Home / Blog / How Police Built Jennifer Dulos’ Murder Case Without A Body

How Police Built Jennifer Dulos’ Murder Case Without A Body

May 01, 2023May 01, 2023

The Friday morning before Memorial Day was especially hectic. Jennifer Farber Dulos had a busy day ahead: driving from New Canaan, her affluent Connecticut suburb, to Manhattan for a doctor's appointment, then taking her children to the orthodontist there later in the afternoon. But first she had five kids to get ready for school: giving them breakfast, helping the younger ones choose their outfits, gathering backpacks. Fortunately, their private school was less than a mile away, just a few minutes’ drive once her two 13-year-old boys (twins), a 10-year-old boy and girl (also twins), and 8-year-old daughter piled into the roomy Chevy Suburban.

A neighbor's security camera captured her return after the school run, turning into the driveway of her 10,000-square-foot home at 8:05 a.m. on May 24, 2019. As she had done a thousand times before, she clicked the remote to raise her garage door, never suspecting the horrors that awaited her when the door slowly lowered behind her. The property's lush lawn and trees, where her children played and friends gathered, covered 2 acres: No one would hear what happened next.

Jennifer was never seen again, and four years later, her body still hasn't been found. Authorities would go on to charge Fotis Dulos, her estranged husband and the children's father, accusing him of waiting for her at the house, brutally attacking her and then enlisting a friend and his girlfriend to help him cover up her murder.

Homicide cases without a body have traditionally been difficult to prosecute, but that is changing thanks to advances in forensic evidence and digital footprinting, according to Tad DiBiase, a former federal homicide prosecutor who now studies and tracks "no body" murder cases. A successful prosecution, he told me, usually depends on three factors: DNA evidence, electronic trails and a logical suspect. Jennifer's case has all three.

Traces of Jennifer's blood were discovered in her garage and kitchen, in three different vehicles, and on clothes, sponges, mops, two rain ponchos, and zip ties in garbage bags found in Hartford, a 90-minute drive from her home, police said in search and arrest warrants. That's where surveillance cameras recorded video of Fotis — whom she’d accused of threatening and controlling behavior in their acrimonious divorce — dumping trash bags and other items: Investigators knew where to look based on location data they’d recovered from his cellphone. With the evidence that was found, the medical examiner concluded Jennifer had suffered "non-survivable" injuries, and the case was ruled a homicide.

But at first glance, there was no sign that a violent crime had occurred at the inviting and beautifully maintained seven-bedroom house on the Friday that Jennifer disappeared. When her longtime nanny, Lauren Almeida, arrived at 11:30 a.m., however, she told police she spotted several unusual things. The Range Rover that Jennifer usually drove to the city — because it was smaller and easier to park — was still in the garage; instead, it was the Suburban that was missing from its usual spot. According to a search warrant, Almeida later told police that she’d also noticed Jennifer's handbag on the floor between the mudroom and kitchen, while an unopened granola bar and mug of tea sat on the kitchen counter. And, she said, the rear door to the mudroom was unlocked.

Still, it didn't set off alarm bells, so she washed the mug, picked up the children from school — they were let out early because of the holiday weekend — and made them lunch as planned. She only started to become concerned when Jennifer didn't respond to several messages she sent.

When she also missed her children's orthodontist appointment, Almeida said, "my first thought was that Fotis did something."

She also told police about what she called an "incredibly strange" detail from earlier that day: When she went to the pantry to refill the paper towel holder by the kitchen sink, she noticed that only two rolls remained from the brand-new 12-pack she had placed there the night before.

At the time, Almeida said, "I sat there and wondered what had happened last night that they used 10 rolls" of paper towels.

Based on what police found in the garage, the killer had a lot to clean up.

Jennifer's friend Laurel Watts formally reported her missing that evening at 7 p.m. According to a police affidavit, she told authorities that Jennifer "was going through a divorce with a man that has threatened her in the past and owns a gun." Jennifer's empty SUV was found abandoned in a park 3 miles away, its running lights on, its transmission in reverse, and blood spatter on its passenger side, according to police in an arrest warrant. That morning, parked in almost the exact same spot, security cameras captured a red pickup truck. The Toyota Tacoma belonged to Pawel Gumienny — a project manager at Fotis’ construction company who would play a pivotal role in the investigation.

New Canaan police officers who searched Jennifer's three-car garage said in arrest warrants that they found blood spatter stains on the driver's side of the Range Rover and the garage floor next to it, and signs that there had been "an attempt to clean it." They also found blood on the garage wall and door, and on the Range Rover's hood, bumper and rear fender. All of it later tested positive for Jennifer's DNA, police said.

After processing the crime scene, police said, investigators concluded there had been a "serious physical assault" there.

Based on that blood evidence in the garage and elsewhere, the Connecticut state chief medical examiner, Dr. James R. Gill, determined that Jennifer's injury — "or multiple injuries" — would have been "non-survivable" without medical treatment. Her degree of blood loss, he found, indicated that Jennifer had likely been either bludgeoned or stabbed to death — or a combination of both. He called it a "homicide of violence."

The evidence pointed to one person, according to police, family and friends, and Jennifer herself: Fotis.

"I am afraid of my husband," Jennifer wrote two years before her death when she filed for divorce, which she said would "enrage him," calling him "vengeful." "I know he will retaliate by trying to harm me in some way."

Jennifer Farber first met Fotis Dulos when they were students at Brown University, the Ivy League school in Providence, Rhode Island, but they never dated — even though, she later wrote, they "had a special chemistry together … something special and precious." It would be years before they reconnected at the Aspen Airport in 2003. There, she wrote in a blog, "lightning finally struck." Fotis, still married at the time, had his divorce finalized by July 2004; a month later, he and Jennifer got married in a ritzy wedding at the Metropolitan Club in Manhattan — not far from the Upper East Side apartment where her five children now live with her mother.

They were an attractive, accomplished couple: Fotis was born in Turkey, raised in Greece, and moved to the U.S. for college, earning a bachelor's degree at Brown and an MBA at Columbia. Jennifer, who earned an MFA at NYU, had grown up in wealth: Her father was a prominent banker, and her mother's brother co-founded a billion-dollar design firm with his wife, Liz Claiborne. Instead of coasting on her trust fund, however, Jennifer was dedicated to writing and co-founded a theater company in the 1990s.

After she married Fotis in 2004, Jennifer's focus shifted to her family: Between 2006 and 2010, the couple had five children, including two sets of twins. They settled in Connecticut, where Fotis founded the Fore Group, a luxury real estate development company, backed by loans from Jennifer's father. (A judge would later order Fotis to pay her mother, Gloria Farber, nearly $2 million to settle those loans after her disappearance.)

Jennifer continued to write, here and there, including her blog, called And Five Makes Seven, which she described as "A mother of five in Connecticut writes to her children as a way of capturing this moment in time." One of her first entries seemed to capture an internal struggle between resuming her creative pursuits or continuing to devote herself full-time to her family — which for the Dulos children included horseback riding lessons, music classes, ballet and water-skiing.

"I am debating whether to blog (write) or live my life," she wrote in October 2011.

She also penned essays for her local Patch, including one in February 2012 that captured a joyful family moment before they moved out of their temporary home in Avon, Connecticut — an award-winning spec house that Fotis’ Fore Group had built. The family moved a number of times when the children were young, according to Vanity Fair, occupying model mansions that Fotis was selling to save money and help finance his other building projects.

"We had the Last Dance Party, with all the furniture cleared from the living room and Fotis, my husband, playing Greek party hits," Jennifer wrote about their last day there. "The baby was so happy, moving around, clapping, spinning. [Her sister] had everyone follow her moves, like a Simon Says soul train. [Her brother] was being a clown, doing ridiculous faces and slanted dancing, his body fully tilted to one side. Meanwhile, [their other brothers] were wrestling through it, like the little boys that they are."

In 2012, the Duloses finally settled at 4 Jefferson Crossing in Farmington, Connecticut, a six-bedroom, 10,000-square-foot redbrick colonial-style mansion built by Fotis’ Fore Group — the last place they would live together as a family.

While Jennifer no longer had to pack and unpack boxes and uproot their lives, Fotis was increasingly absent. He regularly visited friends and family in Greece. He became a champion water-skier, traveling the world for competitions. Often his children joined him and competed in the sport themselves. In one of more than 300 motions filed over two years during the couple's rancorous divorce, Jennifer called Fotis’ hobby an "obsession" and said that her children did "not want to water ski at this level," characterizing his coaching as "dangerous and excessive." Once, when their son said he was too tired to ski, Jennifer later claimed in divorce documents, Fotis became so enraged that he "threw one of his skis against a rock and broke it."

"They are physically and emotionally exhausted and have begged me to do something about it," she said in one of the divorce filings. "We are all terrified to disobey my husband."

Nancy Mastrocosta, a water-skiing organization official based in Greece, disputed Jennifer's characterization of Fotis as a father and coach in a statement shared by his divorce attorney in July 2019, calling him a "caring father."

A few weeks after Jennifer's disappearance, water-skiers were temporarily barred from a local pond: Police divers were there searching for her body.

Whatever Fotis’ character was as a father, he was not a faithful husband. He first met Michelle Troconis, a 42-year-old competitive water-skier originally from Venezuela, during a 2016 water-skiing trip to Miami with his children. The athletic daughter of a cardiac surgeon whose ex owned a ski resort, Troconis shared Fotis’ passion for sports, from water and snow skiing to horseback riding. They began a romantic relationship and, as his sister, Rena Dulos Kyrimi, told CBS News, it quickly became serious. "He was very much in love," she said.

Jennifer found out about the affair in March 2017, according to court documents. That June, she secretly packed up the kids and moved 70 miles away, renting a mansion in New Canaan. The movers she had hired later said that Fotis had blocked them several times from entering the family home; ultimately she asked them not to wear uniforms and to use an unmarked vehicle, they told Hartford's Fox 61.

The day after the move, Jennifer filed for divorce, citing not only Fotis’ infidelity but her fears that he would harm her and the children. "I fear for my family's safety and I believe him to be highly capable and vengeful enough to take the children and disappear," she said, requesting an emergency custody order.

A judge initially denied Jennifer's custody request, the first of many bitter filings in which she and Fotis accused each other of misconduct over two years. That came as a surprise to Troconis, her lawyer Jon Schoenhorn told me, when she moved into the former family home with her young daughter. Fotis had told Troconis that "it was an amicable divorce — everything was fine. There was no contention in it."

In fact, it was the opposite: Fotis was defying court orders by having Troconis and her daughter present during his children's visits. In one ruling, a judge said that Fotis "had pursued his own self-interest and exposed the children to his paramour Michelle Troconis and her daughter … in complete disregard of the court's prior orders and the effect his actions were having on the children."

The judge then ruled that Fotis could not see his children alone, saying there was "an immediate and present risk of psychological harm to the children if they have unrestricted and unsupervised contact with the defendant, as well as a risk of physical danger."

Even as the divorce and custody proceedings stretched on, after years of enduring what Jennifer described in court documents as her husband's "irrational, unsafe, bullying, threatening and controlling behavior," she was starting to feel "like her former self again," her longtime friend Carrie Luft, an actor and spokesperson for Jennifer's family, told me. Jennifer and a mutual friend attended a solo show Luft was performing in the fall of 2018, where Luft said she opened up about her regained sense of independence. "[It was] as if it were 1994," Jennifer told her, "when we were all running around downtown, producing theater, trying to make things happen."

As Fotis was forced to relinquish control over Jennifer and their children's lives, it was starting to seem like he was losing control over his own: He was deeply in debt, owing $7 million at the time of Jennifer's disappearance, according to police in arrest warrants. In addition to the millions he owed Jennifer's family, he was also financing the Fore Group through advances and shuffling money through different accounts, according to police. But if he regained full custody of his children — which police claimed he assumed would be likely if Jennifer disappeared — he’d expect to have "some level of access to the children's trust funds," police said in arrest warrants.

The last time Fotis saw his children was May 22, two days before Jennifer's disappearance, in a supervised visit in the backyard of Jennifer's New Canaan house. It wasn't their original plan, according to Almeida, the nanny. Fotis himself had requested it after he said the park where he’d originally intended to picnic with the children closed early. Jennifer forbade him from going in the house and locked the rear mudroom door, Almeida said, according to arrest warrants, to ensure he remained outside.

Police swabbed the inside knob of that door on May 24. It tested positive for Fotis’ DNA.

On the morning Jennifer disappeared, Troconis and Kent Mawhinney, Fotis’ longtime friend and former attorney, helped to establish an alibi for him, police said in arrest warrants.

That morning, police said Troconis told them in an initial interview, she and Fotis woke up, showered together, and had sex. Troconis took her daughter to school, and when she returned to the house, she saw Fotis and Mawhinney meeting in the office area — which Fotis used as the Fore Group's headquarters — around 8:15 a.m., the police affidavit states. At 8:24 a.m., one of Fotis’ friends called him on his cellphone from Greece. The short call, like Mawhinney's presence, had been allegedly "prearranged" the day before: Homeland Security agents who later seized the friend's phone said in court documents that they found texts from Fotis the night before instructing him to call him at that specific time. If Fotis was at his home office and answered that call, he couldn't have been "lying in wait" for Jennifer when she returned to her New Canaan home, 70 miles away, at 8:05 a.m.

In the weeks after Jennifer's disappearance, Fotis’ attorney Norm Pattis, who would later make headlines for representing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (and be suspended from practicing law in Connecticut for improperly sharing sensitive documents concerning Sandy Hook victims), also went on the offensive, suggesting that Jennifer had staged her own disappearance like the fictional character in "Gone Girl," foretold in what he called a "very dark, 500-plus page novel Jennifer wrote" 17 years earlier. Pattis also made bizarre and unfounded allegations to the New York Post that Jennifer had "struggled with heroin her whole life," had "severe psychiatric problems" and "a mysterious illness," and in the past had "lived for years under a false name." He also offered up a "revenge-suicide hypothesis" to The New York Times.

"Jennifer is not here to protect her children, and these false and irresponsible allegations hurt the children now and into the future," Luft said at the time in response to Pattis’ comments.

But by August, Fotis’ alibi had fallen apart — and with it, the outlandish arguments that Jennifer was actually alive or had killed herself. In a follow-up interview with police, Troconis "changed her entire story" and told them that not only did she not see her boyfriend at the house on the morning that Jennifer disappeared, but that she herself answered Fotis’ phone after Mawhinney motioned for her to do so, according to warrants.

"We dispute the fact that Michelle ever lied to the police during that initial interview," Schoenhorn, her attorney, told me, saying that she was exhausted, often confused because she is not a native English speaker, and that police twisted what she said.

Police said Mawhinney was also "self-contradictory" in interviews with them, but he ultimately said that he did not see Fotis that morning, even though they’d arranged to meet at Fotis’ house, according to arrest warrants.

Despite all his careful planning and attention to detail, police said, Fotis himself gave investigators the means to trace his movements that day. When he first came to the police station on May 25, police said, they were surprised that he declined to be interviewed or assist investigators in the search for his children's mother. They were equally surprised at his response when they asked to see his phone: He handed it to them "with no apparent hesitation" and, when investigators asked for his passcode to unlock it, he gave it to them: 0000. They promptly set it to airplane mode to preserve its data and secured a search warrant for its contents.

It proved to be his undoing.

It was Fotis’ cellphone data that enabled investigators to track his movements that afternoon and evening, and obtain surveillance footage that led to his and Troconis’ first arrests on allegations of evidence tampering and hindering prosecution on June 1, 2019.

According to police in arrest warrants citing interviews, cellphone records, residential surveillance cameras and OnStar vehicle data, Fotis and Troconis spent the afternoon shuttling back and forth between their home and another Fore Group property, a mansion just two miles away on Mountain Spring Road. They claimed to be cleaning it and Troconis said she retrieved a vacuum, a Swiffer mop, paper towels, Clorox spray and garbage bags.

Fotis’ cleaning spree didn't end on May 24. On Wednesday, May 29, Gumienny, Fotis’ project manager, said that while he was on a job, Fotis had taken his truck — "without his knowledge or consent," according to police accounts of their interviews with Gumiennny — to a car wash to have it cleaned and fully detailed.

Moreover, Gumienny told police Fotis had then urged him to replace the Tacoma's seats, according to arrest warrants, which he did, keeping the original seats "in case the police ever wanted to take them."

Police did take them — and found evidence of Jennifer's DNA in a "bloodlike substance," they said in arrest warrants.

Gumienny also provided another clue as to how Fotis might have been able to go to Jennifer's house without being spotted the morning she disappeared, police said: He had recently fixed Fotis’ French-made childhood bicycle, which Troconis later told police was missing from the spot where she and Gumienny had seen it stored in Fotis’ garage, according to arrest warrants.

The morning Jennifer disappeared, residential surveillance cameras captured someone riding a vintage bicycle, dressed in dark clothing "with a hood pulled down low to hide their face," in the direction of her New Canaan house, according to arrest warrants. Hours later, surveillance cameras captured Gumienny's Tacoma driving past a New Canaan rest area, police said, with an object in the back that appeared to be the rim of a bicycle.

The Tacoma was captured on surveillance video in a number of places in Connecticut on May 24, starting with its departure at 5:35 a.m. from the Mountain Spring Road property before returning there at around 12:30 p.m. According to the police timeline, Fotis would have had ample time to drive from Farmington to New Canaan, park the Tacoma at Waveny Park, bike the 3 miles to Jennifer's home, kill her, attempt to clean the garage, put her body and bloody evidence in her own car, and drive it to the Waveny Park turnoff, where he switched cars and drove the Tacoma back to Farmington.

As a search was launched in the park where Jennifer's car was found, Fotis invited Troconis to drive with him to a Starbucks 10 miles away in Hartford, police said in warrants. The couple arrived in Hartford in Fotis’ Ford Raptor, a four-door pickup truck, at around 7:30 p.m., police said. Based on a search warrant of Fotis’ phone, they were able to use location data to trace his movements that night and requested surveillance footage for the area.

Those videos, police said, show Fotis grabbing full plastic garbage bags from the bed of his Raptor and tossing them into several trash receptacles. In one video, several bags are seen in the back of the truck; 10 minutes later, police said, the rear bed was "largely empty of bags." Cameras also captured him removing a "large, rigid object" consistent with a missing cargo liner from Jennifer's Suburban and leaning it up against a building.

Troconis confirmed that she was the passenger seen in the videos, police said in arrest warrants, but "wasn't really paying attention" because she was "on the phone."

Police said they were able to recover garbage bags that looked like those in the videos, and found a number of items soaked in Jennifer's blood: a woman's Vineyard Vines shirt and bra, paper towels, a sponge, a mop handle, gloves, two clear rain ponchos, a towel, and four zip ties. Additional swabbing on the bags, tape, and a glove matched Fotis’ DNA, and Troconis’ DNA was found on one bag. Fotis’ fingerprints were also found on tape attached to the inside of a few garbage bags.

Investigators also found a logo matching a vintage French bicycle, according to the arrest warrants.

Finally, police said, after seeing Fotis on surveillance video placing a large item in a storm drain, they found two Connecticut license plates whose numbers and letters had been altered with tape. The plates, they confirmed, had been used on a car registered to Fotis.

It had taken over seven months since Jennifer disappeared to put together the evidence, but prosecutors on Jan. 7, 2020, had enough to charge Fotis with capital murder, murder, and kidnapping. (He and Troconis had already faced an additional evidence tampering charge, this time a felony, in September 2019.) The same day, Troconis was charged with conspiracy to commit murder, as was Mawhinney. (Mawhinney's attorney, Jeffrey C. Kestenband, declined to comment for this story on behalf of his client.)

Fotis was released on house arrest after posting his $6 million bond, but was due back in court on Jan. 28 for an emergency hearing about revoking the bond and sending him back to jail.

Fotis didn't make it to the hearing. He attempted suicide that day, writing in a note, "I refuse to spend even an hour more in jail for something I had NOTHING to do with," and insisting that Troconis and Mawhinney were also innocent.

"Please let my children know that I love them, I would do anything to be with them, but unfortunately we all have our limits," he wrote.

Two days after attempting suicide in the Farmington house he had once shared with his family, the man accused of killing his wife died from his injuries.

Jennifer's five children are now living in Manhattan with Jennifer's mother and, all things considered, thriving, according to her friend Luft.

"A lot continues to happen behind the scenes," Luft told me about the four years since Jennifer's death and Fotis’ and Troconis’ first arrests. Last month, a judge ruled that Troconis’ GPS monitoring bracelet that she had worn since 2019 could be removed while she is free on $2 million bond on murder conspiracy charges. Meanwhile, Mawhinney, also charged with conspiracy to murder, had his house arrest order — imposed after he allegedly tried to cut off his own GPS monitoring bracelet — lifted on May 15. He must continue to wear the ankle bracelet.

No trial date for either has been set.

"The slow pace of justice, while understandable, can be frustrating to everyone who loves Jennifer or who has been moved by her story," Luft said. "At the same time, we are grateful that Jennifer's kids have been able to grow up in relative privacy for almost four years, without the pressure and scrutiny of a trial."

In a poignant blog post after Christmas 2012, titled "The Good," Jennifer reflected on the past year and shared her prayers for the future.

"I hope for the kids: self-worth, dignity, laughter at no one else's expense," she wrote. "Joy, rest and Peace as well."

Senior Reporter, Crime