When serious leads aren’t followed up by law enforcement, Bill and Jan Smolinski scour the woods for the remains of their missing son Billy, who was murdered in August 2004.
Story and Photographs By John Murray
Picture the murder of Billy Smolinski as a crystal vase. Hold it in your hands. Spin it around. Now drop it on the kitchen floor and watch it shatter into a thousand pieces. Each shard of glass represents a clue into who killed Billy on August 24th, 2004. When patched together the vase reveals the gruesome truth of who murdered Billy, and why. The vase points to the spot Billy is buried in the Naugatuck Valley.
In the best of circumstances it would take a master craftsman to cobble that broken vase back together, but what if the glass is left on the floor for weeks, for months, for seven years? Glass gets kicked around into the living room, the dining room and gets jammed into the rubber soles of your shoes and is transported into the yard, into town, and across state borders. You send investigators into each room to collect glass, but shockingly they refuse to share what they gather with the other investigators. With ego and selfishness erupting all around you, what are the chances of ever getting that vase glued back together?
Welcome to the real-life investigation into the murder of Billy Smolinski Jr..
Billy Smolinski was 31 years old when he vanished.
In the seven years since Billy vanished from his life the case has been investigated by the Waterbury Police Department, the FBI, the Shelton Police Department, the Seymour Police Department and the Connecticut State Police. While at first reluctant to acknowledge Billy was missing, law enforcement has gathered enough information to now conclude he was murdered. Each department has pieces of the vase in their possession, but at no time in the past seven years have all the pieces been placed on a single table at the same time.
“It’s a massive disconnect,” Billy’s mother, Janice Smolinski said. “There are so many clues, but the police aren’t working well together to share the information.”
To further exacerbate an already mind-bending case, no law enforcement agency wants to publicly take the lead in an investigation that has triggered local, state and federal reform into the way police officers respond to the report of a missing adult.
Janice Smolinski’s battle to reform the way police respond to the report of a missing adult led her to the halls of Congress where she testified in Januray 2010. She is pictured here between Congressman Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas) who co-sponsored “Billy’s Law”.
The case is a white-hot political football. For two years the only agency investigating Billy’s disappearance was the Waterbury Police Department who mangled leads, lost evidence and had the nerve to suggest that 18 months after he was murdered that “Billy was probably having a beer in Europe, and would come home when he was ready”.
Furious with the Waterbury investigation, the Smolinskis successfully lobbied the FBI to get involved, and in August 2006 the Feds seized control of the case. While technically assisting Waterbury, the FBI probed into the hornets nest in Seymour, Shelton and Woodbridge to uncover information that triggered searches beneath driveways in Shelton in 2007, and a massive excavation of a farm meadow on Bungay Road in Seymour in 2008.
A Freedom Of Information request in April 2007 revealed a sharp disconnect between the Waterbury PD and the FBI. Information released by the Waterbury PD documented a Crime Stoppers tip detailing who murdered Billy and where he was buried. The two Waterbury detectives who handled the tip had followed up by driving through the neighborhood Billy was alleged to be buried in, and filing a report. That information, according to Mike Ward, a private investigator working with the Smolinski family, was not shared with federal investigators.
That tip eventually led to a search in Shelton on May 7th, 2007, with FBI, Waterbury, Shelton and Connecticut State Police participating. Cadaver dogs were used and a small hole was dug alongside a house on Fort Hill Road. A police spokesperson told Channel 3 News that the search was called off at 3 p.m. on May 7th, and would resume the following day.
On May 8th nothing happened. And four years later no police have returned to the area to further plumb the Crime Stoppers lead.
The Crime Stoppers tip had singled out Hubbell Lane in Shelton, and the police search focused on Fort Hill Ave and Edgewood Ave in Shelton. Private investigator Mike Ward, a former New Milford police officer, believes the search may have missed the mark.
“Has anyone pulled all the permits in Shelton to see who was pouring concrete at that time?” Ward asked. “Maple Ave is one street over from Hubbell Lane and there were footings (the base of a foundation) for a house that passed inspection on September 2. Do the math. It doesn’t take Einstein to figure this out. No one has ever looked into Maple Avenue.”
Ward, who now lives in Kentucky, spent hundreds of hours investigating the case. When the FBI got involved Ward said he shared all his information with FBI agent Bill Aldenberg, and was immediately shut out of the case.
An overhead view of the massive dig for Billy Smolinski on Bungay Road in Seymour in August 2008.
“Every place I went after that I was told that the FBI had advised people not to talk with me,” Ward said. “Very quickly I was chasing my own tail.”
In 2008 Ward backed off the case. “ I thought the FBI would follow up and figure out what happened to Billy. I was wrong. The FBI dropped the ball.”
And five years after it seized control of the investigation, the FBI has meekly pulled back.
“We still talk occasionally with the FBI,” Janice Smolinski said, “but they are no longer actively working the case.”
Instead, the investigation has transitioned into the hands of the Connecticut State Police, with on-going efforts by Detective Ron Goodmaster of the Seymour Police Department, and Detective Ben Trabka of the Shelton Police Department.
The State Police have sent divers down to investigate a quarry, followed up on a lead in Oxford, and appear to the Smolinskis to be working the case.
But not all leads are followed up on, and when they aren’t, the Smolinskis are working with private investigator Todd Lovejoy, a former Waterbury detective, and with volunteer cadaver dogs from Farmington and Canada, to explore the woods themselves.
“Some of the leads are lightly followed up on and then the tip is cleared,” Janice Smolinski said. “We are not satisfied.”
Todd Lovejoy reads the VIN # off an abandoned car during a search for Billy Smolinski two years ago.
Consider a tip called into the FBI earlier this Spring. After watching an hour-long special on Discovery ID, a woman in Shelton called to report that she had seen a white truck and a small red car driving up a steep embankment in the woods behind her house in late August of 2004. Billy drove a white truck and a suspect in the case died of a drug overdose in the Autumn of 2004 in a small red car.
The FBI passed the tip off to Shelton Detective Ben Trabka who called the woman one week later and arranged a time to check out the lead. The woman took a day off from work to meet with Trabka at 11 a.m., but the detective called at the last second and said he had another case, and would come at 2 p.m. He never showed up.
The woman called and left him a follow-up message and said she was still willing to speak with him, but Trabka never called her back. Frustrated, she reached out to Todd Lovejoy, whose contact information was on the Discovery ID show and printed on billboards and flyers. Lovejoy met with the woman and found her story compelling and credible. For years she had seen and heard quads tearing through the woods behind her house, but she had never seen a car or truck there.
“I was on my back deck grilling when I heard wheels spinning and making a lot of noise,” the woman told the Observer. “It was very odd and I wondered where they were going. I thought it was worth investigating.”
So instead of the FBI or the Shelton PD, the investigation was conducted by Lovejoy, Deb Monte and her cadaver dog Murphy, and Jan and Bill Smolinski. Four searches were conducted over two months. A suspicious fire pit was excavated, a chunk of a car bumper was collected, and a shard of bone (later identified as animal) was found. The tip was later shared with the Connecticut State Police.
Private investigator Todd Lovejoy, left, and Bill DeFrancesco dig for the remains of Billy Smolinski in the woods in Shelton.
“The family should not have to be investigating their own son’s murder because the detective is too busy,” Janice Smolinski said. “That’s crazy.”
Deb Monde, right, and Kim Cooper, left, get a GPS marking in the Shelton woods while searching for the remains of Billy Smolinski in June. Monde is from Resources In Search and Rescue, in Farmington, and Cooper traveled down from Canada to assist in the search.
Shelton is an affluent town of 38,000 residents and is located in Fairfield County. There are 55 sworn police officers and seven detectives. The town website states the “Detective Division is responsible for assisting the Patrol Division in investigating serious crimes. This includes armed robberies, burglaries, vehicle thefts, drug trafficking, computer crimes, identity theft as well as assisting the Traffic Division with the investigation of fatal motor vehicle accidents.”
There is no mention of murder on the website because it rarely happens in Shelton. According to crime statistics provided on the internet by the Shelton PD there has been one murder in the past 8 years, which makes Detective Trabka’s sluggish response to the tip in a murder investigation more alarming.
I contacted Trabka for an explanation and asked if he were still investigating the disappearance of Billy Smolinski. He said he was working with the Major Crime Unit of the Connecticut State Police, and the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office, and following leads and running down tips. “We’re still very active,” Trabka said.
I then brought up the specific tip and asked why he ignored it. “I have other cases to work on too,” Trabka said,
When told of the incident, private investigator Mike Ward was audibly agitated. “There are valid leads not being followed up on,” Ward said. “This is just another circle-jerk in Billy’s case.”
Besides ignoring the tip, there are rumors that Detective Trabka has a close relationship with Chad Hansen, one of the suspects in the case. Hansen, 31 years old, is now in prison for providing false information to police that triggered the massive dig on Bungay Road in Seymour, and a dig in High Rock State Park in Naugatuck. In the past ten years Hansen has been arrested eleven times on charges ranging from forgery, possession of narcotics, assault, burglary and resisting arrest. Hansen’s arrest in September 2010 for making false statements in the Smolinski case is the second arrest in the seven year investigation, the first being when Janice Smolinski was arrested in Woodbridge for hanging flyers of her missing son on a telephone pole (the charges were later dropped).
During the phone interview with Trabka I asked him what he could tell me about Chad Hansen. Trabka said “his name has come up as maybe having something to do with Billy Smolinski.” Trabka confirmed that it was Hansen who led authorities to the farm in Seymour, and he confirmed that Hansen was now in prison for providing false information.
I then asked Trabka if he had a personal friendship with Chad Hansen, or the Hansen family. He said “No, I have a law-enforcement relationship. Rumor and innuendo are the nature of the beast in this business.”
Trabka said much of the information in the case has come from self-serving stories from prison where the informant was told something by someone, who heard it from someone else. “There is a lot of spin, and versions of an incident that is very difficult to track down,” Trabka said. “We waste a lot of time trying to prove or disprove these prison tales.”
The Connecticut State Police have been to Shelton twice to follow-up on the lead about the truck and car driving deep into the woods in August 2004. There are plans to bring state police cadaver dogs into the woods in the near future.
Janice Smolinski listens to Todd Lovejoy explain several options during a search in Oxford in 2010.
But seven years after Billy Smolinski vanished, where are we? Every department, police officer and private investigator has collected pieces of the broken vase, but until they are all collected in one place the puzzle may never be solved.
The answer, and perhaps the only way to glue the vase back together, is with a federal grand jury. A federal grand jury has the power to subpoena the sordid characters in this deadly game and squeeze them to talk. A grand jury can call in the various police agencies and collect the pieces of glass they refuse to share with other investigators.
“I believe a federal grand jury is the only way we are going to find our answers,” Janice Smolinski said. “We’ve been asking for one for the past two years.”
The request for a federal grand jury was denied at the end of July, but Bill and Janice Smolinski are not giving up.
“There is a murderer out there,” Janice Smolinski said. “The public isn’t safe, and it’s time to bring our son home. We need a federal grand jury. We need help.”
( A vigil for Billy Smolinski Jr. will be held August 21st at 6 p.m. on the Green in downtown Naugatuck. The public is invited)