The couple was arguing — again.
Family members said Dawn Hill’s boyfriend, Kirkland O’Hara, was the jealous type and arguments were part of everyday life.
Travis Hill, who was 8 at the time, was in the downstairs living room of their Tustin home watching television.
He remembers his eyes glued to the 1990 film “Tremors”—the one where Kevin Bacon plays the hero and worm-like monsters hunt humans in a small desert town.
Travis, now 30, thinks that movie probably wasn’t suitable for a kid, but after that day —July 8, 1995 —he wouldn’t watch it again anyway.
There was a lot Travis Hill wouldn’t do again after that day.
He would never again enter a room without checking behind the door or walk into a bathroom without first pulling back the shower curtain.
He would never cry again.
Even when he tried, even at his grandparents’ funerals, the tears wouldn’t come because in Travis’ mind, nothing could be as devastating as what he saw that July evening.
“There is nothing worse than what happened to me,” he said. “But it’s all I’ve ever known.”
A DARK SIDE
Dawn Hill had an endearing habit of picking up strays.
Barbara Williams remembered her younger sister collecting ferrets, rabbits, but mostly dogs.
“She was always bringing home some kind of animal when we were kids,” Williams said. “If it was a hurt animal, needing love and care, she would nurse it back to health.”
The pattern found its way into Dawn Hill’s relationships, her sister said.
The warm-hearted, outgoing personal trainer was drawn to O’Hara —a talented artist and musician who seemed to have that tortured soul quality Dawn could nurture.
“I always told her, ‘He’s not one of your rescues’,” Williams said. “My sister thought she could help him. She thought if she could show him enough love, he would feel accepted, whole, loved.”
As time passed, Dawn Hill started to see that O’Hara was not a brooding artist in need of unconditional love, but a man with a dark side.
“There was no rhyme or reason to the things he did,” Williams said. “He was completely controlling and manipulative. Everything involving O’Hara was chaotic. Nothing was easy with him.”
Williams said O’Hara moved in with her 34-year-old sister while Dawn Hill was in Houston visiting family. The two hadn’t been dating long, Williams said.
“He moved my brother out – who was living with Dawn at the time – and moved himself in,” she said.
Jealousy soon progressed to paranoia.
“He would follow her and tried to alienate her from our family. He would listen in on her conversations and actually made her take calls on speaker so he could hear,” Williams said. “Eventually, he started recording her conversations with a system he had hooked up in the attic.”
Williams said on July 8, 1995 Dawn Hill snuck to a pay phone to call her ex-husband, Travis’ father.
She told him she was fearful of O’Hara and felt he was going to hurt her, Williams said.
“He told her to go home, get Travis and get out of there, without alerting (O’Hara) to anything,” Williams said. “Instead of getting someone to go with her to the house to get Travis, she went home by herself and did her normal routine, trying to act as if nothing was going on.”
Travis Hill remembered that July day starting out as a good one.
He baked brownies with his mother and then she took him rollerskating.
That evening, as his mom took a shower, he plopped down in front of the television and looked forward to another Saturday night with his favorite person — his mom.
Williams guessed it was her sister’s plan to act normal and find a way to leave when O’Hara wasn’t home.
It was about 6 p.m. when O’Hara went upstairs and confronted Dawn as she was blow-drying her hair.
From downstairs, Travis heard banging that sounded like heavy furniture being moved around.
Then the phone rang and the boy answered it.
A 911 dispatcher asked to speak to his parents, so he walked up the stairs to his mom’s room.
“I walked right in and saw everything,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do. My mom was sprawled on the floor.”
Travis thought he could see her chest faintly rise and fall, but her eyes couldn’t focus.
“I willed her to breath, but I could tell she was gone,” he said.
Travis said he was shocked, then confused, then angry.
He flopped on the bed of the master bedroom and screamed as he punched the mattress.
“I remember yelling, ‘Why? Why did you do this to my mom?’” he said.
The 8-year-old then left the room, went downstairs, sat on the porch and waited for the paramedics to arrive.
Minutes felt like hours, he said.
“As young as I was, I knew this was bad,” Travis Hill said. “I was in complete shock.”
What Travis said he didn’t know then is that O’Hara rearranged the scene, then shot himself while he waited on the porch.
Kirkland O’Hara first told police an intruder killed his girlfriend, then tried to kill him before fleeing.
Police said he then changed his story.
Tustin police said O’Hara fatally shot his girlfriend before turning the gun on himself in an apparent botched suicide attempt.
Police arrested him after he was released from the hospital.
O’Hara argued that he killed his girlfriend in self-defense during trial, but the jury didn’t buy it.
Four other women testified to his jealous and violent behavior, according to media reports on the trial.
O’Hara was convicted of murdering Dawn Hill in March 1997 and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
He is now appealing to the state to be released, and Dawn Hill’s family is fighting to keep him behind bars.
The convicted murderer will go before the Department of Corrections on Nov. 2 for a parole suitability hearing. Kirkland had a scheduled hearing in October last year, but waived his right to go before the board and stayed incarcerated.
If found suitable, O’Hara will be eligible for parole in 2017.
Dawn Hill’s family is rallying friends and anyone interested in their case to write letters to the Department of Corrections urging the state to deny O’Hara’s request.
Tustin police have drafted letters prompted the state to keep O’Hara in custody.
Police and family members say it is the only way to ensure the community stays safe.
“I highly doubt in 20 years of being behind bars that he has done any kind of rehabilitation,” Williams said. “If he’s granted parole, it’s only a matter of time before he hurts somebody else. I have no doubts about that.”
LIFE AFTER MURDER
The Hill family worked to find their new normal after Dawn’s murder.
At the time of trial, Williams said everyone was still in shock over the loss of the woman they describe as outgoing, fun-loving and positive.
“It’s hard to say how it affects you in the beginning, but there’s the normal stuff —you can’t eat and you can’t sleep,” Williams said. “Now reflecting on it, the absence of her is really hard. She was literally the glue that kept our family together.”
Travis Hill said he often searches his memory for snippets he can call upon when he misses his mother.
Most of the time, his memory draws a blank on specifics, but he knows his mother left an undeniable mark on his life.
“The worst part about it is I don’t remember much about her. I can’t tell you how many dreams I’ve had where I’ve seen my mom and what I missed out on,” he said. “I remember she taught me how to be responsible and disciplined me when I needed it.
“So much of what she taught me has stuck with me.”
He is not angry about his mother’s murder anymore, he added.
“I think with what I’ve gone through, I’m strong mentally. I’m a happy person,” he said. “I believe in forgiveness, but I hate what he did. Hate the sin, not the sinner, as the saying goes.”
But forgiveness is not absolution, and Travis said he believes O’Hara deserves to serve a life sentence.
“I absolutely think he’d be a danger to somebody out there,”he said. “He is the last person you would want to let out of prison.”
Dawn Hill’s family is asking anyone interested in supporting their fight to keep Kirkland O’Hara in prison to send letters to:
Board of Parole Hearings
ATTN: PRE-HEARING CORRESPOINDENCE
P. O. Box 4036
Sacramento, CA 95812-4036
Inmates name: O’Hara, Kirkland