Voice Platform and Support Network for Families of Missing and Victims of Crime
By John Murray
Andy Thibault, center, was instrumental in getting the FOI Commission to release explosive documents in the Billy Smolinski investigation. Reporter Jim Brewer is on the left, and Bill and Janice Smolinski on the right.
She couldn't go.
Janice Smolinski knew that if she drove to Shelton she'd be on her knees clawing at the earth to uncover Billy. No, she couldn't go, Janice and her husband Bill had to first process the devastating information they had just read in the Waterbury police report. After three years of searching for their 31 year old son, the Smolinskis now believed they knew what happened to Billy when he vanished from his life in August 2004. The moment that Bill and Janice Smolinski had long sought was here, but it wasn't playing out the way they'd imagined.
Instead of a personal visit to their home by FBI agents, the Smolinskis were in the middle of the Barnes and Noble Cafe in downtown Waterbury sitting with five journalists and a private investigator. Three coffee tables had been pressed together to accommodate the gathering. The group was surrounded by customers playing chess, holding book discussions, studying for tests, or thumbing through potential $25 hardback purchases. The bizarre surroundings made perfect sense in a case fraught with absurdity.
From the very beginning Bill and Janice Smolinski had difficulty getting the Waterbury Police Department to take Billy's disappearance seriously. Problem #1 was that Billy was a physically fit 31 year old male who appeared capable of fending for himself. Problem #2 was that Billy's neighbor had told police that Billy had headed north for a few days to check out a car, and had asked the neighbor to care for his German Shepherd, Harley. In the morning when the neighbor went over to Billy's house to feed Harley he was unable to get into the house. The spare key that was supposed to be under a mat wasn't there. The neighbor called Mary Ellen Noble, who also cared for Harley, and within minutes an alarm blared through the Smolinski family.
Billy would not have left his dog locked in his house unattended, his parents said. Billy didn't need a new car, and he wouldn't have traveled north without telling his family. The Smolinskis are a close family and Billy lived with his parents into his late 20s. Bill and Janice Smolinski immediately recognized something was wrong, but were unable to get the Waterbury Police Department to share their concern. Law enforcement officers across the country go into a heightened state of alert if a child goes missing. The media snaps to attention when children, or attractive young women disappear, but when a vigorous 31 year old man goes missing, nobody cares.
Except his family.
They organized city-wide searches, brought in dogs, hired private investigators, listened to psychics and hung thousands of missing person posters around Connecticut. But they couldn't capture the attention of the Waterbury Police Department, who told the family that Billy would show up back home when he was ready. The police noted that Billy had been wrestling with issues in his personal life at the time of his disappearance - romance problems and the loss of a job - and speculated he had either fled town, or committed suicide. The Smolinskis didn't buy it.
After two weeks the Waterbury police finally started to act when Paula Bell, Billy's younger sister, stormed the detective bureau and demanded that someone pay attention to Billy's disappearance. Within hours a detective found Billy's wallet and keys stuffed underneath the driver's seat of his truck. The family's hope began to sink.
At the time of Billy's disappearance he was involved in a love triangle with Madeleine Gleason, a bus driver in Woodbridge, and Chris Sorensen, an elected official in Woodbridge. Billy had been dating Madeleine for a year and had recently discovered that she was also involved with Sorensen, a married man. A search through Billy's phone records revealed that the last phone call he placed before he vanished was to Chris Sorensen's house in Woodbridge.
Sorensen and Gleason were brought down to police headquarters on East Main Street for questioning. Sorensen brought in his answering machine that contained a threatening message from someone telling him to "watch his back."
Billy's sister Paula listened to the recording and confirmed to detectives that it was her brother's voice on the answering machine.
By September 2004 the Waterbury Police Department had confirmed that Billy was involved in a love triangle and had threatened his male rival on the day he vanished. The police questioned Sorensen and Gleason, and without giving them a lie detector test, concluded they had nothing to do with Billy's disappearance. It didn't matter that Madeleine Gleason's son, Shaun Karpuik, was a former grave digger now employed in landscaping and construction. It didn't matter that Chris Sorensen was involved in a long distance trucking company.
With enough clues to send Sherlock Holmes into orbit, detectives inside the Waterbury Police Department told the Smolinskis they suspected "no foul play" and their investigation was stymied.
Janice and Bill Smolinski were stunned.
"We didn't understand why the Waterbury police gave up so easily," Janice Smolinski said. "They never fingerprinted Billy's truck and didn't give a lie detector test to two possible suspects. Why?"
Angered and frustrated at the police investigation the Smolinskis met with Jimmy Egan, who at the time was deputy chief of the department. The family said the meeting got heated and ended in a shouting match.
Janice Smolinski read about a tip describing how her son was possibly murdered while she sat in Barnes and Noble with five journalists.
With no assistance coming from the Waterbury police, the Smolinskis began investigating clues themselves. Their search led them into Woodbridge, where they found someone had been defacing and removing Billy's missing person flyers. With the help of other family members the Smolinskis set up surveillance shifts to see if they could catch the culprit. The answer stunned them - it was Madeleine Gleason, Billy's girlfriend. The Smolinskis videotaped Gleason ripping down posters and brought the film to the Waterbury police, who, according to the Smolinskis, were disinterested.
For the next six months the Smolinskis drove into Woodbridge every day to hang Billy's posters on telephone poles. And every day Madeleine Gleason or her friend, Frances Vrabel, a fellow school bus driver, would tear them down. Eventually the confrontation escalated to the point that Gleason and Vrabel would follow Janice Smolinski around Woodbridge and rip the posters down in front of her face. The Smolinskis even videotaped Gleason stopping her school bus to rip posters from telephone poles.
In April 2005 the situation came to a head when Gleason, Janice Smolinski and Paula Bell all entered the Woodbridge Police Department at the same time to seek assistance, and when the dust settled Janice and Paula were under threat of arrest on five different charges. Gleason and Sorensen had home field advantage.
Billy Smolinski disappeared in August 2004. His parents believe he was murdered, but Waterbury PD and the FBI have yet to crack the case.
Eventually Janice was arrested by the Woodbridge police on charges of first degree harassment for hanging posters near the entrance of Beecher School in Woodbridge. The charges were dismissed, but the incident further rocked Janice and Bill Smolinski's faith in the system to help them find Billy.
"The police weren't helping us find our son so we had to do something ourselves," Bill Smolinski said. "And so far the only one arrested in this case is my wife. It's crazy."
The Observer got involved in the Smolinski story in March 2006 and published a five page spread entitled "Gone". We had followed the case through articles in the Republican-American newspaper written by Brynn Mandel. The Observer, like the other 60,000 readers of the Republican-American newspaper, believed Billy had gone missing and that the local police suspected no foul play.
But when we sat down with Bill and Janice Smolinski an entirely different portrait began to emerge. They believed Billy had been murdered, and although they had no concrete proof, they suspected the answer was in Woodbridge. They were appalled at the Waterbury police department and they were beginning to suspect there might be some connection between Woodbridge and Waterbury. There were too many leads not being investigated for this to be an accident.
The Observer visited Waterbury Police Chief Neil O'Leary's office and he was direct in saying he suspected foul play. O'Leary was not involved with the investigation and hooked the Observer up with deputy chief Jimmy Egan and told him to share information with the newspaper. Egan began by calling Billy Smolinski a mixed up kid who is probably in Europe having a cold beer. Egan challenged the credibility of Janice Smolinski by inferring she was a bit daffy because she had talked with psychics. After several minutes of smearing the Smolinskis, Egan asked if we had any other questions. When we asked about the love triangle he began to squirm. When we specifically asked about Chris Sorensen the deputy chief asked if we were going to publish his name.
When we said we might, Egan said we'd ruin the guy's life. Egan paced back and forth across the room and appeared to be more concerned with protecting Sorensen and Gleason than finding out what happened to Billy Smolinski. A second meeting with Egan three days later was in stark contrast. He was subdued and concerned about the Smolinski family and their search for Billy. He stated he had lots of empathy for the Smolinskis and had never said a bad word about them.
That was a lie.
When the Observer published "Gone" in March 2006 we weren't sure if the Waterbury Police Department had bungled the case, or whether something more sinister was at play. After the story was published the Smolinskis had a positive meeting with Chief O'Leary who apologized to them for all the mistakes in the investigation and he promised a new push to find out what happened to Billy. In June 2006 a tip was phoned in to Crime Stoppers from a man who said Billy had been murdered, and he said he knew who had done it. The tip was passed onto the investigators in Billy's case, detectives Tim Jackson and Gary Angon, but on one told the Smolinskis about the tip.
Chief O'Leary said the detectives followed up on the lead and eventually talked to a jailhouse snitch who provided more information. Unable to verify the tip the Waterbury police say they requested assistance from the FBI to crack the case.
Madeline Gleason was involved with two men at the same time, and her deceased son, Shaun, has been linked to the possible murder of Billy Smolinski.
"We hoped that the FBI could convene a grand jury and get some of the individuals involved in the case to testify under oath," O'Leary said. "We thought that might get someone to talk."
Meanwhile the Smolinski family had been badgering the FBI to get involved in the case because they had lost confidence in the Waterbury PD to get the job done. The Waterbury investigators had lost or misplaced three DNA samples from the Smolinskis and had been unable to properly file a proper missing person report with the National Crime Information Center. Janice Smolinski had been talking with FBI agents in Virginia and New Haven for several months before the FBI entered the scene. There is some question from people closely following the case as to how the FBI got involved. Were they invited in by Waterbury PD, or did they step in and take over the investigation?
In July 2006 the FBI collected DNA samples from Janice Smolinski and began the process of uploading the information into CODIS, the national DNA data bank run by the FBI. In August 2006 the FBI stepped in and took over the investigation into Billy's disappearance. At the time the Waterbury Police Department issued a statement saying they had invited the FBI into the investigation because they had exhausted all possible leads.
Chris Sorensen, a Woodbridge businessman, and former elected official, was having an affair with Madeline Gleason. Billy Smolinski left a threatening message on his answering machine the day he vanished.
When the Waterbury police announced the investigation was stymied, long-time journalist Andy Thibault filed a Freedom of Information request asking for all reports in the file dealing with Madeleine Gleason and Chris Sorensen. The police declined his request, but Thibault, a former FOI commissioner, filed an appeal. Thibault has worked at the Hartford Courant, was managing editor at the Register-Citizen newspaper in Torrington, CT, wrote for the Connecticut Law Tribune, and is editor and publisher of The Cool Justice Report, an internet blog dedicated to exposing police and municipal corruption.
While the FOI request slowly wound its way through the system, and the FBI launched its own investigation into Billy's bizarre disappearance, Janice Smolinski went to work to try and change the laws in Connecticut concerning how local and state police respond to the report of a missing person. She has testified before two legislative committees in Hartford and is the driving force behind Bill #5273 that appears well on its way to becoming law later this year.
Last summer Janice Smolinski, her daughter, Paula Bell, and The Waterbury Observer were all sued by Madeleine Gleason for allegedly invading her privacy, and harassment. The suit was brought by high powered New Haven attorney John Williams.
"It is simply an attempt to stop the paper from printing the truth," Janice Smolinski said last autumn. "And Paula and I will never back down from our search for Billy. The lawsuit is ridiculous."
But waiting for a break in the case has the Smolinski's jangled nerves over-reacting to every knock on the door, to every ring of the phone. Is this it? they wonder. It is with a mix of anxiety and dread that they wait for an anvil to drop on their heads. On April 11th, 2007, they believe the anvil unexpectedly crashed onto their lives. It was the day Andy Thibault had to appear before the FOI Commission in Hartford for their final step of the FOI process. After the FOI Commission voted in favor of Thibault's request for police records he called Atty. Gary Roosa, the lawyer for the Waterbury Police Department, and made arrangements to pick up the documents immediately.
FOI Commission in Hartford, CT.
Thibault invited Bill and Jan Smolinski, four journalists and a private detective to meet him at Copy Max in downtown Waterbury where he would distribute copies of the report. An hour later everyone reconvened inside the Barnes and Noble coffee shop and perused the documents.
It was then that Janice and Bill Smolinski ran smack into page 14, a Waterbury Police Department Supplementary Report filed June 12th, 2006. It was a report about the tip called into Crime Stoppers. On June 10th the caller had been watching Channel 8 news at 10 p.m. when a story about Billy's disappearance was broadcast. The informant believed he had learned the details of Billy's death and was compelled to come forward. The caller had detailed information that Billy had been murdered by Shaun Karpiuk, Madeleine Gleason's son who had died of a drug overdose in Waterbury three months after Billy disappeared. The informant told Detective Tim Jackson and Detective Gary Angon that he had heard that Shaun had choked Billy Smolinski to death in Madeleine Gleason's apartment because Billy had gotten physical with his mother. After the murder, the informant said, Shaun called a friend who helped him dig a hole at a construction site in Shelton. Early the next morning the hole was covered with concrete.
The informant told the two Waterbury detectives that he believed Billy was buried off of Route 110 in Shelton. According to the report filed by Detectives Angon and Jackson, they drove to Shelton and they believed that the area the informant was talking about was Hubbell Lane in the White Hills section of Shelton. The final line of the report was "The investigation will continue."
After reading the report Bill and Janice Smolinski were stunned. Here in black and white was the probable scenario of Billy's demise. It made too much sense. Billy had never gone north looking for a car and he wasn't in Europe drinking a beer. If the tip proved true, Billy had been swept up in a love triangle and had been murdered by his lover's drug addicted son.
Imagine learning about the murder of your eldest child by reading a police report. Now imagine learning about the probable details of your child's death sitting in the middle of the Barnes and Noble coffee shop with five journalists and a private investigator.
"It was surreal," Janice Smolinski said. "I felt like somebody had taken their fist and punched me in the stomach. It was devastating."
And her thoughts immediately turned to Billy. Did he really get choked? Was he in pain? Did he suffer? When can we bring him home?
Janice and Bill Smolinski are very private people and held their composure through a devastatingly awkward situation with dignity and class.
"The tears will come later when we get home," Janice said.
Before the tears, there were questions to be asked.
What in God's name had the Waterbury police department done with this lead? Had anybody followed up on the tip? Did the FBI have this information?
Within minutes contact had been made with the FBI . No, they said, they had never received the information about the tip from Waterbury police. The private investigator, who was highly agitated at the explosive developments in the case, scrambled out of the bookstore to bring the information directly to an FBI office in Meriden. Before going, he cautioned the journalists to withhold information until the federal investigators could act on the tip.
Andy Thibault looked at the private investigator and said "The cat's out of the bag now, this is public information."
And within 24 hours reports about Billy being murdered and buried in Shelton had been posted on The Cool Justice Report. The Republican-American newspaper published an article by Brynn Mandel the following day using the words "love triangle" and "murder" for the first time in her two years of covering the case. One week later Marilyn Moss wrote an article for the Orange Bulletin detailing the case and naming Madeleine Gleason and Chris Sorensen in her report. The article was mailed into every home in Woodbridge. Moss reported about the love triangle and specifically wrote about the tip alleging that Shaun Karpiuk had choked Billy Smolinski and buried his body in Shelton. Moss also quoted FBI spokesperson MaryBeth Miklof saying that the FBI was still receiving information from the Waterbury Police Department.
The cat was out of the bag.
But questions lingered. Waterbury Police Chief Neil O'Leary insists the FBI had been given the information about the tip. "Anyone in the FBI who says we withheld information is lying," O'Leary declared. "We even gave them photographic details about the area in Shelton."
"The Smolinski investigation has been a mess from the beginning," O'Leary said. "Our department has taking a beating about mistakes we made. But we're not going to let anyone make up lies about us. We gave the FBI the information. What did they do with it?"
A source inside the Waterbury police department admits that the Waterbury police botched the investigation and speculated that the FBI hasn't done much better either. The source said the FBI has had the information for eight months and appears to have been caught off guard with the FOI disclosure of the tip. The source further said that the FBI has now narrowed its search for Billy Smolinski down to a single driveway in Shelton. The FBI investigation, the source said, is now bogged down in discussions with the Milford State's Attorney's office about who is going to pay for the excavation - the state or the federal government.
When Chief O'Leary was asked who should pay to excavate the driveway he was appalled. "Come on," he said. "If the FBI believes they know where Billy Smolinski is then let's dig up that driveway right now. The family has waited for answers for three years. If it's a matter of money we'll take the money from the Waterbury police department and dig up that driveway."
While sources inside the Waterbury police department privately say Billy Smolinski is likely buried beneath a driveway in Shelton, the Smolinski family fielded two calls on May 2nd telling them the tip was inaccurate. One was from the Waterbury Police Department, and the other was from the FBI. As the Observer goes to press May 3rd Janice and Bill Smolinski don't know what to believe, or who to trust.
In the upside down investigation into the disappearance of Billy Smolinski we are left with more questions than answers. Here's a few...
What happened to the three "lost" DNA samples collected by Waterbury police?
Why was there such a lethargic effort inside the Waterbury detective bureau to investigate Madeleine Gleason and Chris Sorensen?
Why did it take two years for Waterbury detectives to suspect "foul play" in a case involving a love triangle, threats, politics, drugs and a grave digger?
Why was Shaun Karpiuk never considered a suspect? He was a former grave digger, worked with heavy equipment, and died of a massive drug overdose in Waterbury three months after Billy vanished?
Why was Janice Smolinski arrested by Woodbridge police for hanging missing person flyers of her son in Woodbridge?
Why has it taken the Waterbury PD and the FBI eleven months to unravel the validity of a screaming hot tip called in with very specific information about Billy being murdered and buried in Shelton?
Why did the FBI state that Waterbury police withheld information?
Did the Waterbury police fully cooperate with the FBI?
Is there more to this than meets the eye? The FBI recently conducted a sting on the New Haven Police Department and arrested several detectives. Is the FBI investigating the Waterbury PD, and is the case of Billy Smolinski simply a small cog in the wheel?
Is Billy buried beneath a driveway in Shelton?
If he is, then for God's sake why hasn't the FBI uncovered his remains?
"We are so confused by everything that is going on," Janice Smolinski said. "We want answers. We want to bring Billy home."