(Editor’s note; this is the second in a series of 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
Where do we begin?
That was the first question Janice and Bill Smolinski asked me as we sat at their patio table in south Florida in the early evening of February 28th, 2018.
Despite strong leads to follow, police investigations into their son’s murder had been stagnant for five years. The mystery and pain of losing a child continued to crush their lives like a boa constrictor’s embrace. With each passing day the snake’s coils tightened as the Smolinskis cradled their flickering hope and held their breath. Fourteen years is a long time to hold your breath.
The first report in The Waterbury Observer appeared 18 months after Billy vanished. All the media accounts up until then reported that Billy was missing and had gone north to look for a car. Our story changed the narrative when we revealed that Billy had been tangled up in a love triangle and that his parents believed he had been murdered in August 2004.
When Billy Smolinski, 31, was first reported missing on the morning of August 25th, 2004, Jan and Bill thought their son might be injured and they organized search parties to scour the woods around his house and along the edges of the Naugatuck River. As the days dragged on and his wallet was discovered underneath the driver’s seat of his truck, and his bank accounts remained inactive, the grim reality that something horrible might have happened to Billy began to sink in.
During the next 14 years the investigation into the disappearance of Billy Smolinski would morph into a murder investigation that would draw national and international attention to Waterbury, Connecticut. Discovery ID filmed an hour show on the case that aired in Europe and Australia as well as all across North America. Newsweek Magazine published an eight-page story about the twists and turns in the investigation, The Waterbury Observer published 15 cover stories about the case, and media outlets in Connecticut provided robust coverage of the unfolding drama.
Jan and Bill Smolinski struggled with law enforcement from the beginning, but they had no difficulty taking their fight to the State Legislature and into the halls of Congress where Senator Chris Murphy championed Billy’s Law.
Despite a harsh media spotlight the investigation came to a grinding halt in 2013. For an overview of the investigation here is a link to the first column in this series…
In the Winter of 2018 I traveled from Connecticut to Florida to spend a week with Jan and Bill Smolinski to comb through hundreds of police reports, line by line, to see if we could find a thread that might unravel the mystery surrounding their son’s death.
We took huge sheets of blank white paper and taped them to the stucco walls enclosing their patio. On top of individual sheets of paper we wrote headers; Suspects, Murder Scenarios, Burial Sites, Timeline, and other categories that might help us solve Billy’s murder.
Every morning I went down to a nearby beach to watch the sunrise and listen to the surf. Afterwards I would go to the Smolinki’s home, eat breakfast, slug down some coffee, and we’d begin. Hour after hour we read police reports out loud, took notes, and our huge pieces of blank paper began to fill up.
We’d sit quietly and look at dozens of sheets of paper dangling from their walls, and then we’d begin to talk about how the pieces might fit together. We took breaks to visit a turtle sanctuary and a wildlife refuge, but we spent eight hours a day, for six days, hammering through reports and brainstorming a motive, a timeline, and identifying a possible burial site.
Bill and Jan Smolinski drill down on details from a digital FBI report during our brainstorming sessions in Florida in March 2018.
It was intense and emotional and surreal. The lead investigators into the murder of Billy Smolinski were his own parents, and no one was more motivated, focused or informed than they were.
Slowly a timeline emerged and witness statements began to tell a story of what we concluded was the most likely scenario.
I flew back home a day early to beat a Nor’easter that was about to wallop New England, and then I began the slow arduous process of producing a 24-page report laying out our theory, and backing everything up with detailed references to specific police reports and statements.
The entire project was cobbled together by referencing signed statements from law enforcement agencies. Here is how the report began..
“Billy Smolinski Jr. was murdered in the late afternoon or early evening of August 24th, 2004. The exact scenario of his death is still in question, but an intensive examination of police reports from the FBI, the Connecticut State Police, Waterbury PD, Shelton PD, Seymour PD and Spyglass Investigations reveal insights that might help unravel the mystery.
The key players in Billy Smolinski’s death are all affiliated with Top Gun Landscaping that in 2004 was located at 588 New Haven Road in Milford, CT. The business was owned by Paul Kopacz who lived at 8 Root Avenue in Ansonia. Three Top Gun Landscaping employees have been directly linked to Billy Smolinski’s death; Shaun Karpiuk, Chad Hanson and Timmy Driscoll.
Multiple police reports from the FBI and Connecticut State Police point to Shaun Karpiuk as the most likely killer of Billy Smolinski Jr.. Karpiuk died of a drug overdose in January 2005.
Statements given by individuals from Top Gun Landscaping and their associates form a circular firing squad, each blaming the others. There are different stories of how Billy Smolinski was murdered and where he was buried, but almost every version involves Shaun Karpiuk and Chad Hanson, and several versions include Paul Kopacz and Timmy Driscoll.
At the time of his murder Billy Smolinski was embroiled in a love triangle with Madeleine Gleason (his ex-girlfriend) and Christian Sorensen (a selectman in Woodbridge, CT). Both Gleason and Sorenson have given conflicting statements to law enforcement, but in at least one statement Gleason admitted that in August 2004 they were having an affair. Billy Smolinski discovered the affair and broke up with Gleason days before he vanished. The last three phone calls Smolinki made were to Sorensen’s home phone warning his male rival to “watch his back.”
The link between Top Gun Landscaping and the love triangle is Shaun Karpiuk, the second child of Madeleine Gleason. Karpiuk, a former fullback on the Seymour High School football team, is alleged to have killed Billy Smolinski with a roofing hammer on August 24th, 2004. Karpiuk died of a drug overdose five months later at a gas station on Chase Road in Waterbury.
There are numerous statements from Karpiuk’s co-workers and friends that suggest Karpiuk believed Billy Smolinski had sexually assaulted Karpiuk’s sister, Kystal Rapuano, fathered a child with her, and had physically abused his mother, Madeleine Gleason.
The allegations that Billy fathered a child were proven untrue by DNA tests, and in hundreds of police reports there is no mention of any violence between Billy Smolinski and Madeleine Gleason.
It is unclear who filled Shaun Karpiuk’s head with misinformation about Billy Smolinski, but multiple statements to the FBI and the Connecticut State Police suggest that Karpiuk’s actions against Billy were motivated by a belief that Billy had violated Shaun’s family.”
This is a particularly painful subject for Jan and Bill Smolinski to process. Not only was their eldest child murdered, his name has also been smeared with false accusations inside police reports and rumors swirling around the hornet’s nest in the lower Naugatuck Valley.
When you consider that Janice Smolinski was arrested for hanging a missing person flyer near a Woodbridge school (in the town where 2/3 of the love triangle lived and worked), and that Jan and her daughter, Paula, were sued by Madeleine Gleason, a named suspect in the disappearance of Billy Smolinski, and that at one point the FBI ordered profile tests done on the Smolinskis and no one else in its investigation, when you consider all the indignities, insults and pain inflicted upon this family, it’s a miracle they are still standing, let alone continuing to fight back.
After intensive meetings with Jan and Bill Smolinski , and extensive review of hundreds of police reports, The Waterbury Observer produced a 24-page report about the murder of Billy Smolinski. The report was hand delivered to Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary and Waterbury Police Chief Fred Spagnolo in September 2018.
In addition to zeroing in on Shaun Karpiuk and a motive for allegedly killing Billy Smolinski with a roofing hammer, the report cross referenced several reports from the FBI and the Connecticut State Police to identify a property where Billy’s body might have been buried.
It took me months to pull the report together and I printed two dozen copies on September 2nd, 2018, took a deep breath, and drove off to deliver the report to Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary and Waterbury Police Chief Fred Spagnolo.
Could we get their attention? Could we get the City of Waterbury to re-engage in one of the most controversial investigations in decades? I wasn’t sure, but I was going to try. •
(Subscribe to The Brass File to read the next installment about the investigation into the murder of Billy Smolinski. How will Mayor Neil O’Leary and Police Chief Fred Spagnolo respond to the report?)