By Erica Morse
Editor-in-Chief, Victims News Online (VNO)
Published November 5, 2013
As loved ones across the country gather to give thanks this month, one Connecticut family will come together for a much different reason. For the family of missing William “Billy” Smolinski, their wish this Thanksgiving season is to successfully overturn a courtroom verdict which is limiting them from generating tips regarding his disappearance.
It was August 24, 2004, when Billy Smolinski vanished from his home in Waterbury, CT. Since that day, his mother, father, sister, and many friends have been fighting to find him. From the beginning, there were few details surrounding his disappearance: a neighbor reported he was going “up north” for a few days to look at a used vehicle; no family or friends knew of his spontaneous “trip”; and when later searched, Billy Smolinski’s keys and wallet were found tucked into the seat of his truck, left unattended in his driveway. Surprisingly, though, finding Billy wasn’t the only battle preparing to be fought by his loved ones back in 2004; it would be an unexpected series of events surrounding this family’s attempts to hang fliers bearing the missing man’s photo which catapulted the Smolinskis into the national spotlight — and made Billy’s case a landmark for all families who wish to use fliers to share information to generate leads. Suddenly, not only were the Smolinski’s fighting for Billy’s rights, but also their own — and the right of every family with a missing or murdered loved one. “It’s one of the first things people do when a loved one goes missing,” Jan Smolinski told Victims News Online. “Now, our friends are hanging them for us, because we’re afraid to do so for fear of being arrested or sued”.
The fliers in question are known as “missing persons’” fliers. They’re designed by the families, friends and advocates of a missing person, and distributed electronically via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Smartphones, and on highway billboards. They are handed out to business owners, and displayed in shop windows, providing the missing person’s description, picture, and a phone number for tips or leads. They are hung in bus stations, train stations, and on telephone poles all over the world; and in the U.S., more than 10,000,000 paper fliers are distributed or hung each year. However, as a result of distributing those very fliers to find answers to their son’s disappearance, the Smolinskis are fighting to overturn a verdict rendered last year, awarding more than $50,000 in damages to Billy’s former girlfriend, Madeleine Gleason.
Gleason has successfully sued her former boyfriend’s mother and sister for defamation and harassment, stemming from the location of those “missing” fliers. Gleason, a bus driver, claims she suffered “extreme emotional distress”, defamation of character, and harassment, as a result of Billy Smolinski’s missing person’s fliers being hung on telephone poles along the bus route she drives daily. Gleason’s employer also initially filed a joint complaint seeking monetary damages against the Smolinskis, claiming the fliers were affecting his company’s business; however, the bus company dropped their portion of the suit prior to the hearing.
“We hung the posters all over Woodbridge; not only in one area,” Jan Smolinski told Victims News Online. “Billy spent time up there; we just wanted to know if someone recognized him. Our only goal is to find Billy”. In addition to the lawsuit, Jan Smolinski was also arrested and charged with trespassing in 2005, after hanging a “missing” flyer with Billy’s picture on the grounds of a public school. Those charges were later dropped; but couple the arrest and lawsuit with a botched investigation and disappearing DNA evidence, and you get what Jan Smolinski calls, “the perfect storm”. Whatever could have happened, did happen”, Jan Smolinski said. “Now, it’s a hot potato case, and no one wants to handle it”. This has been a situation of not only mistakes — but one that seems to give credence to the fear by many in the missing person’s arena that victims’ rights are continuing to be lessened by crafty courtroom antics, slick defense attorneys, and public officials who blur professional lines.
Just days before Billy Smolinski’s disappearance, he learned his then-girlfriend, Madeleine Gleason, had been having an affair with a married politician from Woodbridge. Waterbury Police confirmed the alleged affair using phone records shortly after Billy Smolinski’s disappearance. In August 2012, a CT Court Judge ruled in favor of Gleason, and awarded her $52,666 in damages. The Smolinski family immediately announced their intention to appeal the verdict; and advocates, friends, and families of other missing/murder victims came out of the woodwork to show their support for a family who seems to be taking hit after hit, all in the name of justice.
While authorities assert Madeline Gleason was not involved in her former boyfriend’s disappearance, they have claimed her now-deceased son, Shaun Karpiuk, may have been. Karpiuk died from a heroin overdose at the age of 27 — just five months after Smolinski’s disappearance — throwing the investigation off-track, as authorities are unable to further proceed against him. Making matters worse, a friend of Karpiuk’s, Chad Hanson, served 20 months in prison for providing false information to police regarding the alleged murder of Billy Smolinski, and leading them to an area, which — after being thoroughly excavated — yielded no evidence related to Smolinski’s disappearance or death.
Now, the Smolinskis and their attorneys will return to court on November 20, 2013, to present one last argument before the Connecticut State Supreme Court: asking for the ruling to be overturned, allowing them — and all families of the missing — the right to hang fliers of their loved ones, in order to generate tips. Bill and Jan Smolinski with a picture of Billy, missing since August 2004. The couple will head back to court on November 20, 2013, to request the overturning of a verdict hampering their abilities to hang “missing” fliers of their son.
The couple will head back to court on November 20, 2013, to request the overturning of a verdict hampering their efforts to hang “missing” fliers of their son. Photo permission/Smolinski family If allowed to stand, many fear this case will set precedence for anyone who takes issue with the hanging of fliers, opening the door for suspects and persons of interest to take legal action in order to stifle search efforts for missing people nationwide.
From her home in Waterbury, CT, Billy’s mother, Jan Smolinski, spoke with Victims’ News Online about the upcoming appeal, and what it means for all families with missing or murdered loved ones. “This is a civil rights’ issue, affecting anyone who wants to post a flyer of any kind,” Jan Smolinski said. “From missing persons to murder victims, to missing pets down to garage sale posters. This is a First Amendment issue which can not be allowed to stand. And we don’t want to see any other families have to deal with an issue like this while looking for a missing loved one. It’s absolutely horrendous”. When news of the verdict was announced last August, families across the nation with missing and murdered loved ones came forward to voice their concerns about how this may hamper search efforts for all victims, if allowed to stand. Hours after the decision, this editor –with the blessing of the Smolinski family — launched a petition asking the Connecticut State Supreme Court to overturn the ruling. To date, more than 2,200 people have signed the petition — many of them, loved ones of missing and murder victims — and many have included their own personal pleas to the CT State Supreme Court regarding the verdict. The petition remains open, and will until the day before the hearing, currently scheduled for November 20, 2013; at that time, it will be turned over to the Smolinski’s attorneys to present to the judges presiding over the appeal.
At the time of his disappearance, William “Billy” Smolinski was 31 years’ old, with light brown hair and blue eyes. He stands six feet tall and weighs 200 pounds, with a pierced left ear and two tattoos of blue crosses — one on his left forearm and the other on his upper right shoulder. A $60,000 reward remains in effect for anyone with information regarding the disappearance or death of Billy Smolinski. Tips may be called in to the New Haven Office of the FBI at (203) 777-6311. More details regarding the disappearance of Billy Smolinski may be found at the family’s official website, http://www.justice4billy.com/. Since Billy’s disappearance, Jan has become a national spokesperson for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), speaking at conferences throughout the country on the importance of creating a universal program for tracking missing persons. She and her husband, Bill, have spearheaded legislation to change the way adult missing persons’ cases are handled by law enforcement; and in February 2010, the House passed “Billy’s Law”, which seeks to expand online public information on missing people and unidentified persons using the NamUs database. While the Smolinski family continues their new role as advocates — and fights to ensure all families of the missing have an opportunity to hang fliers — Jan remains steadfast in her primary objective in finding her son and bringing him home. “I’m looking forward to that day when we know where Billy is,” she said. “There are different angles of hope; and now, I know Billy’s gone, but I want to bring him home; so I can have a place to say my prayers and to talk with him. That’s my new hope”.