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L.A. Businessman Claimed Girlfriend Accidentally Drowned — But Evidence Pointed To Murder
Musician Tito Jackson’s ex-wife, Dee Dee Martes Jackson, died after an incident in her boyfriend's pool. What happened?
In the affluent Los Angeles suburb of Ladera Heights, a late night-swim turned into a deadly mystery.
On Aug. 27, 1994, 59-year-old businessman Donald Bohana called 911 at 3 a.m. to report that someone drowned in his pool, according to “Accident, Suicide or Murder,” airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
First responders found that “a female victim was up against a tree,” said Colletta Kirtly, a detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
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Paramedics performed CPR on the victim, who vomited water that smelled of alcohol and was never revived.
Bohana’s slurred speech indicated he “was under the influence,” said Robert Snapper, a former detective with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. “But he was able to give us her name.”
The victim was 39-year-old Delores “Dee Dee” Martes Jackson, the ex-wife of Tito Jackson, an original member of the Jackson 5. Dee Dee and Tito, Michael Jackson’s older brother, had three sons. Dee Dee and Bohana had dated for eight weeks before her death.
Kirtly checked the victim’s body and found scratches on her face as well as bruising on her breasts. The marks could have been caused by rescue efforts, though.
As detectives tried to talk with Bohana, who was incoherent, his ex-wife Sheila arrived. After she helped settle him down, Bohana told officers that he and Dee Dee had had drinks and gone for a dip in the pool.
He claimed that Dee Dee was a good swimmer, capable of doing an “Olympic style turn," but he said he himself was not a strong swimmer, according to “Accident, Suicide or Murder.” He claimed that Dee Dee was swimming alone and began to struggle.
“She was just flailing and it was too violent for me to have jumped in the pool to have saved her,” he said, according to Brian Oxman, the Jackson family lawyer.
Bohana claimed he tried using long-handled pool skimmers but the efforts failed. He jumped in the pool and was finally able to lift her out of the water. He then tried to revive her but failed. That’s when he called 911.
A search of the pool and home backed up Bohana’s story, investigators said. Detectives canvassed the neighborhood, but no witnesses emerged.
However, contradictions did arise. One of Dee Dee’s sons told investigators that his mother wasn’t a good swimmer.
Bohana was a successful Black businessman who’d opened the first Black-owned Denny’s restaurant in Watts. As his ex-wife, Sheila, painted a portrait of a kind man incapable of murder, detectives considered that Dee Dee’s death may have been an accident.
They hoped that the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner’s review would shed light on the case. Circular bruising on either side of Dee Dee’s head were noteworthy but didn’t provide a clear answer to what happened. The autopsy also showed that Dee Dee had three times the legal limit of alcohol in her system and no defensive evidence under her fingernail.
Both points supported the theory of an accidental death. Ultimately, the cause of death was ruled undetermined, according to “Accident, Suicide or Murder.”
The Jacksons brought their concerns about Dee Dee’s death to detectives, and they reiterated that she wasn’t a swimmer.
“If she was afraid of water, why did she have bathing suits at his house?” said Jim Avila, a former investigative journalist with KNBC Los Angeles.
Had her fears of the water changed? Investigators spoke with Dee Dee’s friends who said that she had told them that Donald was teaching her how to swim.
However, another friend shared a comment that Dee Dee had made in which she cryptically said, “I hope they don’t find [me] like they did Nicole Simpson,” who was found murdered outside her Westwood home in June 1994. The remark amplified the possibility of foul play, but there wasn’t evidence to back it up.
Investigators reviewed the whole case, right from the emergency call. They found it striking that Bohana never mentioned Dee Dee’s name during the 911.
“It doesn't sound like someone frantic,” said Kirtly. “It just sounded like someone was walking by and fell in your pool.”
At the same time, the Jackson family used its powerful ties. They hired Oxman to represent them and to push for a second autopsy.
This review showed that Dee Dee had bitten through her tongue and that one of her earrings had been torn off. That suggested a fight had occurred. But the cause of death remained undetermined.
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The Jackson family responded by turning up the heat with a media campaign. “They were everywhere they could be to say that Don Bohana killed Dee Dee,” Avila told producers.
Dee Dee Jackson's case was swept under the carpet, claimed Oxman: “The district attorney did not want to prosecute it.”
There were various factors at play, including the upcoming trial of O.J. Simpson and Bohana’s reputation among the Black community, according to Avila. In addition, between inconclusive medical findings and a lack of witnesses and evidence, “the case was not a slam dunk,” said journalist and author Michael Fleeman.
The Jacksons pushed Oxman to file a $2 million civil suit for wrongful death against Bohana. He discovered that Bohana wasn’t financially secure: Bohana had filed for bankruptcy. Investigators considered that Bohana may have wanted Dee Dee to get money from the famous family, which led to an argument that turned deadly, according to “Accident, Suicide or Murder.”
In 1996, Lori Jones, a member of the family violence unit in the district attorney's office, decided to pursue Dee Dee’s case. There was a huge hurdle: The cause of death was still undetermined.
The district attorney went to the medical examiner with new findings about bruising from swim experts as well as circumstantial evidence collected over the past two years. The cause of death was found to be a homicide caused by blunt force trauma.
Donald Bohana was arrested on March 7, 1997. He pleaded not guilty and hired Harland Braun, the lawyer who had handled the Robert Blake case.
On June 12, 1998, the trial began. The prosecution presented their theory that Bohana beat Dee Dee, who either fell into the pool during the attack or was pushed in by him, according to “Accident, Suicide or Murder.” Because she wouldn’t swim, she couldn’t rescue herself, court documents claimed.
The D.A. also called a forensic pathologist to discredit Bohana’s timeline. Had Dee Dee been in the water as long as Bohana claimed, her skin would have wrinkled due to the washerwoman’s effect, they said.That hadn’t occurred.
Bohana was found guilty of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life. After serving 24 years, he was granted parole in December 2022.
To learn more about the case, watch “Accident, Suicide or Murder,” airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen. You can stream episodes here.
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