight days later.
Nicklasson, Skillicorn and DeGraffenreid continued west on I-70 in Drummond’s car. They stopped at a house in Blue Springs. A woman who had dated DeGraffenried came to the house looking for him. She knocked on the door.
Nicklasson answered, then came outside and said, “Don’t nobody touch my car,” referring to Drummond’s car. With that Nicklasson took a shotgun from the trunk of Drummond’s car. He put the shotgun to the woman’s head and announced that he would kill her.
“He did not kill her, apparently satisfied that he had made his point after he hit her in the face,” the Missouri Supreme Court wrote in Nicklasson’s appeal.
Sometime later, Nicklasson, DeGraffenried and Skillicorn left and went to another friend’s house. There, Nicklasson told her that he had killed someone in the woods and described the murder. After a planning session at a local restaurant, Nicklasson and Skillicorn decided to drive to Arizona. DeGraffenreid stayed behind.
While on the run, in Arizona, Nicklasson shot and killed Joseph Babcock under circumstances similar to the Drummond murder — the man tried to help them retrieve their car from where it was stuck in the sand.
Skillicorn said he told the Babcocks they had been hunting and needed help getting the car unstuck. Joe Babcock agreed to help, drove the men to the car and tried several times to pull the car out with his truck. But the car wouldn’t budge.
“Al said, ‘Well, you know what I’m gonna have to do,’ and I said to give him a chance,” according to Skillicorn. “He (Babcock) said, ‘I really think you’re going to have to get a tow truck. ‘ That was the end of it for Al.”
After killing this Good Samaritan, the two went back to Babcock’s house and Nicklasson killed the his wife, Charlene. Nicklasson and Skillicorn then absconded across California, stealing a purse from a woman in a supermarket and committing armed robbery along the way. They eventually made it to Mexico, where, according to Skillicorn, Nicklasson killed a waitress at a diner.
Skillicorn said he had told Nicklasson that he was afraid of him — with good reason. Nicklasson also said he threatened to kill Skillicorn and would if he felt it was necessary.
“When we got down to Mexico I said: ‘Brother, I’ll tell you the truth,” Skillicorn said. “There’s been nights I had trouble sleeping around you. You told me yourself you enjoy this.’”
Eventually the two returned to the United States, and both were arrested in San Diego after the police picked them up on successive days as hitchhikers.
Following his arrest in San Diego, Nicklasson gave a confession to the FBI. Skillicorn also gave a sworn statement to the FBI admitting his involvement in the Drummond murder. Skillicorn also recounted the Arizona murders, the burglaries and armed robberies committed on the journey, and described how Nicklasson had killed the waitress in Mexico.
Nicklasson and Skillicorn were sentenced to death in Missouri. Skillicorn received a pair of life terms in Arizona. DeGraffenried pleaded guilty for his role in Drummond’s murder.
The question about Skillicorn’s death house conversion is academic now: On May 20, 2009, Dennis Skillicorn, apologizing to the family and friends of his victims, was executed by the State of Missouri.
Nicklasson was executed by the State of Missouri on Dec. 11, 2013.