A few years after they were married, Jennifer and Fotis Dulos moved to Farmington, a Connecticut town perched, in the way of a balance, halfway between Boston and New York. Two hours this way for pizza, two hours that way for chowder. As a suburb of Hartford, that old industrial city, Farmington is like a planet that has outlived the death of its sun. It has in fact prospered—it’s the home of Otis Elevator and United Technologies—making it a perfect spot for Fotis to base his home-building business, which he operated out of an office in his red-brick mansion, at 4 Jefferson Crossing.
There are streets of antique Victorian houses in Farmington, dormers, porticoes, porches, gables. In the summer, ivy creeps up the walls in a dogged attempt to reclaim it all for the earth. The town itself, which is very large and very old, is set in a great valley with hills and meadows on one side and woods on the other. The Farmington River flows through the center of it. There’s lots of water in the valley, which made it as attractive to its earliest settlers as to one of its more recent. To the English who came here in the 1600s, the lakes and streams were ideal for farming. To Fotis Dulos, who arrived in 2012, the lakes and streams were ideal for water sports—swimming, motorboating, and, best of all, waterskiing.
Old Money and New
Farmington has been home to both kinds of money (old and new) and both kinds of celebrity (classic and rock ’n’ roll): Anna Roosevelt Cowles—Teddy Roosevelt’s sister—lived here, as did the heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, who later sold his spread to 50 Cent. Farmington is probably best known for the campus of Miss Porter’s, the elite girls’ school. Founded in 1843, Miss Porter’s is run out of an old Federal-style building at 60 Main Street. (You can’t see it without thinking of stagecoaches and spittoons.) Miss Porter’s alumnae include Grace Hoadley Dodge (founder of Columbia’s Teachers College), Alice Hamilton (Harvard’s first female faculty member), Gloria Vanderbilt (Anderson Cooper’s mom, among other things), Gene Tierney (movie star), Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (First Lady, editor), and Lilly Pulitzer (socialite, fashion designer). It’s strange that Farmington, the home of Miss Porter’s, which has had such a special place in the education of generations of America’s leading women, was also the home to Fotis Dulos, who, raging in a mansion a few miles away, violated everything espoused by Sarah Porter, who founded the school.
The ideal Fore Group customer—that’s the name Fotis gave his home-building company—was not old money but new, the suddenly flush day trader or entrepreneur who wanted a huge, never-before-lived-in house jacked up with all the amenities. “When you were growing up, did you often think about building the custom home of our [sic] dreams?” the Fore Group Web site asks. “Are you finally at that point in your life where this dream can become a reality? Whether you are looking to move to Greenwich, Fairfield or Westport, CT areas, we can help you find or build your dream home.” These homes tended to cost well over a million dollars, and could include 10,000-plus square feet of marble, stainless steel, and brushed nickel set amid five or more acres of manicured lawn. It’s unclear just how many of these estates actually sold.
“When you were growing up, did you often think about building the custom home of our [sic] dreams? Are you finally at the point in your life when this dream can become a reality?”
What would Jennifer Farber Dulos make of the move to Connecticut?
We know only that she had grown up in New York and toiled as a writer and married in her mid-30s and now found herself in a huge house on a dead-end street with trees encroaching from every side. There was a rinky-dink town, a country club, a shopping mall, and a pond that was good for waterskiing. According to an informal survey, it takes four to six years for an average city dweller to acclimate to life in the suburbs. Try to surface too fast, your veins fill with nitrogen bubbles, you hallucinate and die. For a person used to high-density apartment living, a large house can be terrifying—all those rooms, all that space. You might walk through the halls with a baseball bat at two a.m., calling out, “Hello? Is anyone there?” It would be worse if your spouse were never around, if he were always running out to a meeting or a site inspection or to drinks with a client at Ruby Tuesday or the Wood-n-Tap Bar & Grill on Farmington Avenue.
Jennifer did find her footing. The fact that she was loved in her new town was made obvious by the outpouring of anger and angst that followed her disappearance. She was involved in every part of life in Farmington and even made her feelings known through the essays on domestic life that she published on Patch or on her blog, Five Plus Two Makes Seven.
It takes four to six years for an average city dweller to acclimate to life in the suburbs. Try to surface too fast, your veins fill with nitrogen bubbles, you hallucinate and die.
They started having kids soon after they were married—that’s what you do when you get hitched late. First came twins, then came more twins. A twin set of twins is an adult-size portion of parenthood, a dose that even Dr. Spock might choke on. The names given these twins—traditional, even old-fashioned Greek names—suggest that Fotis, a proud man entranced by Hellenic culture, was even then getting his way.
His opinions on child-rearing were just as strong. He wanted his progeny to know their history and celebrate Greek Orthodox holidays. He wanted strong, athletic kids, creatures of the sun. Forget soccer and hockey, forget baseball and football. He wanted them to excel in the place Greeks have historically excelled: the water! So, boating, wakeboarding, swimming, but especially waterskiing. He got them up when they were very young, then made them work until their technique was perfect. He entered them in competitions, which take place on ponds and rivers all over the world, the society of elite waterskiing being even more strangely rarefied than the society of dressage.
When the first strains appeared in the Dulos marriage, it was about how the children were being raised in general and about waterskiing in particular. The kids might be in the water for hours. The older twins competed in the Eastern Waterski Championships in Virginia—one of them finished 9th in the slalom; the other tied for 10th—and in the Greek Waterski National Championships on Lake Stratos, in Agrinio, a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Athens. Though Nancy Mastrocosta, secretary general of the Hellenic Waterski and Wakeboard Federation, released a statement in support of Fotis (“[He] is not the person portrayed in the media”), Jennifer described her husband as a sports parent driven mad with ambition, the most maniacal football dad or hockey mom raised to the 10th power, a water-ski version of Joe Jackson, the father of Michael, Tito, Jermaine, et al.
A Waterskiing “Obsession”
According to divorce papers, Fotis kept the twins in the water till they were numb with cold. Jennifer called this an “obsession.” “The children have told me that they do not want to water ski at this level,” she wrote. “They are physically and emotionally exhausted and have begged me to do something about it. We are all terrified to disobey my husband.”
The twin boys were nationally ranked in their age group. You can still see pictures of them on Fotis’s Facebook page, skiing far outside the wake, sending up a curtain of white water. There is a Rosebud-like quality to these images. You are looking at someone else’s lost youth.
The twins did most of their training on a pond in Avon, about 10 minutes from the house at 4 Jefferson Crossing. A small, kidney-shaped pond set between the Farmington River and Avon Self Storage, it actually has an address, 230 Old Farms Road. It’s funny. You take something that is normally the best kind of fun for kids and make them do it and do it and do it until it becomes another kind of math. It’s like forcing a person to eat ice cream till he pukes.
Fotis could fly into a rage when the twins asked to quit early or skip a day altogether. It was not just waterskiing. Anything could send him into a rage. There was a pattern to his tantrums. The more stress he felt, the more likely the outburst. He was a living barometer: pressure predicted the coming storm.
By early 2017, most of this pressure was in his working life. The Fore Group was in trouble. Fotis was not a great businessman. The key to success in America is to satisfy an existing market or, better yet, make a product—a giant house, say—then invent a market. Fotis, who was building huge houses in a place saturated with them, was doing neither. Many of these were spec houses—spec mansions!—meaning that he assumed all the debt up front, had to pay for land and services and materials in hopes of a future sale, which often did not come, or came too late, or came at the wrong price. He had to borrow money to pay this debt—that is, he had to borrow money to pay back the money he’d already borrowed—then had to borrow more money to pay for that.
The more stress Fotis felt, the more likely the outburst. He was a living barometer: pressure predicted the coming storm. By 2017, most of this pressure was in his working life.
Later that spring, he was $4 million in the hole and was being sued for more than $2 million in loaned debt by his mother-in-law, Gloria Farber. Which could only add to the already existing stress in the marriage. How could Fotis look at Jennifer without seeing the money he owed? This would make him feel constricted, something other than autonomous and free. Which would make him feel sorry for himself. Which would fill him with resentment. Hence the arguments, the screaming that could be heard by the children and their nanny, Lauren Almeida, who talked to the police.
A few years earlier, with the fate of her marriage in mind, Jennifer, at 41, had decided to have another child. It’s an idea as old as matrimony: when nothing else works, maybe a baby will save the relationship.
It did not turn out that way.
It never does.
Family Life Becomes a Prison
Their youngest child was born in the fall of 2010. As anyone who has kids can tell you, sleep, or lack of it, can be more powerful than love. Nights when a baby won’t stop crying, added burdens on attention and money, will, if anything, put even more pressure on an already troubled marriage. Jennifer hinted at this in an essay published on Patch on April 26, 2012, confessing that life was harder with her husband than without. “It was not like this when my husband Fotis was not here,” she wrote of a long night in which three of them—husband, wife, baby—shared a bed. “We had more room. I and she (and he, somewhere afar) slept better. But if Fotis is to come back (he leaves again today) next Tuesday, then we do have to get this dealt with. Which may mean her crying, but it’s just so heart wrenching. Then again, who can subsist on no sleep?”
At such times, family life will become a prison for a man like Fotis, a vain man, a man a little too concerned with his hair and clothes and the trimness of his body, one determined to look and feel as he did when he was young. For such a man, a relationship is less about loving than being loved, admired, showered in a certain kind of light, looked at a certain kind of way. Once you have kids—Fotis had five!—that sort of attention, which had powered the marriage, shifts from husband to children, where it glows like a lost paradise. “The best part of my night now, hands down, is when I give our baby … a bath and then her bottle, in my arms,” Jennifer wrote in March 2012. “She falls asleep, safe, up against my chest. I love it. It’s my peace and solace and quiet reward.”
What will a man like Fotis do in such a situation?
He will wander. He will look for what he has lost somewhere else, with someone else. And he will lie about it, then come to resent the person who makes him lie. None of this can be said for certain—in any work of nonfiction, the unknowable stands behind each sentence—but it can be inferred from the behavior of the participants. You deduce it the way an astronomer, seeing a characteristic wobble of a small planet, knows there must be a big planet tugging from just beyond the line of sight.
Fotis began to disappear for days, then weeks at a time. Now and then, when Jennifer challenged him, he’d fly into a rage.
A Threat to Leave
Some of these tantrums were just loud; others were loud and scary. One day, in June 2017, the nanny later told police, she had found Jennifer crying in the driveway. Jennifer said Fotis had tried to run her over with the car. To save herself, she’d had to jump out of the way. Later that summer, Fotis chased Jennifer through the house. She made it to her bedroom and got the door locked just in time. He stood there, pounding the door and screaming, but quieted down when he saw the nanny and one of the children watching. Jennifer did not call the police, said the nanny, because she was scared of what Fotis might do. He’d threatened to take the kids to Greece and never return.
On another occasion, when Jennifer did call the cops, Fotis explained his behavior by calling Jennifer a “bad mother” and saying that she “belongs in an asylum.”
In March 2017, Jennifer realized her husband was more than just running around and cheating on her. He’d gotten involved in a serious affair. The woman had actually done some work for the Fore Group. Think of the nerve! The person destroying the last remnants of the marriage had been inside Jennifer’s own house!
And who was this woman?
Jennifer realized that Fotis had gotten involved in a serious affair. The woman had actually done some work for the Fore Group. The person destroying the last remnants of the marriage had been inside Jennifer’s own house!
She was a good-time girl! A ski bum from South America! Her name was Michelle Troconis, but friends called her Michi. She had long dark hair and a wicked smile. She was in her early 40s when she met Fotis, with a teenage daughter from a liaison that preceded her failed marriage. She’d gotten a degree in psychology at the Central University of Venezuela in 1998, then worked in event planning and public relations at hotels around the world. The Ghantoot Racing & Polo Club, in Abu Dhabi. Cerro Castor, a resort on Mount Krund, in Tierra del Fuego. She had been the host of Snow Time, an ESPN show shot at ski resorts in South America. She had lived in Caracas, the United Arab Emirates, Miami.
She was a type—the jet-setter, the aging ingénue, the woman who always seems to find the best-looking, most unstable man in the room. It was Michelle Troconis’s arrival on the scene that set in motion the events that would lead to the disappearance of Jennifer Dulos.
The third part of this story will appear in the February 22 issue of AIR MAIL
Rich Cohen is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL