(Editor's note; this is the third column in a series 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. The Observer published 15 stories on the investigation from 2006 to 2015, and nothing again until this series. Despite the silence, there was a whirlwind of activity behind the scenes, and this series takes Observer readers through the developments)
Column By John Murray
We were stuck.
What do you do with tips that might unlock a 14-year-old mystery into one of Waterbury’s most notorious murder cases? The obvious answer was to deliver those tips straight to the Waterbury Police Department.
In the investigation into the murder of Billy Smolinski Jr., however, nothing was obvious, and the entire case has been upside down since Billy vanished on August 24th, 2004.
In February 2018 I had traveled to Florida to spend a week with Janice and Bill Smolinski to pour over hundreds of reports from the FBI, the Connecticut State Police, the Waterbury Police, the Shelton Police, the Seymour Police and Spyglass Investigations. The murder investigation had been stagnant for five years, and this was a push by the Observer, and Billy’s parents, to help solve the case. The three of us spent eight hours a day, for six days, searching for a thread that might unravel the mystery. After five days, we found enough loose threads to weave a blanket.
I wrote a 24-page paper about our findings, all of it sourced directly from police reports. We had created a time line of what we thought had happened, and where we suspected Billy had been buried. But who were we going to give the report to?
Communication between the Smolinskis and the Waterbury Police Department wasn’t broken, it was shattered. There had been police blunders and confrontations. Neither side trusted the other. There had been no communication for years. Calls to a detective assigned to the investigation went unanswered. Now we had a report with facts and details that might solve the case. I could publish our findings in the Observer, but that wouldn’t do us any good; we needed law enforcement to dig up Billy’s body. We needed to reengage the Waterbury Police Department.
Before approaching the Waterbury PD I asked for assurances from Jan and Bill that they would refrain from media interviews and criticizing cops for past mistakes. They agreed, and I began the outreach by engaging with Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, who was the police chief in August 2004 when Billy Smolinski vanished.
Mayor O’Leary is an extraordinarily powerful mayor in Waterbury. He has quashed all political opposition inside the Democratic Party, and during his record-breaking 11-year reign as mayor he has faced no primary opponent, he has crushed all Republican and independent challengers, and he controls all the pieces on the Waterbury chess board.
The Waterbury Police Department answers directly to Neil O’Leary, and as a former police chief himself, O’Leary has been especially engaged in happenings inside Police HQs since he was elected in 2011. If the Waterbury PD was going to re-open the Smolinski investigation, that decision would eventually land on O’Leary’s desk.
So I texted him in September 2018 and asked for a two-minute meeting so I could personally hand him important information about the Smolinski case. O’Leary was in a meeting in his office and agreed to step out. We sat down in his chief of staff’s office and I handed him the 24-page report. I encouraged him to read the report and said I was seeking to get the police department to actively work the Smolinski case again.
Mayor O’Leary assured me he would read the report and then speak to Waterbury’s Acting Police Chief Fred Spagnolo. I then delivered a dozen copies of the report to Chief Spagnolo and waited for a response.
There was none. Total silence.
I’m not sure what I expected, but silence from the police wasn’t a response I’d considered. I thought there would be questions and engagement, but this was going to take more than delivering the report to city officials. After two months of waiting, I reached out to Chief Spagnolo and asked for a meeting. Our first meeting might best be described as unenthusiastic. Spagnolo acknowledged the report for the first time and asked what we expected the Waterbury PD to do.
Spagnolo later told me he had been caught off guard when I delivered the report. Spagnolo said he hadn’t heard Billy Smolinski’s name in years, and while he was waiting to be formally named as the new police chief, the politically explosive report had landed on his desk. Spagnolo was aware of the ramifications of the Smolinski investigation and was aware that the FBI and the Connecticut State Police had dropped their efforts to find Billy. Spagnolo said he knew the investigation was a hot potato that could explode in law enforcement’s face, and he didn’t want it to explode in his. Congratulations chief, here’s a live grenade to help you celebrate your impending promotion.
In the previous 14 years the Smolinski family had fought, clawed and confronted power in an all-consuming effort to find their son’s body. The Smolinskis prayed every day that the hand of justice would eventually crash down on the murderers, and those that had lied and covered up the killing.
A strange thing had happened along way towards justice. Billy’s mother, Janice Smolinski, had been arrested for hanging missing person flyers in Woodbridge. Janice and The Waterbury Observer were sued by a named suspect in the disappearance of Billy Smolinski (a case that was decided in the Connecticut Supreme Court, in the Smolinski’s favor). There was a long list of police blunders; missing DNA samples. lost vials of blood, an inability by Waterbury PD to upload Billy’s information to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), tips were blatantly ignored, and most egregiously, the police began to smear Billy’s name with false allegations and investigate and profile his family.
So much had happened, including an insult by Deputy Chief Jimmy Egan who told the Observer that Billy was probably having a beer in Europe and would come home when he was ready (Egan said this 18 months after Billy was murdered). The Smolinskis finally exploded at the investigators in 2013, and whatever effort was being invested into Billy’s murder, stopped. Any bridge between law enforcement and the Smolinski family blew up the day they called them out. Afterwards, the Smolinskis tried to share tips that had come in on a tip line they had set up and paid for, but no one inside Waterbury PD would call them back.
Five years of silence. There were leads to follow and suspects to interview, but the Waterbury PD, although they will never admit it, was standing down.
It took two meetings in the Autumn of 2018 to reengage the Waterbury Police Department. Chief Spagnolo eventually agreed to our first request; to contact the Dr. Henry Lee Forensic Institute at the University of New Haven and ask them to bring ground penetrating radar to the property where we suspected Billy was buried. We also suggested that the Waterbury Police Department bring trained cadaver dogs to the property, but the re engagement would begin with the radar equipment first.
In December 2018 Chief Spagnolo, several detectives and I met with Peter Massey, a forensic science professor at the Lee Forensic Institute and he explained how the equipment worked, and he suggested we wait until May when the ground had thawed. In an effort to keep the investigation moving forward I positioned myself as the go-between the Waterbury PD and the Smolinski Family. Bill and Jan were on edge, angry and frustrated, and were likely to challenge the investigators and unload 14 years of frustration on them. While understandable, every time they had confronted power in the past 14 years - Waterbury PD, Connecticut State Police and the FBI, it had always backfired and demotivated the investigators. After the meeting I called Jan and Bill and told them we’d have to wait six months to get the ground penetrating radar on the property. They were frustrated, but they understood.
Before joining the Lee Institute, Peter Massey had worked as a Hamden police officer for 20 years. In 2013 Massey was named one of the top forensic science professors in America, so the investigation was blessed to have his expertise on the case. In the late Spring of 2019 I met Massey, Detective Carl Speanberg and Lt. Joe Rainone, the head of the Forensic Department in the Waterbury Police Department, at the site. We spent several hours rolling the ground penetrating radar over every inch of the property. Chief Spagnolo had invited me to attend the search and I followed the three men around the property taking photographs and observing the process. When Massey gave a signal, a flag was placed in the ground where the equipment had alerted.
The ground penetrating equipment was highly sensitive and picked up roots and utility lines, and we were hoping it might reveal the body of Billy Smolinski, a metal barrel, or disturbed soil. There were a lot of flags planted in the ground, perhaps more than 100. In the late afternoon a Waterbury police officer came down with a drone to photograph and document the property so a map could be created to further aid the investigation.
Our report had identified a spot beneath the driveway, snug up against the footings of the house, as the most likely burial spot for Billy Smolinski. We had cross referenced police reports from the FBI and the Connecticut State Police and found a credible statement that Billy was been buried at the site Shaun Karpiuk and Chad Hansen had been siding on the day Billy was murdered. An additional statement identified an existing a drainage ditch at the mouth of the garage as Billy’s grave.
The ground penetrating equipment did not signal anything unique at the mouth of the garage, but visual inspection revealed a drainage system that led to a wetlands behind the house, and the radar equipment picked up signals around the drain. There was a general consensus that the driveway remained the most likely burial spot on the property and merited further exploration.
If Waterbury PD was going to dig up the driveway it was going to take an investment by the city of Waterbury to make it happen, and I brought the issue to Mayor O’Leary. Without hesitation O’Leary committed to digging up the driveway. “If there is a chance that Billy Smolinski is there,” O’Leary said. “We have to tear up that driveway.”
Weeks later as he walked off the stage after accepting the Democratic nomination for mayor, Neil O’Leary walked past me and said, “When are we going to dig?”
It appeared the dig was eminent.
Chief Spagnolo cautioned that we still needed to get permission from the homeowner, who had previously allowed law enforcement access to his property four times. If the homeowner said no, we were in trouble as Spagnolo said we were unlikely to obtain a search warrant for the property. When Detective Speanberg approached the homeowner he was informed that a new driveway had been installed in 2011 or 2012, seven or eight years after Billy was murdered. That revelation halted everything.
All efforts to get on that property stopped, and Chief Spagnolo said the Smolinski investigation would continue to follow other leads, but as far as he was concerned, that closed the book on that specific property.
Not surprisingly, neither the Smolinkis nor I were satisfied with that conclusion. Did the homeowner have receipts or permits that proved his statement? As it turned out, no, he couldn’t find any.
Another intense one-on-one meeting with Chief Spagnolo took place in September 2019 and he assured me that the Waterbury PD was fully engaged, and he invited me to meet each week with the head of the Waterbury Detective Bureau, Captain Mike Ponzillo, and Detective Speanberg, to discuss the case. It was an unusual dynamic for two detectives to meet with a journalist and discuss an ongoing murder investigation, and it was equally challenging for a journalist to meet with detectives in a murder investigation that somewhere along the line he’d become a participant in.
We met five or six times in Captain Ponzillo’s office during the Autumn of 2019. There were other leads to follow, but I still hadn’t dismissed the possibility that Billy Smolinski was buried at the site the alleged killer was working on the day Billy vanished. We were making progress on a few other leads when I unplugged for five weeks to travel to Vietnam in early February 2020. By the time I returned in early March 2020, we were on the edge of a COVID tsunami that would paralyze our investigation for the next six months.
When we began meeting again in the Autumn of 2020, I brought Bill DiFrancesco into Waterbury Police HQs to revisit the idea of bringing cadaver dogs onto the property. DiFrancesco had trained a cadaver dog that had successfully located a body floating underwater, and he was knowledgeable about house construction, footings and drainage pipes. A few weeks later we met with Deb Monde and her dog, Edge, a black lab trained at locating cadavers in a variety of stages of decomposition, including bones. We met at Hamilton Park and Monde gave a presentation of her dog and its training. Afterwards we agreed to bring Monde’s dog onto the property, but we again had to wait until the ground was thawed and there was warmth in the air.
We had to get the homeowners permission again, which would be no easy feat, but if all went well, a cadaver dog would be searching the property for Billy Smoilinski in the Spring of 2021. Three years had passed since I had traveled to Florida to brainstorm the case with Jan and Bill Smolinski. It had been painfully slow progress, but the Waterbury PD was engaged, we had used the ground penetrating radar and now we were about to bring highly trained cadaver dogs onto the property. The dogs were our best hope. •
Click here for the first two columns on the investigation....
(Next; The Cadaver Dogs. What did we find, and what would we do with the information we developed? Subscribe to The Brass File to read the next installment about the investigation into the murder of Billy Smolinski).