(Editor’s note; this is the first of three columns about the investigation into the disappearance and murder of Billy Smolinski Jr.. Billy vanished in August 2004 and his family’s search for justice brought confrontation with power and triggered federal legislation in the way police respond to the report of a missing adult)
Column By John Murray
Billy Smolinski is not forgotten.
Eighteen years after Billy was murdered his parents continue to work with the Waterbury Police Department and The Waterbury Observer to unravel the mystery of what happened in the early evening of August 24th, 2004. Janice and Bill Smolinski will not stop searching and questioning until they unearth their 31-year-old son’s body and give him a proper Christian burial.
This is not a cold case. It never was. There has always been, and continues to be, incredibly strong leads to follow. The question all along has been whether local, state and federal police officers were motivated to follow those leads. Often, they were not.
When state and local cops didn’t follow up on leads, the Smolinskis did. They organized search parties, worked with search and rescue teams and brought in highly trained cadaver dogs to sniff the woods and the earth and the meadows for their son.
Janice and Bill Smolinski have conducted dozens of private searches to find their son.
Deb Monde and her cadaver dog, Murphy, and private investigator Todd Lovejoy, right, followed leads into the forests and meadows of Connecticut when police did not respond.
In the absence of a vigorous and sustained effort by police to solve the crime, the Smolinskis created a personal tip line, placed billboards along the I-84 and Route 8, and worked closely with private investigator Todd Lovejoy (a former Waterbury police officer) to find Billy’s body..
Law enforcement didn’t take kindly to the Smolinskis aggressive approach, and police particularly don’t like being criticized in the media. But what would you do if you had a credible lead pointing to where your child was buried, and local and state police weren’t responding?
In their search for truth Jan and Bill Smolinski have collided with the Waterbury police, former Waterbury State’s Attorney John Connelly, FBI agents, Connecticut State police officers, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane and former Republican-American editor Jonathan Kellogg.
Janice and Bill Smolinski and their daughter, Paula Bell.
The Smolinskis had the boldness to challenge power, and in the process, they learned that somewhere along the line they became subjects of police investigations themselves. The Smolinskis have obtained police documents that reveal that the Connecticut State Police created an internal Power Point presentation that suggested Billy had raped a young girl which led to his death (this is untrue). The explosive PowerPoint also questioned whether Bill Smolinski was Billy’s biological father (he is).
Lesson #1 – if you challenge power it will unleash its might upon you.
In the past 18 years clues to Billy’s death have pointed to a love triangle involving a politician in Woodbridge, to a local restaurant owner, to a gang of drug-addled landscapers, and to a former grave digger who allegedly killed Billy with a roofing hammer. Information at one time or another has alleged that police officers, a state prosecutor, a judge, a billionaire in West Palm Beach and the mafia might be involved in a coverup. A Hollywood movie? Nope, these are real tips that have surfaced during the two decades since Billy vanished. These are tips that are impossible to prove or disprove without a vigorous investigation.
There are multiple storylines involving different characters, but Billy is murdered in every one of the scenarios. He was killed with a roofing hammer, he was strangled, or he died almost instantaneously when drug addicts injected air into his veins while he was unconscious.
This story involves multiple drug overdose deaths, two suicides, and a highly suspicious incident in Sag Harbor, N.Y. where two healthy and fit men, both excellent swimmers, were found dead floating in the water not far from shore.
The investigation has included efforts by the FBI, the Connecticut State Police, Waterbury police, Seymour police, Shelton police, Ansonia police and several private investigators. Each has a piece of the puzzle, but an unwillingness of law enforcement agencies to openly share information with other agencies has hampered the investigation for more than a decade. Recently, after more than a year of requesting FBI reports about the case, the Waterbury PD received paperwork from the FBI that was heavily redacted. Why did the FBI redact and keep large chunks of information away from a police department trying to solve a murder?
Additionally, the Woodbridge Police Department also made a cameo appearance in this tragic story in 2005 when they made the only arrest in this wide sweeping 18-year nightmare. Great, we finally had an arrest. Who did they arrest? The Woodbridge Police Department arrested Billy’s mother, Janice Smolinski, for hanging missing person flyers on the edge of school property.
Imagine that. One arrest, and it’s the mother of the murder victim. But that’s not the only insult; Janice Smolinski, Paula Bell (Billy’s sister) and The Waterbury Observer were all sued in 2006 by a named suspect in Billy’s disappearance. The lawsuit against the Observer, with the help of Atty. Kevin Greco and Atty Mark Lee – was quickly dismissed, but there was a full-blown civil trial for Janice and Paula that went all the way to the Connecticut Supreme Court, where thanks to the excellent pro bono work of Atty. Steven Kelly, the Smolinskis prevailed.
The investigation into the disappearance and murder of Billy Smolinski has been upside down from the beginning.
The cover of the Observer’s story about Billy Smolinski. It was the first of fifteen cover stories about the investigation and subsequent legal battles.
First, the Smolinskis were told by Waterbury police that Billy was a grown man, and he was doing what young men do; he was off and about and would show up soon. Eighteen months later the deputy chief of the Waterbury Police Department, Jimmy Egan, had the audacity to tell the Observer that Billy was probably having a beer in Europe and would come home when he was ready.
Egan said this knowing that Billy never owned a passport. Egan said this knowing Billy’s wallet had been found beneath the driver’s seat of his truck, and that Billy’s bank account had remained untouched since he’d vanished. Egan told the Observer in February 2006 that all leads had been tracked down and there was nothing to do but wait for Billy to come home. Egan suspected no foul play and spent a portion of our interview casting aspersions against Billy and his parents, going as far as to call them weird.
When I challenged Egan and asked about a love triangle that Billy was in at the time of his disappearance, Egan grew agitated and turned his focus to keeping the name of a Woodbridge politician out of the newspaper.
“Are you going to publish his name?” Egan asked.
When I told him that we were going to name the politician, reveal the love triangle and write that Janice and Bill Smolinski believed their son had been murdered, Egan’s focus remained on the politician.
“You’ll ruin his life,” Egan said.
We did publish that story, a sprawling punch-in-the-face to any thought Billy was drinking beer in Germany. We began that story with, “Billy is dead.”
And then we got sued.
Eighteen months after he’d vanished, Jan and Bill Smolinski weren’t waiting for Billy to come home, they already knew he was dead. What they were waiting for was the Waterbury Police Department to give a dam about their son.
There have been and continue to be hard working cops on the case who develop important leads and doggedly track them downs. There were other police officers investigating this case that were apathetic at best.
Interest and effort inside the Waterbury Police Department has ebbed and flowed like an ocean tide. Former Police Chief Neil O’Leary, now the Mayor of Waterbury, was the first person to state that something bad had happened to Billy. This was 18 months after Billy vanished, and five minutes before Deputy Chief Jimmy Egan uncorked his beer-in-Europe theory.
In the Summer of 2006, the FBI took control of the investigation, and they went at it hard for several years and promised the Smolinskis they would find their son.
While the FBI probed a landscaping company, interviewed the Woodbridge politician and tried to unravel the mystery, Janice Smolinski took her family’s nightmarish experience to Hartford to fight for legislative change in how law enforcement responds to the report of a missing adult.
After getting a state law passed, Janice took her fight to the United States Congress where then-Congressman Chris Murphy (now a U.S. Senator) championed “Billy’s Law” to a unanimous passage in the House of Representatives. The bill sought millions in funding to train and educate police officers about missing adults, DNA collection, and how to use a data bank of thousands of unidentified dead across the country.
The investigation ended up triggering federal legislation and elevated Janice Smolinski to a national spokesperson about missing adults and the unidentified dead in America.
At the Congressional hearing Janice said, “In our search to find our son we encountered a Pandora’s box. And when we opened it, we unleashed the nightmare plaguing the world of the missing and the unidentified dead.”
Billy’s Law was torpedoed in the United States Senate and has been held hostage to the gridlock in Washington D.C. for more than a decade. Senator Murphy is still working on Billy’s Law and hopes to eventually pass it into law.
As the FBI unsuccessfully looked for Billy’s body on a farm in Seymour, in a wooded area in the Mattatuck State Forest, and in a residential neighborhood in Shelton, Janice Smolinski traveled around the country speaking at police and victims’ conferences educating America about the world of the adult missing and the unidentified dead.
During her congressional testimony and at conferences in Oregon, Colorado, Wisconsin, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Washington, New York and Connecticut, Janice said police were not being properly trained in how to collect and process DNA. She spoke about the disconnect between a data bank of information of the missing and a data bank of the unidentified dead, and how the systems were unable to communicate.
Law enforcement was having its collective pants pulled own on the national stage, and the Smolinski investigation became a white-hot political case. Anyone who touched it was getting burned.
In 2012, after several unsuccessful digs, the FBI abruptly announced – with no explanation given to the Smolinski family – that the Feds were through with their investigation and the case languished with no one in charge.
Eventually a task force was formed by the initiative of Waterbury Police Chief Michael Gugliotti that included the CT State Police, Waterbury police and Seymour police.
Later in 2012, after several intense meetings with the Smolinskis, I approached the Waterbury PD with a potential timeline of Billy’s murder and identified several individuals we believed were involved in the murder, burial and cover-up in the case. We had developed information and theories independently of the FBI, and I asked for a meeting. The task force had quickly unravelled and Waterbury had officially taken the lead in the investigation.
Waterbury Police Chief Gugliotti agreed to meet, and afterwards he invited me to attend ongoing meetings with two detectives and the head of Detective Bureau, Chris Corbett, in the chief’s office. The other officers were uncomfortable with my presence in the room, but Gugliotti didn’t care. He was the chief and I was welcome.
Waterbury Police Chief Michael Gugliotti fought hard to solve the case.
We brainstormed once a week for months, and I often met with Gugliotti one-on-one to discuss the investigation and how it was unfolding. Gugliotti set up an easel in his office, and notes and an action plan for the Smolinski investigation was on display 24/7 not far from his desk.
Gugliotti sent his men out with detailed instructions, and when they came back to report to the chief, I was sitting there listening to it unfold in real time. It was a surreal experience. I listened, I observed, I asked questions and was involved in an unfolding drama as we moved closer and closer to the flame. There was energy and focus and dialogue, and I kept the Smolinskis informed.
When Mike Gugliotti abruptly retired in February 2013 the meetings stopped. All communications between Waterbury PD and the Observer also screeched to a halt, and from what I could tell, the investigation stopped, too.
I met with Acting Police Chief Vernon Riddick who promised to follow the leads wherever they went. Riddick pointed skyward and said he answered to only one authority – God, and he was ready to move forward with the investigation.
Before we could set up a new format of how to proceed, however, Jan and Bill Smolinski called a meeting at the State’s Attorney’s Office and they unloaded on everyone in attendance, including three Waterbury police officers. I had advised them against confrontation, but who could blame them? They had been mistreated for a decade and their smoldering anger could no longer be contained.
Before we could forge a relationship with Chief Riddick, the Smolinskis torched the bridge I had spent several years building. The Smolinskis didn’t trust the Waterbury Police Department, and the police neither trusted nor liked them.
Afterwards, the Smolinskis would call the Waterbury PD with tips they obtained through their hotline, and no one would call back. There were leads and an action plan to follow, but nobody was doing anything. We were at a stalemate.
Two years passed and in May 2015 I wrote a scathing article questioning the the integrity of the Waterbury Police Department. One month later the man overseeing the investigation for the past decade, Deputy Chief Chris Corbett, committed suicide. Any effort to find Billy Smolinski now appeared lost in grief and ego and anger.
There were still leads to follow, but the Smolinskis had challenged the Waterbury PD, the Connecticut State Police, the FBI, and for various reasons, they were all standing down. The investigation had become a political hot potato and no law enforcement agency wanted to be holding it when it exploded in their face.
I continued to talk to Janice and Bill Smolinski every month to hash over new leads, and to vent about everything that had gone wrong in the case. We had obtained hundreds of police reports from the FBI, the Connecticut State Police, Waterbury PD, Seymour PD, Shelton PD, Ansonia PD and reports from private investigator Todd Lovejoy, but had never pieced the massive puzzle together.
Janice Smolinski has vowed to keep challenging power until her son is found.
The Smolinskis were never going to give up their search for answers and justice, but I was exhausted by a 12-year effort to report about the investigation, and somewhere along the way I became a participant in the drama. I had morphed from journalist to an outspoken advocate for the Smolinski family and their effort to find their son.
I’d helped search for Billy along desolate train tracks in Seymour, peered into rusty metal barrels looking for his remains, and helped private investigator Todd Lovejoy dig in a swamp, in the woods and at an abandoned driving range in Oxford to try and unearth Billy. I had been sued, and threatened, but I had to give it one final push.
So in February 2018 I flew to Florida to spend a week with Janice and Bill Smolinski poring over hundreds of police reports. I landed in South Florida and the air was warm, the landscape green and tropical, and the ocean roared from a storm a hundred miles offshore. This was it. Could we find a break hidden in all the police reports? We weren’t sure, but we were going to try.
Billy Smolinski hadn’t been forgotten; I couldn’t get him out of my mind. •
(The Brainstorming Sessions. What did we find, and what would we do with the information we developed? Subscribe to The Brass File to read the next installment about the investigation into the murder of Billy Smolinski).