The family of a missing Connecticut man is speaking out today, in preparation of an upcoming appeal before the state's Appellate Court, that -- if allowed to stand -- could have long-term repercussions for families of the missing nationwide.
For the family of William "Billy" Smolinski, next week's appeal is an opportunity to right many wrongs in the case of their missing son, and to ensure every person with a missing loved one has the ability to hang a missing persons' poster to seek leads and information.
It was August 24, 2004, when 31-year-old 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 -- and for the right to distribute information regarding his disappearance.
From the beginning, there were few details available: 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.
I knew immediately something was wrong", his mother, Jan Smolinski, said in a 2012 interview. "Billy did not disappear willingly".
Surprisingly, though, finding Billy wasn't the only battle preparing to be fought by his loved ones back in 2004; adding insult to injury was an unexpected series of events surrounding this family's attempts to hang fliers bearing the missing man's photo. What resulted was a backlash 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.
For suddenly, not only were the Smolinskis fighting for Billy's rights, but also their own -- and the right of every family to post fliers when someone disappears. "It's one of the first things people do when a loved one goes missing," Jan Smolinski told The Examiner. "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(s) 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 in Woodbridge, CT, 18 miles southeast of where he was last seen. 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 The Examiner. "Billy spent time there; people knew him 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 by Woodbridge Police 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 allegations of 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 town councilman from Woodbridge -- a man by the name of Chris Sorenson.
Waterbury Police confirmed the alleged affair using phone records shortly after Billy Smolinski's disappearance. Police reports also claim Billy Smolinski called Sorenson just hours before his disappearance, and told him to "watch his back".
In August 2012, a Judge in Woodbridge 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.
Madeleine Gleason is listed in police reports as a “suspect”; and, according to police testimony at trial, she has not yet been cleared. Additionally, new information provided to authorities over the last few years indicates Gleason's now-deceased son, Shaun Karpiuk, may have been involved in Smolinski's disappearance . Karpiuk died from a heroin overdose at the age of 27 -- just five months after Billy Smolinski vanished -- 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. In 2008, Hanson told police he assisted Shaun Karpiuk in burying a barrel in a new subdivision which was being built by a company for which Karpiuk had worked. His information led officials to an area, which -- after being thoroughly excavated to depths of six feet -- 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 Appellate 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, without the fear of repercussions.
Their new attorneys -- Steven Kelly and Anne McKenna of the legal firm SilverMcKenna -- have taken the case on a pro bono basis. They will travel from Baltimore, Maryland, to Connecticut to present their arguments against this ruling later this month.
The State of Connecticut granted both attorneys "pro hac" status, allowing them to argue this specific appeal in a state in which they do not practice. The firm specializes in Internet and privacy law, including civil rights and victims' rights.
In a phone interview with The Examiner, Attorney Anne McKenna said this is not only a First Amendment issue, but also one of media law.
It's shocking to me that a family can be successfully sued for working to find a missing loved one," McKenna said. "I'm a parent, and can not imagine this happening.".
McKenna and her colleague, Attorney Steven Kelly, have taken a special interest in the Smolinski case, due to the potential fallout for families of missing people across the country.
The trial court’s verdict in the Smolinski case threatens to undermine crime victims' fundamental right to seek justice", said Steven Kelly, lead attorney for the appeal, in an e-mail to The Examiner. "The case represents a disturbing national trend in which criminal defense attorneys are advising criminal suspects to use tort law to bully crime victims into silence. That trend cannot be permitted to stand."
"Anne McKenna and I have combed through every piece of evidence presented at trial and it is clear to us that the Smolinski family did nothing more than to assert their First Amendment right to speak out in an effort to find Billy Smolinski," Kelly continued. "Like the Smolinski’s, I know what it is like to have a loved one disappear. My sister was 28 years old when she disappeared in 1988. I personally hung thousands of missing persons posters not unlike the posters that gave rise to this verdict. One of those posters hangs on my office wall as a reminder of why I do this work. I cannot imagine being forced, as the Smolinksis have been, to fight a civil lawsuit in addition to dealing with the murder. I am pleased that, with the support of my colleague, Anne McKenna, we will fight to reverse this unjust verdict and to help the Smolinskis seek justice for Billy".
His colleague on the case, Attorney Anne McKenna, couldn't agree more.
"When you meet the Smolinskis and learn what they've gone through, you know they're the 'real deal'", McKenna said. "This is a family who is fighting for the right to find their missing son, and they're enduring horrific consequences by doing so".
If victims can be silenced with tort actions and sued for defamation, then we have a real problem on our hands," McKenna continued. "It stifles our right to look for a loved one. The Smolinskis were penalized for criticizing a police department's handling of this investigation; and that is one of the most highly-protected forms of free speech. This case makes your head spin".
If allowed to stand, many fear this case will set precedent 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.
You could have a child go missing; and someone named as a suspect or person of interest could successfully sue you for putting up posters," Attorney McKenna said. "It's so chilling".
From her home in Cheshire, CT, Billy's mother, Jan Smolinski, spoke with The Examiner 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 ruling -- if allowed to stand -- could hamper search efforts for all missing persons. Hours after the decision, this reporter --with the blessing of the Smolinski family -- launched a petition asking the Connecticut Appellate 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 Connecticut Appellate 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.
Our hope is that, not only will this case continue to receive attention throughout Connecticut, but across the country", Anne McKenna said. "We want the high court to understand this ruling will affect families nationwide".
At the time of his disappearance, William "Billy" Smolinski was 31 years' old, with 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".
The 37-page brief filed on behalf of the Smolinski family in this appeal may be viewed here.