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A Mother's Anquish
Trying To Find Her Missing Child
Story By John Murray07/14/2006
There is no force on earth more powerful than a mother's love for her child. It's deeper than primal, it might be life's force itself.
Woe is the hiker who comes between a mama bear and her cubs, and woe is the bureaucracy that tries to stop Janice Smolinski from finding out what happened to her missing son, Billy.
In the past two years, frustrated with an apathetic response from authorities, Janice and her family launched their own investigation into her son's mysterious disappearance. They have hired private investigators, launched their own search party, become experts on DNA, and relentlessly tack Billy Smolinski posters on telephone poles across western Connecticut.
In the process Janice has butted heads with Waterbury police officers, been arrested in Woodbridge, CT, and is now being sued by her son's ex-girlfriend.
"I'm not going to stop until I find out what happened to Billy," Janice Smolinski said. "There is no other way. My next step could be jail. I hope that doesn't happen, but I'm ready."
Janice, and her husband, Bill, are convinced their son is dead. At the time of his disappearance Billy was involved in a love triangle. The last telephone call he made was to his male rival in the triangle. It was a threatening call, and Billy's family believe he would have sought a physical confrontation with the man.
That call was made August 24, 2004, the day Billy disappeared.
The man who Billy Smolinski threatened is a prominent politician in Woodbridge, CT. His family owns and operates a long distance trucking business.
Billy's ex-girlfriend, Madeleine Gleason, is a school bus driver in Woodbridge. Weeks after Billy disappeared his missing person posters were being torn down in several towns. The family investigated and were stunned to learn that Madeleine Gleason, and her friend, Frances Vrabel, were the ones tearing Billy's posters down.
"Why would they do that?" Janice Smolinski said. "Why would anyone do that, especially his girlfriend."
Billy Smolinski's bizarre disappearance two years ago was mishandled immediately by the Waterbury Police Department as they bungled evidence from the inception. They never fingerprinted Billy's truck and they misplaced three DNA samples provided by the Smolinskis. Nearly two years after Billy's disappearance the Waterbury Police Department is still attempting to get DNA samples from the case into local, state and national DNA data bases.
As the Smolinski family pleaded for help in finding Billy, the police responded with indifference. Billy Smolinski was a 31 year old man who had told his neighbor he was headed north for a few days to look at a car. Billy was on a walk-a-bout, police told the family.
That didn't make sense to the Smolinskis.
Billy would never of headed north without properly tending to his dog, Harley, and telling his close-knit family where he was headed. Something was terribly wrong, and Billy's family recognized the situation immediately. Billy was in trouble.
With a slow response from Waterbury police, the Smolinskis launched their own search; scouring gravel pits and river banks. Two hundred volunteers spent Labor Day weekend of 2004 looking for a trace of Billy. They found nothing.
Then two weeks later, Sgt. Steve Pedbereznek of the Waterbury Police Department found Billy's wallet and keys tucked underneath the seat of his truck. Why would Billy head north to check out a car without his wallet and keys, and leave his pick-up truck parked in a strange place in his driveway?
The Smolinskis began to fear the worst. Billy was never coming home again.
Gradually, during the next few months, explosive facts began to emerge in the case. In the week before he went missing Billy had begun to suspect that his girlfriend, Madeleine Gleason, was having an affair. They had argued during a trip to Florida and broke-up days before Billy disappeared.
A search of Billy's telephone records led police to a politician in Woodbridge, CT. The Waterbury police brought the man in for questioning and he produced a threatening message left on his answering machine by Billy Smolinski. The message was left the day Billy disappeared.
The man admitted to the Waterbury police that he did have an affair with Madeleine Gleason and was worried that his wife was now going to find out. Despite the love triangle, and the threatening message, the Waterbury police did not administer a lie detector test and have eliminated the man as a suspect in Billy's disappearance.
The Smolinski family was stunned.
"How can they eliminate this man as a suspect?" Janice Smolinski said. "When we asked a detective why, he told us (the man) seemed like a real nice guy."
Madeleine Gleason was also brought into police headquarters to answer questions, and she has been eliminated as a suspect in Billy's disappearance, also.
For 18 months after Billy's disappearance the Waterbury Police Department said they suspected no foul play in the case. When the Observer began investigating the situation back in February, the first officer interviewed, Deputy Chief Jimmy Egan, said that Billy Smolinski was probably in Europe having fun and would eventually show up.
Egan attempted to discredit Janice Smolinski by telling a story about the family's use of a psychic to try and solve the case. The image he painted of Billy Smolinski was not flattering.
Egan confirmed there had been a love triangle. He said no lie detector had been given because the results wouldn't be admissible in court. Egan clearly stated that the Woodbridge politician was not a suspect and asked the Observer if the paper planned to print the politician's name.
When the answer was yes, Egan grew agitated ,and said "You'll ruin the guy's life."
During the Observer's first meeting with Deputy Chief Jimmy Egan he appeared intent on discrediting the Smolinskis and the very notion that anything was suspicious about Billy's disappearance.
Three days later Egan's approach changed dramatically. Waterbury Police Chief Neil O'Leary had publicly stated something was wrong in the case (the first Waterbury police officer to say that to the media) and had set up a meeting between the Observer and the lead detectives on the case. During this meeting Egan said he had nothing but respect for the Smolinski family and said several times that he had never said a bad word about the family.
That was untrue. Egan had spent most of his initial interview with the Observer attempting to discredit the Smolinskis. He had gone so far as to say Janice Smolinski wasn't all there in the head, and in her grief, was grasping at straws.
After the Observer printed a five page story about the disappearance of Billy Smolinski in its March 2006 edition, the family met with Waterbury Police Chief Neil O'Leary. The Smolinskis said that Chief O'Leary apologized to them for the way they had been treated by the Waterbury Police Department and promised a reinvigorated investigation.
There was talk about using cadaver dogs to search for Billy, and the Smolinskis requested that a cemetery in Seymour be included in the dog search. One of Madeleine Gleason's sons, Shaun, had previously worked as a grave-digger at the Seymour Cemetery. Chief O'Leary told the Observer that bringing search dogs into a cemetery would be highly sensitive and he was unsure how to begin the process. The Smolinskis have asked the police to look into the graves that were dug around the time of Billy's disappearance, but as yet, nothing has materialized.
Twenty month after Billy disappeared the police conducted a search with cadaver dogs around his house and into the woods around an industrial park near his home. They found nothing.
The 10,000 pound gorilla in the room, however, is Woodbridge.
Woodbridge is where Madeleine Gleason works and lives. Woodbridge is where the influential politician lives. Woodbridge is where Janice Smolinski was arrested for hanging flyers. Woodbridge, the Smolinskis believe, is the key to unravelling what happened to Billy in August 2004. The Smolinskis have requested that the cadaver dogs be brought onto the property of the politician and used to investigate the woods around his family's trucking business.
But since he has been eliminated as a suspect by the Waterbury Police Department, there is virtually no chance of that happening, unless something changes.
This approach, at best, is backwards. The investigation so far has shone an uncomplimentary light upon a Waterbury Police Department that seems completely uninterested in seriously probing into the life of the Woodbridge politician, which begs the question - why?
Why are detectives inside the Waterbury police department hesitant to peek into a potential Pandora's Box? Is there a connection between someone in the Waterbury police department and this influential politician?
There is no excuse for this investigation to languish on someone's desk down at police headquarters. There are leads, impossibly strong leads, and they are not being pursued with vigor. This is police work 101.
It is time for the Waterbury Police Department to step to the table and conduct a thorough investigation into the disappearance of Billy Smolinski. And if they don't, it's time to bring in state or federal investigators. If our local police don't have the will to investigate then the Smolinskis, and the citizens of Waterbury, deserve to have the state police step in and take over the case.
"There is no body and no hard evidence," Janice Smolinski said. "But we believe a crime was committed against Billy. There are clues about what might have happened and who might be involved, but from the beginning the Waterbury Police Department has not aggressively investigated Billy's case."
Now Janice Smolinski and her daughter. Paula Bell, are being sued by Madeleine Gleason for harassment. In the suit filed by New Haven lawyer, John Williams, Gleason alleges that the Smolinskis have knowingly, intentionally and maliciously followed her on a daily basis, posted flyers in the immediate vicinity of her workplace and her home, photographed and videotaped her, and threatened her with physical injury.
"It's nothing but lies," Janice Smolinski said. "They are trying to get me to go away, to intimidate me. It is not going to work. We aren't giving up until we know what happened to Billy."
The Waterbury Observer, and this reporter, are also being sued by Madeleine Gleason in the same lawsuit that was filed against Janice Smolinski. Gleason is suing the Observer for invasion of privacy. She states, among other things, that she is a private citizen that didn't give permission for her images to appear in the March issue of the Observer.
She is a private citizen, but Gleason lost that veil of cover when she stepped out in public to tear down hundreds of Billy Smolinski posters in broad daylight. It is our belief she stepped way over the line by tearing Billy's posters down while she was driving a school bus in Woodbridge. The Smolinskis have videotape of Madeleine Gleason stalking them through Woodbridge while she was driving a school bus.
In the March issue of the Observer, and in this article, the paper printed the facts that we could substantiate through direct police confirmation, or what was directly witnessed by this reporter. This newspaper felt it was our moral responsibility to place the bizarre circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Billy Smolinski out in the open for everybody to see.
We plan to continue.
As she seeks answers to her son's disappearance, Janice Smolinski has become the center of the storm. She has been bad-mouthed by the Deputy Chief of Police in Waterbury, arrested in Woodbridge, and is now being sued. Who is this tiny woman with a backbone of steel? The Observer sat down with her recently to discuss her life and what her world was like before Billy disappeared.
She was born Janice Kenney at St. Mary's Hospital in downtown Waterbury in 1952. The family spent the first five years of Janice's life living in the Brass City. In 1957 the Kenney's moved to Oakville, and two years later Janice's mom unexpectedly died, effectively ending Janice's childhood.
"I learned early on that people you love can be taken away from you," Janice said. "That's not something you ever get over."
When she 16 years old Janice and some friends were at Black Rock State Park in Thomaston when she was approached by young William Smolinski. They dated for two years, and against her father's wishes, Janice and Bill were married in 1970.
They moved onto a 10 acre farm in Naugatuck owned by Bill's family. Is was a Smolinski family compound. Bill's parents lived in a house on the property with two other sons. Bill's aunt and uncle lived in a third house on the property. The couple lived on the farm for the next 27 years in what Janice describes as "a great sort of old fashioned life."
The couple had two children, Billy and Paula, and the kids helped tend to the cows, pigs and chickens. Billy and Paula collected fresh eggs every day, rode ponies and horses, and learned early on about responsibility and hard work. The family was self-sufficient, butchering their own beef and poultry, and canning and freezing produce from a vast garden.
Hay was grown in the fields and Janice said "everyone participated in the cutting, bailing, and loading of it into the barn." The children were always outside feeding the animals, fishing, riding their bikes or cruising around the property on their quads.
"It was a great place to raise our children," Janice said. "There was hardly any time for television, and the kids didn't show any interest in it anyway."
Janice said Billy was wildly entertaining on the farm. "If he wasn't in a tree he'd be jumping out of a hay loft," she said. "He wanted to be a stunt man and was always jumping off of something. We made many visits to the emergency room."
It was indeed a great sort of old fashioned life. Bill went off to work at Pratt & Whitney and Janice stayed home on the farm to cook, bake, clean and raise her two children. She also helped feed the animals and clean the stalls. When asked by a reporter at the Republican-American newspaper to describe her background, Janice Smolinski replied that "she was a homemaker, nothing special, just happy to be at home."
She said "when the kids were small she felt it was important that they had a mom available at ALL times. I was always on the other side of the door when they came home from school, activities, or I was able to drive them wherever they needed to be."
Seven years ago, Bill's dad, who owned the property, decided to sell the farm. "He was getting older and not feeling well," Janice said of her father-in-law. "It was time for us all to move on."
Billy Smolinski was still living with his parents on the farm and hated the idea of the property being sold. "Billy loved the farm," Janice said. He was 26 years old and he didn't like change."
But change came. Janice and Bill bought a nice home in Cheshire and Billy was now on his own. Instead of renting, he bought his own home in the south end of Waterbury on Holly Street.
The move off the farm signaled a major shift in the Smolinski family.
"Farm life is a lot of work," Janice said. "Bill and I wanted a home that was easier to maintain and we eventually planned on moving to Florida. We were downsizing our responsibilities."
But when Billy disappeared in August 2004 the Smolinski's world shattered. A family that had been self-sufficient for more than 30 years was now in desperate need of help - help that has yet to come.
When the Smolinskis realized the police weren't the answer, they've taken matters in their own hands. Janice spends hours every day talking to private investigators, coroners, DNA experts, and journalists from all across the country on the telephone and the internet. They have created a website called justice4billy.com
Janice's best friend for the past 40 years is Robin Lichaj of Prospect. The two became fast friends as freshman at Watertown High School. The two speak on the telephone every day and Robin has witnessed a remarkable transformation in Janice since Billy vanished.
"Janice was always soft spoken and shy," Lichaj said. "She is very religious and was completely devoted to her family. To see what she is doing now is remarkable. She's gone from being a French Poodle to a very aggressive and determined Chihuahua. Janice is little, but mighty."
Lichaj said the secret to Janice Smolinski's strength is a mother's love, and a deep faith in God. "Janice will never back down," Lichaj said. "She wants to know what happened to her son and she is acting as any mother would. When it comes to your offspring the talons come out to protect. She is going on a mother's love."