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Crime News In Ice Cold Blood

'Odd Couple' College Students Murder One's California Family For Inheritance

Dana Ewell And Joel Radovcich thought they had planned a perfect crime — but paranoia and greed ultimately led to their deadly scheme's undoing.

By Ethan Harfenist
Killers Born of Privilege

By April 19, 1992, Juanita Avinita had been working for the Ewell family at their home in Fresno, California, for a few years. But what she discovered that day would ultimately shake her to her core: The bodies of Dale, Glee and Tiffany Ewell scattered about in the ransacked home.

“You don’t expect to find something like that — It’s pretty scary," she said in the latest episode of Oxygen’s true crime anthology series, “In Ice Cold Blood.” 

According to Chris Curtis, a former homicide detective at the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, police were used to getting scenes in the middle of orchards or fields. "This was unusual," he said.

Investigators began trying to piece together the scene, interviewing neighbors, looking for bullet casings and points of entry, trying to determine what, if anything, was stolen. But, as they start putting the puzzle together, they realized that another member of the Ewell family was not present at the scene: A son named Dana.

“We learned from the housekeeper that they had a son that was away at school,” Curtis said in the episode. “Dana lived on campus at the University of Santa Clara.”

At the time of the murders, however, Dana was still at the family’s beach house in Monterrey, California. Authorities got in touch with him immediately, and his fiance’s father, who worked for the FBI, quickly got Dana on a plane to Fresno. Dana was noticeably shaken.

Dana Ewell and Joel Radovcich

But, as investigators started combing the scene, they notice some unusual quirks: There appeared to be no shreds of DNA evidence available at the crime scene, no weapons, no shoe tracks or anything else. However, they did find an old box of 9mm ammunition that Dale had purchased some years ago — with several rounds missing.

Meanwhile, autopsies of Dana's family members came back, and the body of his mother, Glee, turned up some particularly interesting information: The bullets recovered from her body contained remnants of a mysterious yellow-green fuzz.  

While authorities were collecting evidence and looking into each dead family member’s past, Dana returned to Fresno from the Monterrey coast to answer questions. He had an airtight alibi, what with his being over 200 miles away at the time of the murders. But, he was still a person of interest — after all, the Ewells were worth a lot of money, and he would stand to benefit from his family’s demise.

“It is common knowledge that when there is a homicide, investigators are going to look at surviving family members,” Hon. Robert Oliver, a friend of the Ewell family, said in the episode.

Investigators began to ask questions at his university, and soon focused on Dana’s supposed best buddy, Joel Radovcich. The pair were described by some classmates as "the odd couple," given Dana’s put-together, moneyed appearance and Joel’s slacker-skater demeanor.

“We contacted Joel by phone, and one of his first statements after being told that we wanted to talk to him about the investigation we were doing in Fresno was, ‘What are you going to do, arrest me?’” Curtis said in the episode. “That was kind of a red flag.”

Investigators started to get very suspicious of Joel and Dana. After interviewing them separately about their relationship, the pair denied having any kind of close friendship, despite what other classmates had told authorities.

While Joel’s alibi didn’t check out with investigators, Dana’s erratic behavior at the reading of his family’s will raised further suspicions. The estate was worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $7-$8 million, but Dana would not be able to gain access to any of it until he was 30 years old.

“He immediately slammed his hand on the desk and yelled, ‘Why did my father do this to me?’” Curtis said.

Additionally, authorities learned that Dana had moved back into the family home — even though his loved ones' blood was still on the walls. And, less than three weeks after the homicide, it was also discovered that Joel was living with Dana at the house.

At that point, they were the two main suspects in the investigation, and the Fresno Sheriff’s Office was watching the pair’s every move.

Investigators witnessed Dana paying Joel hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars in cash on a regular basis, and noted that the two communicated exclusively through payphones and beepers.

But a 1993 article in the Los Angeles Times that named the two prime suspects spooked them into laying low.

However, the discovery of a few more accomplices heated up a trail that was otherwise going going cold. In one instance, Joel had a package delivered to a friend and instructed him not to open it; the friend ignored those directions, however.

“Joel had ordered some books," Curtis said. "One was on being a hitman, and the other one was how to make a silencer."

At another point, after investigators visited Dana at college and informed him that they had reason to believe Joel was responsible for killing his parents and sister, they witnessed Joel drive late at night to visit a man named Jack Ponce.

Bringing Ponce in for an interview, investigators found out a key piece of information: He owned a 9mm firearm — the same type that was used in the Ewells’ murders — but it was missing. Authorities also found out that a few months prior, Dana had given money to Joel, who had then given it to Jack to buy the weapon.

Things fell into place when authorities bought a replica of the same missing firearm, and then decided to build a silencer as per the instructions in Joel’s hitman book, which called for tennis balls. All of a sudden, the yellow-green fibers found in the bullets in Glee’s body start to make much more sense.

Eventually, Ponce confessed to investigators that he bought the gun for Joel. Then he told them everything he knew: Radovcich shaved his entire body prior to shooting the Ewell family, so as to not leave any traces of DNA evidence, Ponce told investigators. Further, he admitted that he was tasked with getting rid of the different pieces of the gun around Southern California, and eventually led investigators to where he had buried the barrel.

Afterward, Joel Radovcich and Dana Ewell were arrested and charged with three counts each of capital murder.

The trial started on Dec. 16, 1997, and Ponce received immunity in exchange for testifying. In May 1998, the pair were found guilty of the murders of Dale, Glee and Tiffany Ewell in an effort to inherit the family’s $8 million estate.

"Their relationship went far beyond a contract to kill Dana's parents and sister," a law enforcement source said, according to a 1995 article in the Los Angeles Times. "They were very close and they continued to remain close after the murders. . . . It was more than money. It was that closeness that led to their undoing."