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The Smolinski Trial
Janice and Bill Smolinski inside New Haven Superior Court.
Column by John Murray
That’s how you spell backwards, backward.
And that might be the best way to describe the civil trial of Madeline Gleason versus Janice Smolinski and Paula Bell taking place in New Haven Superior Court. It is so backwards, it is insane.
Here’s the background.....
Gleason is a named suspect in the disappearance of Billy Smolinski Jr., a Waterbury man who vanished from his life seven years ago. Gleason had been dating Smolinski for a year when he discovered she was also involved with another man, an influential politician in Woodbridge. Billy and Madeline argued over the affair and they broke up two days before he vanished.
Billy Smolinski and his dog Harley
On August 24th, 2004, Billy Smolinski called and threatened his male rival, Chris Sorenson, and left a message on his answering machine telling him to “watch his back”. It is the last phone call Billy Smolinski ever made. He climbed into his white pick-up truck around 5 p.m. and hasn’t been seen since. The truck made it back to his home that night, but was parked at the bottom of his long driveway, in a spot no one had ever seen it parked before.
The truck was home, but Billy Smolinski was gone.
Alarmed, the Smolinski family - Janice, Bill Sr. and Paula Bell (his sister) - contacted the Waterbury Police Department to report a missing man. They were told they had to wait three days to file a report, so they searched areas that Billy loved to hike and walk his German Shepherd, Harley. Three days later, shortly before midnight on August 27th, the Smolinskis filed an official missing person report with the Waterbury police. Afterwards, they decided to drive by Billy’s house in the South End of the city to see if he had come home.
A light was on and hopes surged that Billy was home. He wasn’t. Instead of Billy, the Smolinskis discovered Madeline Gleason and her friend, Fran Vrable, inside Billy’s home. Numbed, confused, and not knowing what to make of the scene, the Smolinskis left, but Bill Sr. returned in the morning to change the locks on the door.
“We didn’t know what she was doing there,” Bill Smolinski said. “It was real strange.”
Strange, yes, but the Smolinskis brushed the incident aside and beginning the next day, August 28th, focused on hanging missing person flyers throughout western Connecticut. The flyers, with Billy’s picture on it, were prominently displayed on every city bus in Waterbury. Flyers were hung on utility poles throughout Waterbury, Watertown, Prospect, Naugatuck, Woodbridge, Bethany, Seymour, Ansonia, Derby and New Haven.
“We hung thousands of flyers throughout the state,” Janice Smolinski, Billy’s mother, said. “When we weren’t looking along the river, or in the woods, we were hanging flyers. This was every day, seven days a week.”
Several weeks later, Bill Smolinski noticed that flyers were missing on poles he was certain he had stapled ones to. Chalking it up to exhaustion, he placed flyers on the pole again, and days later was shocked to discover they had been torn off the pole, crumbled up and discarded on the ground.
“Who would do something like that?,” Bill Smolinski said, and he looked around the pole for clues. He saw dual tire marks next to all the poles that had the flyers torn down. He thought it was a big truck and the family decided to hang another poster and hide in the woods to see if they could catch the person destroying the flyers.
Turns out the dual tires didn’t belong to a big truck, but to a bright yellow school bus, and the person driving the bus, and destroying the posters, was Madeline Gleason, Billy’s ex-girlfriend.
“We were shocked,” Bill Smolinski said. “It didn’t make any sense. Instead of helping us find Billy, she was interfering with our search.”
Madeline Gleason scrambling back to her bus, missing poster in hand.
The Smolinskis went to the Waterbury police with the information and were advised to videotape Gleason tearing down the flyers and to make sure they videotaped her license plate, get the school bus number, the name of the bus company and the utility pole number. They did, and when they brought the video back to the Waterbury police, nothing was done. They went to the Woodbridge police department and got the same response - nothing.
The Smolinskis went to see Congressman Nancy Johnson who advised them to get the video into court, they called Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, U.S. Senator Chris Dodd, U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, and went to see State’s Attorney John Connelly, who the Smolinskis say told them “to stay out of Woodbridge.” The Smolinskis contacted Madeline Gleason’s employer, Brad Cohen, of B&B Transportation, who was disinterested, so they contacted the Connecticut School Transportation Association (COSTA), whose mission is to promote and foster safety in the transportation of school children, and they went to the Woodbridge Board of Education to report Madeline Gleason’s bizarre behavior while driving a school bus.
“We were begging for help,” Janice Smolinski said , “and all the authorities were pushing us away.”
So they kept hanging flyers, and Madeline and her friends, emboldened by a lack of consequence, began ripping the posters down right in Janice Smolinski’s face. During one incident, Janice hung a flyer on a pole and Fran Vrabel tore it down and threw it at her feet. Janice didn’t speak, walked back to her car got a second flyer and stapled it to the pole. Vrabel tore it down and tossed it on the ground. This scene replayed five times before Janice got back in her car and left.
“We weren’t looking for violence,” Janice Smolinski said, “we were looking for answers.”
Fran Vrabel tearing down a flyer in Janice Smolinski's face.
The Waterbury police conducted an investigation into Billy’s disappearance, but 18 months after he vanished the deputy chief of the department, Jimmy Eagan, told the Observer that “Billy was probably having a beer in Europe and would come home when he was ready.”
It took two full years before the Waterbury police would go so far as to categorize Billy’s disappearance as “suspected foul play”. The Waterbury police had jurisdiction over the investigation, so the Smolinski’s calls to the Connecticut State Police and the FBI went nowhere.
“How would any parent respond to this situation?” Janice Smolinski said. “The authorities weren’t doing anything, so we had to. We weren’t going to coil up and go home.”
Vigilantes? Hardly. They re-hung posters every day on utility poles, cleaned up the tattered debris at the base of the poles, and videotaped Madeline Gleason and Fran Vrabel from public property.
For these actions, Janice Smolinski was arrested on her birthday, May 13th, 2005, by the Woodbridge police for trespassing on school property. She denied the complaint made by Frances Vrabel, and the prosecutor in New Haven did not pursue the charge.
In March 2006, the Waterbury Observer published an in-depth account of the disappearance of Billy Smolinski, and his family’s exhaustive effort to find out what happened to him. We published images of Madeline Gleason tearing down missing person flyers, we wrote about the explosive love triangle and the Waterbury police’s indifferent response to the report of a missing 31-year-old male.
As a result, several months later the FBI got involved in the case, and the Observer, Janice Smolinski and Paula Bell, were sued by Madeline Gleason and B&B Transportation. The lawsuit was filed by high-powered-lawyer, John Williams, who wanted $345,000 in damages for Madeline Gleason. Gleason claimed the Smolinskis had harassed her, and the Observer had violated her right to privacy.
Five years later, on November 29th, 2011, the lawsuit went to trial in New Haven Superior Court. Charges against the Observer had been dismissed a year ago when our lawyer, Attorney Mark Lee, successfully argued that the charges against the newspaper had no merit. But the lawsuit against Janice Smolinski and Paula Bell moved forward as little more than a “she said - she said” case. The Smolinskis also retained the legal counsel of Attorney Mark Lee and they went to court to square off against Atty. John Williams and Madeline Gleason.
Atty. Mark Lee, Paula Bell, Bill Smolinski and Janice Smolinski.
An effort was made by Judge Jonathan Silbert to settle the case and avoid trial. Silbert suggested to Attorney Lee that his clients should throw a little something to Gleason so the case could be closed. Lee brought the offer to the Smolinskis, who replied, “Never. We’re dealing with evil people and we’re not giving them one dollar.”
Brad Cohen, co-owner of B&B Transportation, Madeline’s employer, was the first witness to testify. Cohen told the court that Madeline had worked for him for 20 years and was his friend. He testified that Gleason had complained about people following her and interfering with the safe operation of her school bus. Cohen also told the court that someone called B&B Transportation customers - school districts - stating that Madeline was a murderer. Several school districts called Cohen to check on the allegations, and he said he assured them everything was okay, that the kids were safe.
Cohen testified he had talked with Bill and Jan Smolinski and asked them to stop hanging posters on poles around his business. Cohen said the Smolinskis told him they didn’t think Madeline had killed Billy, but she knew what happened, and they wouldn’t stop hanging posters until the mystery was solved.
Under cross examination from Mark Lee, Cohen said he had no proof who called the school districts and had no knowledge that it was either Janice Smolinski or Paula Bell.
Melissa DePallo, Madeline’s best friend, testified in court that the Smolinskis had harassed Madeline by hanging the flyers which made Gleason emotionally distraught. DePallo said Gleason cried a lot and was very emotional about seeing her name on television. DePallo said Gleason was living with her at the time of Billy’s disappearance at 4 Brothers Court in Seymour.
Another Gleason friend, and poster ripper, Fran Vrabel, testified minutes later that Gleason was living with her in Ansonia when Billy disappeared. The significance of the conflicting accounts of where Madeline Gleason lived is that law enforcement has developed leads that point to Billy Smolinski being strangled by Shaun Karpiuk (Madeline’s son), inside Madeline’s apartment. Where she lived is a possible murder scene.
Vrabel, a Waterbury resident, testified that she and Gleason tried to help search for Billy after he disappeared, but the Smolinskis shooed them away. She told the court that Janice Smolinski had tried to staple her hand to a utility pole and that Janice Smolinski had threatened to kill Madeline Gleason.
During one memorable exchange between lawyers, Mark Lee objected to John William’s asking leading questions of Vrabel and said, “Judge, he’s making this up as he goes along.” Williams bristled, and said, “I resent that remark.” Judge Tom Cordino, who had been badgered by Williams all morning, smiled.
Vrabel ended her testimony by stating, “The Smolinskis assume we know where Bill is. I wish we did.”
Then Madeline Gleason was called to the stand. She was dressed in black, had her hair frosted like Tina Turner and it was sprinkled with glitter. She wore knee-high black leather boots with long black tassels.
Gleason testified that she was hysterical when Billy disappeared and had tried to help find him. She said she had searched in a cemetery and a gravel pit with Paula Bell in the days after Billy’s disappearance, but the family quickly turned hostile towards her, so she backed off. Gleason said she began receiving phone calls from Paula Bell threatening to kill her, and missing person flyers were saturating where she lived, and where she worked.
Gleason told the court of the emotional distress she experienced by hearing her name “at least 70 times on national TV” during an hour-long Discovery ID show spotlighting the mysterious disappearance of Billy Smolinski.
“I begged the Woodbridge police to stop the Smolinskis from following me into my gym, into restaurants and telling people I was a murderer,’ Gleason testified. “But the police were reluctant to get involved because the situation involved an influential Woodbridge politician.”
Gleason said when she began dating a New Haven police officer that his co-workers would tease him that he was dating a murderer. She said Paula Bell would call her a “ho”, and that “Janet (sic) would swear at me and call me a slut, and a whore.”
At hearing that, Janice Smolinski yelled, “Stop it”, and Judge Cordino told her not to interrupt.
Gleason complained about the Waterbury Observer and how every 3-4 months she had to read about “how many times she’d been married (4) and how her children had died (one suicide, one drug overdose and one in a suspicious drowning in Sag Harbor, L.I.)”.
And then Gleason began to cry. “Of all people,” she said, “I know what it’s like to lose a child.”
She said the Smolinski’s harassment had affected her entire life, including her effort to gain custody of her granddaughter, Brianna, in the spring of 2004. Gleason said the continued harassment from the Smolinskis made her fear for her life and the safety of her teenaged son. “These people will never stop,” she said. “Everywhere I go they follow me and hang posters on every pole. These people would not stop until I attained (sic) a lawyer. These people have no mercy.”
On cross examination Mark Lee showed Gleason a Woodbridge police report that stated she was a suspect in the disappearance of Billy Smolinski until she took a lie detector test. Lee asked why she hadn’t taken one.
“I asked Janet (sic) if I take a lie detector test and passed with flying colors will you leave me alone,” Gleason testified. “She said never.”
Bill Smolinski had heard enough. He stood up and left the courtroom.
Madeline Gleason videotaped heading back into her school bus.
Mark Lee asked Gleason if she realized she was a suspect in Billy’s disappearance. Her upper lipped curled, and John Wiliams immediately objected to the question.
Gleason testified that she was living in Ansonia when Billy disappeared and that she had gone into Billy’s house three days after he vanished to get her night gown and make-up. She testified that she used a spare key in a loafer to gain entrance, and that she had permission to do so.
“Permission from who?” Lee questioned.
Gleason had no response, but she recounted in detail a confrontation she had with Janice Smolinski and Paula Bell in the lobby of the Woodbridge police station in early April 2005.
As Janice Smolinski sat and listened to Gleason’s testimony she said her whole body started to shake and her heart began pounding out of control. In physical crisis, and about to pass out, Janice shouted out, “Stop it, that’s my son you’re talking about, my son......” and she collapsed into tears. In the back of the courtroom, Bill Smolinski, who had re-entered the proceedings, leapt to his feet and shouted, “You’re lying”, and pointed directly at Madeline Gleason. “Enough,” he yelled, and then he stormed back out of the courtroom.
Judge Cordino called the two lawyers into his chambers to try and cool the situation off, and when the proceedings resumed he delivered a thoughtful talk about the case.
“This is a stressful case and emotions are flying high,” he advised. “Either party wouldn’t be human if they weren’t emotional, and sometimes it’s impossible to control emotions. If anyone reaches a point where the testimony is too much, raise your hand and we’ll take a recess.”
Outside in the hallway the Smolinskis vowed to continue plowing ahead. ‘I can’t take sitting here and listening to all these lies,” Bill Smolinski said. “But we have to get through this.”
Minutes later the proceedings ended for the day and would resume on Monday, December 5th.
“This was a tough day,” Janice Smolinski said, “ we were all shaken in the courtroom today. “They’re making a lot of allegations against us, but they have no proof. We’ll get our chance in court on Monday.”
Paula Bell, Janice Smolinski and Bill Smolinski.
The second day of the trial was fast and furious and provided the Smolinskis the opportunity to refute much of Madeline Gleason’s testimony. Chris Sorenson was called to the stand, but Judge Cordino had advised Mark Lee in chambers that he did not want him to badger Sorenson about the love triangle. Handcuffed, Attorney Lee was only able to ask Sorenson a few questions, before letting him go. One question involved Sorenson’s business interest with Brad Cohen and B&B Transportation. Sorenson said he had no business relationship with Cohen, but that his father had.
The Smolinskis have long wondered why B&B Transportation was involved in the lawsuit, and wondered who was paying John William’s hefty legal fee. The direct tie of B&B Transportation to Sorenson’s family raised some eyebrows in the courtroom.
Paula Bell took the stand and denied almost all of Madeline Gleason’s direct testimony. Paula said she had not called Madeline Gleason and threatened her life, never called her a “ho”, did not block a school driveway and had never climbed on a school bus to confront Gleason. Bell explained why she videotaped Gleason and Vrabel (on advice from Waterbury PD) and explained to the court how she did it - while standing on public property and keeping her distance. John Williams asked a few quick questions and let her go.
Bill Smolinski testified about hanging posters and the shocking discovery that it was Madeline Gleason in a school bus that was tearing them down. Bill testified about an incident that occurred with Gleason that involved him and his two brothers. They were hanging flyers in Bethany when they encountered Gleason driving the opposite way. Bill testified that Gleason pulled a dramatic U-turn and yelled at them. “She told us to wait until we get to Woodbridge, that the police would take care of us there,” Bill Smolinski testified. “My brother yelled to her to call them, and say we’d be there in ten minutes.”
Bill Smolinski denied he had ever heard Paula or Jan threaten Gleason’s life, and testified that “all we were trying to do is find my son.”
In one outburst that Judge Cordino let flow unrestrained, Bill Smolinski described the emotion he felt picking up hundreds of crumbled missing person flyers with his son’s photograph on it. “Those women tearing down our flyers, that’s harassment if you ask me.”
Atty. Williams asked Bill Smolinski a few quick questions and let him go. Clearly his legal strategy was not to confront the Smolinski family - which might create sympathy - but to get them off the witness stand as quickly as possible.
Janice Smolinski, who has used police mistakes in the investigation to trigger local, state and federal reform into the way law enforcement respond to a report of a missing adult, had difficulty answering yes or no questions posed by both lawyers. She had seven years of frustration to uncork, but this was not a murder trial, she was the defendant in a civil lawsuit about harassment. Her son was murdered and buried in the Naugatuck Valley seven years ago, and here she was, finally in court, and she was reduced to answering questions about missing person flyers and refuting accusations from Madeline Gleason.
Several times Janice attempted to explain the case and was cut off by the judge and instructed to answer the lawyer’s question. A murdered missing man loomed over the proceedings, but the chaos from that bungled investigation was not allowed into the courtroom. It was the Smolinskis on trial this day, and all they could do was counter Gleason’s testimony and hope Judge Cordino found them credible.
Janice Smolinski testified directly to Judge Cordino at one point, looking him straight in the eye for several minutes while she explained her version of what transpired during a heated confrontation in April 2005 with Gleason and Vrabel.
“I never threatened Madeline Gleason,” Janice Smolinski testified. “I was just looking for Billy, and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t look for my son.”
Other witnesses on the final day were Nancy Kurdy, who was called in to refute Gleason’s testimony that the Smolinski’s had adversely affected Gleason’s bid to gain custody of her granddaughter. After a dispute, Kurdy, the child’s great aunt, was granted custody instead of Gleason. The Smolinskis have reports from the Seymour PD recounting domestic disputes inside Gleason’s home, but were not allowed to use them in court. One sexual assault report from December 2002 details a bizarre incident between Madeline Gleason and her then husband, Bill Gleason, but the information could not be used to establish an unstable home. Madeline Gleason’s claim that the Smolinskis ruined her chance of gaining custody of her granddaughter was further undermined by the fact the custody battle was in the Spring of 2004, months before Billy Smolinski disappeared.
The final witness in the trial was Waterbury police officer, Captain Edward Apicella. Mark Lee had subpoenaed the Waterbury PD to gain access to reports involving Madeline Gleason, but when Captain Apicella showed up, he carried one single sheet of notarized paper. The Smolinski’s had obtained copies of portions of the file years ago during a controversial FOI request filed by private investigator Andy Thibault, and Mark Lee, thinking quickly on his feet, introduced a police report obtained from that FOI request in as evidence. Attorney Williams looked the report over and cited no objection. In the report is confirmation from Madeline Gleason that she had been in a full blown, and on-going affair with Chris Sorenson at the time of Billy Smolinski’s disappearance.
While that doesn’t mean Gleason or Sorenson have anything to do with Smolinski’s disappearance, it does establish a credibility problem for Gleason, who testified under oath that there was no love triangle, and that the Smolinski family had fabricated it.
At the end of a frustrating day in court for the Smolinski family, Janice said, “This was our first time in the court system, and it wasn’t a pleasant one.”
Attorney Lee said the case is at half-time. The direct testimony is over, and now Judge Cordino will read the transcripts and submit questions to the two lawyers, who will present the answers to the judge during oral arguments in open court. Then both sides will submit a final brief and the judge will render his decision afterwards. The process may take several more months to resolve.
In the hallway outside the courtroom Janice Smolinski went up to private investigator Todd Lovejoy, who has lead 17 private seaches for the body of Billy Smolinski, and expressed her frustration at the legal system.
“It’s a big chess game,” Lovejoy said. “God is not inside the courtroom.”
Janice Smolinski looked at Lovejoy for a second, smiled, and said, “God is everywhere.”