If your wife goes missing, and you claim you had nothing to do with it, remember to act surprised when you talk to the cops.
Fotis Dulos arranged to meet with the New Canaan police shortly after his wife Jennifer’s disappearance. In such cases, investigators often start with the husband, especially if the husband and wife are estranged. It’s usually the husband who did it, which is why a husband who plans to kill his wife and get away with it has to be either an idiot, a genius, a titanic narcissist, or insane.
Fotis agreed to be at the New Canaan police station at noon on May 25, 2019, the day after Jennifer was last seen. He acted as if he wanted to help find Jennifer, and the police, who suspected Fotis from the start, acted as if they believed him. This would be a crucial meeting for Fotis, maybe his best chance to clear himself. If he did do it, it would require a monumental acting effort. Fotis would have to be another Brando. He’d have to use the Method. He’d have to draw on traumatic events from his own life—the death of his mother? The loss of a waterskiing competition?—to summon the sort of emotion a man should feel when a woman he once loved, the mother of his children, has vanished. And yet Fotis behaved in every way like a guilty man.
He arrived late. Not 10 minutes or 20 minutes, but nearly three hours late. And he showed up with a lawyer, Jacob Pyetranker, who stood outside the police station talking on the phone as Fotis passed between the columns into the marble lobby. Fotis was one of those guys—he looked good even when he looked bad, even when he was out of sorts, disheveled but well dressed, skinny and handsome, a Ken doll with an outfit even for this particular occasion: Suspected Killer Ken.
Fotis agreed to be at the New Canaan police station. He acted as if he wanted to help find Jennifer. This might be his best chance to clear himself. And he behaved in every way like a guilty man.
An officer came out to greet him. Fotis started feeling around in his pockets. He had lost his phone, and was starting to panic. A moment later, the lawyer came in. He addressed the cop, telling him that his client would not be talking to the police that day after all, then gave Fotis his phone.
“Is that your phone?” the cop asked Fotis.
Fotis said it was.
The cop asked to see it.
Before his lawyer could protest, Fotis handed over the phone. Maybe he wasn’t thinking.
The cop asked Fotis for his code. Fotis gave that, too.
The cop was scrolling through the screen.
Fotis’s lawyer protested, telling the cop he needed a search warrant to do that.
The cop said he was not examining the contents of the phone but seizing it and putting it in airplane mode—taking it off-line—until he could get a search warrant.
Two minutes into his first meeting with police and Fotis Dulos had already committed a fatal error.
“Agitated and Confused”
The exchange was recorded on station-house surveillance, the eye in the sky. According to police, Fotis looks “agitated and confused” in this video.
Pyetranker said he needed to speak to his client alone. They went out to the parking lot, talked for a moment, and soon after got in a car and drove away.
The cops had their search warrant less than seven hours later—that is, two days after Jennifer disappeared. Detectives pored through the contents of the phone. They wanted to know whom Fotis had called before and after Jennifer dropped her kids off at school on May 24, what sort of searches he might have made on Google, what sort of directions he might have gotten from Waze, and where the phone itself had been during the critical hours.
According to Michelle Troconis—who has pleaded not guilty of conspiring to murder Jennifer—the phone had remained at the Dulos house at 4 Jefferson Crossing in Farmington the entire morning, giving Fotis the semblance of an alibi, though people can in fact be separated from their devices. But it had been on the move that afternoon and night.
Between 7:31 p.m. and 7:50 p.m., according to surveillance footage, it was on Albany Avenue in Hartford, a commercial thoroughfare on the city’s west side. The New Canaan police contacted the Capital City Command Center, a unit of the Hartford Police Department, who retrieved footage from cameras on and near Albany Avenue.
Officers in New Canaan and Hartford identified a black Ford Raptor, a pickup truck matching the description of a vehicle owned by Fotis’s home-building company, the Fore Group. The Raptor made stops at several curbside garbage cans, where, according to a police warrant, “a male wearing a light-colored shirt, dark pants and a ball cap—this individual was subsequently identified as [Fotis] Dulos”—could be seen throwing out black contractor bags in the company of “a female passenger subsequently identified as Dulos’ girlfriend, Michelle Troconis.”
Duct Tape and Bloody Clothing
Detectives were able to retrieve and search many of these garbage bags—they were still in the cans several days later. They found various household items, many stained with what turned out to be Jennifer’s blood. There was a mop handle, a sponge and paper towels, a black gardening glove, a pair of Husky gloves, two clear rain ponchos—one with a hood, one without—four zip ties, duct tape, and bloody clothing, including an Intimissimi bra and an extra-small Vineyard Vines T-shirt that the police believe Jennifer was wearing the day she went missing.
In one of the clips, police could see Fotis, or the man thought to be Fotis, shoving a white envelope into a storm drain. This envelope—the detectives must have hoped it held a murder weapon—contained two canceled license plates that had been altered. Fotis probably intended to use them to throw the cops off the trail. The absence of a murder weapon would turn out to be one of the big holes in the state’s case, as would the absence of a body. A homeless man came forward several weeks later to say he’d found a knife in a garbage can on Albany Avenue, but had traded it, as one would, for crack.
Fotis Dulos was the only real suspect. He had the history: there’d been threats and alleged violence. Jennifer told friends she was afraid of what Fotis might do to her. He had the information: he knew Jennifer’s schedule, when she’d drop the kids at school, when she’d be alone. He knew his way to and from her house in New Canaan, having been there two days earlier—he’d picnicked with his children in the backyard, but did not go inside. And he had the motive: he’d been locked in an acrimonious divorce for two years, a procedure punctuated by admonishments, penalties, fees—for lawyers, social workers, psychologists. He was losing his kids, whom he was not allowed to see without supervision. He was losing his business, which was buried in debt. With one bold act, or so it may have seemed, he could reclaim his children and ditch Jennifer, along with the cost and humiliations of divorce. As sole parental guardian, he could then access the $10 million his children had been left by their grandfather in trust.
It’s exceedingly hard to prove a murder without a body, without actual proof that someone has died. What if you convict Fotis, only to have Jennifer turn up 10 years hence at a Stop & Shop? It happens. Take the case of Teng Xingshan, executed for the murder of a woman in China in 1989, a woman who surfaced in 1994 saying she’d been sold into marriage. Or the case of Natasha Ryan, a 14-year-old who vanished in Queensland, Australia, in 1998. A criminal named Leonard Fraser was put on trial, in the middle of which Natasha Ryan reappeared, having been found in a cupboard after police raided her boyfriend’s home.
It’s exceedingly hard to prove a murder without a body. What if you convict Fotis, only to have Jennifer turn up 10 years hence at a Stop & Shop? It happens.
The police arrested Fotis Dulos and his girlfriend, Michelle Troconis, on June 1, 2019, a week after Jennifer’s disappearance. Not for murder—they did not have enough for that—but for evidence tampering. All those garbage bags.
For prosecutors, the best strategy—no weapon, no body—would be to flip Troconis. When Richard Colangelo—who had recently become Connecticut’s chief state attorney, covering Stamford, Norwalk, Greenwich, Darien, Westport, Wilton, and New Canaan—first heard of Jennifer’s disappearance, he probably felt the fear and confusion of every other local parent. Colangelo lives with his children in Easton, Connecticut, 20 miles up the Merritt Parkway from New Canaan. His work on the case can be seen as machinations at the highest levels of state—and also as one Fairfield County parent investigating the demise of another.
It’s perfect that Colangelo, a graduate of West Hill High in Stamford, Norwalk Community College, and Quinnipiac law school, would become the engine of justice. This is a story of upper-crust people. Jennifer’s uncle helped found Liz Claiborne—her wildly wealthy father attended shul alongside Michael Bloomberg. In her 20s, she ran with an elite Manhattan crowd that, according to an acquaintance, included Calvin Klein’s daughter, Marci. Michelle Troconis skied with celebrities in Tierra del Fuego and mingled with aristocrats on the Arabian Peninsula. As for Fotis … well, the contrast could not be more stark. Whereas Fotis graduated from Brown and Columbia, skinny and handsome, in love with women, fun, resort life, and big projects, the man who brought him down is a beefy, gray-haired 53-year-old community-college graduate.
Over the course of three interviews, Troconis changed her story.
In the first, which took place hours after her arrest, Troconis, still confidently in possession of her future, a long-haired, dark-eyed member of the leisure class, was simply asked to tell her version of events: Where were you? What did you do that day? She was being given a chance to establish an alibi. She was also being given the rope with which to hang herself. It’s a trick known to journalists as well as prosecutors: Don’t probe—not at first, anyway. Simply let her talk. If she doesn’t talk, you don’t talk, either. Let the silence build between you. A guilty person often fills that silence with many ill-considered words, some of which will be just the ones you need to do your job.
Troconis’s first account of her whereabouts on May 24 was seamless. She said she’d awakened at 6:40 a.m. at 4 Jefferson Crossing in Farmington with Fotis at her side and her daughter down the hall. She said she’d been “intimate” with Fotis in the shower, got dressed, and went downstairs to make breakfast for her daughter, who had to get to school. (Imagine a split screen: Michelle dropping her daughter at school in Farmington as Jennifer drops her kids at school in New Canaan.) She came back to the house, then left again at 9:10 a.m. She stopped by a friend’s place—she had to return something—then went to the Simsbury Stop & Shop, where she said she’d taken a picture of herself with Marty, the big-eyed Gumby-shaped Stop & Shop robot who cruises the aisles in search of spills. Fotis was allegedly in the midst of his own daily rounds by then. She saw him for lunch and then that afternoon at the spec house at 80 Mountain Spring Road in Farmington, where, she said, she helped clean and prepare for potential buyers.
Troconis was released on bail soon after that, as was Dulos. Both had pleaded not guilty to evidence tampering. Fotis and Michelle also had to surrender their passports.
Pages of “Alibi Scripts”
Around this time, the police, while executing a search warrant at 4 Jefferson Crossing, found crumpled pieces of paper in the trash, on which Troconis had written out everything she’d ended up telling the prosecutors at their first meeting. The prosecutors called these pages “alibi scripts.” They included many details and names. Especially prominent was the name Kent Mawhinney, Fotis’s lawyer and friend. Mawhinney, who had marriage trouble of his own—this would prove important—represented Fotis in his lawsuit with Jennifer’s mother, Gloria Farber. Mawhinney would come up again and again as the investigation progressed.
Troconis tried to explain the alibi scripts at her second interview with police, on June 6. She said she’d been told to write down everything that happened that day by Fotis’s lawyer Jacob Pyetranker. It would help them remember. Troconis also said he wanted to know the last time Fotis had been to Jennifer’s house in New Canaan.
But when prosecutors began pointing out details in the alibi scripts that conflicted with other things they knew, she began to crack.
After a lot more questioning, on August 13, 2019, she had her face in her hands, and even her own attorney was urging her to tell the truth. She finally admitted that she had not seen Fotis the morning of Jennifer’s disappearance. She had woken alone that day. She also said that Fotis had not taken his phone. It was in the Fore Group office. When it rang, she took the call, a call that would seemingly put Fotis 70 miles from New Canaan. She said she’d only written what Fotis told her to write in the alibi scripts, which is why they did not include the visit made that night to Albany Avenue. She said she’d helped Fotis clean inside the spec house on Mountain Spring Road, where surveillance put Fotis between 1:36 p.m. and 5:28 p.m. on May 24. Asked what she’d been cleaning, she said, “Windows.” Then, “Bathrooms.”
She said she was in the house when Fotis came in looking for paper towels. He said he’d made a mess in the Tacoma. When he came back, the paper towel was stained. “He said that he spilled … I think it was coffee,” Troconis told police, adding that the towel did not smell like coffee. When a cop told Troconis that, by getting her to help clean up, Dulos “got you in trouble,” she protested, “But I was cleaning the house. I wasn’t cleaning Jennifer.”
After one of her interviews, police wrote in a warrant that Troconis had “provided [a] substantial amount of information which was self-contradictory and did not bear up under the scrutiny of the investigation.”
When a cop told Troconis that, by getting her to help clean up, Dulos “got you in trouble,” she protested, “But I was cleaning the house. I wasn’t cleaning Jennifer.”
Fotis had meanwhile hired a new lawyer, Norm Pattis, who specializes in the representation of societal pariahs. Explaining his motivation, Pattis credits his childhood. “My father abandoned me and my mother when I was eight,” he told the West Hartford News. “My mother remarried a man who was a violent drunk and despised me.… The experience of being hated in my own home and abandoned when I needed a father figure the most, I think, created a need to identify with people in similar circumstances.”
Pattis, a ponytail-wearing defense attorney in the mode of William Kunstler or Ron Kuby, is just the sort of lawyer Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski would call in a jam, the sort you contact when no one else wants your case. Pattis represented Alex Jones, the conspiracy blogger who claimed Sandy Hook had been a hoax. “The world hates Fotis Dulos just now,” Pattis wrote on his blog. “I was hated once, too.”
Asked to explain what he thought happened to Jennifer—if she was not killed, then what?—Pattis floated several absurd theories. She might have pulled a Gone Girl, he said, referencing Gillian Flynn’s novel in which a wife fakes her death and pins it on her husband. To back this up, he mentioned a book that Jennifer worked on two decades before, an unfinished manuscript that Pattis said mirrored Gone Girl. Without evidence, Pattis claimed Jennifer had a “troubled past” and had “struggled with heroin her whole life.” Maybe she’d contracted a fatal illness, he suggested, and used her last moments to frame Fotis, making sure he’d never see his kids. Or maybe she committed suicide and did it in such a way that her body will never be found.
“This is a person who has a pretty florid imagination and motives to use it to hurt Mr. Dulos,” he told a reporter.
“From our perspective, this is a perfect storm: A mysterious illness we don’t know about, a history of substance abuse, and a history of having disappeared.
“If she were critically ill, thought she was about ready to lose control of her children, disappearing in such a way that made it look as though [Fotis] were the culprit is the best piss off you can give somebody.”
Anne Dranginis, an attorney who represents Gloria Farber, dismissed all such theories as “a classic act of desperation to slander the victim.”
The judge assigned to the case issued a gag order.
Norm Pattis, stop talking!
Detectives and prosecutors issued 467 pages of warrants, spoke to witnesses, searched Waveny Park and Fotis’s various properties. In this way, they were able to patch together what they believed to be a fairly complete depiction of the murder and its aftermath.
The Likely Scenario
As you read the arrest warrant and news reports, it becomes possible to conjure the scenes:
Jennifer dropped her kids at the New Canaan Country School just after eight a.m. on May 24, 2019. When she pulled into her garage a few minutes later, Fotis was “lying in wait.” She probably saw him as she stepped out of her Chevy Suburban. And seeing him, she probably knew what was about to happen. She’d been warning people for years. In some such cases, you might assume that what started as an argument got out of hand: heat of the moment, someone killed by accident. But in the prosecution’s case, it seemed clear that Fotis had carefully planned the murder—arrival by bike, getaway in the victim’s own car, disposal of evidence.
According to police, he did not kill her right away. He bound her with zip ties—four were found, two were covered in Jennifer’s blood. The condition of the zip ties suggests Jennifer was alive when he bound her wrists and ankles, meaning the last moments of her life would have also been the worst. Fotis was angry, after all. This would have been the occasion to exorcise that anger.
A murder weapon has yet to be located, but she was most likely killed with a combination of blunt force and stabbing. They can tell by the blood—the amount and the way it spattered. Fotis was almost certainly surprised by the amount of blood. He was not prepared for it. That’s why he needed all the paper towels and other supplies that were found in the garbage cans along Albany Avenue. Jennifer’s clothes—the Intimissimi bra, the Vineyard Vines shirt—were in the garbage cans, too, suggesting that Fotis partially stripped her after he killed her. Maybe that made it easier to dispose of her body. He put her in the Chevy Suburban, along with his French racing bike and the bloody paper towels.
Fotis drove to Waveny Park, where he’d left the Tacoma. He parked on Lapham Road, then transferred the towels, the bike, and Jennifer’s body from the S.U.V. to the truck, left the S.U.V. in reverse, running lights on—which would make it look like there’d been an altercation—drove the truck back to the Merritt, and headed north. He would have driven carefully, as this would be when he was most vulnerable, most exposed, with Jennifer’s body and the evidence of her death all around him.
Fotis arrived at the Farmington spec house at 1:36 p.m., where Troconis met him. She said she helped him clean. Fotis’s employee Pawel Gumienny showed up at the house a few hours later. He was driving a black Ford Raptor that belonged to the Fore Group. Police believe he caught Dulos and Troconis in flagrante delicto, that is, having sex against the side of the truck. Gumienny, who possibly made a joke about “not seeing anything”—Troconis told police she could not remember whether Dulos or Gumienny had made the joke—wanted his Tacoma back. Fotis agreed to make the switch. (He later told Gumienny he’d need to rip out and replace the seats in the Tacoma, though did not say why.) That night, after they had thrown out the bags on Albany Avenue, Dulos and Troconis had dinner at Starbucks.
It would be the last meal of their old life.
The sixth part of this story will appear in the March 14 issue of AIR MAIL
Rich Cohen is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL