Kelly Dwyer was on the cusp of achieving the life she wanted. But her life was snuffed out, and then came five years of hell for her family as they searched first for her body and then for justice.
The final time Tony Dwyer laid concerned eyes on his adult daughter Kelly, the sight stirred a mixture of pride, love and relief. The Kelly he saw was settled and secure, more confident and independent than ever, but still willing to make space for her father.
This was no preordained outcome. That day in 2013 followed a decade of upheaval for Kelly beginning in 2002, when Tony and Maureen Dwyer told their teenage daughters they were divorcing. The break-up finalized a year later, 16 months before Kelly graduated from Adlai E. Stevenson High School in the north Chicago suburb of Lincolnshire. Kelly had rationed her time at high school between tennis, newspaper and yearbook clubs. Now all that, plus school itself and the nuclear family she grew up in, were gone. She drifted awhile after high school. Four years later she found Milwaukee and then found herself.
Trading tennis for yoga, Kelly landed a job as educator for the trendy Lululemon athleisure store in the Third Ward in early 2012. She hustled side gigs teaching yoga at Core Essence on Brady Street and nannying chef-restaurateur Thomas Hauck’s two children.
A new look accompanied the new lifestyle. When she posted a photo of herself on Facebook clad in a strapless black top with a sweetheart neckline, Tony commented “Wow.” The party outfit hinted at another aspect of Kelly’s deepening Milwaukee roots: Vivacious and effervescent, she was having the time of her life. From her apartment near East Brady Street and North Humboldt Avenue, Kelly made the rounds at trendy spots like Allium and The Hamilton (both of which have since closed), often with her clique of Lululemon co-workers and customers in tow, or sometimes just with dates.
So when Dwyer visited Kelly in Milwaukee in September 2013, he saw a welcome end to the uncertainty that had marked her life since high school graduation. As they walked along McKinley Marina, a hard-earned authenticity buoyed her typical upbeat outlook. She had grown entranced with Milwaukee. She was engaged in and encouraged by her work at Lululemon, having recently returned from a paid business trip to a personal development seminar. She was also falling for Kris Zocco.
Kelly gushed about the affluent – yet aloof – IT executive she’d been seeing for about a year. “She liked him a lot. There were some attributes that he had that reminded her of me,” Tony Dwyer says. But, he adds, Zocco “was really hard to get. He’d call every once in a while, so their relationship was continuing, but she did not know he had a steady girlfriend.”
Dwyer says that even at the time, he was aware of all the messy details a 20-something might wish to conceal from parents, details concerning her sex life and drug use that would garner a drumbeat of discussion over the course of two sensational trials. “I knew. I was her father,” he says.
His claim might very well be true. But there were details about Kelly her dad could not have known because she herself was not aware. Even if Dwyer knew Kelly’s romantic behavior was growing riskier, even if he knew Kelly regularly used cocaine, or that she was recently sent home from Lululemon for appearing intoxicated, he could not have known the danger Zocco posed.
Dwyer never saw his daughter alive again, and his search to understand her fate would end only after a devastating five-year ordeal swept her father to the set of “Nancy Grace,” the offices of a Wauwatosa private detective and the steps of the Milwaukee County Courthouse pursuing painful answers. During that time, the search for Kelly flooded both the courthouse, with two trials bookending a grisly discovery in a field in rural Jefferson County, and the media, which reported developments breathlessly and was accused by both sides of tipping the scales of justice.
Even now, with so much probing of the lives of Kelly and Zocco, and with a legal resolution obtained, there are still questions. One lead investigator can’t say for certain what happened to Kelly the night she is believed to have died in Zocco’s apartment.
“I’d like to know what exactly took place in that apartment,” says Erik Gulbrandson, then an MPD cold case detective. “I’m not 100 percent sure.”
ON APRIL 29, 2015, a year and a half after last seeing his daughter, Tony Dwyer stands defiantly in the afternoon sun outside the courthouse. TV crews gather in front of him and Pablo Velazquez, the private investigator he’s hired. Kelly hasn’t been heard from since October 2013. Dwyer wants to talk about it.
“We want her body,” he announces.
By now, the details of Kelly’s disappearance are widely known. She meets Zocco on Oct. 10 at his 18th-floor apartment in Park Lafayette Towers. Sometime before 8 p.m., the two drive to the apartment of her cocaine connection but leave empty-handed. They return to Park Lafayette Towers before stepping out to their preferred bar, Allium, for the evening. Security cameras record the pair re-entering Park Lafayette Towers at 2:37 a.m. Friday, the last documented moment of Kelly’s life. Zocco tells police Kelly performs oral sex on him before they both pass out on the couch in an exhausted alcoholic stupor. It’s believed Kelly never left Zocco’s apartment alive.
The conviction is not enough for Tony Dwyer. “That person is now behind bars for a crime that has nothing to do with my daughter,” he says, spitting the words through clenched teeth. “That eats at our family, and it eats at my craw every day.”
With Zocco incarcerated and Kelly’s disappearance relegated to cold case status, Dwyer rails against an establishment seemingly ready to turn the page. No longer willing to hope she’s alive, he cannot mourn until her body is recovered. He recruits Velazquez’s outfit, Genesis Group, to take over. Velazquez follows Dwyer’s opening remarks, announcing an organized search of three areas around Milwaukee.
Before the search can begin, Sullivan resident Christopher Fountain spots what he thinks is a deer’s legbone while searching for shed antlers in fields and thickets near his home. Inching closer, he makes out the back of a human skull. It’s shoved face down in tangled buckthorn growing in the embankment of a dead-end road. The whole skeleton is intact, save for a couple fingers. The right leg is rotated inward, and the left arm is grotesquely contorted behind the ribs and backbone. There are no clothes, only bones.
It takes police five days before the remains can be identified as Kelly’s. Officers scramble to locate Kelly’s dental records. Ones kept in Illinois are too outdated to be useful. Kelly’s mother, Maureen, tells Velazquez there should be a more recent set somewhere in Milwaukee, but she doesn’t know where.
Maureen is devastated by losing her daughter. Though she’s the one who first alerts police Kelly is missing, and becomes the first family member to speak out in news reports, that early panicked energy crumbles into despair. She skips Zocco’s child porn trial. Tony Dwyer writes to Judge Daniel Konkol, lamenting how his ex-wife is depressed and isolated, frequently calling in sick to the hospital where she’s employed as a nurse, and abandoned by longtime friends unsure of what more they can offer to assuage her bottomless grief. “Zocco’s actions have taken years away from Maureen’s life,” he writes.
Maureen is not from Milwaukee. She doesn’t know the city well, and given her state, she cannot identify the dentist office where she took Kelly. “I put on my investigator hat and … talked to her in a way that she might remember,” Velazquez says. He begins to pepper her with questions hoping to tease out details.
SEPT. 22, 2013
Sex act involving Kris Zocco and Kelly Dwyer captured on Zocco’s phone.
OCT. 10, 2013
Dwyer spends the evening with Zocco.
OCT. 11, 2013
Dwyer last seen alive on Park Lafayette Towers security footage at 2:37 a.m.
OCT. 12, 2013
Dwyer reported missing.
OCT. 17, 2013
Search of Zocco’s apartment, Zocco arrested.
OCT. 26, 2013
Zocco charged with drug and child pornography offenses.
Dwyer investigation reclassified as cold case.
NOV. 13, 2014
Zocco found guilty of 16 counts of child pornography possession.
JAN. 30, 2015
Zocco sentenced to 19 years in prison.
APRIL 29, 2015
Tony Dwyer holds press conference announcing a private search for Kelly’s body.
MAY 1, 2015
Human remains found on Inlynd Drive, near Sullivan in Jefferson County
MAY 7, 2015
Remains identified as Kelly Dwyer.
MAY 8, 2017
Zocco charged with first-degree reckless homicide, hiding a corpse, strangulation and suffocation.
SEPT. 24, 2018
Zocco’s second trial begins.
OCT. 5, 2018
Zocco found guilty on all counts.
“Did you use a freeway to get there?” he asks.
“Yes,” Maureen replies.
“Were there any shops that caught your eye?”
“As a matter of fact, there was a mall.”
“Was the mall on your left side or your right side?”
“It was on the right side.”
This can be only Bayshore or Mayfair. Velazquez is getting somewhere.
“How far from the mall was the dentist office?” he asks next.
“Just a couple of miles,” Maureen says. “Within the next two exits.”
“What else do you remember?”
“I remember that kitty-corner to the place, there was a coffee shop. I think it was Starbucks.”
A few phone calls later, he hits pay dirt. The police are told where they can find Kelly’s dental records, and a match is made by May 5 – weeks, if not months, in advance of DNA testing.
WITH A POSITIVE ID, the investigation is reclassified as an active homicide, though prosecutors are in no hurry, with Zocco locked up at Waupun. He poses no threat to the community, no risk of absconding. This wouldn’t be a charge that expires after a certain amount of time passes. Soil samples analyzed by researchers at the University of North Texas suggest Kelly’s body had lain where it was recovered for a year and a half. Detectives re-interview witnesses, re-examine physical evidence and track down women from Zocco’s past.
The police develop a theory about how Kelly died based on a video found on Zocco’s phone made on Sept. 22, 2013, three weeks before she was last seen alive. It depicts Zocco engaging in aggressive oral sex, with a blindfolded Kelly choking on him. It is unclear whether she’s conscious, or knows she’s being recorded. It is clear she’s struggling to breathe.
Police determine this sex act can be fatal. The video fortifies investigators’ suspicions that Zocco is responsible for Kelly’s death. They look for women who engaged in similar activity with him.
Five women report Zocco’s aggressive sexual behavior made them uncomfortable. One woman says she took out a restraining order against Zocco after breaking up with him in 2005. Another woman tells detectives she was sexually assaulted by Zocco in Milwaukee after initially consenting to sex with him. Due to the nature of her allegation, her identity is kept secret. She’s known in police reports and court testimony only as “Witness 5” and “Ms. C.”
Ms. C. tells investigators she met Zocco through Craigslist. She wanted a casual relationship, accepting dominant and submissive role-play, and even willingly engaged in the same acts recorded on Zocco’s cellphone. But she accuses Zocco of breaking the rules both understood were needed to ensure her safety. A tap on the bed by Ms. C. was supposed to signal Zocco to back off. Ms. C. said Zocco initially respected the system, but over time started ignoring her taps. Ms. C. further claims that Zocco held her down and raped her as her children were sleeping in another bedroom. She stifled the urge to scream, instead quietly begging Zocco to stop. He refused. That was the last time she saw him.
Police have long believed the available evidence implicates Zocco. Kelly and Zocco are seen entering his building hours before all activity on her bank card, Facebook account and cellphone stop. He acts strangely the morning Kelly disappears, and for the next 36 hours. A cadaver dog locates the scent of human remains inside Zocco’s apartment and the trunk of his 2011 Audi S4. And now investigators have a witness willing to testify about his threatening behavior during sex.
As the calendar creeps farther from October 2013, Assistant District Attorney Sara Hill decides that her second case against Zocco will likely grow no stronger.
There will be no smoking gun.
On May 8, 2017, Zocco is charged with three counts related to Kelly’s death: first-degree reckless homicide, hiding a corpse, and strangulation and suffocation.
“I’d like to know what exactly took place in that apartment.”
— MPD LT. ERIK GULBRANDSON, FORMER COLD CASE DETECTIVE
KRIS ZOCCO’S FAMILY always saw him as someone special. An East Coast transplant, he moved to Milwaukee in 2009, around the same time as Kelly did, though the two would not meet until years later, when Zocco’s weed dealer made the introduction. In Milwaukee, he worked as the head of IT at TRC Global, a corporate relocation firm where his mother was a top executive. When police arrest Zocco, he’s walking out of the TRC building, and it’s TRC that supplies the $250,000 bail needed to secure his release during his first trial.
People convicted of crimes often solicit letters from acquaintances to present before a judge evaluating sentences. These letters typically paint a picture of the defendant apart from their trespasses, in hopes that the halo of virtue demonstrated by offenders will elicit leniency. Many of Zocco’s relatives submitted such letters during his first trial. They paint a picture of a well-liked man whose personal ability marked him for distinction. “He was an easy son, and a young adult to be proud of,” Zocco’s father Paul wrote in 2014.
These letters are the only public fragments that speak to the other Zocco. He was 38 at the time of Kelly’s disappearance. He turns 44 this month. He doesn’t do interviews. Neither of his trials featured him on the witness stand. Any trace of a social media footprint was vaporized long ago.
The letters reveal young Kris traveled a lot. Like Kelly’s, his parents were divorced. Raised in Connecticut, he made annual visits to his father in San Diego starting at age 10. He also made multiple trips to North Carolina, where his grandparents lived.
Many note Zocco’s Christian upbringing, his international business degree from Boston University, his employment with the New York Yankees immediately before coming to Milwaukee. They are big on redemption. “He was and can be again a contributing member of society,” one uncle notes. “I love Kris and want him to have the best opportunities in the years to come,” writes another.
Zocco wins people over. A social worker and mental health nurse attached to the county jail – both of whom met Zocco only after his initial arrest – praise his personality and lament the situation he found himself in. One ex-girlfriend, Cara Signorile, notifies the court that the Zocco described in news reports is a total stranger compared to the funny, charming, kind lover she knew. To this day, Signorile believes that whatever happened to Kelly must have been a tragic accident.
In his letter to the court, dated on Christmas Day, Zocco’s stepfather, Merrill Frye, tallies the impact the ordeal had on Zocco and his family. “He has lost his job, his real girlfriend and the respect of some of his friends as he has been slandered by the press. Kris has lived with us for the past year, and I have seen the regret he has for all of this every day, especially for what it has done to his mother (whose job is now in jeopardy).” Frye asks the court to once again mark Zocco as special, and not lump him in with other criminals. “Hopefully you will not treat him as a gun-toting gang member or a dangerous pedophile,” he writes.
Zocco’s biological father even questions the legitimacy of charges brought against his son. “Considering my son, a man of above-average intelligence, considering what police investigators theorized he did pertaining to Miss Dwyer, wouldn’t he immediately purge his apartment of any contraband or compromising and incriminating materials?” Paul Zocco wrote.
KRIS ZOCCO DID immediately purge his apartment, according to both his maid and his girlfriend, the one he’d kept hidden from Kelly.
Meagan Pollock and Zocco had dated for three and a half years, part of his charmed surface life. There was talk of marriage. They lived separately, each in their own place, but were committed enough that Zocco was to host Pollock’s parents in his own spare bedroom the weekend after Kelly went missing.
Zocco slept at Pollock’s apartment the first two nights after Kelly’s disappearance. He sweated through the sheets both nights, Pollock would later tell a jury. On the day Kelly was reported missing, Oct. 12, 2013, Zocco went for a long drive by himself, returning hours later with cheese from a Madison-area shop. This is when prosecutors believe he discarded Kelly’s body. At the time, Pollock thought it odd he’d run a time-consuming and inconsequential errand on a day they were supposed to go to dinner with friends.
The next morning, Zocco and Pollock went to brunch at Café Corazón. “That brunch sticks out in my memory,” Pollock told the jury.
She and Zocco were mired in a rough patch that she wagered they would overcome. She knew nothing about Kelly and Ms. C., only that Zocco struggled with impotency and they mostly stopped having sex. There was emotional friction as well, which she attributed to uncertainty over her future. Pollock had family in Denver, and she was interested in relocating, with even the prospect of a job waiting once she got there. But Zocco wanted no part of Colorado. Faced with this ultimatum, Pollock chose Zocco. She accepted another job that kept her in Milwaukee. Then, after all the hard choices were settled, Zocco picked that brunch to reveal he was ready to move west.
They spent the rest of the afternoon at her condo enjoying a lazy Sunday. She baked chocolate chip cookies. Pollock left that night for Chicago on business. It would be the last time they saw each other until Pollock spoke against Zocco in court.
“Did you love Kris?” Sara Hill asked.
Fighting back sobs, Pollock testified that she did.
ON OCT. 5, 2018, Zocco was found guilty of recklessly causing Kelly Dwyer’s death, nearly five years after her disappearance, and roughly three and a half years after the discovery of her remains. He was also found guilty of hiding her body, and of suffocating her on the cellphone sex video.
Tony Dwyer’s strained, unblinking stare cleared the frame of his downward-sloped glasses and locked into the front of the courtroom where Judge Jeffrey Wagner read the verdicts. Maureen collapsed and shook beside him. Afterward, Dwyer said Maureen was afforded closure by the outcome, but for him, it’s just another spike in a ceaseless tragedy that won’t allow him healing or distance. His outlook was fixed days after his 2015 press conference when Kelly was located.
“I got relief three and half years ago when they found the body,” Dwyer says. “She was a 27-year-old kid who was just finding her way as a young woman when she was deliberately taken away by some scumbag.”
Dwyer may not yet be done even now. Zocco’s attorney, Craig Mastantuono, sees this case heading to appeal. Zocco maintains his innocence, and Mastantuono rejects the series of inferences as conclusive proof of Zocco’s guilt, pointing out holes in the prosecution’s case. First was the issue of the exits and security cameras at Park Lafayette Towers. Police initially claimed that all building exits were covered by security cameras and that all camera footage was reviewed. Neither was true. Then there was the explosive charge that Zocco admitted guilt to a fellow inmate shortly before trial and asked for help silencing Ms. C. This allegation generated a new charge of witness intimidation that was abruptly discarded mid-trial after Mastantuono’s team unearthed serious doubts about the informant’s credibility.
More damaging than the charge itself, Mastantuono claims, were the “Zocco confesses” headlines it launched two weeks before jury selection. He says defense witnesses called to ask if they still needed to testify, and he likens jury instructions to set aside the informant’s claim to waving away the smell of a fart and saying it never happened. Though he says he will not represent Zocco if an appeal is filed, he believes there are grounds for one. Zocco is still appealing his child porn case, so it’s entirely plausible his latest convictions will be contested, too.
AND SO IT appears the battle over Zocco’s responsibility for Kelly Dwyer’s death will drag into its sixth year. All the main players again and forever called back to confront the three days in October 2013 when Kelly disappeared. Absent a confession, the known facts will never provide a minute-by-minute account of Kelly’s final moments, but they do present an impression of understanding, just as Tony Dwyer understood his daughter’s path, the brief moment before her unforeseen destruction.