200 Years of Illinois: The Cavaness Murders

On December 13, 1984, a remarkable murder took place outside of St. Louis. Dale Cavaness, a physician in Eldorado, Illinois, killed his ne’er-do-well son Sean with two gunshots to the head. Sean had struggled for years with alcohol and other problems. At least some of those problems began when Sean found the shotgunned body of his older brother Mark, aged 22, seven years earlier.

The coroner’s jury had ruled Mark’s death accidental or a homicide, but the investigation went nowhere.

Charismatic and popular, Dale Cavaness had thrived as the proverbial success story with a dark side. Everyone knew him in and around Eldorado. A long list of patients swore by his compassion and care. Not that the locals nominated him for sainthood. Dale Cavaness had faced public scandal. He was hit with a reckless homicide rap in 1972 when, while under the influence, he caused a wreck that killed two people, including a ten-month-old child. In 1980, he pled to misdemeanor charges related to insurance fraud. Some people knew he also drank and womanized and punched his way across the Little Egypt region.

Though disappointed in his sons—Dale Cavaness said it often enough, according to reports—he apparently turned to murder for insurance money. He took out policies on his sons and relied on his reputation as a medical man and beloved leading citizen to lend him cover. Indeed, when Dale ended up charged with Sean’s murder, locals collected $37,000 for his defense.

It’s possible Dale tried to kill a third son. The Chicago Tribune story noted that Kevin Cavaness had survived a close call. During a visit, Kevin and his wife stayed in a trailer on Dale’s farm. They locked the door and headed off to bed. A surprise visit by relatives awakened the couple the next morning. Kevin, passing through the kitchen, noticed the gas burners on the oven had been turned on during the night. Kevin told the Tribune:

“I mentioned it to Dad the next day, and he just kinda shrugged it off,” Kevin said. “He didn’t even look up from what he was writing, he just muttered something about how the same thing had happened to an old girlfriend of his once. It was sort of like, ‘join the club.'”

A few months later, the trailer burned to the ground, and Dale collected “a lot” of insurance off of it, Kevin said.

Dale Cavaness took his own life in jail. He died the day after the no-suicide clause on his life insurance policy expired, guaranteeing a payout.