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Jennifer Dulos: How the Police Made a 'No-Body' Murder Case

The New York Times logo The New York Times 4 days ago Michael Gold

a group of people posing for the camera: Fotis Dulos, top, Ms. Dulos’s estranged husband, has been charged with her murder. Kent D. Mawhinney, a friend, and Michelle C. Troconis, Mr. Dulos’s girlfriend, have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder.

Fotis Dulos, top, Ms. Dulos’s estranged husband, has been charged with her murder. Kent D. Mawhinney, a friend, and Michelle C. Troconis, Mr. Dulos’s girlfriend, have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
© Pool photo by Erik Trautmann

The blood on her Range Rover was the first clue that Jennifer Dulos’s disappearance last May would turn into something sinister.

The weeks that followed brought more revelations from the police, adding to a mystery that gripped the public.

Her blood was also discovered on the seat of a car her estranged husband had borrowed on the day she vanished. Nearly two dozen items with her DNA were found in garbage cans some 75 miles from her suburban Connecticut home. Then there was her ongoing acrimonious divorce case, in which Ms. Dulos, a mother of five, had said she worried she was in danger.

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Yet even as each new detail made it more likely that Ms. Dulos had met a violent end, investigators could not find one key piece of evidence: her body.

Still, last week, nearly eight months after Ms. Dulos went missing, prosecutors accused her estranged husband, Fotis, of murdering her.

In the warrant charging Mr. Dulos, 52, with murder and kidnapping, officials detailed their meticulous investigation. They drew on blood-spatter analysis and DNA evidence to conclude that Ms. Dulos was fatally attacked. Then, using phone records, surveillance footage and interviews, they built their case for Mr. Dulos’s alleged involvement, piecing together his every move.

The laborious process followed a script that prosecutors often have to execute in murder cases where the most crucial piece of evidence — the victim’s body — cannot be found.

“At the end, your puzzle is going to be missing pieces,” said Tad DiBiase, a former federal prosecutor who wrote a book on homicide cases involving bodies that have not been recovered. “So you need to have enough of the other pieces that you can still see the entire puzzle.”

Murder charges brought without a body are relatively rare. These cases require a voluminous cache of circumstantial evidence both to establish the involvement of the accused and to show that the victim was definitively killed.

But the extra burden might actually make convictions more likely.

Mr. DiBiase has tracked just 526 such cases that have gone to trial in the United States since the early 19th century. Of them, 86 percent resulted in a conviction, he said.

Nationally, the conviction rate for all murder cases is 70 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“Only the very best no-body murder cases go to trial,” Mr. DiBiase said.

The Connecticut State Police declined to comment on the Dulos investigation, citing a gag order issued in the case. The state prosecutor in charge of the case did not respond to requests for comment.

One law enforcement official familiar with the case said investigators had gathered far more evidence than they have so far disclosed.

The charges brought against Mr. Dulos and two others accused of conspiracy to commit murder, Michelle C. Troconis, 45, Mr. Dulos’s girlfriend, and Kent D. Mawhinney, 54, a friend, were based on more than what was disclosed in the warrants, the official said.

The investigation into Ms. Dulos’s disappearance began on May 24, when her nanny and a close friend called the police after they became concerned she might be missing, according to warrants.

The nanny, Lauren Almeida, told officers that she had reasons to suspect foul play. When she went to Ms. Dulos’s home that afternoon in New Canaan, Conn., she found Ms. Dulos’s handbag, even though she was not home.

Inside the house, Ms. Almeida also went looking for paper towels after cleaning a mug of tea Ms. Dulos had left. When she went to fetch more in the pantry, she found only two rolls despite having placed a twelve-pack there the night before, she told the police.

Her worry grew after multiple text messages to Ms. Dulos went unanswered and a phone call went straight to voice mail.

“In the almost seven years that I have worked for Jennifer, I never ever had a hard time reaching her,” Ms. Almeida told the police, according to a warrant.

When the police arrived that same night, they found blood on Ms. Dulos’s Range Rover and in her garage. A second car belonging to her was found abandoned next to a 300-acre park about three miles from her home.

Detectives ultimately determined the blood belonged to Ms. Dulos, according to arrest warrants. They later found her blood mixed with Mr. Dulos’s DNA on a faucet and Mr. Dulos’s DNA on a doorknob inside her home, as well as evidence of an attempt to clean up the scene.

Investigators’ suspicions turned quickly to Mr. Dulos. At the time of Ms. Dulos’s disappearance, the two had been locked in a bitter custody battle for nearly two years.

When Ms. Dulos filed for divorce in June 2017, she said she worried her husband might harm her. As the case continued, she said he displayed “irrational, unsafe, bullying, threatening and controlling behavior.” Mr. Dulos called the accusations baseless.

Detectives used cellphone records to determine that Mr. Dulos and Ms. Troconis, who lived together in Farmington, Conn., were in Hartford on the night Ms. Dulos went missing. Surveillance footage showed them dumping trash bags along a miles-long stretch, according to warrants.

When the police checked the trash cans, they found several bloodstained items with Ms. Dulos’s DNA, including her clothing, paper towels and a number of cleaning supplies. At least one black garbage bag had traces of Mr. Dulos and Ms. Troconis’s DNA.

The police also found four zip ties with Ms. Dulos’s DNA, two of which were stained with her blood, that they said Mr. Dulos had used to restrain Ms. Dulos.

On June 1, the police arrested Mr. Dulos and Ms. Troconis, charging them with hindering the prosecution and tampering with evidence. Another evidence tampering charge came in September. Both have pleaded not guilty to those charges.

After the first arrest, Ms. Troconis began meeting with investigators. Over three interviews, she gave the police conflicting and contradictory statements, sometimes within the same conversation.

The police had found handwritten notes — which detectives called “alibi scripts” — at Mr. Dulos’s home that purported to show his and Ms. Troconis’s whereabouts and activities on May 24.

On June 2, Ms. Troconis told the police that she and Mr. Dulos had woken up together on the morning of the apparent murder, then showered and “were intimate together,” according to warrants.

Evidence showed that not to be the case, and in later interviews, Ms. Troconis admitted the alibi scripts were false. By August, she had told the police that she could not account for Mr. Dulos’s whereabouts on the morning of Ms. Dulos’s disappearance.

Mr. Mawhinney, the third person charged in the case, was also accused of helping provide Mr. Dulos with a possible alibi.

The alibi scripts mentioned that Mr. Mawhinney had visited Mr. Dulos, and Ms. Troconis confirmed he was at the couple’s home that day for a previously arranged meeting. Though Mr. Mawhinney initially denied having a meeting there, cellphone records placed him at the home, according to court documents.

Detectives said they used surveillance footage to track Mr. Dulos from his home in Farmington to Ms. Dulos’s home, about 75 miles away, on May 24, according to court documents.

The police said that they believed Mr. Dulos borrowed a red Toyota truck that night that his employee, Pawel Gumienny, had previously parked outside Mr. Dulos’s home.

Using traffic camera footage, the police traced the truck along state roads to New Canaan. Cameras on school buses showed it parked just 100 feet from the spot where Ms. Dulos’s car was later discovered.

Investigators believed that Mr. Dulos then traveled the three miles to Ms. Dulos’s home on a distinctive French-made bicycle that Mr. Gumienny told them about, warrants said. Footage later showed a man in dark clothing riding a similar bicycle in New Canaan.

The police believe that Mr. Dulos was lying in wait at Ms. Dulos’s home, where he attacked her and attempted to clean the crime scene between 8:05 a.m. and 10:25 a.m., a warrant said.

He then drove Ms. Dulos’s body away in her own car before driving the borrowed red truck back to Farmington, the warrant said.

Days later, Mr. Gumienny told detectives, Mr. Dulos took the red truck to be washed and detailed, which both surveillance footage and Ms. Troconis later confirmed.

Mr. Gumienny also said that Mr. Dulos insisted repeatedly that the seats in his truck needed to be replaced.

Mr. Gumienny eventually swapped the seats. But he had become suspicious of Mr. Dulos’s persistence, said his lawyer, Lindy Urso, so he held on to the original seats and eventually gave them to investigators.

“It was one of the best decisions of his entire life,” Mr. Urso said.

The police later found Ms. Dulos’s blood on one of the seats.

Mr. Dulos has repeatedly denied any involvement in Ms. Dulos’s disappearance, and has told investigators that he believed Ms. Dulos was still alive.

“We defy the state to prove that she is in fact dead,” one of Mr. Dulos’s lawyers, Norm Pattis, said last week.

Throughout their investigation, law-enforcement agencies conducted vast searches for Ms. Dulos. They dispatched helicopters and drones over a park, sent cadaver dogs to a trash plant and unearthed a potential grave site they linked to Mr. Mawhinney.

Every time, they came up empty.

In August, the police presented a summary of their collected evidence, including blood-spatter analysis, multiple blood stains and the items found in Hartford to Connecticut’s chief medical examiner, Dr. James R. Gill.

Dr. Gill determined that Ms. Dulos had sustained an injury or injuries that would have been “‘non-survivable’ without medical intervention,” according to the warrant.

He categorized her death as a homicide.

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