The Fire  

Story By John Murray 


    Fire makes steel.

    For Jan and Bill Smolinski a fire of angst and pain engulfed their lives after their 31 year old son Billy vanished six years ago. The fire is so hot it could shatter friendships and destroy their marriage, Left alone, the fire would consume them.

    The Smolinskis chose to redirect the fire – the energy – to use it as a tool to reform the tattered system that betrayed them during their desperate search to find their son. When Billy disappeared in August 2004 the Smolinskis believed the local police would work hard to find Billy.

    They were wrong.

    Billy was a vigorously fit 31 year old man, and like thousands of adult missing person cases across the country, the local police responded as if Billy had vanished by choice. It took nearly two years for the Smolinskis to convince the Waterbury Police Department that something terribly wrong had happened to Billy, and by that time clues were lost, DNA mishandled, and the man widely suspected of murdering their son was dead of a drug overdose.

    A group of law enforcement officers from Seymour, Shelton and Waterbury are working with the FBI and the Connecticut State Police to crack the case, and leads continue to point towards Seymour as the place Billy was murdered, and buried. Divers have scoured along the banks of the Housatonic River, backhoes have clawed at the earth, and search dogs have canvassed miles of suspected terrain in an effort to find Billy Smolinski.

   When the ground thaws there are new leads to follow in the spring, and both Jan and Bill Smolinski are committed to bringing their son home. “We are not giving up,” Jan said. “How could we?”

   There are tens of thousands of families across America feeling the same pain, the same fire, that rages inside the Smolinskis. Right now there are 110,000 missing people in this country, many like Billy Smolinski, who have been murdered.

   There are many remarkable things about Bill and Jan Smolinski, but perhaps the most remarkable thing has been their effort to reform the broken system that failed them. They have fought to have the laws changed in Connecticut, they helped reform missing person investigations inside the Waterbury Police Department, and in January they travelled to Washington D.C. to testify in front of Congress.

   No reform will bring their son back to them – they accept that – what they refuse to accept is a system that treats missing adults as second class citizens, and national DNA data banks tangled in so much bureaucracy that they can’t communicate with one another.

    The Smolinskis went to Congressman Chris Murphy and he crafted a bill that would address the gaping holes in the system, it is called Billy’s Law. Janice Smolinski testified at a hearing in front of Congress on January 21st, and Billy’s Law is expected to go to the floor of the House of Representitives for a vote in late February.

    The following speech was submitted into the official Congressional record by Janice Smolinski. The actual speech she gave in front of the Homeland Security sub-committee was trimmed down due to time constraints:

     Good afternoon and thank-you Congressman Murphy, and this committee, for having the courage to tackle the tragic disconnect in our country’s effort to find 160,000 missing Americans.

    Numbers as large as 160,000 are hard for most of us to get our minds around, so I’m here to testify about the details of my son’s disappearance, five years ago from Waterbury, Connecticut, in the hope that our story can shed light on this national nightmare.

    We are just one of the 160,000 families of the missing who deal with uncertainty every second of our lives. The Smolinski family is not special, or remarkable in any way. We have lived most of our lives on a small farm in Naugatuck, Connecticut, and are simple, hard-working people.

    My husband Bill and I are uncomfortable in the spotlight, but events beyond our control have brought us to this day. The Help Find the Missing Act has been named “Billy’s Law” in honor of our son, and it is our fondest hope that these changes will help bring answers and peace to thousands of families wrestling with the horror that stains their lives.

   Living on a farm we were independent and self-sufficient, but when our son vanished we found ourselves helpless, frightened, and dependent on a system with gaping holes large enough for a herd of elephants to run through.

   The best way to illustrate the problem is to simply tell the committee our story, which began five years ago on August 24th, 2004, when our 31-year-old son vanished.

   Our son’s name is William Smolinski Jr., and his whole life we called him Billy. He was funny, and a bit of a goof ball, always trying to surprise us with a joke or a trick.

   Billy was a hard worker who was not particularly fond of schoolwork, or classrooms. He drove a tow truck, owned a small house in the South End of Waterbury, and loved his three-year-old German Shepard, Harley.

   Our nightmare began with a phone call. A neighbor called to say that Billy had left his dog unfed and locked inside his house. Billy’s truck was parked oddly in the driveway, in a spot he had never used before. We are a very close family and immediately knew something extraordinary had happened. We called the police and they told us to wait three days to see if Billy showed up, and if he didn’t, to file a missing person report.

   We waited three days, filed the report, and expected the police to launch an aggressive investigation. When the police did nothing we organized our own search with family and friends and scoured riverbanks, gravel pits and places we knew that Billy loved. As the days passed we knew something terrible had happened to our son. He never would have left his dog locked up and unfed.


   Something terrible had happened – we knew it – but we couldn’t get the attention of the local police department. One of the biggest issues in the world of the missing is that police officers across the country are slow to respond to the report of a missing adult.

   That has to change.

   How can a police officer make the assumption that every missing adult has disappeared voluntarily? How can they believe all of the missing adults willingly walked off and deserted their family and their lives? It does happen, but police are too quick to label missing adults as low priority.

   Every report of a missing adult needs to be evaluated. The police need to listen to the families and follow the proper protocol of gathering information and entering it into national data banks. The key is education and training.

   If investigations are done properly at the beginning and all entries are made, families will have the peace of knowing law enforcement was their friend. If the proper protocol is followed the case will be easier to solve and the price tag on that investigation could be significantly lower.

   If the local police had responded to our concerns immediately, we believe the case would have been solved five years ago. But after the investigation was botched it’s taken three police departments, the Connecticut State Police and the FBI to try and piece the puzzle back together.

   The price tag for these mistakes will be hundreds of thousands of dollars more than if the police had simply responded to our initial concerns.

   International homicide expert Bill Hagmaier, a great leader in fighting for reform, has publicly stated that a majority of the 160,000 missing Americans aren’t just missing, they have been murdered. The quicker police respond to a report of a missing adult the better the odds of solving these violent crimes.

   Reports need to be sent promptly into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), and the information of a missing person needs to be shared with police departments, medical examiners and coroners. This is not happening right now, and in rural parts of the country unidentified remains are still being cremated without gathering DNA samples first.

   After reports have been filed, if the missing individual is not found, the next step is to collect DNA. A quick mouth swab from a family member will gather the DNA material needed to send to a state or federal lab that can analyze and upload that information into a national data bank.

   None of this happened in our case. It took four years for the proper information to be filed with the National Crime Information Center, and the collection of DNA was incompetent. Seven separate samples were misplaced or lost by our local police department, and no one inside a 300-man police force knew anything about CODIS.

   It wasn’t until the FBI took over the investigation – two years after Billy vanished – that the proper reports and DNA samples were collected and filed.

   When law enforcement doesn’t have the proper training to collect DNA and upload that information into national data banks, the notion that we are living in a CSI society is a television fantasy. Training has to catch up with science and Congressman Murphy’s act will ensure that it does.

   When law enforcement does not properly investigate a missing person the only recourse is for the family to do it themselves. In our case we had to organize search parties, bring in search dogs, hire private investigators and spend thousands of hours looking for Billy ourselves.

    Eventually we uncovered information that led us to believe Billy had been murdered in Woodbridge, CT, and buried in Seymour, CT. We discovered that Billy was involved in a love triangle between his girlfriend and a prominent politician in Woodbridge, CT.

   The last phone call Billy made was to his male rival warning him to “watch his back”.

   When we tried to hang missing person flyers on telephone poles in Woodbridge, the Woodbridge police arrested me. The charge was later dropped.

   A local paper published an expose on the sloppy police investigation, the love triangle, and aired out details of a drug-addicted gravedigger who might have murdered my son. The response to the story was a lawsuit filed by Billy’s ex-girlfriend, who also happened to be the mother of the gravedigger.

   I have been arrested, harassed and sued for trying to find my missing son. So far I am the only person who has been arrested in this case.

   None of this would have happened if the police had responded quickly to our calls for help. Instead of help we received insensitivity and callousness. Two years after Billy disappeared a high-ranking police officer told a journalist “Billy was probably having a beer in Europe, and would come home when he was ready.”

   Sensitivity training is important for law enforcement officers across this country. When a family is cloaked in grief and uncertainty, the last thing they need is a verbal punch in the face from the very person they are depending on to find their loved one.

   Appalled at the sluggish investigation, we confronted the Waterbury Police Department, and former chief Neil O’Leary listened to our concerns, studied the issue, and ordered mandatory training for all his officers. Reform has begun in Waterbury and in many departments around Connecticut.

   But it’s not enough.

   In our effort to find our son anything that could go wrong – went wrong. The system we encountered was broken. We have tried to change the system so no family has to endure the anguish we have lived through these past five years.

   A missing persons family goes through hell over and over again, like they are riding a roller coaster that never ends. Uncertainty is a cancer that crushes the spirit of loved ones left behind, destroys marriages and tears at the tissue of family bonds. Only those families that continually hound the police, knock on doors, make phone calls, visit the media – when they will listen to you – make fliers, create websites, network, speak up and check on information entered into databases to make sure it was created correctly, may get some answers.

   Looking for your missing loved one becomes a full time job. Stress splits families, turns some to substance abuse, creates health problems and drives people into bankruptcy from a heartache that never goes away.

   How is it that someone in our society evaluates who is important enough to search for, and who isn’t? We are all God’s children.

   In our search to find our son we ran head first into Pandora’s Box, and when we opened it, we unleashed the nightmare plaguing the world of the missing and the unidentified dead.

   We encountered police apathy.

   We learned that police training across the country is lagging years behind the advances in science and technology.

   We learned that coroners and medical examiners around this country are storing 40,000 unidentified human remains.

   We talked to experts who told us the unidentified dead are the missing.

   We learned that by using DNA samples we could cross reference the two groups, connect the missing to the unidentified dead and help provide answers to thousands of grieving families.

   We learned that national data banks don’t’ talk to each other.

   Congressman Murphy’s legislation will help connect the dots in this national nightmare.

   America’s sense of well being was shattered on September 11th when we tragically lost 2974 in a terrorist attack. That horror unfolded in mere hours and was seen by billions around the world. After September 11th, the need to match the missing with the unidentified dead was magnified, and the seeds were planted to create NamUs.

   This legislation will take those seeds and help them grow. Congressman Murphy’s effort to address this national nightmare is long overdue, and the missing community applauds his effort. This act is named after my son, but it’s not for him, or the Smolinski family.

   This act is for every American, and is the ultimate act in Homeland Security.