One month after Billy Smolinski disappeared in August 2004 hundreds of flyers with his photograph on them were being systematically destroyed in Woodbridge, Seymour, Ansonia and Bethany. The Smolinski family investigated and discovered that Billy’s old girlfriend, Madeline Gleason, and her friend, Frances Vrabel, were the culprits. The women grew so bold as to tear the posters down seconds after Janice Smolinski tacked them up. Pictured above, Vrabel, left, begins to tear down one of Billy’s posters even before Janice has finished hanging it. In a weird twist, a complaint filed by Vrabel with the Woodbridge police led to the arrest of Janice Smolinski, and Gleason sued Smolinski for harassment. The lawsuit is being heard in New Haven Superior Court on Tuesday, November 29th.
Story By John Murray
That’s the word that best describes the seven-year investigation into the murder of Billy Smolinski, a case that includes a love triangle, a grave digger, a politician, a long distance trucking company, a suicide, a drug overdose, the mob, two bodies floating in Long Island Sound, a billionaire, and enough police blunders to film a new Keystone Kop movie.
Police botched the investigation from the outset. Miscues by the Waterbury Police Department, the Shelton Police Department, the Woodbridge Police Department, the Connecticut State Police and the FBI have left a path of destruction that resembles the aftermath of the Halloween nor’easter – broken leads and darkness scattered across the landscape.
Billy Smolinski was 31 years old when he vanished.
After Billy vanished his family has spent the past seven years seeking answers as to what happened to him on the night of August 24th, 2004. So far the search has resulted in Janice, middle, getting arrested, and Paula and Janice getting sued. They have vowed to continue searching until they have their answer.
Additionally, this bizarre case has exposed a systemic flaw in police training which has triggered local, state and federal reform into the way law enforcement officers respond to the report of a missing adult. The case has drawn international attention from an hour-long Discovery ID show about the investigation that has aired in Australia, Canada and Europe. There have been inquires from India about missing person reform, and how lessons learned from the Smolinski investigation might apply to India.
But just when it appears impossible for the story get any more bizarre, it has. This Tuesday, November 29th, the Smolinski family is being dragged into New Haven Superior Court to face an outrageous lawsuit filed by Billy’s ex-girlfriend, Madeline Gleason, whose son is alleged to have strangled Billy in her apartment on August 24th, 2004.
Gleason, who is represented by high-powered attorney, John Williams, is asking for $115,000 in damages from Billy’s mother, Janice Smolinski, and his sister, Paula Bell.
In a case long on reform and short on justice, Madeline Gleason – a named suspect in the disappearance of Billy Smolinski – is attempting use the court system to legally extort money from Billy’s grieving family.
Madeline Gleason states into a video camera after stopping her Woodbridge school bus to tear down a missing person flyer for Billy Smolinski.
Jan and Paula’s crime? Hanging missing person posters of Billy Smolinski on telephone poles in the lower Naugatuck Valley. The Smolinskis had permission from CL&P to hang the posters on the poles, but Madeline Gleason, and her friend, Fran Vrabel, would follow them through Woodbridge and tear the posters down.
Strange behavior to be sure, but when one factors in that Madeline Gleason was Billy’s ex-girlfriend, and that just months before they had openly talked of getting married, Madeline’s behavior morphed from strange, to bizarre.
Why wasn’t Madeline Gleason helping the Smolinskis search for their missing son? Why was Gleason destroying hundreds of missing person posters? Why didn’t she care that Billy Smolinski had just vanished off the face of the earth?
Convinced that Gleason knew what happened to their son, the Smolinskis videotaped Gleason and Vrable destroying the posters and took the film to the Waterbury Police Department, which at the time was the only law enforcement agency investigating Billy’s disappearance. The response from Waterbury PD was a big yawn. The Smolinskis then begged the Woodbridge Police Department to intervene, and they were told to stay out of Woodbridge, a town where Gleason had powerful political connections.
At the time of his disappearance, Billy Smolinski was involved in an explosive love triangle with Madeline Gleason and Chris Sorenson, a married and influential politician in Woodbridge. Gleason and Sorenson had been conducting an affair for years, a fact that Billy had discovered the week before while vacationing with Gleason in Florida. Billy called to threaten Sorenson three times on August 24th and disappeared hours after threatening his male rival,
The Smolinskis sought help from Connecticut state’s attorney, John Connolley, whose only advice, the Smolinskis said, was to stay out of Woodbridge.
With the Waterbury police conducting a sluggish investigation, the Smolinskis were determined to engage Madeline’s increasingly bizarre behavior. They believed she knew something about Billy’s disappearance and they intended to find out what. Thus began a daily cat and mouse game. The Smolinski family would go around Woodbridge, Seymour, Ansonia and Bethany every day and re hang Billy’s posters on telephone poles. Every night they were torn down. This went on for several months until Janice noticed one day that the posters were disappearing within minutes, in broad daylight.
“Madeline and her friend, (Frances Vrabel), started following me and eventually started ripping the posters down right in front of my face,” Janice Smolinski said. ‘It was a huge insult that I wasn’t going to coil back and go home and forget about.”
Madeline’s in-your face tactic riled up a soft-spoken woman. “She had the nerve to do that right in my face and I was determined that I wasn’t going to back down. I just kept hanging Billy’s posters and went about my business. When she tore them down, I put up another.”
Eventually Paula and Janice witnessed Madeline and Frances, who are both school bus drivers in Woodbridge, stopping their buses to get out and destroy Billy’s posters.
Madeline Gleason racing back to her Woodbridge school bus with a missing person flyer in her hand. Despite being a named suspect in the disappearance of Billy Smolinski, Gleason continues to drive school children in Woodbridge for her employer, B&B Transportation, which financed her lawsuit against the Smolinskis and the Waterbury Observer.
“We couldn’t believe what we were watching,” Paula said. “Madeline never helped search for Billy when he went missing. Why was she doing this?”
The bizarre behavior continued almost daily until April 2005 when Madeline pulled the bus into the Woodbridge police parking lot. Paula and Janice saw an opportunity to confront Madeline’s behavior with the police, and they followed her inside.
Once inside the police station both Paula and Janice state that Madeline taunted them, saying that if she had married Billy she would have referred to Janice as “Mommy.” After a few “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy” taunts, Paula blew a fuse and lunged at Madeline and said she was going to kill her. By the time the Woodbridge police sorted through the tangled raw emotion, according to the Smolinskis, they were under threat of arrest on five different charges.
The police report states that Gleason complained that the Smolinskis “have been smothering the areas along her bus route, in front of her residence, the bank she frequents and now at a gym she just joined. Gleason stated that she has been tearing down a portion of these posters because she feels it is too much.”
The report also stated that Janice had told Madeline that she wasn’t going to stop hanging Billy’s posters until Madeline broke and told the truth.
“I did say that,” Janice said. “I believed she knew something about my son’s disappearance and the police weren’t doing anything about it. I wasn’t going to stop.”
According to the report the police had some sympathy with the Smolinskis and asked them to stop distributing flyers around Beecher School, but they could continue hanging flyers on poles around town.
Although the police report doesn’t reflect this, both Janice and Paula state the Woodbridge police agreed to let them go if they didn’t take a videotape of Madeline ripping down the posters to the media.
“We didn’t know our rights then,” Janice said. “So we agreed and we left.” But the following day Janice Smolinski was back in Woodbridge hanging up Billy’s posters. That night they were torn down again. Day after day Janice and her family faithfully re hung Billy’s posters, and night after night they were destroyed.
The Smolinskis consulted with a lawyer who advised them they had every right to hang posters near school property, and the following day, April 10th, 2005, Janice once again started hanging posters near the Beecher School entrance.
“The superintendent of schools drove by and asked me what I was doing,” Janice said. “I explained my son was missing. She was very nice and said she’d appreciate it if I didn’t hang it on that pole anymore, and I never put it there again.”
Two weeks later the Woodbridge police called and asked Janice to come down to the police station. Madeline’s friend, Frances Vrabel, had filed a complaint against Janice for hanging posters by the school. Janice was arrested for first degree harassment.
“It was so backwards,” Paula Bell said. “The police tried to make us seem crazy, but we were just trying to find Billy. The only arrest so far in this case has been my mom. She just wants to know what happened to her son and she ends up sitting next to criminals in the New Haven courthouse.”
The charges were eventually dismissed, but the event left Bill Smolinski rattled. “This shakes my belief in the system,” he said. “We just want the truth and we’re are not getting the truth.”
Six years later the truth remains elusive. Despite the enormous media attention on the case, and perhaps because of it, the investigation has been passed around like a hot potato from police department to police department. Currently the investigation is being handled by Sgt. Ron Goodmaster of the Seymour Police Department, and members of the Connecticut State Police Cold Case unit.
“We are not giving up until we bring Billy home,” Janice Smolinksi said. “They can throw me in jail and sue me, but eventually the truth will be revealed and justice will be done.”
Gleason also sued the Waterbury Observer in August 2006 for publishing a 10,000 word story, with a dozen photographs, that detailed her strange and public behavior. Waterbury lawyer, Mark Lee, successfully had the lawsuit against the Observer dropped, and is now defending the Smolinskis and will square off against Williams in court Tuesday morning.