THE MURDERER STRUCK ON EASTER Sunday 1992. When Dale Ewell, a 59-year-old Fresno, Calif., millionaire, his wife, Glee, 57, and their daughter Tiffany, 24, walked into their house after a long weekend at the beach, he was waiting—sitting on a plastic sheet, says the sheriff's department, so there would be no evidence. Glee, a local Republican activist, and Tiffany, a college sophomore, were cut down first by the 9-mm slugs; Dale, who arrived shortly thereafter, was shot last. A maid found the bodies two days later, but there were no shell casings to be seen; the coolly methodical gunman had evidently taken the time to collect them. "The community was absolutely horrified," said Bob Pursell, an employee at Ewell's airplane dealership. "How could this happen to a well-respected family? Nobody knew why"

That didn't stop people from speculating. Dale Ewell was a ferociously competitive businessman who had made millions of dollars selling Piper airplanes—and more than his share of enemies. Pursell, a salesman with Ewell for 12 years, concedes his boss could be highly abrasive. "You could never really do a good job, no matter what you did," he says. "He was mean." Rumors began to circulate that Ewell had been killed by drug dealers, or that his death was a Mob hit.

Yet even the conspiracy buffs were startled when, a month after the funeral, police began zeroing in on a prime suspect: Ewell's son Dana, now 24, the only surviving member of the family and heir to the $8 million estate. Bright and good-looking with an apparently promising future, he also had what seemed to be an airtight alibi—on the night of the killings he was 200 miles away at the Bay Area home of his girlfriend, Monica Zent, 24, and her father, an FBI agent.

Yet there was reason to be suspicious, say acquaintances. For a young man dealing with a devastating loss, Ewell hardly seemed grief-stricken. Instead of viewing his family's bodies at the funeral home, he stayed home playing video games, says his uncle, Dan Ewell. At the funeral itself, Pursell remembers the lanky six-footer amiably "shaking hands...offering food. Basically, he was networking." As a woman approached in the receiving line, Ewell stopped to admire her diamond ring and was heard to ask, "Oh, my God, who got you that rock?"

For the next three years, Fresno detectives conducted a cat-and-mouse investigation of Ewell. They staked out his house and monitored his phone calls. Ewell, meanwhile, offered a $50,000 reward for the capture of the killer and derisively referred to the cops tailing him—Fresno sheriff's detective John Souza, 50, and deputy Chris Curtice, 36—as Mutt and Jeff. Then, last March, the two arrested Ewell on charges of masterminding the murders, which they say were committed by alleged hit man Joel Radovcich, 25, Ewell's former college dormmate, with the help of Ernest Jack Ponce, 27, a friend of Radovcich's from their Catholic high school near Los Angeles, Chaminade College Preparatory. Cops say Dana wanted Dale's lucrative business and the family real estate holdings.

Though the Ewells were rich, they lived simply, much as Dale had during his childhood. He was born in 1932 and until the age of 18, helped milk the cows on his father's dairy farm in. Brighton, Ohio. At Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, he joined the flying club, where he found the first love of his life. "All he could think of was airplanes," says Dan Ewell, 58, one of four surviving siblings. (The others are Betty Whitted, 64, a college administrator in Ohio; Dan's twin, Richard, a computer analyst in San Leandro, Calif., and Ben, 54, a Fresno lawyer.) While still in college, Dale fell in love again, this time with Glee Mitchell, whom he met on a trip to Tucson, where she was studying to be a social studies teacher. By 1961, the couple had married and moved to Fresno, where Dale, answering a want ad, found a job selling planes.

Daughter Tiffany, always shy and reserved, was born in 1967, the year her parents built their ranch-style house in the comfortable neighborhood of Sunnyside. Dana was born in 1971. The Ewells were a tight-knit family, whether at the beach house in Pajaro Dunes, where they spent holidays together, or on yearly trips back to Dale's father's Ohio farm. "It was always amazing to me," says Dan Ewell. "No matter where Dale and Glee would go, their two kids were always there."

But the family was not without problems. When Tiffany was still a baby, she was seriously injured in a car accident and had a steel plate implanted in her head. In 1990, Glee was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a year of chemotherapy to beat it. And Dale, according to his brother, fell into a depression a few months before his death. "He wasn't that jovial person anymore," says Dan, who speculates that Dana's conspicuous consumption put an emotional strain on the family.

Though the older Ewells preferred to live quietly, Dana was obsessed with money, says Dan. In high school, he flaunted the family's wealth by making grand public gestures, like treating everyone in the cafeteria to burgers.

At Santa Clara University, where he majored in commerce, he wore Armani suits and arrived for class in stretch limos or his own gold Mercedes. In 1990, when he was 19, he passed himself off to an unsuspecting reporter from the San Jose Mercury News as a teen mogul who had made millions selling airplanes. It was a bald fabrication, but one built on facts borrowed from his own father's life. That same year, Dr. Peter Heckman, then a visiting professor at Santa Clara, caught Ewell plagiarizing a term paper and gave him an F. "Until then he was the best student in class," says Heckman. "It was a business ethics class. To cheat in that class is really wrong." Another time, Ewell told schoolmates that one of his personal heroes was Joe Hunt, the imprisoned leader of the so-called Billionaire Boys' Club, whose attempt to make a killing in the commodities market led to his involvement in murder.

Before the Ewell murders, Dana's uncle Dan considered the young man's behavior merely eccentric. Afterward, he began to suspect something was seriously wrong. Just one day after the shootings, he says, Dana asked to see his parents' will. When he realized the bulk of the family's estate would not be his until he turned 30, in the year 2001, he seemed upset, says Dan.

Tension arose among the Ewell survivors almost immediately. Dale's brothers suggested buying separate cemetery plots for each family member, but Dana, noting the plots cost $600 each, bought just one to "unify" the deceased. "At this point I'm thinking, 'Maybe there's something more to this,' " says Dan. In the months that followed, Dana bought a $130,000 Piper Turbo Aero IV airplane and reportedly spent $40,000 on Monica Zent for, among other things, a new car. Living off $200,000 in personal savings, Tiffany's $190,845 estate and money from other family accounts, he ran an ad in the local paper to raise more cash, offering to sell his mother's fur coats. "Call Dana Ewell," it read. He was arrested five days before he was due to inherit a $1.5 million share of the family estate.

Prosecutors say they finally have a solid case against Ewell and Joel Radovcich. Suspect Ponce reportedly led detectives Souza and Curtice to a buried piece of the rare AT-9 rifle used in the crime and is expected to testify that Radovcich admitted to the murders. (Ponce was released from jail last March.) After initially telling cops Dana was just an acquaintance, court records show, Radovcich briefly moved into the Ewell house with Dana. Using pay phones and coded pager messages, the two men kept in constant touch after Radovcich moved out. "Just play the game," said Radovcich, who allegedly also told Ewell his beeper number, KILLA—JR, in a call recorded by police. "I think it's going well."

In late September a Fresno judge cleared the way for Ewell and Radovcich to stand trial for murder. Ewell's lawyer is confident he'll walk away a free—and therefore a rich—man. "[He] has maintained his innocence from the beginning," says Peter Jones of the Fresno County public defender's office. "Our position is that [the evidence] does not incriminate him at all." Radovcich has pleaded not guilty.

Before the trial begins, though, Dana Ewell may try to hire a new lawyer. Richard Berman, a high-profile Fresno attorney, is asking as much as $2 million to defend him. But Dana's uncles have mounted a legal battle to keep him from using his father's estate to pay Berman, who is known for defending accused drug dealers and other wealthy clients. The money is unimportant, says Dan Ewell; what counts is justice. "We want Dana to have a fair trial," he says, but "he shouldn't buy his way to freedom."

PATRICK ROGERS
BETTY CORTINA in Fresno

  • Contributors:
  • Betty Cortina.