The bomb that exploded 31 years ago Monday when Suffolk County police Det. Dennis Wustenhoff started the engine of his white Cadillac killed the undercover narcotics cop and turned the street outside the North Patchogue home he shared with his wife and three children into a crime scene.
No one has been arrested in the Feb. 15, 1990, murder, leaving the officer’s family — daughters Melissa Scelsi and Jennifer Lees, wife Francine and son Kevin, who is a Suffolk County police officer — to grapple with unresolved grief for more than three decades.
"I was 10 years old and I felt like my whole life was ripped apart in minutes," Scelsi said in a recent interview. "You grow up quick and you realize there are bad things in the world."
Despite the passage of time, Scelsi said she and her family are more hopeful than she has been in years that her father’s killer will eventually be apprehended. Their optimism, she said, is buoyed by meetings in the past year with Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini and Suffolk County police officials, who have made it clear that solving Wustenhoff’s murder is a top priority.
The Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association, Superior Officers Association, Suffolk Detectives Association and a private donor have contributed $20,000 in recent months for a reward for information leading to an arrest. Suffolk County Crime Stoppers announced Monday that it was increasing its reward for information on the murder from $10,000 to $30,000, bringing the total to $50,000.
"In the murder of any police officer, justice needs to be served," said Louis Civello, the PBA’s second vice president. "It is a glaring injustice."
Civello said the PBA will also pay for a billboard truck that will ask for information about Wustenhoff’s murder as well as announce the increased reward.
"This is a case where we need the public’s help," Civello said.
Suffolk County Crime Stoppers vice president Pat Fazio said officials decided to raise its reward because the money and the anonymity his organization provides tipsters might motivate somebody to come forward with information.
"A police officer's life is priceless," Fazio said.
Suffolk police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, who asked the FBI to join the case last year, said it was important to have fresh eyes review the evidence. She believes Wustenhoff’s murder could be solved thanks to advances in technology.
"I have expressed this to the family. We are going to use everything in our disposal to bring justice for them," Hart said. "He is part of our family.
Sini said his office put together a team to work with other agencies to solve the crime. "We are going to bring all our resources to the table to solve this case," Sini said.
The family has also been buoyed by the response to the Facebook page it created last year, Scelsi said. "Justice for Dennis Wustenhoff" now has more than 6,200 followers.
"It has been healing to know all of these people have memories and stories to share about my father, and care about justice," Scelsi said. "I am way more optimistic than I have been in the past. We are never going to give up."
Wustenhoff was 41 when he died. He sported long hair and a beard that made him look more like a biker than a police officer, and Scelsi said he had a lifelong love affair with motorcycles.
Wustenhoff worked as an undercover narcotics detective at the height of the crack epidemic, and Scelsi said her father’s killing may also be related to his work. "It was a very dangerous time, and he instilled in us that drugs were dangerous things," Scelsi said.
The Wustenhoff family, Scelsi said, is grateful for the support it has received from the Suffolk police unions and law-enforcement officials. She hopes somebody with information about the case who had been afraid to come forward in the past will contact investigators.
"My hope," she said, "is that no stone goes unturned."
Anyone with information can submit an anonymous tip by calling 800-220-TIPS or by utilizing a mobile app that can be downloaded through the App Store or Google Play by searching P3 Tips or online at www.P3Tips.com. All calls, text messages and emails will be kept confidential.