Part two in a three-part series covering investigating and prosecuting homicide cases without the victim’s body from Michelle Kaszuba an NYC prosecutor, advocate for unsolved cases, and board member for PI for the Missing and the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases. Follow along as she shares her insights to help Citizen Detectives better understand the law on investigating and prosecuting “no body” homicide cases.
The murder of Jennifer Dulos, a 50-year-old Ivy League-educated writer and mother of five children, has captivated the New England area and beyond since her disappearance on the morning of May 24, 2019. The subsequent investigation led detectives to the tragic conclusion that Jennifer had been killed by her husband, Fotis Dulos, at her home after she dropped the children off at school. Approximately three months later, investigators obtained a search warrant that presented a summary of the evidence they had collected against her estranged husband and his girlfriend, Michelle Traconis.
After an examination of the evidence collected, Connecticut’s chief medical examiner, Dr. James R. Gill, determined that Jennifer had sustained traumatic injuries that would not have been survivable without medical intervention. Even without her body, he categorized her death as a homicide, which led to Fotis’s arrest for murder and Michelle’s arrest for conspiracy and tampering with evidence.
The case against Fotis was based on circumstantial evidence that, when taken together as a whole, proved that he had the means, motive and opportunity to murder Jennifer. Let’s take a look at the evidence and see how investigators built their case.
It was no secret that Fotis and Jennifer’s marriage was over by May 2019. The couple had married in 2004, but the union had deteriorated by 2017, when Jennifer filed for divorce and full custody of their five children after learning of her husband’s affair with 44-year-old Michelle Troconis.
The ongoing acrimonious divorce case was a blueprint of Fotis’s intentions and a chilling prediction of Jennifer’s fate. In her petitions, Jennifer claimed that Fotis’s irrational and controlling behavior had escalated to bullying, intimidation, and outright threats against herself and the children. She went as far to say she was sure Fotis would retaliate by harming her and wrote in a post on her blog that she feared she would end up in a body bag before her children were grown. Jennifer recounted that Fotis had threatened to kidnap their children if she did not agree to his proposed terms for the divorce settlement. She also made everyone aware that Fotis had bought a gun in 2017.
On the day she disappeared, Jennifer dropped the children off at school and was believed to have returned home and attacked and killed in her garage between 8:05 a.m. and 10:25 a.m. by Fotis, who then transported her body out of the home by car.
Jennifer’s nanny, Lauren Almeida, was one of the first people to notice Jennifer’s absence as well as the strange state of certain things in the home. For instance, Lauren found Jennifer’s purse inside of the house, which didn’t seem to make sense, since Jennifer and her vehicle were not there. As she cleaned up around the kitchen, Lauren reached into the pantry for a roll of paper towels, discovering two rolls left of a twelve-pack she had purchased only the day before. Additionally, calls and texts to Jennifer’s cellphone went unanswered, which was unlike the devoted mother who could always be reached when she was needed.
The blood evidence collected in this case played a huge part in revealing the truth about Jennifer’s final moments and ultimately, her fate. First, a large bloodstain that was later determined to be Jennifer’s blood was found in her garage; her blood was also found on a car parked in the garage.
Inside of her home, investigators found Jennifer’s blood mixed with Fotis’s DNA on a faucet; they also found Fotis’s DNA on a doorknob. It’s important to note that Fotis lived approximately 75 miles away, was separated from Jennifer and wasn’t scheduled to pick up or see his children that day. In other words, Fotis had no reason to be in Jennifer’s house, presumably he wasn’t welcome there, and therefore, his DNA in the house was definitely suspicious.
The DNA mixture, as well as the location, also had a story to tell. In this case, the tale the DNA told was that Jennifer was bleeding and Fotis had washed up in that particular sink. Staying on the topic of location, Jennifer’s blood was also discovered on the seat of a car that belonged to a friend of Fotis. Jennifer would have had no reason to be in that car it’s not her friend or her car. Investigators came to find out that Fotis had borrowed the car from a friend the day Jennifer vanished, then insisted that his friend change out the seats in the car—an odd request on any day. The friend saved the seats and turned them over to investigators.
Fotis and Michelle may have cleaned the crime scene, but a trail of surveillance video (see below) led investigators to dozens of discarded cleaning products and instruments of tampering and obstruction in a bevy of dumpsters that would further implicate the pair in Jennifer’s disappearance and murder. Investigators recovered items that were forensically connected to Jennifer through DNA, including Jennifer’s bloodstained clothing, paper towels with traces of blood, cleaning supplies and four zip ties covered in Jennifer’s blood, packaged in black plastic garbage bags where traces of Fotis and Michelle’s DNA were eventually found.
Anyone who follows true crime has experienced the emotional roller coaster that is cellphone pings and surveillance video as evidence. In my opinion, evidence based on technology is frustrating because we expect it to give us an absolute answer to the things we need to know. We want the cellphone coordinates to put the suspect at the scene of the crime and we want the surveillance video to show it happening with a clear image of the perpetrator.
Instead, let’s temper our expectations for these technologies and examine how cellphone records and surveillance video, as circumstantial evidence, allowed investigators to complete parts of the puzzle of Jennifer’s disappearance.
In this case, investigators requested cellphone records for Fotis and Michelle. In many states, cellphone records, coordinates and pings must be obtained through a subpoena, at the least, or, sometimes through a court order or search warrant signed by a judge, which means that the investigator and the prosecutor has to show that probable cause to believe a crime had been committed and that these records could reveal information about that crime.
Once investigators obtained Fotis and Michelle’s records, they were able to see that the couple’s phones had pinged off of celltowers in the vicinity of Hartford, Connecticut around 7:00 p.m. the same day Jennifer vanished. The distance between Hartford and Farmington, Connecticut, where the couple lived, was not far and, by itself, this piece of information was not earth-shattering.
However, Hartford police officers knew that the city was covered by an extensive system of surveillance cameras. Once they started pulling footage from the area in the vicinity of the ping, they saw something interesting: a man and a woman, similar in build and appearance to Fotis and Michelle, in a black Ford Raptor (a vehicle owned by Fotis) making multiple stops along 30 Albany Avenue, a busy street in Hartford, and tossing what appeared to be black garbage bags into dumpsters at every stop. When investigators got to those locations they recovered the garbage bags, described above, bearing traces of Jennifer, Fotis and Michelle’s DNA.
This was not the only surveillance video that pointed the finger straight at Fotis and Michelle. Once investigators were able to determine the route, the pair had taken between Farmington and Jennifer’s home in New Canaan, they pieced together the trip that Fotis and Michelle took, in the vehicle Fotis had borrowed from his friend, through traffic cam video that monitored state roads, neighborhood surveillance cameras, and dash cams on school buses in the area where Jennifer’s car was eventually found, abandoned next to a 300-acre park about three miles from her home
What was shaping up to be a very good chance of murder conviction against Fotis Dulos came to a screeching halt in January 2020. Fotis made bond and was released from custody. As a man of means with access to money, he was able to secure his release by using his expensive home as collateral. But an emergency bond hearing was called when it was discovered that the house was in foreclosure and, rather than return to prison, Fotis took his own life.
So on March 3, 2020, the judge dismissed the murder charges against Fotis Dulos; this was done by a nolle prosequi request by the prosecution, which means that the prosecutor recognized that the charges against Fotis could not be continued in light of his death.
Additionally, the dismissal lifted gag orders that were previously imposed on the parties, which is why we have so much access to information about the investigation into Jennifer’s disappearance and murder.
This case is an excellent example of a successful no body investigation and arrest; it would have taught us a lot had the defendant lived to see a trial. But let us not forget that at the center of the evidence, the story and the academics, there is a person–a real person–whose disappearance and death has left her parents, children, friends and loved ones with a gaping hole in their lives that had once been filled with love, ambition and hope.
Fotis Dulos’s girlfriend, Michelle Troconis, has been charged with conspiracy to commit murder and tampering with physical evidence. Her case is still pending as of the writing of this piece.
This post is the first of a three-part series that originally ran on the PI for The Missing blog.
Michelle Kaszuba has been a prosecutor since graduating from Hofstra University School of Law in 2010. She currently serves in the Financial Crimes and Money Laundering Bureau of the Suffolk District Attorney's Office and belongs to a specialized unit that investigates wrongful convictions and claims of innocence. Previously, she worked in the Queens County District Attorney's Office for 13 years.
The bulk of her career was spent in a specialized unit that investigated homicides, suspicious deaths, and vehicular deaths alongside NYPD homicide detectives, resulting in the indictments and convictions of many perpetrators. She has also worked with the NYPD cold case squad to investigate unsolved murders and disappearances.
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