The murder of a beloved waitress at a Hackensack diner may be solved with the help of an unusual piece of forensic evidence: Dead bugs.
The body of Thalia Stathis of Cliffside Park was found in a bag on a shoulder of a New York highway, nearly 10 months after she went missing at the end of a late-night shift.
Investigators determined that Stathis was killed in September 2007, about the same time that she disappeared after a phone conversation with her then-boyfriend, Hugues Francois, by tracing the lifecycle of the bugs found in the bag, prosecutors said.
“These little creatures, seen by most us as so worthless, are going to tell you the final story of the killing of Thalia at the hands of Hugues Francois,” Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Wayne Mello told jurors as Francois’ murder trial started on Tuesday.
Mello told jurors that they will hear testimony from an entomologist, who determined that one of the insects found in the bag with Stathis’ body had its initial colonization between Sept. 17 and Sept. 24, 2007.
Prosecutors said that that evidence eliminates any possibility that Stathis was killed after Francois’ arrest on Sept. 26, 2007.
Stathis was the daughter of a Greek couple who came to New Jersey in the 1970s and opened the Golden Grill in Teaneck, Mello said during his opening statement.
Stathis worked at the restaurant until the family sold the business in 2005, and she later became a waitress at the Arena Diner on Essex Street in Hackensack, Mello said.
Three former colleagues testified at the trial in Superior Court in Hackensack that Stathis worked 12 to 14 hours a day for six days a week. Two of her former customers described her as a very personable and highly attentive waitress who quickly became friends with them.
Stathis’ mother, Joanne Stathis, told jurors that her daughter spent less time with her parents once she began a relationship with Francois. She moved out of their home in Cliffside Park to live in an apartment a few blocks away, the mother said.
“My daughter changed a lot,” Joanne Stathis said, frequently wiping tears during the hours-long testimony.
In September 2007, however, Thalia Stathis said she was breaking up with Francois, who also went by the name “Jack,” and that she wanted to move back with her parents, her mother testified.
Former colleagues and customers also said Thalia told them she wanted to end her relationship with Francois. That was a few days before Sept. 14, 2007, the last time Stathis was seen.
Diner workers reported her missing several days later and police went to her apartment in Cliffside Park, Mello said. As they were knocking on the door, Francois came up the stairs from behind them and told them he lived there, he said.
The officers searched Francois and arrested him after they found a crack-pipe in his pocket, Mello said. Francois has been held at the Bergen County Jail since.
Detectives later found blood stains in the apartment’s bathroom and in the trunk of Francois’ car, Mello said. The swabs taken from the stains matched samples taken from Stathis’ parents, Mello said.
Mello also said that Francois, who lived with Stathis, never reported her missing.
In January 2008, while Stathis was still nowhere to be found, prosecutors made the unusual decision to charge Francois with murder.
A New York State trooper found the body in July 2008, and an autopsy determined that she had fractures on her skull and arm, authorities said.
Defense attorney Robert Kalisch said during his opening statement that the injuries prove inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case.