This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class.
Jennifer Lees loved going to softball games as a teenager. But not because of the game itself, though.
Jennifer’s father, Dennis Wustenhoff, played in a men’s softball league and would bring his daughter along for the trips. They would often throw in an opera tape in the cassette player and pretend to sing along – Dennis with falsettos like Luciano Pavarotti and Jennifer as his accompaniment.
After the games, the two would stop at Scuttlebutt, a bar owned by their Uncle Tommy, and play arcade games while indulging in Shirley Temples.
“I’d look forward to those days,” Jennifer recalled with a smile.
Jennifer holds tight to those memories now. The days of truck rides, softball, arcade games, and exuberant singing were over. It has been for decades now.
Dennis J. Wustenhoff was born in Queens, New York before his family moved to Long Island. It was there that he would thrive as a child, enjoying sports, spending every minute outdoors, and crafting his unique sense of humor. He always had the ability to make people laugh, even at a young age.
Dennis was drafted into the Army to serve during the Vietnam War, where he was awarded a Bronze Star. He spent much of his time working with the military police, which propelled him into his post-service career when he joined the Suffolk County Police Department in New York in 1970.
Dennis and his wife Fran would have three children: Jennifer, Kevin, and Melissa. The family of five was living the American dream in a suburban neighborhood of Patchogue, a town on the south shore of Long Island. Throughout his kids’ childhoods, Dennis always made time to attend their sporting events, dance recitals, and enjoy time away exploring on family outings. Nothing would stop him from being present in his kid’s lives, even if it meant sneaking in late to a recital.
“He was always there,” Melissa Scelsi said of her father. “We never felt like he wasn’t there.”
The Wustenhoff clan enjoyed their family trips. The “tough guy” wasn’t a fan of heights or flying – despite flying in helicopters in Vietnam – so the family would often make a day’s drive to more local attractions like Hershey Park.
But you could always find the Wustenhoffs at the beach.
“My dad loved the beach,” Melissa recalled. “We grew up on Long Island surrounded by the beach, so that’s where we spent our summers.”
On his off days, Dennis would always clean the house and perfect his yard.
“We were so excited because we knew our rooms would be perfect,” Melissa laughed.
Dennis was so passionate about a clean house, he would pick up each “fuzzy” on the ground and throw it out. It was always a running joke in the family. That’s the kind of guy Dennis was. No fuzzies on the carpet, perfectly manicured grass, straight rake lines in the flower beds.
Friends and family often joked that Dennis secretly relished his long hair and ear piercing, although he was quick to claim it was just a part of his undercover façade for the police department. The motorcycle and truck he drove outside of work, however, were only for his personal image.
Dennis loved his tight-knit community on Long Island. He was known as the jokester, the one who was always able to get a laugh out of people. Everyone knew Dennis. They all knew that he was the go-to person if you ever needed help with anything.
On his daily runs through the neighborhood, Dennis would check on the neighborhood kids playing outside or stop and say hello to the adults working on their yards or their cars. Doing this, Dennis met Tony Viggiano. Tony would become one of Dennis’s best friends and hunting buddies.
On February 15, 1990, Tony was at his house installing a new door. He heard a loud noise outside that sounded like an explosion but didn’t think much of it. He decided to finish installing the door and that he would learn about what happened later.
Then he saw police and emergency vehicles racing through the neighborhood.
“I tried to call Dennis, but he didn’t answer,” Tony said. “I started running toward the commotion.”
That’s when he learned what happened to his friend.
When Dennis entered his unmarked, undercover police vehicle, a bomb implanted under the seat exploded. According to reports from the time, Dennis was conscious when rescuers arrived. He was flown to the local hospital where he would die.
Police initially investigated the bombing as a “probable assassination,” believing that Dennis was the target after a recent conviction or to interrupt current investigations. Dennis had spent the last six years with the narcotics team, working on major drug-trafficking cases.
The investigation soon turned after questioning a fellow Nassau County Police Department officer. Robert Horan was questioned about the case after investigators learned that Dennis had an ongoing affair with Officer Horan’s wife, Nancy. Robert had spent 20 years working with the department, at the time with the Emergency Services Bureau but previously with the Hazardous Materials Unit.
Despite the investigative leads, the case grew cold and remains unsolved. Although the investigation is still active, no one has been held accountable. The Wustenhoff family created a Facebook group to seek justice for Detective Dennis Wustenhoff. Since the creation of the page, the case has seen greater exposure, more involvement from the police department, and they were able to establish a $60,000 reward for information in the case.
Although the Wustenhoff children have described their mother Fran as a strong and determined force to be reckoned with, they can still hear her screams and remember the vision of her fainting after learning her husband’s fate that day at the hospital.
Fran was aware of the affair. Dennis had confessed to her, admitted his mistake, and the two were working to repair their marriage.
“Our mom lost her husband in a horrific way and her personal life was exposed,” Melissa said. “She felt like she had to defend him.”
They all felt that need to defend Dennis.
Wustenhoff’s children acknowledge the affair and the perception that may elicit. They don’t want their father remembered for his mistakes.
“He did so much more for the world. For the community,” Melissa added. “The murder, the affair doesn’t define him.”
Melissa remembers her father as a man who always helped others, a man who always made others laugh, as a family man.
“There was never talk of divorce,” she said. “Things happen. I want people to know that my dad was a great man. He was a human being, and obviously, nobody deserves to be murdered.”
Kevin has followed in his father’s footsteps and is currently working as a police officer. Jennifer wishes she just could have had more time with her dad, and she knows what a wonderful grandfather he would have been. Melissa cherishes the last dance she had with her father the day before he was murdered, especially since she did not have a father to dance with at her wedding.
Today, the three Wustenhoff children have kids of their own. Grandkids that never get to meet their grandfather.
Two of them were named after their late grandfather.
“Children shouldn’t have to learn this,” Melissa said, noting how difficult it has been to broach the topic with the kids.
The older children are now starting to learn about their grandfather and what truly happened. They aren’t shying away anymore, saying Papa passed away in a car accident.
The Papa that they never got to meet.
If you have any information on the unsolved murder of Dennis Wustenhoff, please call the Suffolk County Police Department at (631) 852-6392. To remain anonymous and possibly be eligible for a $60,000 reward, call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-220-TIPS.
Research & Impact
As Project: Cold Case works to educate the public on the public safety concerns of unsolved murders, we often encounter some assumptions that most victims fall into certain demographics. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Not all murder victims are a single race. They aren’t all drug dealers or have had their fair share of demons. Regardless, no one deserves to be murdered.
Our Cold Case Database currently features over 24,000 cold cases. These victims come from every age group, race, gender, profession – the list continues.
Survivors are often left to defend their loved one, believing that their lifestyle choices led to their murder. Or living with the thought that someone may judge their loved one for their choices. They spend so much energy trying to justify their loved one’s life and the value of the case’s investigation. That just leads to more layers of grief that a family shouldn’t have to wade through.
Murder cases grow cold for a number of reasons. They should never go unsolved due to a person’s lifestyle. And even if that’s not the reason for the lack of justice, it shouldn’t force families to spend their time trying to convince the public that their loved one had value and was loved.
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