By Nate Swinton
By the time he turned 31, Dana Ewell was supposed to be president of a successful investment company. The driven, focused finance major from Santa Clara who only wore suits and Ralph Lauren clothing planned to be following in the footsteps of his idols, Donald Trump and Joe Hunt of the Billionaire Boys’ Club.
But when he turned 31 this past January, Ewell was in Corcoran State Prison, a penitentiary located in a flat, dusty expanse of nothingness 50 miles south of his hometown of Fresno, Calif. Instead of hobnobbing with the upper crust of society, he shares a 12-by-15 foot cell with a convicted kidnapper and has Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan as neighbors.
And instead of investing money for wealthy clients, Ewell has a new project on his hands: appealing the 1998 court decision that shackled him with three life sentences for hiring his college friend Joel Radovcich to murder his parents and sister.
Ewell has never admitted to any involvement in the murders and his appeal revolves around the technical aspects of the case. Dennis Riordan, Ewell’s prominent San Francisco defense attorney, argues for a retrial because of alleged search and seizure violations and alleged trial procedure violations.
“This appeal is long, powerful and substantial,” said Riordan. “The trial procedure violations are one’s that very much question the guilt and innocence [of Ewell].
“It’s an appeal that the California Attorney General will be worried about,” he added.
Ewell’s appeal, however, is not the only reason his name has surfaced once again. Since being convicted in 1998 in what many call the Fresno murder trial of the century, Ewell has added a new twist to an already bizarre case.
He says he’s become a devout Christian.
“God has allowed some extraordinary events to occur in my life that completely broke me down and rebuilt me back up in the love of Christ,” Ewell writes on a website maintained by an inmate pen pal program. “I rededicated my life to Christ six years ago and I have never been happier since! I am so completely ‘free on the inside,’ despite being in prison.”
In his first interview since being sent to prison, Ewell declined to comment on his appeal but spoke freely about his newfound Christian faith.
“When everything’s going well, that sometimes keeps us away from God,” he said in one of several phone conversations from Corcoran. “It’s when tragedy happens that we turn to him.
“Here I was facing these incredible charges, and I knew I was going to get through it,” he added. “I am happier and more at peace than I’ve ever been.”
Ewell, who prefers to say that he’s found Christ as opposed to religion, says his passions are fellowship and discipleship. He keeps in touch with many people by mail, sending them Biblical passages and other Christian materials.
Ewell says he’s found ways to express his Christianity while in prison. Though he says his cellmate is an atheist, he meets up with other prisoners for Bible study sessions, which typically involve reading the Bible aloud and saying prayers.
He says he also buys fellow inmates candy bars from the prison canteen and wraps them with Christian sayings.
Ewell says he keeps busy taking correspondence classes from Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa. While not a member of a specific church congregation, he calls himself a Protestant.
Above all else, he says he now has “an intimate relationship with God.”
“He strengthens you and lifts you up, He gives you great joy,” Ewell said. “I don’t really care about my life anymore. I just care what good things I can do.”
But not everyone has faith in Ewell’s conversion.
District Attorney Jim Oppliger, who prosecuted Ewell in the 1997-98 trial, says Ewell is trying to “assist his plans of innocence. To try to thwart his reputation of being a liar, a con and a murderer and to gain some friends, some money and some influence for the future.
“That’s the basis for this Christian con.”
Oppliger also doubts the chances of success for Ewell’s appeal.
“It’s not a frivolous appeal, there are legitimate issues being raised,” he said. “I don’t think it has much of chance. He’ll be appealing for years.”
Fresno resident Rosellen Kershaw, a former close friend of Ewell’s deceased mother, Glee, was shocked when she discovered the Ewell website last January.
“I can’t believe one word of him,” she said. “I just can’t believe that anyone who did what he did has professed to find God.”
On Easter Sunday 1992 Ewell’s parents, Dale and Glee, and 24-year-old sister Tiffany were shot and killed by a gunman who was waiting in their suburban Fresno home. The family had returned from a weekend vacation at Pajaro Dunes, near Monterrey, Calif., where they had met Dana, then a junior at Santa Clara University.
Instead of returning to Fresno, Dana had dinner that night with his girlfriend, Monica Zent, at her parent’s house near Santa Clara. Monica’s father, John, was an FBI agent, providing Dana with an air-tight alibi.
Dale Ewell was a successful businessman who owned a local airplane company. The family’s total net worth was estimated to be just short of $8 million, all of which Dana stood to inherit, according to his parents’ wills.
Fresno police soon became suspicious of Ewell’s behavior following the murders, specifically his lack of grief and his unusual eagerness to acquire his inheritance.
They also noted Ewell kept in close contact with fellow Santa Clara student Joel Radovcich. Police recorded conversations between Ewell and Radovcich in which the two appeared to be discussing the murders.
When detectives linked the murder weapon to Radovcich, they arrested both men in 1995 on three counts of murder. Ewell, they concluded, had hired Radovcich to murder his family in order to inherit their fortune.
Ewell and Radovcich were tried together in Fresno in 1998 and found guilty on all counts. After much jury deliberation, they each were given three life sentences. Radovcich avoided the death penalty by two votes, Ewell by one.
The case made international headlines, and Ewell’s story became the focus of a People magazine feature story, an AandE television show and a “True Crime” series book.
In an appeal filed last winter, Riordan, Ewell’s lawyer, objects to evidence taken from the Ewell home in a warrantless search by Fresno police immediately following the murders. He also questions other evidence admitted in the court, including what he calls “prejudicial and entirely inadmissible character evidence in the form of lay opinions.”
Most significantly, Riordan protests against the admittance of evidence to the deadlocked jury during deliberation. The jury asked to hear the recording of a police taped conversation between Ewell and Radovcich shortly before they found both defendants guilty. Riordan says much of the tape recording had not been admitted into evidence.
The appeal is in its early stages and arguments are expected to be heard in 2003.
Ewell’s conversion shouldn’t be surprising nor should the doubt it has engendered. The convicted murderer has rarely done anything low profile.
Such was the case when Ewell lived in the Casa Italiana dorm during college.
Unlike other eating areas on the Santa Clara campus, the Casa Italiana dining hall has an intimate feel with classical Italian music quietly playing in the background, thin, transparent curtains hanging over the windows and clean white table cloths draped over the three long dining tables. All 59 residents of the dorm, including the resident minister and chef, gather here every weeknight to eat a specially prepared Italian dinner.
It was during one of these dinners that Dana Ewell told Casa Italiana Resident Director Patty Kustron nothing but lies. When Kustron asked Ewell what his plans were for the upcoming Thanksgiving vacation, Ewell said he would be flying to New York City to interview for a summer internship with the New York Stock Exchange. Sensing an attentive audience in Kustron, Ewell proceeded to share with her the lies he’d told several others at Santa Clara: that he ran a million-dollar company when he was in high school and successfully invested money for his clients in the stock market.
Though Kustron didn’t have any reason to doubt the validity of Ewell’s information, she began to question his motives. “It was like ‘Is he for real or is he just trying to impress me?'” she said.
Misrepresentation and manipulation were common themes for Ewell by the time he graduated from Santa Clara in 1993, and the fabricated story about his high school business was the most-oft repeated.
One of Ewell’s finance professors, Hersh Shefrin, remembers hearing about the “goal-oriented, self-assured” student with a “laser beam”-like commitment before he even stepped on campus. Throughout the finance department, Ewell’s supposed business exploits were well known.
“We were all aware of him,” said Shefrin, whose encouragement to Ewell to skip lower-level finance classes was based on the fabricated story.
Classmate Alicia Williams (formerly Lindsay) lived on the top floor of the two-story Graham residence hall and often journeyed downstairs to Ewell’s room to ask for computer help. Williams said when she was assigned to profile a freshman for the school’s yearbook, The Redwood, she first looked to write about Ewell.
“They wanted something about the interesting freshmen,” she said. “Everyone who lived in Graham noticed him. He wore a suit and carried a briefcase – he just stood out.”
What Williams didn’t realize when she wrote “Flying High on Wall Street” was that nearly everything Ewell told her for the story was untrue. His company hadn’t grossed over $2.7 million. He hadn’t traded shares on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. And he wasn’t one of the most successful young entrepreneurs in America.
Both The San Jose Mercury News and the magazine Career World ran similar stories, based on Williams’ article.
And Ewell stretched the truth in other ways as well.
During his freshman year, Ewell obtained a card from the University of California state school system that said he was a faculty member. Instead of buying textbooks, he would write to publishing companies and claim he was an instructor interested in previewing a book for a class. Ewell used the same technique to get books for his fellow dorm mates.
“He’d run his own little entrepreneurial scams like that,” said Chris Turner, who lived two doors down from Ewell their freshmen year.
Philosophy professor Peter Heckman also caught Ewell plagiarizing a paper for a business ethics class. Ewell was suspended from the university’s honors program as a result.
Kustron said there was always a “shadow of doubt” surrounding Ewell when he was at Santa Clara. When several couches and chairs were stolen from the dorm lounge, Kustron said many people in the dorm believed Ewell masterminded the scheme and had Radovcich, the man who would later kill Ewell’s family for him, carry it out.
Kustron and several former students also said there were several rumors about Ewell, questioning whether he used cocaine or some other drug.
“I think that there were at least two sides to Dana,” Kustron said. “There was this public side that was very well-schooled. There was this other side that was driven by other things.”
Jon Greenfield was Ewell’s roommate for fall quarter of their freshmen year. He remembers Ewell returning to their room shortly after a professor assigned a paper topic with tall stacks of books in his arms-books that Ewell would never read. Instead, Greenfield says Ewell only checked out the books so other students wouldn’t have access to them.
“He do all sorts of off-the-wall things just because he thought he was more special,” Greenfield said. “Everything was a competition to him, and he had to be better than anyone else.”
College wasn’t the first time that Ewell resorted to using deception to achieve success.
Speaking for the first time on the matter, one Fresno resident, who asked to remain nameless, said he interviewed Ewell in 1988 as an alumnus of a prominent east coast university Ewell was applying to. In his notes from the interview, he recorded that Ewell was “confident, full of hyperbole and willing to drop a name any time he takes a breath.”
The alumni interviewer says Ewell presented him with a business prospectus for Ewell and Company. In the prospectus, Ewell stated that as president of the company, he guaranteed clients who invested money in the company one per cent interest over current bank standards, a figure difficult for any investment company to provide for clients.
The interviewer also says Ewell bragged in the prospectus that he’d read the biographies of various millionaires, including Donald Trump.
“He’s a braggart and makes no effort to hide it,” he wrote in a scathing review of his two and one-half hour interview with Ewell, whom he described as “Donald Trump and Howard Cosell in a 17-year-old’s body.”
“I couldn’t shut him up,” he wrote. “When he wasn’t telling me how wonderful he is, he was telling me what I wanted to hear.”
Looking back on the interview fourteen years later, the alumnus called Ewell “the ultimate wheeler-dealer.”
Today, he hasn’t changed his opinion of Ewell. “He’s not a normal person,” he said.
Ewell was denied admission at the university.
The First Congregational Church in Fresno sits in a middle-class neighborhood on the north side of town. Teal trim on the circular steeple offsets the dull, reddish-brown color of the rest of the mission-style building. Locals say this liberal church historically attracted many wealthy Fresno residents.
Members of the church say Ewell’s parents occasionally attended services here, but they scarcely saw Ewell himself in attendance.
And while he did attend San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno and Santa Clara University, both Catholic schools, family friends say it was because of their high academic standards and not for any religious reasons.
This lack of religious upbringing combined with his history of lying leads many to conclude that Ewell is up to his old tricks again when he says he’s found God.
“Dana’s the kind of guy who would say something to make you believe something you want to believe,” said Turner, Ewell’s freshmen year neighbor. “And he’s pretty smooth about it.”
Kustron, Ewell’s former Resident Director, wonders, “It could be happening because Dana was a good kid, nice, smart, intelligent. And yet there’s this lingering doubt-does he want to get something from this?”
Even Paul Baukus, a close friend from Santa Clara who still defends Ewell’s innocence, questions the sincerity of the conversion after visiting Ewell’s website.
“I read it and was just like, whatever,” he said. “Whether he turned religious or not, he’s trying to not be in jail and is going to do everything he can to get out. I don’t buy it.”
However, those within the prison system argue that inmate conversions usually are genuine.
Dorsey Nunn is a former San Quentin prisoner who was released on parole after serving 10 years of a life sentence for first-degree murder. He now works as a program director at a prisoner assistance clinic in San Francisco. Nunn says that like Ewell, he became a Christian while serving his sentence, and he said people outside of the prison system often unfairly question the religion of those inside of it.
“While people were questioning my spiritual fitness, I was sitting in my cell, questioning theirs,” he said.
Brian Balkcom, a correctional counselor at Folsom State Prison in Folsom, Calif., said many prisoners turn to religion once they are behind bars.
“Generally speaking, once they’re here for a few years, they tend to be more open, more needful and more inclined toward religion,” he said.
Balkcom said that for the majority of inmates, he doesn’t doubt their religious beliefs. But he added that he is wary when a prisoner “announces” his or her conversion.
The State of California is currently in the process of filing its reply to Ewell’s appeal, and it will likely be several more months before the case is tried. In the meantime, Dana Ewell still resides at Corcoran.
He dismisses those who doubt the sincerity of his faith and believes his actions speak for themselves.
“You don’t judge a person by what they say but by what they do,” he said.
For Ewell, this means staying involved in Bible study, working as a member of the dinner clean-up crew, exercising for two hours a day and participating in a prison vocational program about working in an office environment.
And with his appeal pending, Ewell says he’s made sense of his conviction.
“To be a humble servant of the Lord – that’s why God sent me here,” he said. “Walk by faith, not by sight.”