The daughter of a Lomita chef whose wife disappeared nearly three years ago testified during his murder trial Wednesday that he once joked about what he would do to get rid of a body.
"He is a chef," Jacqueline Viens said. "He would joke about cooking a body."
Whether that's what happened to Dawn Viens wasn't immediately made clear as her husband's trial opened in Superior Court in downtown Los Angeles. But Deputy District Attorney Deborah Brazil told jurors in her opening statement that David Viens confessed to detectives that he became violent with his wife, taped her mouth shut, bound her arms and legs, and dumped her body inside a trash bag in a container behind his restaurant.
Viens, 49, made that statement as he lay in a hospital bed in 2011, days after jumping off a cliff while authorities pursued him.
"(Her body) will never be found," the restaurateur told homicide detectives, Brazil said.
What detectives learned about how Viens allegedly disposed of his wife's body was not revealed by Brazil. Those details are expected to come as the trial unfolds over the next few weeks and could play a key role in whether jurors believe Viens killed his wife accidentally - as he told his daughter and girlfriend - or if something far more sinister happened.
Viens, the former owner of Thyme Contemporary Cafe on Narbonne Avenue, sat listening in his wheelchair as Brazil described how his relationship with his wife, Dawn, began when she worked for him as a waitress in a previous restaurant, and blossomed into a 17-year marriage.
But, Brazil told jurors, the marriage turned abusive at the end. Neighbor Donna Morton testified Wednesday that she heard the couple arguing inside their Oak Street apartment hours before Dawn Viens disappeared on Oct. 18, 2009.
"Their voices were raised," Morton said. "It was loud and there was some throwing of things around."
Morton said Dawn Viens slammed the front door and took off. Morton never saw her again. She asked David Viens "Where is Dawn?" and was told they had split up. Viens told her his wife was upset that he worked 70 to 80 hours a week in the restaurant. She wanted to move to the mountains.
For 10 months, as restaurant customers, friends and police also asked the question, "Where is Dawn?" Viens responded with a variety of answers: She had gone to the mountains, she was in drug rehabilitation, she had left him, Brazil said.
He even told a sheriff's deputy that he had received a text message from her stating: "I'm OK. I'm with a friend," Brazil said.
Sheriff's Detective John Dondis testified that Viens told him in November 2009 that his wife took off on Oct. 27, 2009, following an argument a day earlier.
"He said she was upset with him for working so hard," said Dondis, who visited Viens to investigate the initial missing person report filed by Dawn Viens' sister. Viens said he came home from work that day and she was gone, having taken some personal belongings but not her Jeep.
"He said she had left him numerous times," Dondis said. "He believed she was out with her drug friends and would return when she was done. ... He was very confident and straightforward with me."
But Dawn Viens' friends, her sister and - finally - homicide detectives believed she was not OK.
Dawn Viens had missed doctors' appointments for a friend with cancer. She failed to pick up money she had stashed with a neighboring business owner in Lomita.
Missing persons detectives checked through state and federal records, but found nothing to indicate she was alive. They interviewed numerous friends and family members.
No one had seen her, Brazil said.
Investigators transferred the case to the homicide division and, until Feb. 22, 2011, the question "Where is Dawn?' remained unanswered.
That day, Viens' daughter finally told detectives what she knew. In court Wednesday, Jacqueline Viens described how shortly after drinking with her father one night on the way home from the restaurant, where she was helping out after Dawn vanished, her father told her he had killed Dawn, but that it was an accident.
The daughter, who had come to Lomita to help her father in the cafe, said her father was tired one night and took a sleeping pill to get some rest. But Dawn kept badgering him, so he tried to lock her in a bedroom, blocking the door with a dresser.
When that didn't work, "He tied her up so she would leave him alone," the daughter said. David Viens told her he covered his wife's mouth with duct tape and tied her to a chair. In the morning, he awakened to find her dead. The daughter said she had vomited during the night and suffocated.
Her father then told her that Dawn Viens' body would never be found.
"I didn't know what to think," the daughter said. In the days that followed, her father asked her to send a text from her stepmother's phone. "I'm OK," the text read. "I'm in Florida and I have to start over."
The daughter said she sent the text knowing Dawn Viens was dead.
"You were trying to protect your dad, weren't you?" Brazil asked her. "Yes," she said.
Jacqueline Viens returned to her home in South Carolina, telling no one except her sister what she had been told.
Detectives confronted her Feb. 22, 2010. She told them what she knew. They asked the daughter to call Viens that day and tell him she had talked to them.
"Jacqueline Veins, a 22-year-old girl, finally revealed the secret of what happened to Dawn," Brazil said.
"She said, `Dad, I told the police. They are going to come after you. I told them everything."'
That same day, a Daily Breeze reporter told Viens the newspaper planned to report that detectives had found blood in his house and that he was a suspect in his wife's death.
Brazil said Viens awakened early the next morning, went out to purchase the newspaper to look for the article, and brought it home to read. He got into his sport utility vehicle with his girlfriend and drove to the cliff at Inspiration Point, telling her he needed to talk to her about something.
Under surveillance by a deputy, the trip took a dark turn.
"The defendant jumped head first 80 feet over a cliff in Rancho Palos Verdes," Brazil told the jury.
"This is why he sits before you in a wheelchair, due to the injuries he sustained when he jumped off that cliff."
Brazil said other evidence to be presented at trial - including Viens' statement to a friend that "I'm going to kill the bitch" because he believed she was stealing money from the restaurant, will prove he is guilty of first-degree murder, she said.
"Dawn's death was no accident," Brazil said.
Viens' attorney, Fred McCurry, declined to give an opening statement.
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