The ‘Gone Mom’ Thought Killed by Her Husband and Never Found
A new Lifetime movie dramatizes the tragic story of Connecticut mom Jennifer Dulos, who disappeared in 2019 and has never been found. For star Annabeth Gish, the story is personal.
Annabeth Gish is not a true-crime addict. That makes the actress, known for her roles in Mystic Pizza and Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, perhaps one of the few Americans to not have become obsessed with the ripped-from-the-headlines murder mystery genre in recent years. So it was a surprise, or a coincidence, or maybe even fate, that when the script for the Lifetime movie Gone Mom: The Disappearance of Jennifer Dulos came her way, she was already familiar with the tragic story of the Connecticut mom’s disappearance and murder.
“I’m not a true-crime aficionado,” Gish tells The Daily Beast in a Zoom interview ahead of the TV film’s premiere Saturday. She starts humming the words of the recent Saturday Night Live parody song “Murder Show,” about women’s obsessions with the spate of documentaries tracking prolific serial killers and gruesome violent crimes. While she found it hilarious, she couldn’t identify. That said, there was something about the Jennifer Dulos case that buried into her psyche when she first caught a headline about it just over two years ago to the day, in May 2019.
Jennifer Dulos was a mother of five children and a writer who had maintained her own blog, in which she wrote candidly about her relationship struggles with her husband, Fotis, with whom she was in the midst of a contentious divorce and custody battle. She was last seen the morning of May 24, 2019, dropping off her children at school. A security camera on her neighbor’s property caught her returning home soon after.
When Dulos never showed up for two doctor appointments she had scheduled that day and wasn’t answering her nanny’s calls, her friends reported her missing. Police subsequently showed up to her house and found blood splatters in the garage matching her DNA. On the kitchen faucet, they found blood that matched a mixture of her and Fotis’ DNA. Investigators ruled that there was evidence that she had suffered a physical assault. Her body was never found.
“It’s interesting what is pulled onto our radars, because I knew about the story immediately,” Gish says. “I gravitated to it because she’s a mother. She is my age. She was at Brown when I was at Duke. And the mystery of what happened to her body, and the twists and turns of just the crazy tragedy of her body not yet being found, it’s just beyond wild.”
Gish’s 30-plus-year career is marked by the diversity of genres she’s dabbled in, but she’s struck by how, as a self-proclaimed “fraidy-cat,” she’s frequently found herself starring in darker horror material. The upcoming Netflix series Midnight Mass marks her third collaboration with director Mike Flanagan, who she recently worked with on The Haunting of Hill House. She’s starred in several Stephen King adaptations, and of course there’s her fan-favorite work in The X-Files.
But this is a project that scared her. Not only was it dark material, but it’s a case that’s unresolved—something that she imagines must be painful for Dulos’ children. The twists might seem juicy as television material, but they’re devastating as real-life facts.
Dulos had warned authorities that Fotis had been threatening her with violence, vowing to kidnap her children and, in one incident, locking her in a bedroom and berating her following a custody dispute. After she went missing, police gathered evidence pointing to his culpability in her disappearance and probable murder, including footage of him dumping trash bags that contained her blood-stained clothes.
It wasn’t until January 2020 that Fotis was arrested and charged with capital murder. He was released on bond. On a day later that month when he was supposed to appear in court, he was found in his SUV parked in his garage, where he attempted suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.
He was pronounced dead two days later. His suicide note read, "I refuse to spend even an hour more in jail for something I had NOTHING to do with.”
When Gone Mom came her way, Gish says, “it was one of those moments where it’s like, whoa, I followed this, so I was reticent and a little bit worried. It is something I’ve never done before, playing true crime in a story that’s unresolved, that there’s no closure for. I was worried a little bit about honoring her.”
Helping to convince her, beyond her empathy for Dulos’ story, was the fact that director Gail Harvey, the film’s director of photography, and editor were all women, and all of a certain age. “That helps with the sensitivity, I think, and the intention of really being honorable and not exploitative of Jennifer.”
A major chunk of the running time is devoted to Jennifer and Fotis’ love story—it wasn’t always bad—and her devotion to her children before things turned dark. Somewhat of a memorial to the life she had lived, it was a concerted decision to not go down a route that may have tantalized other filmmakers: exploiting and being gratuitous about the death itself.
“This all happened—and is still happening—in real time,” Gish says. “I was talking to a journalist yesterday from Connecticut who has followed the case since the Amber Alert went out. So for me, there’s no way to be righteous about it. I just think that there is this element of justice for Jennifer.”
To some, the notion that a Lifetime-movie approach to this story would resist exploitation or sensationalism may not track given the network’s decades-long history dramatizing the violent fates of women. When I mention that I remember growing up and watching some of the more inelegant approaches with my mother over the years, Gish laughs. “Well, your mom probably would recognize me from a few Lifetime movies…”
That said, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner, right?” she goes on. “You can’t even put a network or platform in a corner anymore, or apply a narrow definition. I think Lifetime does an amazing job with the audience that they’ve curated. They do take the time to, for this one, especially, really elevate so that it isn’t gratuitous.”
There may be the temptation to be skeptical, or assume that this is a network’s attempt to capitalize on the spiked interest in true-crime stories since the pandemic. And people can have their negative opinions of, “Oh, this is just a Lifetime movie…” Gish says. “But this is real. This happened.”
The extent that she became devoted to doing justice to the story even had her questioning whether Gone Mom would be an insensitive title. It’s a reference to Gillian Flynn’s book and subsequent film Gone Girl, in which a woman faked her death to frame her husband for murder. In 2002, Dulos had written a manuscript with a similar plot to the future blockbuster, which Fotis’ lawyers had initially used to substantiate a crack theory that Dulos had staged her own disappearance.
Gish was hesitant to give credence to the painful theory, which Dulos’ family condemned as “false and irresponsible,” especially since the manuscript was written before she even began dating Fotis. But she also understands that, among true-crime obsessives, those are the kinds of details and “what-ifs…” that are impossible to shake.
The shoot was an eerie one, especially when it came time to film the verbally abusive scenes between Jennifer and Fotis. The horrific scene in which Fotis attacks Jennifer in the garage is scripted as speculation based on evidence in the police investigation. But that didn’t make it feel any less immediate and tragic. “And they yelled ‘Cut,’” Gish says. “I could walk away, which is very different from reality.”
Shooting the murder scene ended up being triggering for a lot of people on set, she says, herself included. “I can’t generalize, but I know the dynamic [of that relationship] and thank God it didn’t perpetuate. For a lot of people, whether we just went out with a bad seed or whatever… Male or female, we’ve all had those things where we’re like, oh, that person is not a good person. I’m going to extricate myself.”
One thing Gone Mom spotlights is the passing of the “Jennifer’s Law” bill by the Connecticut State Senate. Named in honor of Dulos and another woman, Jennifer Magnano, who was murdered by her husband in 2007, the measure expands the definition of what constitutes domestic violence to include the idea of “coercive control,” a pattern of manipulative, controlling, threatening behavior.
“Hopefully this sparks awareness and conversation, and through Jennifer’s Law we can really have more awareness and pay more attention to the signs, if there is that element of domestic abuse, which can sometimes start as verbal abuse,” Gish says. “Maybe there’s some outcome where this helps to find her body so there’s actual closure.”