The answer to that question is something the family has been seeking for 30 years. Now demanding justice, the Wustenhoff children, Jennifer Lees, 44, Kevin Wustenhoff, 42, Melissa Scelsi, 40, and their mother, Fran Wustenhoff, are asking the public to come forward with details and information while also pleading with Suffolk County police to actively “reopen” the case.
“He was a dad, so involved with his family and he never missed out on anything. He was always there,” said Scelsi, also explaining that her father was not just a police officer but also a community man known for keeping an eye on the area and teaching children the dangers of drugs. “He was the coolest dad with long hair and an earring; funny, just the perfect dad.”
Now living in Smithtown with her husband and two children, Scelsi said she and her siblings were taken aback by the realization of the 30-year anniversary of their father’s death. In an epiphany of sorts, thinking about how people are more connected than ever before, through social media, a mere few weeks ago she set up a “Justice for Dennis J. Wustenhoff” Facebook page that has already garnered some 4,000-plus followers.
“I think being the 30-year mark, it really hit us. I am turning 41 this year, the age my father was when he passed, and my son is 10, the age I was when he passed,” Scelsi said of the current push to find justice. “Enough is enough.”
After the Feb. 15, 1990 murder, their mother soon moved from their family home, tainted by the horrific explosion.
“Thirty years is too long. My children should not have to live their lives knowing the person responsible for the brutal and horrific murder of their father is not in jail,” she said of her children, taking it upon themselves to help solve the murder. “It is time for the truth.”
Though Scelsi is credited with organizing the recent movement, her brother, a Suffolk County Police Officer following in the footsteps not only of his father but also all the men and women of the department who have supported his family throughout the years, took a moment to detail the day of his father’s death in hopes of provoking the good in someone who may know something to come forward.
“I believe in my heart that someone out there may have some kind of information,” he said, explaining that the type of crime that killed his father was due to a very sophisticated bomb with a lot of technological and mechanical aspects. “Someone out there is aware of something that took place to get that crime to happen. In some way, shape, or form someone touched it whether on purpose or not. We want to amplify that anything short of being under the car doing it yourself, we support you and will protect you.”
Kevin Wustenhoff currently works in the Fourth Precinct, wearing his father’s shield. He and his police officer wife have five children.
He also explained that though many people knew of the story, whether having had read about it or lived it in some way, what they might not realize is his father did not turn the key and simply “blow up.” He was alive and conscious for a total of three hours after the explosion, and the explosion wasn’t just the average explosion you think about like in the movies, he said; it was designed specifically to hurt his father.
“It wasn’t just the explosive that fired up into him and killed him. It was the floorboard of the car and the seat’s upholstery, springs and motor. All of those things fired up into his body at a high velocity and basically destroyed his insides. He was talking and aware that he was very badly wounded and dying,” his son added. “He was in great pain. It was not a dignified way to go; there was a lot of suffering up until his last breath. It was a very vicious and cowardly murder and not the way a man who spent two decades serving the people of Suffolk County in the war on drugs should die.”
Dennis Wustenhoff was a Suffolk County narcotics detective, working undercover. Prior to his time with the SCPD he served in Vietnam and was wounded. He came home after surviving the attack and later, due to Agent Orange, fought and beat cancer.
Earlier this week the Wustenhoffs met with the Suffolk County Police Department to discuss the case, as they have many times before, hoping this time would be different and promising they will not give up.
The SCPD released the following statement in response to the Wustenhoff case: “Dennis Wustenhoff was a dedicated member of the Suffolk County Police Department and made the ultimate sacrifice. Even though 30 years has passed since his death, this department remains committed to apprehending the perpetrator or perpetrators responsible for his murder. We are dedicated to bringing justice and some form of closure for Detective Wustenhoff’s family, friends and fellow officers.”
Scelsi noted that the family is convinced that their father’s killer is the same main person of interest from the 1990s, a living and now-retired Nassau County police officer whose motive is also there.
“His name is out there and the fact is he has motive and the means,” added Lees of her father’s potential killer. “He also allegedly made verbal threats to my dad, directly and indirectly.”
According to the Wustenhoff children, at that time, their father had a known affair with the wife of the other police officer, something their mother and father were working on as a couple.
“But that doesn’t define him. He wasn’t a bad person; he just made one bad choice in life and it doesn’t mean he deserved this,” Scelsi said of the affair. “He was actively trying to make their marriage better and came clean to my mother long before this happened.”
Kevin Wustenhoff also said that their mother has since forgiven their father and attributed the affair to the high-stress life he led. Scelsi also noted that the man in question had the capability as well as motive, having had worked in the emergency services unit with access to the type of bomb used.
“Whatever the reason they chose to stop [the investigation] has been a result in my family being tortured mentally,” she continued, hoping to finally find some peace. “It’s been too long. We just really need the police department to back us all these years later.”
Lees agreed, also stating that they are not convinced the police have done their best in solving the case, and hope that current advancements in technology can make this case more solvable. But the biggest piece of the puzzle, she explained, is information.
“Please help us find justice for [our] dad; it’s never too late to tell us something big or small,” she pleaded, promising anonymity. “What we try to stress to people is that this is not just a murder story — it’s our dad.”
SCPD suggests anyone with information contact Suffolk County Crime Stoppers at 1-800-220-TIPS. Until then, the question of what happened to Wustenhoff remains.
FEBRUARY 15, 1990
A “sophisticated” bomb exploded in undercover Suffolk County narcotics detective Dennis Wustenhoff’s unmarked white Cadillac at approximately 11:55 a.m. that Thursday.
The blast propelled debris 200 feet from the car, the North Patchogue Fire Department reported at the time. Wustenhoff was transported, alive and conscious, by ambulance to the helicopter to Stony Brook University Hospital, where he died several hours later from “extreme trauma to the lower abdomen and lower extremities.”
It was reported at the time that anti-shock trousers were applied at the scene. Later that week an estimated 5,000 police officers from across the nation attended the funeral on North Ocean Avenue.
According to initial reports, by the following week a search warrant was granted for the Bethpage home of 43-year-old Nassau police officer Robert Horan. Based on the Long Island Advance’s Feb. 22, 1990 story, titled “Car bomb may have been placed by cop,” a second team of detectives questioned Horan in Cooperstown, N.Y., where he had been vacationing with his wife and two children since that Saturday in 1990. No charges were filed against him and no arrest was ever made.
REMEMBERING THE DAY THEIR DAD DIED
Melissa Scelsi recalled the day her father died vividly. She remembered being picked up from elementary school by a police officer with her older sister and brother already inside, having been picked up from middle school. They were told their father was in an accident but were given no details due to their age and fear for their safety. Together they were rushed to Stony Brook Hospital in tears and confusion.
“I remember that day perfectly,” she said. “There are things that you don’t remember as a kid, but that day just doesn’t go away.”
Once they arrived at the hospital she remembered being shoved into rooms and then finally meeting her mother inside a conference room and being told what had happened.
“It didn’t even make sense, it was just so surreal,” she said, remembering her thoughts after being told her father was involved in an explosion.
Then, her mother was brought out of the room and ultimately told the fate of her husband; she let out a scream, a noise the Wustenhoff children said they would never forget.
“We just knew at that point it was bad,” she added, also explaining that none of them, including her mother, were able to see Wustenhoff during his last moments due to the extensiveness of his injuries, though it is not something they regret.
Jennifer Lees said she also remembered a lot about that day but a couple of things stuck out, like being picked up from school by a police officer.
“It was scary and confusing,” she said, also noting that the most memorable image was seeing the yellow taped off area of her neighborhood, “Which I thought was really weird being that I was told it was just a car accident.”
But her time at the hospital was the most impactful.
“Amongst all the sadness we felt, I literally became an adult that day,” she added. “It was so surreal, I just thought I would wake up the next day and it would all be normal again.”