Jeneen Catanzaro had a gash on her forehead when Sunrise police responded to her home on Nov. 3, 2018 – and she blamed it on her abusive husband.
"My husband, Joseph Traeger, was on heroin, came to my home and chest bumped and I fell," she swore in a statement to police that night. "I hit my head on the tile patio and have a bruise, bump and bleeding."
Even though Catanzaro said she did not want to press charges, Florida law allows police to arrest a domestic violence suspect even without the victim's cooperation when injuries are evident.
Yet Sunrise police did not arrest Traeger.
Three weeks later, on Nov. 28, Catanzaro was dead.
Police records lay out what happened based on his confession and other evidence gathered during the investigation.
Traeger returned that morning to the home, asking Catanzaro to let him move back in.
She refused and, as she tried to call 911, Traeger told police he stabbed her in the base of the skull with a kitchen knife that "went into her neck easily," killing her instantly.
Traeger would confess, police say, to putting her body in a trash bin and waiting for a garbage truck to take her to a dump, where her body would be incinerated.
He then went to Hard Rock Casino to gamble.
But video and audio recordings obtained exclusively by the NBC 6 Investigators add compelling details, revealing how Sunrise police got Traeger, a violent ex-felon, to confess over a period of weeks.
"I KNEW HE DID SOMETHING -- I KNEW IT"
It began with a 911 call Traeger placed at 6:19 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 2.
"I need to file a missing person's report," he began.
"When was she last seen?" the call-taker asked.
"By me, it was Thursday morning. I left for work at 7 a.m. She left sometime between 7:30 and 8 and I have not seen her since," Traeger answered.
He later admitted, according to police, that he killed her on Wednesday morning Nov. 28, four days before making the call reporting his wife of ten years missing.
Catanzaro's mother, Joanne Roma, had quickly suspected something was wrong.
"I knew he did something. I knew it," she testified in August at a hearing seeking to have her daughter declared legally dead, though no body has been recovered.
"I would see her often, speak to her two or three times a day," she said.
After a couple days' silence in late November, Roma testified she called Traeger with an ultimatum: "I'm going to be at the house with the police if I don't hear from either one of you within an hour."
She didn't hear and she did call police.
It would take another three days for Sunrise police detectives to get to the house, where they wrote in police reports that they found Traeger, 51, claiming his wife left without a trace – though she left her debit card for him to use.
He said he moved back into the house at Catanzaro's request and last saw her the next morning when he left for work at 7 a.m.
But there was a big problem with Traeger's story: two surveillance cameras in the neighborhood show Catanzaro, 50, coming home the night before Traeger showed up there, but they never show her leaving.
"I KNOW THIS … DOES NOT LOOK GREAT"
In his first videotaped interview with police, around 3:30 a.m. on Dec. 7, Traeger presents himself as the concerned, loving husband.
"You can call me anytime you want, I not trying to hide," Traeger said. "I'm just telling you, I mean. Listen I know this whole situation does not look great, I get that. But at the same time if I was responsible for anything, you guys would never have found me and I'm not going anywhere."
Later that day, according to a police report, Traeger's stepfather contacted police from Illinois, telling them he was "100 percent certain" Traeger had killed Catanzaro.
And he added this telling detail: Traeger had spent 10 years in prison in New Mexico for the 1997 rape and attempted murder of his now-ex-wife, after she demanded a divorce.
"He was certain that Joseph had killed Jeneen and that I should be looking for a dead body, not a missing person," lead Det. Michael Bulzone wrote in his report.
The next week, Traeger sat for a polygraph test and, after being told he failed, police say he amended his story. Police reports show he told them he found Jeneen in the kitchen lying dead in a pool of blood after he emerged from taking a shower upstairs. He told them he thought she had a seizure and fell, but "panicked" and he did not call them because he said he thought his prior conviction would lead to him being blamed in the death.
So he admitted to police he disposed of her body in the garbage, circled the community in his Honda Civic until the garbage truck removed her remains and then headed off to gamble at Hard Rock.
About a mile from the casino, the body would be incinerated, police say, noting a cadaver-sniffing dog later alerted on an ash pile composed of trash dumped on Nov. 28.
For weeks after his first 911 call, Traeger repeatedly professed his innocence during recorded interrogations.
"I didn't kill her, I didn't put a hand on her. I'm telling you straight up," he told Bulzone, who responded, "What happened then?"
"I don't know," Traeger insisted.
Later Bulzone's partner, Det. Josh Haggard, seeks an admission from Traeger, saying, "Let's call it what it is, Joe."
"What is it?" he bites.
"She's probably dead."
"I don't think so and I sure as hell hope not."
Nor would he budge when Haggard adopted the "bad cop" role, shouting at him and pounding the table, saying, "Why am I still sitting here with you talking to you? Why am I wasting my f****** time if I don't need to?"
A dose of shame from Haggard didn't work, either.
"You want to be that guy?" Haggard prodded.
"The heartless son of a bitch."
"SHOW ME A BODY"
When the detectives insist Catanzaro was dead, Traeger pushes back, saying, "I don't know she's dead."
"Joe, she's dead," Haggard replied.
"Well then show me a body," Traeger said.
In the end, they would have no body – but Bulzone had gained enough of a rapport with Traeger that on Dec. 20, Traeger called him asking to talk to him at the police station about the case. In the lobby, Traeger he said he "wanted more time to decide if he was going to tell … the truth about what really happened between himself and Jeneen," Bulzone recounted in his report.
So he invited Traeger to dinner at a Chik-Fil-A and as the detectives drove in their car to meet Traeger at the restaurant, Haggard could not contain his anticipation in a conversation recorded on the hidden camera and microphone they were using for their conversation with Traeger.
"Mike, he's going to f****** talk," Haggard told his partner. "He's going to talk, Mike."
"He wants time to think," Bulzone answered quietly. "So, he'll think at dinner."
"Think at dinner, good call," Haggard replied excitedly in the recorded conversation.
And talk he did, over the din as families noisily dined in the restaurant across from Sawgrass Mills mall, Bulzone capturing it on hidden video and audio.
Traeger's relationship with his pursuers had grown so close that, even after confessing, he was still expecting to go home that night and to work the next day.
As they walked out into the parking lot in a driving rain, Haggard whipped out handcuffs and told Traeger to turn around.
"Aw, come on," Traeger shouted, seemingly surprised "Are you serious?"
This time, at least, Sunrise police were serious.
SUNRISE POLICE: POLICY FOLLOWED
On Nov. 3, another Sunrise police officer did not believe the injuries he saw on Catanzaro – injuries she blamed on her husband in a sworn statement – gave him probable cause to seek the arrest of Traeger, who had by then left the scene.
"Due to Jeneen's inconsistent statements, her apparent intoxication and no independent witnesses, I do not believe probable cause exists at this time to arrest Joseph. Further follow-up is needed to interview Joseph in regards to this case," he wrote in a report.
During one of his interrogations after the alleged murder, detectives asked Traeger about the Nov. 3 attack.
"I wasn't there. I don't know," he said in a recording when asked what happened.
"The cops ever call you?" the detective asked.
"No one ever call you?"
"Not on that," Traeger answered.
In a statement, Sunrise police say they have a pro-arrest policy when it comes to even misdemeanor domestic violence cases, whether the victim wants to prosecute or not.
And they say that policy was followed when their officer failed to find probable cause to arrest Traeger on Nov. 3.
Traeger remains in jail without bond.
He has pleaded not guilty.