The Federal ‘Help Find the Missing Act’ was signed by President Biden yesterday, in honor of missing William ‘Billy’ Smolinski, Jr.
By Erica Morse
Publisher, Victims News Online
Updated 7:30 p.m., December 28, 2022
(WATERBURY, CONNECTICUT) – When Billy Smolinski disappeared in 2004, his parents went to the police department to file a missing person’s report. They had minimal information about their son’s whereabouts, other than being told he did not show up for work and a vague mention by his neighbor that he ‘went up north’ for a few days to look at car parts.
That neighbor’s statement – later determined by authorities to be false – created a delay in the reporting of Billy Smolinski’s disappearance. Billy, a responsible, reliable adult, was not known for abandoning his job as a tow truck driver in Waterbury, Connecticut. His beloved German Shepherd, Harlie, was reportedly left in the care of that neighbor who made the cryptic statement, although his family asserted he would not leave her with the man. The police appeared unconcerned and advised the Smolinskis to wait three days before filing an official report.
His parents searched his house and found a food receipt dated at approximately 3pm the previous day. His truck, keys, and wallet were missing, but everything else appeared in order. They left messages on his phone for him to call them immediately. They reached out to friends and other relatives – no one had spoken to him. They called his ex-girlfriend, with whom Billy had broken up just days before his disappearance. She did not appear concerned, nor did she offer any insight into his possible whereabouts.
When Billy’s truck mysteriously reappeared in his driveway the next day – his wallet and keys inside – the Smolinskis knew for certain their son was in trouble. They tried again to file a report and were again turned away. The critical ‘first 48’ hours of his disappearance were passing quickly; Billy would not have returned his truck without notifying his worried parents that he was safe.
On the third day, the Smolinskis returned to the Waterbury, Connecticut, Police Department, and a missing person’s report was finally taken. Their son’s information was entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, although Billy had no criminal history and was not a wanted man. According to his mother, Jan Smolinski, the NCIC entry was erroneous and would have made identifying her son impossible had he been located at that time.
“We got a chance to see what had been written in NCIC and some of the information had been wrong, so Billy would have never been identified if his remains were found”, Jan Smolinski told Victims News Online. “NCIC cannot be seen by the public – only law enforcement and medical examiners were able to see the database”, Smolinski said, making it “impossible” for his parents to track the progress of the search effort and any potential updates on his case.
What the Smolinskis soon learned is that their situation was not unique. As they turned to local and social media for help, Jan and Bill discovered many parents of adult missing persons encounter the same resistance by law enforcement to take those reports, and every missing adult is entered into NCIC, whether they have a criminal history or not.
They realized adult missing persons are being treated like criminals, instead of victims.
As the days turned to months, and ultimately years, the Smolinski family continued their search. They established a private tipline and a $60,000 reward for information. They organized search efforts and hung thousands of fliers in the region. They even fought an unexpected lawsuit from Billy’s ex-girlfriend for hanging those fliers. They dedicated their lives to finding their son; and, as the years passed, Jan and Bill Smolinski decided they wanted to change the broken system of adult missing persons’ reporting that delayed precious time when Billy disappeared.
Along the way, the couple met other loved ones of missing persons and those who help them. They established a friendship with the creators of the Doe Network, a privately-run, online library of missing and unidentified individuals. One of those people was J. Todd Matthews, known as the pioneer of ‘Internet sleuthing’, who was thrust unexpectedly into the world of the missing when his father-in-law stumbled upon the remains of a deceased girl in 1968. They became friends with Maureen ‘Mo’ Reintjes, whose own husband disappeared in 2005; she knew the challenges of finding and reporting a missing adult and was eager to change the broken systems. Every one of them had a story to tell, and all roads led to frustration and challenges in trying to find missing people, especially adults.
As luck would have it, in 2009, the National Institute of Justice was perfecting an unknown, underutilized system to alleviate the challenges of tracking missing and unidentified persons. The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, was an online database created in 2007, storing thousands of details about missing and unidentified people in the United States; by 2009, the ‘missing’ and ‘unidentified’ directories were merged to create a nationwide clearinghouse allowing for DNA, fingerprint and dental collections, with the goal of expediting the identification process across the country by allowing for comparisons and matches.
One of the best parts about NamUs is that it is viewable by the public, giving the Smolinskis access to their son’s case and any potential matches or eliminations.
That is when Jan and Bill Smolinski decided to draft a bill requiring nationwide reporting by law enforcement and medical examiners to the NamUs database. They called it ‘Billy’s Law’, and reached out to then-Congressman Chris Murphy (D-CT), asking him to sponsor the bill in Billy’s honor. They wanted to make NamUs a mandatory tool for all police departments and medical examiners, to help expedite the process, and educate the public on its existence. Murphy agreed and picked up the fight alongside Jan and Bill. However, the bill unexpectedly stalled in the House, leaving all involved feeling defeated but not hopeless.
So the Smolinskis rolled up their sleeves, turned to social media for support, and rebranded the bill under a statewide missing persons’ effort. The new goal was to pass legislation in every state representing a missing person from that respective area. Families of the missing jumped on board, and the Statewide Help Find the Missing Act was passed in a handful of states over the next 11 years.
By that time, Todd Matthews, that Internet sleuther, was now the Director of Case Management for NamUs. He jumped on the legislation, along with Mo Reintjes, the now-Communications Director of Missouri Missing. John Murray, Publisher of the Waterbury Observer (from where Billy disappeared), joined the fight, covering the local case on a national level. And in 2011, our team from Victims News Online joined the effort, writing dozens of articles and working with parents to find co-sponsors for the Bill, through phone and letter-writing campaigns.
In November of this year, Jan and Bill Smolinski received an unexpected call from now-Senator Chris Murphy, who said he wanted to try and push Billy’s Law through the Senate before the end of the 117th Congress session in December.
The race was on. Once again, Jan Smolinski turned to social media and the many who helped her over the years. John Murray turned out a series of articles on Billy’s Law and urged locals to support the effort. Todd Matthews and Maureen Reintjes, quickly began updating the statewide and Federal ‘Help Find the Missing Act’ Facebook pages, urging parents of missing persons to call their state representatives. Our team from VNO began coordinating with the families, making calls, and manning social media pages.
On Thursday, December 8th, Senator Chris Murphy called the Smolinski family to tell them Billy’s Law had just passed the Senate in a unanimous vote.
The race was on again. With only days to spare before the Holiday break, the Law still had to pass in the House with a two-thirds majority and be signed by President Joe Biden. The social media pressure increased, calls were now made to members of Congress from each state, and the media pressure increased overnight.
On the evening of December 14th, the Smolinski family, along with thousands of friends and loved ones nationwide, tuned into C-SPAN to watch the Federal ‘Help Find the Missing Act’ become a reality; at approximately 8:24pm CST, the 13-year battle to coordinate missing persons’ reporting finally got the attention it deserved, when the House passed Billy’s Law, by a vote of 422-4.
On December 23rd, the bill landed on President Biden’s desk and was signed into law yesterday, December 27th, 2022.
“This legislation will close loopholes in America’s missing persons’ systems by streamlining the missing persons’ reporting process and ensuring that law enforcement databases are more accessible and comprehensive”, said now-Senator Chris Murphy.
Todd Matthews, now formerly of NamUs and back with the Doe Network, told VNO, “The Help Find the Missing Act connects NamUs with the FBI’s National Crime Information Center and requires the Justice Department to issue better guidelines and best practices on the handling of missing persons and unidentified remains. States can further fine-tune and tailor their own procedures”.
And Jan Smolinski, the mother behind it all, told Victims News Online last evening, “I guess it is how our trials are handled and choices made in life”.
The bill also provides funding for training those officials on the use of the system, streamlining the process of comparing the three, and expediting the process of matches and identification.
“There are thousands of families like the Smolinskis who are forced to navigate a broken missing persons’ system while dealing with the unthinkable heartache of a loved one’s disappearance,” Murphy said in a December 8th presser about the Senate’s passing of Billy’s Law. “I’ve introduced this commonsense fix every Congress since 2009, and I’m grateful to my colleagues, Billy’s family, the family of Gabby Petito, and countless other families searching for their loved ones for their efforts to get this bill across the finish line”.
Advocates nationwide are praising the law, in anticipation of making new matches more quickly, which will close cases and bring answers to thousands of families across the country. “I cannot wait to see how many matches we can make in the first year”, said Christine Salzer, Founder of Moms on a Mission, who routinely utilizes the system to compare missing persons with unidentified and unclaimed remains. “The number of missing and unidentified we can now match will bring answers to families who have been suffering for years, many for decades”.
Now that Billy’s Law is official, Jan and Bill Smolinski will return their full focus to finding Billy and bringing him home. They hope the recent attention to Billy’s case will finally bring the answers they need to bring their son home. Last evening, Jan reinforced a sentiment she shared with our team in 2013: “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”.
At the time of his disappearance, William “Billy” Smolinski, Jr. 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 Waterbury, CT., Police Department Detective Bureau at (203) 574-6920. More details regarding the disappearance of Billy Smolinski may be found at the family’s official website, http://www.justice4billy.com/, and an archive of our coverage may be found here.