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Story By John Murray
The call from Kenny Curran to Janice and Bill Smolinski came Wednesday in the late afternoon as Hurricane Ian was thrashing Florida. While Sanibel Island and Fort Meyers were being pummeled, the Smolinskis were safe on the Atlantic side, but what Curran had to say was about to take their breath away.
Curran is the Connecticut director for U.S. Senator Chris Murphy’s office, and Curran informed the Smolinskis that Billy’s Law, named after the Smolinski’s missing and murdered son, was going to be re-introduced in the United States Senate the following day, September 29th.
“We were shocked,” Janice Smolinkski said. “It’s been 12 years since we went to Washington D.C. and first testified for Billy’s Law. It’s been a long time fighting for this.”
Billy’s Law is federal legislation tackling the thorny issue of adult missing persons, and overhauls how police officers are trained to respond to these cases by utilizing computerized data banks that connect the missing, to data banks containing information about the unidentified dead. The system is called NamUs, an underutilized tool in law enforcement.
According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons (NamUS) database, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 600,000 people go missing annually and approximately 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered each year. Most of the 600,000 return home, or are found, but at any snap shot in time there are 100,000 Americans reported missing. Shockingly, after decades of accumulation, there are 40,000 unidentified dead scattered around the country in morgues and medical examiners offices, or buried as a John or Jane Doe in some remote dusty town in Montana or Texas or Alaska.
It might be a femur or a skull or a badly decomposed body, but when the Smolinskis started fighting for Billy’s Law in 2009 they were stunned to learn many of the unidentified remains were being buried or cremated without a DNA sample being captured.
And even if a DNA sample was properly collected, most were not being uploaded to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) data bank. And even if the DNA sample had been properly collected and uploaded to NCIC the system was unable to connect to a federal data bank containing DNA and details about the 40,000 unidentified dead. A total disconnect.
It was a toxic stew of undertrained law enforcement mixed with inefficient government bureaucracy.
As the Smolinskis plunged deeper into the world of the missing and unidentified dead, the Department of Justice was creating NamUs that connected the information of the missing and the unidentified dead, and amazingly, Janice Smolinski became a national spokesperson for NamUs.
Bill and Janice Smolinski continue to sift through hundreds of police reports to try and find the missing piece of the puzzle that will reveal where their son was buried in 2004. For much of the past 18 years, the Smolinski Family, ignored by law enforcement, became the lead investigators in the search for their murdered son’s body.
For several years the Department of Justice flew her around the country to law enforcement conferences to speak to police officers about their experiences, and to tout NamUs as an effective tool at cracking missing person cases.
NamUs is an effective tool for law enforcement, for medical examiners and coroners, and for the families of the missing. Since its inception the new data base has had tremendous success.
Data from the NamUs website.
Frustrated at the shattered systems they encountered in 2004, Janice and Bill Smolinski were successful in passing two laws in Connecticut to change the way law enforcement responded to a report of missing adult, and changed procedure and protocol inside the Waterbury PD.
“There was an effort to pass laws state by state,” Jan Smolinski said, “but then we realized the most effective way was to seek a federal law that covered the entire country.”
Enter Chris Murphy, a young Congressman elected to Connecticut’s 5th District seat in 2006. Murphy met with the Smolinskis and co-sponsored Billy’s Law in January 2010 with Texas Congressman Ted Poe. Janice testified at a Congressional hearing in 2010.
“In our search to find our son we encountered a Pandora’s box,” she said, “and when we opened it, we unleashed the nightmare plaguing the world of the missing and the unidentified dead.”
Billy’s Law passed the House of Representatives unanimously.
The bill, however, was torpedoed in the U.S. Senate by Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn who had gained the nickname of “Dr. No” for blocking legislation that had new spending attached to it, even if he agreed with the bill. Coburn called his approach to blocking spending, “a firm rule”, and he successfully stymied stacks of bills that he believed increased the federal deficit.
Congressman Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut and Congressman Ted Poe (R)of Texas forged a bi-partisan team in 2010 to get Billy’s law passed unanimously in the the House.
Billy’s Law was upended by Dr. No, but neither the Smolinskis or Chris Murphy were going to accept that outcome. Murphy was elected to the United States Senate in 2012 and has tried several times, unsuccessfully, to guide Billy’s Law out of the Senate labyrinth. What was missing, he told the Observer several times during the past decade, was strong bi-partisan support.
Washington has been polarized by grid lock for years, but Murphy helped craft historic gun legislation this year by successfully combining forces with several Republican senators, and the bi-partisan approach led to the first federal gun reform in three decades. The gun deal’s lead GOP negotiator was Senator John Cornyn (R) of Texas, and he is a co-sponsor of Billy’s Law.
It appears Senator Murphy now has a partner across the aisle that is willing to work in a bi-partisan way to move important legislation forward. Chris Murphy is also a more skilled legislator now, with a decade of experience of negotiation, compromise and behind-the-scenes wrangling. Murphy has become a master chess player, and when Billy’s Law was re-introduced on Thursday it was co-sponsored by Murphy and Cornyn, and also Republican John Hoeven from North Dakota, Republican Thom Tillis from North Carolina and Democrat Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut. Three Republicans and two Democrats, a smart political strategy to break the grid lock that has paralyzed previous efforts to move Billy’s Law forward.
Getting Billy’s Law passed unanimously through the House of Representatives in 2010 was a major accomplishment for then-Congressman Chris Murphy. Now an influential U.S. Senator, Murphy never forgot about Billy’s Law, and 12 years after it was harpooned in the Senate, Murphy re-introduced Billy’s Law on September 29th.
In a press release announcing the re-introduction of Billy’s Law in the Senate, Murphy said, “There are thousands of families like the Smolinskis who are forced to endure the crushing uncertainty of a missing loved one and then end up victimized all over again by a missing persons system that doesn’t allow families to participate in the search for their family member.”
Murphy said there is no excuse for the inefficiencies of the current process and he will not stop pushing for Billy’s Law until, “I get it done.”
Kenny Curran, left, is Senator Murphys director of operations in Connecticut, his former campaign manager, and the Chairman of the Democratic Party in Waterbury. The two men are also great friends, and are pictured here walking along Grand Street in Waterbury.
When Billy Smolinski vanished from his life in Waterbury, Connecticut, on August 24th, 2004, he was 31 years old and physically fit. When his family reported Billy missing, the Waterbury Police Department did not take the case seriously. The Smolinskis were told to wait three days to make an official missing person report, and after they did that, they couldn’t get the police to take their concerns seriously.
The Smolinskis were told by the Waterbury PD that Billy would come home when he was ready. Inexplicably, 18 months after his wallet was found in his truck, while his bank account lay dormant, the Deputy Chief of the Waterbury Police Department told The Waterbury Observer that, “Billy was probably having a beer in Europe”, a comment made even more absurd by the fact that Billy Smolinski never owned a passport.
When his disappeared Billy Smolinski was involved in an explosive love triangle that involved an influential politician in Woodbridge, CT. His last known phone call was to his male rival and he left a threatening voice message on the politicians’s answering machine. Hours later Billy Smolinski vanished off the face of the earth.
The Smolinskis fought to have Billy’s DNA uploaded to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) that would alert law enforcement agencies across the state and country that Billy was missing. Several DNA samples were mishandled by the Waterbury Police and after two years of frustration, the information was finally uploaded by an FBI agent in Florida that the Smolinskis met at a Missing Persons conference.
The more the Smolinskis learned about the world of adult missing persons in America they discovered their experience was not unusual. Law enforcement all across the country were not being trained on proper techniques to collect and process DNA samples, and few police were aware of the national data banks that could help solve thousands of mysteries across America. And despite the fact that that thousands of the missing were turning up as unidentified dead, there was a disconnect in law enforcement and reports of adult missing persons were largely met with a big yawn.
Hundreds of thousands of individuals had walked the same grueling path that Jan and Bill Smolinski were trudging along, a real-life house of horror, but they decided to try and fix a broken system.
“We couldn’t accept what we were encountering,” Janice Smolinski said, “we wanted to make something positive out of Billy’s case. We needed to make a positive out of something horrific, and we weren’t going down without a fight.”
And fight they have. Jan Smolinski is a petite woman, barely five feet tall, yet she called on her maternal instincts to roar at power. She confronted the Waterbury PD, a Connecticut State’s Attorney, FBI agents, Connecticut State Police officers, the editor of the Republican-American newspaper, the commissioner of Public Safety in Connecticut and the Connecticut Attorney General. Along the way she was arrested in Woodbridge, CT, for hanging missing person flyers of Billy on school property (a charge that was quickly dismissed), and was sued by a named suspect in her son’s disappearance, a case that she won in the Connecticut Supreme Court.
“We’re quiet people,” Janice said, “but my main purpose in fighting for Billy’s Law was to educate people, not to have people feel sorry for us. We’re not the only ones going through this, and we’re hoping that if this finally passes it will help many other people and families in the years to come.”
In fighting for change in the darkest moment of their lives, Jan and Bill Smolinski may have found a tiny healing in their haunting search for their son’s body. They are now certain Billy was murdered in 2004 (there are dozens of police reports that confirm that belief) and they refuse to stop efforts to locate his remains and give Billy a proper Christian burial.
Jan and Bill Smolinski watched in November 2021 as a team from the Waterbury Police Department and the Western District Major Crime Squad from the Connecticut State Police unsuccessfully dug for Billy’s remains in Shelton, CT. They still believe he may be there.
The Smolinskis continue to work with the Waterbury PD to follow leads to Billy’s burial site, and their constant prodding led to a driveway being ripped up in November 2021 in the town of Shelton, CT. Working with a trained cadaver dog the Smolinskis still believe there is a possibility Billy is buried on that property, and they prod law enforcement to return to Shelton with an FBI cadaver dog for one final search.
“We are never going to give up searching for our son,” Janice said. “We are driven by our faith, and all the mistakes and obstacles we’ve encountered make us more determined to find the truth and bring Billy home.”
And during their remarkable effort to find their son, Jan and Bill Smolinski have altered the landscape of the missing and the unidentified dead. They encountered a broken system, and they have tried to fix it.
“Sometimes miracles happen and these little angels guide you along the way,” Janice Smolinski said. ” I’ve been arrested and sued and if we were to do it all over again, we would do the exact same thing. Maybe our journey was meant to get the attention of the proper authorities who needed to make a change to help other people. It’s all in God’s hands.” •