Money can’t protect you. This is what Jennifer Dulos should have been telling herself as she loaded her kids—three boys and two girls, all under 14—into her car and drove away from the husband and marriage and house and life she had lived in Farmington, a trip that would have taken her south on I-84 to Route 7, past the Danbury Fair Mall and adjacent airport, its runway lit like the Vegas Strip in the dead of night, through the Wooster Mountain cut that opens like a gateway to the affluent towns along the Connecticut coast.
She was living a scene from every 1970s movie and Helen Reddy song. Fotis had left her long before she had left him. He’d been no more than a ghostlike presence from the earliest days of their marriage. It was no surprise that he’d been cheating; he’d probably been at it for years. And things had only gotten worse. His mood swings, outrages, and flashes of temper had come to seem like a danger. At 50, she knew it was time to start yet another chapter in her life.
Jennifer filed for divorce on June 20, 2017. Fotis described this as a run-of-the-mill breakup, the second for him. “Nothing went catastrophically wrong,” he said later in a TV interview. “People sometimes grow apart.”
In fact, Jennifer had requested emergency sole custody of the children. She worried about how Fotis might react to the split. He dismissed such concerns as delusional, citing her use of antidepressants.
By the fall of 2017, Jennifer was living with her kids in the big house at 69 Welles Lane in New Canaan, built on what had once been a middle-class street of schoolteachers. Developers, practiced in the art of tear-down-and-gut renovation, had remade it with McMansions. In other words, Jennifer was living on a new-money street in one of the richest old-money towns in America. Six bedrooms, seven full and two half bathrooms, a three-car garage, a lawn backed by forest—just the sort of place you might expect a person to hole up in between lives. It’s currently on the market for nearly $4 million—“New Construction! Perfect for everyday living and entertaining”—but it will probably be a tough sale. You can’t see it without thinking about what happened there.
Jennifer enrolled her children at the New Canaan Country School. Tuition is around $25,000 for pre-K, $40,000 after that. Added to house rental, Jennifer, who had not had a job in years, was likely looking at a monthly nut of at least $20,000 before she’d bought a single bag of groceries. Though an attorney representing Jennifer’s mother later claimed Fotis “never paid a dime in child support in more than two years,” he was, according to a police audit, racking up massive fees stemming from the divorce—he had to pay lawyers, a court-appointed guardian, and a psychiatrist. In short, Fotis Dulos was bleeding cash.
Jennifer and her kids would seem to have been leading an idyllic life in New Canaan, which, with its picture-perfect main street, is America as it was dreamed in the 1950s. The Dulos children had their mother and their nanny, Lauren Almeida, who’d been with them since they were small. Jennifer usually drove them to school in the morning, and it was Almeida who often picked them up and squired them to their afternoon practices, appointments, and activities. Jennifer had signed one son up for hockey and another for lacrosse, which would have irritated Fotis. He must have feared such sports would take his twins away from Farmington and their life on the water. They’d forget how to water-ski. Then they’d forget what it means to be Greek. Which is one reason he wanted partial custody. He did not want his kids to forget who they were and where they came from.
There was also the matter of money. Jennifer’s late father, Hilliard Farber, had set up trust funds for his Dulos grandchildren of $2 million each. If Fotis lost custody, he’d lose access to that money, which, as a guardian, he could tap into for cost-of-living expenses. When a man becomes desperate for cash, he will look for it everywhere, even in his children’s future.
Fotis did not want his kids to forget who they were and where they came from. Also: if he lost custody, he’d lose access to their trust-fund money.
We don’t know whether these funds, which must have hung over Fotis like golden coins in a video game, motivated his actions, but we do know that if he did indeed kill his wife, he was not all that concerned with the well-being of his children. We can also presume that Fotis wanted custody for traditional reasons. Because he loved his kids and wanted to be with them. Because he hated his wife and did not want her to be happy. Because he wanted to win.
And what about Jennifer? Why did she fight so hard for sole custody? There was the issue of Michelle Troconis and her daughter, who had moved into the Farmington house not long after Jennifer moved out. Jennifer did not want Michelle, whom she had good reason to despise, assuming a mothering place in the lives of her kids. Fotis objected, telling the court that “Michelle and [her daughter] have been wonderful to the children. There’s absolutely no evidence they have done anything wrong or spoken badly about Jennifer or anybody else.” But Jennifer’s sentiment is one that most parents could probably understand. There was also the question of safety: Jennifer was worried about her husband’s temper, a concern that’s hard to dismiss. And this: Jennifer had been hurt and must have wanted to hurt Fotis in return. She, too, wanted to win.
“The Raw End of the Stick”
By the spring of 2019, nearly two years after Jennifer filed for divorce, much had happened but little had been settled. There had been numerous court visits and more than 300 legal motions. There had been screaming before the judge, consultations with psychiatrists, and reports, yet the proceedings rumbled on. Fotis was still seeing his kids, but often in the presence of a court-appointed counselor. His visits had to be arranged days in advance. He was allowed just a few hours with the children at a time. Neither Michelle Troconis nor her daughter could be present. Fotis raged against these terms, but no one seemed to care. He believed the system was against him, that he was getting “the raw end of the stick.”
Fotis and Jennifer argued in court on April 25, 2019. Fotis did not think his travel time—the hours spent driving his kids to and from Farmington—should count as part of his visit. They’d often argued about where the kids should be picked up. Jennifer did not want Fotis in her house. It was decided that he could drop off and pick up at Welles Lane, but was never to go inside and had apparently not been inside in months, if ever, which would be an important part of the circumstantial case the cops later made against him.
Fotis arrived an hour early for his visit on May 22, 2019, another thing he was not supposed to do. There was supposed to be a third party present, but Fotis got there before the social worker. Jennifer told him to come back in an hour, that is, at the agreed time. He played basketball with the kids outside when he returned as the social worker looked on. He’d planned to picnic with the kids at Grace Farms—a New Canaan park designed around the so-called River Building, a beautiful bit of modern architecture that follows the flow of water through a countryside—but, as reported in the arrest warrant, said he’d just realized the park would close at 6 p.m., earlier than he’d counted on. He asked if he could bring the kids back early and picnic in Jennifer’s backyard instead. Jennifer reluctantly agreed, telling Fotis he could set up outside but not enter the house. Jennifer and Almeida would place food they prepared for the picnic on the porch as you might set out food for a hound dog, close the door, and watch through a window as Fotis carried it out onto the grass.
Jennifer told Fotis he could set up the picnic in the yard but was not to enter the house. She and the nanny placed the food on the porch as you might set out food for a hound dog.
Here’s what they must have been wondering: Did Grace Farms really close early today? Had Fotis known it would when he made his plans? Is that precisely why he selected Grace Farms?
Consider the timing: 4:30 p.m., May 22, 2019.
In less than 48 hours, Jennifer would be gone.
Who is capable of committing murder? Will anyone, if put in a certain situation, be willing to take a life? Is there a difference between those who kill when facing a threat and those who plan it out? Between those who kill strangers and those who kill people they know and once loved? Can a person who takes the life of a wife, husband, or child ever be said to be in his or her right mind? Is it a small percentage of people who are capable of killing, or can anyone break like that?
The Day of the Disappearance
Jennifer dropped her kids at the New Canaan Country School at eight a.m. on May 24, 2019. She was seen by parents. Her car, a 2017 Suburban, was seen on camera again at 8:05 a.m., heading toward her house on Welles Lane. The car did not reappear on camera until 10:25 a.m., now presumably with a different driver, in a different state of mind.
Jennifer’s state of mind was probably one familiar to all parents of tightly scheduled kids: school, breakfast, call, drive, doctor, drive, home, orthodontist, rink, homework, get them to sleep, go to sleep.
The other driver’s state of mind, the mind of the person behind the wheel of the Suburban at 10:25, a mind that police allege belonged to Fotis, is unknowable. Maybe he believed he was halfway home, nearly safe. Maybe he believed he would now have what he wanted: children, money, freedom from lawyers, judges, and humiliating obligations. Maybe he was confused, or felt a twinge of regret. What would it feel like to kill a person you loved, to snuff out the mother of your children, the woman you knew in childbirth and college, to bind her with zip ties and carry her body away like a bag of trash? Maybe he’d disassociated himself from his actions—if he did not believe he had done it, then he had not done it. Maybe he was happy. Maybe he felt nothing at all.
If you fell off the calendar, dropped from your quotidian rounds of texts and appointments, how long would it take before someone noticed? After all, a mother of five, the smart, active head of a young family, does not simply vanish.
Jennifer had gone over the day’s schedule with the nanny. She’d drop the kids at school, go home, have a quick breakfast, then drive to New York for a doctor’s appointment, after which she’d meet her kids at the orthodontist in the afternoon. She said she’d leave the Suburban and take the Range Rover, which is easier to park.
If you fell off the calendar, dropped from your quotidian rounds of texts and appointments, how long before someone noticed? The smart, active head of a young family does not simply vanish.
But something seemed wrong when Almeida showed up at the house at 11:30. Entering through the garage, she saw that the Range Rover was in its usual place, the center spot of the three-car bay, and the Suburban was gone. That’s strange. She walked into the kitchen slowly, as if entering someone else’s bad dream. Jennifer’s bag was open on the floor. Why would Jennifer go to the city without her bag? There was an unopened granola bar on the kitchen table and a full mug of tea, now cold.
She carried the mug to the sink and washed it out. When she looked for the paper towels, she realized they were gone. She went to the pantry to get a new roll. Almeida had purchased a 12-pack just the day before, one of those family-size monsters that fill your entire cart at Stop & Shop. Only two rolls remained. Ten had been used in less than 24 hours. What kind of spill requires 10 rolls of paper towels to clean up?
She texted Jennifer. It went unread, which did not seem like Jennifer at all. She normally returned messages faster than Ping-Pong balls.
Straight to Voice Mail
Almeida picked the kids up after school. One went to a friend’s house. She brought the others home and made them lunch. She continued to text Jennifer, always with the same result. Almeida finally called at four p.m. Instead of ringing through, as it normally would when Jennifer did not pick up, it went straight to voice mail. Technology has a particularly chilling way of indicating a change in status. “My stomach sank, and I had a feeling that something was wrong,” Almeida told police. “In the almost seven years that I have worked for Jennifer, I NEVER EVER had a hard time reaching her and NEVER had an issue with her phone being off.”
Jennifer had not showed up at her children’s orthodontist appointment in New York by 4:40 p.m. That’s when Almeida knew something had happened. She later said her mind went straight to Fotis. “My first thought,” she told police later, “was that Fotis did something.” She started making calls. Neither Jennifer’s mother, Gloria, nor any of Jennifer’s friends had heard anything.
Almeida called the New Canaan police. Jennifer Dulos had not been seen in over eight hours. It was a missing-persons report with an ominous undercurrent. It said that “a mother of 5 was missing and that she was going through a divorce with a man that has threatened her in the past and owns a gun,” according to the warrant.
The police told Almeida it was O.K. to talk to Fotis. She had dealt with the kids first, driving them to their grandmother’s apartment in the city, where they’ve remained ever since. It was almost nine p.m. before she made the call. She told Fotis that Jennifer was missing. He did not seem particularly surprised or concerned. He merely reminded Almeida that he had visitation rights the following day, Saturday. He said the kids “really needed him right now,” and told her to make sure they were in Connecticut and ready to be picked up at 11 a.m.
Meanwhile, the New Canaan police searched 69 Welles Lane, their attention fixed on the garage. They noticed several things the nanny had missed. They discovered attempts to clean the garage, which probably explained the missing paper towels and several other items, including camping pillows, that Almeida had noticed were missing, too. They found bloodstains on a wall of the garage, and blood spatter on the Range Rover, which was still parked in its spot. The cops took away nearly 60 blood swabs, samples found in the garage and in the kitchen sink, to be analyzed. Forensics later said no person could lose the amount of blood suggested by the evidence in the garage and survive without medical treatment.
A forensics team found bloodstains on a wall of the garage, and blood spatter on the Range Rover. The cops took away nearly 60 blood swabs.
On Saturday, Fotis realized his kids would not be waiting for him in Connecticut; on Sunday, he drove to Gloria Farber’s Upper East Side apartment, where he confronted the doorman. He knew the children were upstairs. He demanded to see them. He had a well-known history of belligerence. A few years before, he had punched one of the building’s parking-lot attendants, according to the New York Post. People knew to be wary of Gloria Farber’s son-in-law. Fotis argued when the doorman would not let him up. The cops were called—N.Y.P.D., a different kettle of fish. They heard Fotis out, then called the New Canaan police, who told them that Fotis was not to see his children unsupervised. Fotis went away angry. Carrie Luft, a friend of Jennifer’s who has taken it upon herself to protect the children and family—everyone should have a friend like that—filed a domestic-violence report to try to keep Fotis away.
New Canaan police and Connecticut detectives were well into their search by then. They’d found Jennifer’s Suburban abandoned on Lapham Road beside Waveny Park, a 300-acre preserve with just the sort of wooded trails and nooks where a body can be hidden. The S.U.V. had been left in reverse, the running lights on. At first glance, you might think Jennifer had been attacked beside Waveny, tried to get away—hence reverse—been overcome, and dragged out of the car into the park.
Sounds of Metal Banging
Or maybe that’s what someone wanted you to think had happened. In the days it took the police to search Waveny, the perpetrator could hide the evidence and get away. The cops did comb through Waveny, but that did not stop them from extending their hunt. They searched the dumpster outside the house at 61 Sturbridge Hill Road in New Canaan that the Fore Group was building, where, according to reporting, neighbors had heard loud sounds of metal banging in the pre-dawn hours the morning after Jennifer Dulos went missing. They searched in Farmington, where, according to press reports, “Troconis was seen … guiding investigators into the woods behind her boyfriend’s Farmington property.”
“The cops … have been searching all over Farmington, Avon and Hartford,” the lawyer Lawrence Dressler, writing as Larry Noodles, posted on his blog. “Jennifer lived in New Canaan. Fotis lived in Farmington. The cops need to search the 69 miles between New Canaan and Farmington.”
The police dismissed the idea that Jennifer had run away. Her credit cards and A.T.M. card have all gone unused since the morning of her disappearance. She has withdrawn no money from the bank. If she bugged out, it was without money or credit and without leaving any footprint. Such vanishing is all but impossible in the modern age. To friends and family, the suggestion that this is a case of anything other than foul play is not only a mistake; it’s a slander. Jennifer would never walk out on her children, they say.
The mystery touched a chord in Fairfield County, that affluent land of green vistas and money-drenched dreams. This was every wife’s and mother’s worst nightmare lived vicariously through the pages of the local papers. People began to dig into the life and background of Fotis Dulos. They noted stories of his temper, his accumulating debt, and strange events from his past, such as the death of his mother, who was hit by a car and killed in his driveway. Fotis stood for the great unknown, the danger every woman exposes herself to when she enters into a relationship with a man she only thinks she knows.
The details of Fotis’s life would have set anyone at ease: Ivy League education, solid business, and good looks of the sensitive, almost poetic variety—dark-eyed, slender, and small. No one who looks like that should be capable of something so ugly. Fotis represents the chaos and violence that can beset even the most affluent American life.
Black Garbage Bags in a Pickup
Jennifer’s friends and supporters gathered for a vigil at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in New Canaan shortly after her disappearance. Hundreds of people turned out. They prayed for Jennifer and her children—my God, think of the children. What becomes of a person whose mother is allegedly killed by his or her father?
The cops continued to collect evidence. You cannot read the arrest warrants, which are filled with graphs, reports, and tables of forensic information, without feeling tremendous respect for the police. They did their job so well. Soon after the disappearance, they had gathered footage that captured someone they think was Fotis throughout that terrible day.
Some of the most damning footage comes from Hartford. It shows a couple that looks very much like Fotis Dulos and Michelle Troconis driving a pickup truck slowly along Albany Avenue—she later described it as a “creepy area” with fire trucks and police vehicles—on the outskirts of Hartford, around seven p.m. the night of Jennifer’s disappearance. A man who looks like Dulos is behind the wheel. A woman who looks like Troconis is in the passenger seat, talking on the phone or looking out the window. The man makes stops beside trash cans, where he throws away one of the black garbage bags that fill the bed of his truck. In one shot, he is seen stuffing what looks like a FedEx envelope into a storm drain.
The police had soon recovered the garbage bags—they were filled with bloody clothes and towels—news of which broke in the papers the following weekend. Fotis and Michelle were at a barbecue at the water-ski pond in Avon. The owner of the property, surprised to see them socializing while the search for Jennifer was all over the news, told Fotis his presence was inappropriate. The couple stayed anyway. At one point, Fotis was confronted by a friend, who pointedly asked, “Where’s Jennifer?” She made a comment about the garbage bags on Albany Avenue, then watched Fotis as he read a story on his phone. She saw him lock eyes with Troconis. He held her gaze for what must have felt like hours. In such a gaze, you can see everything.
The recovery of those bags must have come as a terrible, unexpected turn in the plot for Fotis. Any thought he had of continuing in his old way minus one element—Jennifer—vanished like smoke.
The fifth part of this story will appear in the March 7 issue of AIR MAIL
Rich Cohen is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL