Greg Nichols

Beautician and the Beasts

 

A popular Hollywood aesthetician is arrested for plotting to murder her rival. But is Dawn DaLuise a criminal or a victim?

Greg Nichols

Dawn Daluise.jpg

Edited by Nancy Miller

Photographs by Gregg Segal

First appeared in Los Angeles Magazine

 

The slashed tires were child’s play, a ramp-up, a prelude, to the big show. In January 2014, Dawn DaLuise, a 55-year-old aesthetician with a small but successful facial and waxing studio in West Hollywood, began receiving phone calls. She didn’t recognize the incoming numbers. When she answered, strange men told her they wanted to do things to her. She started getting text messages with photos of men’s genitals.

She traced the calls to several raunchy posts in the men-seeking-women section of Craigslist—advertisements she had not created. Each ad included her name, phone number, and home or business address. One post read, “Mature woman, celebrity facialist, wants no-strings-attached sex.” Another asked men to fulfill their rape fantasies with her. Interested parties were instructed to pound on her apartment door late at night to heighten the realism. Men showed up, at least five of them in response to the rape post. “I would sit in the dark, praying they would go away,” DaLuise says. “I just held my breath.”

The fliers came next, blowing across Santa Monica Boulevard and littering the sidewalk in front of the building where her salon was located. The photoshopped images were grotesque: DaLuise’s bleached-blond feathery hair and beaming face atop a comically large-breasted woman in the throes of intercourse with an anonymous man. “First Time Free!” one flier read. “Sex party 2night,” advertised another in a bold sans serif similar to the typeface used in notices for lost dogs. E-mails with the same disturbing photos went to DaLuise’s clients, her neighbors, even her pastor and congregation. The church secretary offered to pray for her. The originating e-mail address had been created to closely resemble hers, ensuring that people would open the messages. DaLuise tried to do damage control, sending her own e-mails, telling friends she was convinced an enemy had set out to destroy her. “I sounded nuts,” she says now. People kept their distance.

DaLuise lived near the North Hollywood police station and spoke with officers there on five separate occasions. She is petite, but her easy Southern smile and feline eyes project confidence, and she stakes her claim on a room with a chirpy, insistent voice. She called the police at least four times, but only one official report was taken in November 2013. “I got the same answer each time: ‘We have a big case-load; stalking crimes are very hard to prove,’ ” she recalls the officers saying. DaLuise pleaded with them. “I told them I knew who was doing it.” Gabriel Suarez, a rival aesthetician, had recently moved a couple of doors down from her clinic, she explained. She was sure it was him.

DaLuise had endured slashed tires, lewd fliers, and cybermenacing. Then came the stalking. She started receiving texts describing what she was wearing: “You don’t look very good in yellow” and “You look very tired today.” She couldn’t get through a session with a client without someone knocking on her door, looking for sex.

Then a Facebook post appeared in DaLuise’s feed, targeting one of her two daughters. Her youngest was 20 and had recently joined the Air Force. “Amunitions [sic] expert seeks BBD to ride her like a rare Appaloosa pure bred,” the blurb read, with a picture of the young woman pulled from a social media site. An e-mail impersonating her older daughter followed, declaring, “I like to have incest with my mother.”

Terrified and fed up with months of harassment, DaLuise dashed off a text to her friend Eddie Feinstein: “I found someone Whois [sic] going to take Gabriel out. His names [sic] Chris Geile and he’s an ex Detroit lion quarterback… he’s on my fb page.”

She would later tell police she hadn’t meant anything by that message—she had met the former football player on a recent day trip and was just blowing off steam to a confidant. But in early March 2014, a loud knock on the door woke her from a troubled sleep. The North Hollywood police burst into her apartment. A female officer took DaLuise into a bathroom, where she waited while officers searched her home. They found DaLuise’s cell phone plugged into a charger. The lead investigator asked for her password, which she gave him. He scrolled through her messages, located the exchange with Feinstein, and then placed her under arrest.

“For what?” DaLuise demanded. The investigator didn’t immediately tell her the charge, but she learned that Feinstein had revealed something incriminating to the police. She was confused. “But I’m the victim!” she protested.

As the cops led her out of her apartment and through the courtyard of the property, the investigator stopped and faced her. “Let me tell you something,” she remembers him saying. “Eddie Feinstein is your best friend in the world right now. He stopped you from ruining your life.”

DaLuise was taken to the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station, charged with solicitation to commit murder, and put in a holding cell. A few days later she was moved to the Airport Courthouse, a tall cathedral of glass on La Cienega near LAX. Television cameras flanked the judge’s bench and photographers snapped pictures when she was escorted in. She was handcuffed and wore the gray hoodie she’d thrown on the night she was arrested. She was arraigned and stood accused of attempting to hire a hit man to kill Gabriel Suarez. Her bail was set at $1 million. Her mug shot—revealing an exhausted-looking woman with an unkempt appearance and a grim expression—made tabloid headlines.

After the arraignment, DaLuise was booked at the Century Regional Detention Facility, a jigsaw puzzle of interlocking concrete buildings abutting the 105 freeway in Lynwood. She figured it was a formality. “They were going to let me go,” she thought. “They had to.” Then a week passed, and another. As she sat awaiting a trial date, DaLuise wondered what the detective had meant by Feinstein saving her life. As those weeks turned into months behind bars, DaLuise would discover that Feinstein was anything but a friend. She would tell anyone who would listen—from her ex-husband to her court-appointed lawyer to a handful of reporters—that he was maliciously plotting against her, and he wasn’t working alone.

 
 
 Dawn DaLuise mugshot

Dawn DaLuise mugshot

The complex that housed DaLuise’s business, the Skin Refinery, looks like a Neapolitan cake. Two rainbow flags flutter proudly alongside the Stars and Stripes in the well-landscaped median out front. DaLuise’s suite was on the second floor. She had been in West Hollywood since 2000 and amassed a long and growing list of clients who would come in for pricey eyebrow waxes and facials. They formed a loyal base, and she cherished them all, but success in L.A.’s beauty business is measured in celebrities. DaLuise had performed treatments on Jennifer Aniston and Ted Danson, among others. “For a short time, several years ago, Hillary Clinton was using products from my line,” DaLuise says, “as well as Nancy Reagan, who at that point was retired with Ronald up in Bel-Air.”

When Nicki Minaj went berserk after a session in 2011, screeching that her eyebrows were ruined, the outburst was leaked to a gossip site. In other industries a business owner would do anything to quash news of a disgruntled client, but DaLouise spoke to Ryan Seacrest about the incident. For an aesthetician, any association with a star was free publicity.

Gabriel Suarez moved into the complex in the late spring of 2013. He was in his early thirties and handsome. He planned to call his clinic Smooth Cheeks and would cater mostly to men. Before the June opening, he hired contractors to renovate his suite. The work noise echoed through the courtyard.

DaLuise was used to competing in close quarters. When a female aesthetician moved into the suite next to hers six years earlier, she believed the woman was poaching clients. “She would stand at my door, accosting them, especially early in the morning prior to my arrival,” she says. “She’d actually intercept them.” DaLuise complained to the landlord, and eventually the woman moved out. “It’s just fiercely competitive. Some people will stoop really low.”

The beauty business was DaLuise’s second act. Raised in a strict Christian family, she had spent an itinerant childhood following her preacher father up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The family later settled in Panama City, Florida, a small beach community that DaLuise (then Koller) abhorred. When she was 17, she married a man whose most appealing characteristic was his ambition to leave the Sunshine State. In 1982, when she was 21, they moved to Los Angeles with $600 to their names. The marriage ended a year later.

DaLuise found an apartment in Hollywood and began working a series of temp jobs and doing some risqué modeling for the Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog. In 1983, she married Ric DaLuise (giving her full name the familiar pluck of comedian Dom DeLuise’s) and went on to earn an accounting degree. It wasn’t until she was 34 and pregnant with her second child that she visited a skin-care specialist for her first facial. The aesthetician was a working mother who made good money and had a flexible schedule. The idea appealed to DaLuise, and she enrolled in beauty school. Her cheerleader personality and shrewd business sense helped her navigate a competitive apprenticeship at a high-end salon. She discovered a company that made a machine using a low-level electrical current to promote skin toning. “It’s an old technology that originated when studios offered beauty services to their contract actors,” she says. In 2000, she began advertising “galvanic ionization” facials for $125 a visit. Clients lined up to have their faces professionally pulsed with electrodes.

When DaLuise heard the racket from Suarez’s renovations, she was with a client. After the session, she stomped over and confronted the hired workers, who didn’t seem to understand her. When Suarez arrived a few minutes later, he asked if he could help her. DaLuise turned and glared. “ ‘Finally,’ ” Suarez recalls her saying, “ ‘a Mexican that speaks English.’ ”

In May, just before the unpleasant encounter with Suarez, DaLuise had drinks with Vanity Fair writer Nancy Jo Sales. The pair had first met years before in connection with a story Sales was writing, and as often happens with journalists and old sources, they had remained in touch. Their meeting ran into a later appointment Sales had scheduled with a young man named Nick Prugo.

Prugo was a key player in the Bling Ring burglaries, a string of high-profile break-ins perpetrated by fame-obsessed kids from Calabasas. Sales wrote a feature about the teens for Vanity Fairin 2010. After pleading no contest in March 2012 to charges related to the crimes, Prugo spent a year in jail. He had been out a month when he arrived at the West Hollywood watering hole where DaLuise and Sales were catching up. “There was never any plan for Dawn and Nick to meet, or for Dawn to discuss Nick’s life or career with him,” says Sales. When it surfaced that DaLuise and Prugo lived near each other in the Valley, she offered to give him a ride home.

On the drive, the two spoke about Prugo’s ambition to work in the entertainment industry. He was 22, slender, and quick to smile. DaLuise found him charming. An idea for a reality show began to form. Drawing on the hype surrounding the Sofia Coppola movie adaptation of Sales’s article on the Bling Ring (the film would premiere the following month), the show would present Prugo as a break-in expert. He and Tess Taylor, a tear-prone brunet who was also associated with the Bling Ring, would use their skills to reveal security flaws in upscale homes. The name they chose was High End Heists.

 
 
 Gabriel Suarez

Gabriel Suarez

DaLuise had no experience as a talent manager, but her success in the Hollywood-adjacent world of beauty enabled her to secure a publicist and an agent for Prugo. She also contacted his parole officer, assuring him that developing a reality show would fulfill the employment condition of Prugo’s parole.

DaLuise made sure Prugo went to meetings on time and followed through on his commitments. “Sometimes I had to plead with him to get out of bed,” she says. Their relationship was half friendship—she was giving him free facials—and half business partnership. For her work as a manager, DaLuise says they agreed she would receive 20 percent of Prugo’s earnings if they sold the television series.

Prugo began bringing an acquaintance around when he visited DaLuise’s clinic. He had met Eddie Feinstein in a special section of L.A. Men’s Central Jail reserved for homosexual and transgender inmates. They were young, white, and gay, which made them natural allies in the divisive prison, and both were nonviolent offenders. Feinstein, then 29, had been arrested for a parole violation stemming from a prior arrest for grand theft and identity theft. After Feinstein’s release in midsummer, he and Prugo resumed their friendship on the outside. DaLuise became friendly with Feinstein by association. His boyish features—he has a well-coiffed head of strawberry-blond hair and acne scars on his ruddy cheeks—were just beginning to clash with the first graceless strokes of aging. Feinstein began visiting DaLuise for facials to help his complexion. “He was very arrogant,” she remembers. “Every time I saw him, I figured it would be the last. But Nick said he really liked me, and he kept coming for facials, so we sort of became friendly.” DaLuise knew about Feinstein’s original arrest, but the details were vague and didn’t sound particularly menacing.

By June, Gabriel Suarez had opened Smooth Cheeks and was doing a brisk business. DaLuise had had no interaction with him since their run-in over the construction noise the month before, but she sensed there was bad blood. While driving her car in July, she noticed her tires were leaking air. She had them replaced, only to discover the new tires slashed a few days later. Then it happened again. The woman who managed the auto shop where DaLuise took her car for repair told her that the perpetrator knew what he was doing. The tires had been punctured on the sidewall, making them impossible to fix.

DaLuise had heard rumors in the close-knit beauty industry that Suarez wasn’t to be trusted. “I got this vibe from him,” she says. “I just strongly suspected that he was behind it.” She shared her misgivings with Prugo and Feinstein, who delighted in the juicy gossip. Soon Feinstein began reporting back to her about Suarez. “He would say that he saw him snooping by the Dumpsters or lurking outside my shop, which validated my suspicion,” DaLuise says. “And I was ready to believe that.”

Meanwhile DaLuise’s relationship with Prugo was deteriorating. He behaved unprofessionally, she says, and she worried that his entitled attitude would imperil the TV project. More than 30 years his senior, she began to feel like a nagging mother. (Prugo didn’t respond to requests to be interviewed for this piece.) She started making him pay for facials, which heightened the tension between them. During a party in the Hollywood Hills, the two had an argument, and DaLuise broke off all contact.

Feinstein lingered, and her trust in him grew when he began complaining about Prugo’s erratic behavior. It seemed the men had their own falling out, and Prugo was leaving drunken messages on Feinstein’s voice mail. DaLuise was also receiving annoying voice mails from Prugo, along with catty text messages. She wrote a letter to his parole officer, detailing the decline of their professional relationship, and referred to a young male friend, who had informed her that Prugo had violated various conditions of his release by using drugs and taking trips to Las Vegas. That friend was Feinstein. Prugo was sent back to jail for violating his parole, and as DaLuise would learn, he blamed her for his incarceration. But this was only the beginning of her trouble.

A series of loud honks echoed throughout the quiet North Hollywood street where Dawn’s ex-husband, Ric DaLuise, lived. It was January 2014, and they had amicably separated three years earlier. Their younger daughter went out to investigate. She saw a white SUV driving off, then noticed hundreds of sheets of paper on the family car. They were also strewn in a trail down the center of the road. When she picked one up, she saw the vulgar fliers depicting her mother. “Me and my daughter drove around the neighborhood, picking these things up,” Ric says. “The next morning I went to the North Hollywood police station. They just blew me off completely. I had to ask them to at least make some note that I had come in.”

 
 
 Nick Prugo

Nick Prugo

It was around this time that men were appearing at DaLuise’s home and business, asking for sex. After the X-rated e-mails were sent to parishioners of her Santa Clarita church, one member offered to put her in touch with Detective Steve McCauley from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. DaLuise and McCauley met at a Denny’s in late February. She laid out her ordeal from start to finish and told him she was sure Gabriel Suarez was behind the attacks. She said her friend Eddie Feinstein had seen him acting strangely. McCauley advised her to keep careful records of every instance of harassment. “I don’t know where I’ll start,” she remembers him saying, “but I’ll figure it out.” (McCauley declined to be interviewed for this article.)

DaLuise followed up over the next few days, forwarding the detective texts and e-mails she had received and giving him accounts of lurid phone calls. After getting no response, she began to fear that McCauley, too, would abandon the case. During one interaction, he asked her to think hard about which of her friends might have seen anything suspicious to tie Suarez to the crime. “He made it seem like he would have to abandon the case if he didn’t have that kind of evidence,” she says. “It seemed to me like he was fishing around for something in particular.”

It’s unclear whether DaLuise asked her friends to lie to McCauley about having knowledge of Suarez’s harassment or whether they volunteered to do so when she told them her case might fall apart. DaLuise provided McCauley with a short list of names—people who had agreed to corroborate her suspicion of Suarez. McCauley began contacting the individuals, one of whom was Feinstein.

Instead of supporting DaLuise’s claims, Feinstein told McCauley that DaLuise was behind the harassment herself. He said it was staged to get rid of her competitor, and that she had approached him looking for help. Then he showed him the text message about Chris Geile. Feinstein told police DaLuise wanted to have Suarez killed. A few days later DaLuise was arrested—by McCauley.

It’s December 2014, and DaLuise is sitting behind glass in a visiting booth at the detention facility in Lynwood. Her trial date has not been set, though she has already spent close to ten months in jail. Her dyed-blond hair has grown out, exposing a few inches of dark roots. Otherwise she has managed to keep up appearances. She has on jailhouse eye shadow made from a charcoal pencil and toothpaste, and her commissary lipstick is pulling double duty as rouge. She gesticulates with her left hand while holding a telephone receiver in her right. Her fingernails are impeccably clean.

DaLuise speaks at a fast clip, and as she spews a litany of dates and facts, she attempts to order them in the imaginary lines she draws on the glass partition in front of her. She is desperate for someone to give her story credence. She has been lampooned in the press, made to look like a bungling, vicious fool. She keeps tracing imploring lines on the glass, keeps straining to convince anyone who will listen that Feinstein is dangerous. He’s stalked women before.

DaLuise is right: Feinstein was arrested in 2009 after stealing more than $100,000 from a local pet groomer, which forced the woman into personal bankruptcy. She had hired Feinstein as an assistant, and in no time he gained access to her computer and stole money from her business account. “He contacted American Express, and after several tries, he convinced them he was the husband of the owner,” says Detective David Torres of the North Hollywood police station, the investigating officer. Something similar had happened in San Francisco a year earlier, but due to a backlog of cases, Feinstein was never charged.

After serving time in prison for ripping off the L.A. dog groomer, Feinstein was released in 2012 and immediately began harassing the woman. His motive is as inscrutable as his actions are abhorrent. The woman started receiving hundreds of vile and threatening text messages from spoofed numbers. She also spotted Feinstein trolling along the street outside her house. Some of the text messages openly threatened members of her family. Torres investigated, but tracing the numbers to an individual proved next to impossible. “Computer cases are extremely difficult,” he says. “You don’t know who’s on the other end typing the keys, so oftentimes you need a witness.” The Web site Feinstein allegedly used to send the texts was registered in Canada, which muddied the situation further. (Later the woman learned that a picture of her four-year-old son was posted to a sexually explicit Internet group.) Feinstein’s roommate, who was growing leery of what she described as his creepy behavior, told Torres everything she knew. It was enough to bust Feinstein for violating the terms of his parole, which landed him at L.A.’s Men’s Central Jail, where he met Prugo.

“It’s pathological,” says Torres of Feinstein’s crimes, which he has been investigating since 2009. “He’s never going to stop. He does these things because he wants to feel power over people. I imagine he’s doing them right now.”

 
 Edward Feinstein

Edward Feinstein

 

Three months before DaLuise’s arrest, Feinstein had her convinced that Suarez was after her. She went to work every day, avoiding his salon, unsure of his next moves, and too afraid to confront him. In January DaLuise headed to Big Bear to get away from the ongoing nightmare for the day. In a bar one night she ran into Chris Geile, a former college football player who had suited up for three games with the Detroit Lions in 1987, the year the regular players went on strike. He now owned a company that made barbecue sauce and worked as a personal trainer. DaLuise and Geile had met in Big Bear once before. This time they snapped some photos together, had a few drinks, and DaLuise told him about Suarez. Geile was a big guy, and they joked about different ways they might teach her stalker a lesson. Afterward DaLuise sent Geile a text, adding a tasteless detail about wanting to find a white supremacist to sic on Suarez. She said she figured a “double minority (Mexican/gay)” would be an attractive target for a skinhead. McCauley believed this text and the one to Feinstein were enough to arrest her for solicitation to commit murder.

Only after DaLuise had been arrested and arraigned did McCauley begin talking to her friends and acquaintances to build a case for prosecution. When McCauley spoke with one of DaLuise’s neighbors, he learned that she had seen a man matching Feinstein’s description throwing fliers from a moving car. DaLuise’s landlord also confirmed receiving harassing phone calls from a man who claimed DaLuise was hosting sex parties in her apartment. When McCauley looked into Feinstein’s criminal history and reached out to Torres, Feinstein’s most recent arresting officer, he discovered the harassment DaLuise was experiencing fit Feinstein’s m.o.—with or without Prugo.

Awareness of Feinstein’s behavior didn’t stop authorities from publicly incriminating DaLuise. McCauley’s supervisor, Captain Shaun Mathers, made a statement shortly after her arrest, claiming the sheriff’s department “had solid evidence, not just texts, which show that Ms. DaLuise was actively involved in planning a murder for hire.”

Both McCauley and Mathers appeared on a 20/20 segment, echoing that statement just days after DaLuise was locked up. Feinstein was also a guest on the segment, and he used the opportunity to say that DaLuise had orchestrated the harassment herself. In the weeks the piece was being taped, however, McCauley started to suspect Feinstein. It makes for an awkward bit of television. When 20/20 host Chris Connelly asks McCauley on camera if he knows who did what to whom, the detective stares down for a moment before answering, “No.” McCauley and Mathers then break into nervous laughter.

In mid-March McCauley obtained a search warrant and confiscated Feinstein’s computer. A week after DaLuise’s arrest, McCauley picked up Feinstein on suspicion of orchestrating the brutal campaign of harassment. That didn’t mean DaLuise could go free. She had been arrested for solicitation to commit murder, not for stalking, and the text messages she’d sent seemed to indicate that she wanted to have
Suarez killed. The charge carries a maximum of nine years in prison, but the burden of proof is high. There had been no exchange of money, which is often a prerequisite for a conviction, and there didn’t seem to be any evidence of a legitimate plot. Geile, the alleged hit man, was never named as a suspect, and he swiftly took to the media to clear his name.

At a million dollars, DaLuise’s bail was a steep price to pay for a couple of text messages. With the media attention, it would have been embarrassing for the D.A.’s office to reverse course and let DaLuise go. It would have also opened the office to a potential lawsuit. Prosecutors decided to proceed with the case. DaLuise says she was offered several deals while in jail and was told she could walk out the same day if she copped to a lesser crime. “They told me I could pick the crime, as long as it was a felony,” she says. She rejected the deals, maintaining her innocence throughout her lengthy confinement.

 
Dawn_DaLuise80288_v4.jpg
 

The trial began in January 2015, and was a farce. Despite Mathers’s public statement about having solid evidence of DaLuise’s involvement in a plot to commit murder, the prosecution’s case rested on those text messages. In the context of the longer threads in which those messages appeared, they were easy to interpret as tasteless jokes. Given the likelihood that Feinstein had masterminded the harassment himself, the prosecution couldn’t possibly put him on the stand.

Gabriel Suarez wasn’t laughing. Outside the courtroom, awaiting his turn as a witness, he did believe DaLuise intended to do him harm. “If you think someone is harassing you, you go to the police,” he said. “You don’t try to have them killed.” He allowed that he didn’t know much about the details of the case against DaLuise or her repeated attempts to have the North Hollywood police intervene. All he knew was that she had said awful things about him and had dragged his name through the mud repeatedly over several months. The whole thing had left him deeply rattled, and he was frustrated that she hadn’t made any attempt to apologize for falsely accusing him of what were most likely Feinstein’s actions.

DaLuise obtained the services of a defense attorney,  Jamon Hicks, from a law firm founded by the late Johnnie Cochran. He took the case pro bono at the request of one of DaLuise’s clients, and he didn’t break much of a sweat. Hicks destroyed the prosecution and made McCauley look incompetent. The jury deliberated for 40 minutes before returning its verdict: not guilty.

DaLuise spent nearly a year in jail while proclaiming her innocence. During that time, her life fell apart. The clinic she worked so hard to build is now closed, and her reputation is in tatters. She lost her apartment and is living in her ex-husband’s house. She wants to rebuild her client list, but at 56 it isn’t easy to start over. Her galvanic ionization machine went into storage after her arrest, but she hopes to use it again soon.

In mid-April her attorney filed a civil suit against Steve McCauley and Shaun Mathers. If it goes to a jury trial, there is a strong likelihood that their baffling media appearances in the weeks following DaLuise’s arrest will be used against them.

After his arrest in March 2014, Feinstein was let out of jail, pending charges. As of this writing, none have been filed. “It’s under investigation,” Deputy D.A. Wendy Segall told me two months ago. In light of DaLuise’s not-guilty verdict, it will be difficult to bring new charges related to this case. Investigators keep assuring DaLuise that Feinstein will be arrested and charged in a matter of weeks, but as of early May, he is a free man. When I asked Feinstein for an interview, he said he would speak to me only off the record, an offer I declined.

For DaLuise, the ordeal may not be over. After being out of jail for just three months, she was forced to reach out to McCauley. Though she hates him for what he did to her, she once again needs his help. She recently filed a restraining order against Prugo (who is now out of jail), but she doesn’t know Feinstein’s whereabouts. She and her ex-husband are receiving 300 robo-calls a day. During one of our last exchanges, she sent a frantic text: “Our family is under siege again.”