In a Chilling Case, a Doctor Stands Trial After His Son's Shooting

updated 07/15/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/15/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On a chill morning last December police found a warm corpse lying between the carved stone gateposts of a country estate outside St. Louis. By nightfall officials had identified the victim as Sean Cavaness, 22, an unemployed landscape worker. They had no murder weapon, however, no motive and no strong clues as to who might have fired two shots into the head of a youth who, according to his friends, had had no enemies. In the small town of Eldorado, Ill. (pop. 5,200), people grieved for the boy's father, Dr. J. Dale Cavaness, 59, a beloved family practitioner who was also chief surgeon at Pearce Hospital. It was especially tragic, the town agreed, because Sean was the second of the doctor's four sons to die violently. Five days later the police made an arrest that caused as much consternation as the crime itself. They charged Dr. Cavaness with the first-degree murder of his son.

Friends and patients found it impossible to believe that the doctor they knew and trusted as a selfless humanitarian was capable of so brutal an act. They quickly rallied around and raised about $36,000 to help pay for the physician's defense. His trial is scheduled to begin in St. Louis County Circuit Court in Clayton, Mo. this week. "He's been my doctor and friend for 31 years," says Patsy Edwards, "and there's no way I'll believe that man did it." Her husband, George, owner of a men's clothing store, says, "Why would anyone stay up all hours of the night to save people and then go out and shoot his son?" Prosecutor Steven Goldman insists Cavaness, hoping to collect on a $100,000 insurance policy on Sean's life, did just that. (An agent had persuaded him to take out the policy 10 months earlier.) "To kill your own son for money is a very cold-blooded act," says Goldman. Defense Attorney Arthur Margulis insists, "The charge can be refuted through professional testimony."

Suspicion fell on Cavaness when he made contradictory statements. At first he told police that he had not seen Sean for several weeks, but neighbors had noted the license plate of a car seen outside Sean's apartment the night of his death and identified Cavaness as the driver. The physician was arrested the day after Sean's memorial service as he left the funeral home with some flowers.

Awaiting trial in St. Louis County Jail, Cavaness appeared, in shackles, to tell what he claimed was the truth about the bizarre events leading up to Sean's death. Cavaness said he was worried because Sean had dropped out of an industrial training course. On the night of December 13 Cavaness drove to Sean's St. Louis apartment. The two of them then set off to talk and drink in a couple of bars. Sean shared his father's interest in guns and agreed to go with him in the morning to a gunsmith's where, says Cavaness, he planned to trade a pistol. They got lost on back roads and as dawn broke stopped outside the ornate gateway. Cavaness says he was putting things in the trunk of the car when he heard a pistol shot and yelled at Sean to stop firing. "I heard Sean say 'Tell Mom that I love her, and I'm sorry.' I heard another shot and looked up to see Sean crumpling." His eyes filling with tears, Cavaness added, "Once I realized he was dead I had to analyze what I would do next." Cavaness says he decided to cover up Sean's suicide to spare the family. "In order to make it look more like murder, I fired the second shot."

When police broke the news of his brother's death to Kevin Cavaness, 28, a manufacturing engineer, he replied immediately that Sean was the second of his brothers to die in a shooting incident. In 1977 Mark Cavaness, then 22, was found dead, with a shotgun close by, on a catfish farm owned by his father. The case is still unsolved. Says Dr. Cavaness, "I prefer to think it was an accident." Prosecutor Goldman says the doctor collected on an insurance policy he had purchased for Mark, and the death is again under investigation. Kevin has always believed that Mark was murdered. "Mark was set up to look like an accident," he says, "but it was sloppy. I want to find my brother's killer."

In Eldorado, where "Doc" Cavaness was born and has practiced medicine for the last 30 years, nearly everyone wants to think well of him. Still, townsfolk are uneasy about the strange turbulence that has surrounded Cavaness and his family for many years. After divorcing his first wife, Cavaness married nurse Marian Newberry in 1952 and had four sons by her. The marriage went sour, finally breaking up in 1977, with some of the problems centered on discipline. "I'd have to come home and be the enforcer," Cavaness recalls. "I think they gradually got to dread that." Just so.

"He was a tough disciplinarian," says Kevin. "The people who're speaking out for him now know him the least as a person. I was reared in his shadow and I know."

After the separation, the four boys lived in St. Louis with their mother, visiting Eldorado where Cavaness ran various farms as a sideline. They watched, perplexed, as troubles enveloped their father. Late in 1972 he was convicted of reckless homicide and driving while intoxicated after his pickup killed a young father and his 10-month-old daughter. In 1980 he was again fined and put on probation for claiming fraudulent Medicaid payments. His long history of successful insurance claims began in 1971 with a $100,000 payment for the loss through fire of his house and a valuable gun collection. In 1983 he collected $86,000 after another of his properties caught fire. There were other claims until finally his alarmed insurance agent, an admirer of the physician's medical skills, could no longer get companies to write policies for him.

Cavaness, in the meantime, has kept the affection and loyalty of his patients. They think of him as a caring doctor making house calls anywhere, anytime, and treating some needy folks without ever presenting a bill. The most his champions will allow is that he has been a poor manager of his funds; according to some locals, he's been chronically in financial trouble. "Cavaness was always strapped for money," says banker Dale Sullivan, "but he would not have done anything for money, I am convinced of that."

Kevin and Patrick, 18, the survivors from Dale Cavaness' quartet of sons, were in a grim state of mind as their father's trial date neared. "Sean idolized his father," Kevin said. "Sean did nothing to deserve such a punishment...I'd rather someone else be sitting in jail, but reality sneaks up on you. My father sealed his own destiny."

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