Saturday, March 12, 2011

Keeping On

Bill and Jan Smolinski Continue To Fight For Legislation That Would Alter The Way Law Enforcement Officers Respond To The Report Of A Missing Adult. Slowly, and Against Strong Police Resistence, It Appears Progress Is Being Made

 State Rep. Vickie Nardello, left, talks with Jan and Bill Smolinski

   Jan and Bill Smolinski refuse to stop searching for the body of their son, Billy, who was murdered - and buried - in the lower Naugatuck Valley area six and half years ago. During their quest for truth the Smolinskis have clashed with local, state and federal police who have mishandled critical evidence and lost seven DNA samples in the case.

   Almost anything that could go wrong in an investigation, has gone wrong. The Smolinski’s experience with police has been a gauntlet of apathy, incompetence and rudeness. There have been a few caring officers who have tried to do the right thing, but the investigation is now too compromised to be easily solved. The main suspects are liars and drug addicts who view prison as a revoling door - they’re in, they’re out, they’re back in.

   The Smolinskis have been so outspoken, and credible, that the case has drawn intense media coverage which has included an hour long special on the Discovery ID channel that has been aired around the world. There has been so much attention on the case that Jan and Bill Smolinski have used the botched investigation to trigger local, state and federal reform in the way police officers investigate and handle reports of missing adults. 

   The Waterbury Police Department has changed the way it handles reports of missing adults, but the Police Chiefs Association in Connecticut has continued to oppose efforts by the Smolinskis to bring their training into the 21st Century.

   The impact of Billy Smolinskis murder has rippled through the halls of Congress, and triggered Billy’s Law, which unanimously passed the House of Represntaives last year before stalling in the Senate. Efforts to re-introduce the bill are underway this year.

   The following comments were made by Janice Smolinski during a public hearing at the state capital in mid-February. She was testifying before the Public Safety Committee.

                                                                                 Joan Hartley, co-chair of the Public Safety Committee

     Good Afternoon. My name is Janice Smolinski and I’m here to testify in full support of Bill #6113, an act concerning the investigations into missing persons.

   Our family’s private Hell began six and half years ago when my 31-year-old son, Billy, vanished from his life.

   A sluggish response from the Waterbury Police Department – typical in the case of adult missing persons – started a domino affect that reverberates to this day. Impossibly strong leads were not followed, evidence was destroyed, seven DNA samples were lost, and basic information from Billy’s case was not entered into national data banks for three years.

   At the time of his disappearance Billy was involved in an explosive love triangle. This case involves a gravedigger, a long distance trucking company, a school bus driver, a politician, and a violent group of drug addicts.

   My son walked into a hornet’s nest.

                                                                                 Billy Smolinski and his best pal, Harley

   Law enforcement officers in the FBI, the Seymour Police Department, the Shelton Police Department and the Connecticut State Police have all told us Billy was murdered in August 2004, and buried somewhere in the lower Naugatuck Valley.

   Efforts to recover his body continue to this day.

   Despite overwhelming evidence of foul play, the Waterbury Police Department told a reporter that Billy was probably having a beer in Europe and would come home when he was ready. That comment was cruel and insensitive, and was uttered 18 months after Billy was murdered.

   Unable to get the Waterbury police to seriously investigate Billy’s disappearance, we hired private investigators, brought in private search dogs and began to piece the puzzle together ourselves. Our search for Billy brought us into the hornet’s nest in Woodbridge, where I was arrested for hanging a missing person poster of my son, and sued by Billy’s ex-girlfriend, Madeline Gleason.

   But our search revealed more than political and police corruption, we stumbled blindly into the world of the missing and unidentified dead. We learned that 160,000 other Americans are missing, and that coroners and medical examiners hold the remains of 40,000 unidentified dead. This is a national disaster.

   The president of the International Homicide Association, Bill Hagmaier, has publicly stated that a majority of the missing have been murdered, and are now the unidentified dead. The way to cross-reference these two groups is with DNA sampling. We live in a time when the most popular show in America is CSI, yet most of our local and state police lack basic working knowledge of DNA. They don’t know how to properly collect DNA or enter it into the proper databases, like NamUs.

     This can only change through training.

     There are hundreds of unsolved homicides in Connecticut and 700 missing persons, yet the police in Connecticut continue to oppose this legislation. Why?

   Four years ago West Hartford Police Chief James Strillacci, the head of the Police Chief’s Association, testified that legislation was unnecessary because there was no problem. Yet weeks later a missing 15-year-old girl was discovered hidden beneath the stairs of a home in a West Hartford, Chief Strillacci’s town.

   Two years ago Chief Strillaci again opposed efforts to reform the way law enforcement officers respond to the report of a missing adult. Shockingly, Chief Strillacci told Channel 3 news that he “wasn’t going to risk live people to find a body.”

   Chief Strillacci’s statements are insensitive and outrageous, and provide further proof why the Connecticut State Legislature needs to take a bold stand to protect the safety of our citizens.

   One hundred and fifty years ago the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglas said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

   The police in Connecticut have the power now, and despite irrefutable evidence; they refuse to acknowledge they have substandard training in DNA collection, the usage of national data banks, and how they respond to a report of a missing adult.

    Bill #6113 will change that.

   We can no longer allow the police to obstruct efforts to improve their training. It is time for law enforcement to catch up to the remarkable advancements of science. Passing Bill #6113 will make Connecticut a safer place to live. Although this legislation will not help my son Billy, it will help the thousands of families that will experience the nightmare of a missing loved one in the decades to come.

   And for them, and for the safety of all our citizens, the legislators of Connecticut must demand this change.                  

The River


 It was the best day the Naugtauck River has experienced in 100 years. The river received so much attention on February 24th that one could imagine her embarrassed, and blushing red for old time sake. This blush, however, was triggered by admirers gushing at her beauty, not from the red dyes that were pumped into her as industrial waste into a glorified toilet.

     Times have changed, and two events on February 24th showcased the shift.

   First, a Naugatuck River Forum was staged inside the Mattatuck Museum that brought together developers, businessmen, political leaders, community activists, environmentalists and state and federal officials to discuss the future of the 39 mile long river.

   It was an historic gathering, and the enthusiasm in the room bodes well for a river that has been abused, neglected and poisoned. If the river were human, the communities up and down the Naugatuck River would be in prison for murder.

   This generation has a chance at redemption, and the gathering in the Mattatuck Museum signaled a collective will to seize that opportunity.

   Hours after the river forum concluded, a small gathering took place inside the newly renovated Aldermanic chambers in downtown Waterbury that re enforced just how far the river has come. It was the monthly meeting of the Waterbury Greenway Committee and it was announced that a New York based company had been selected to design and oversee construction of the first phase of a 7.1 mile greenway project in the South End of Waterbury.

   The company, RBA, has successfully completed the Brooklyn Greenway, the Manhattan Waterfront project, and the Hudson River Greenway. They have a world class track record of designing greenways, and the news electrified members of the Waterbury committee. After years of planning and routing studies, the greenway in Waterbury is one step closer to reality.

   Ann Burton started the day off by addressing the 150 attendees of the Naugatuck River Forum with a short and eloquent talk.

   “The Naugatuck River has made the valley what it is,” Burton said. “It has given life to settlements, farms and factories. The river has created great prosperity for us and for the whole country.”

   Burton is a member of the steering committee that planned the forum, and is heavily involved in an environmental committee of the Connecticut Community Foundation, which co-hosted the event with Rivers Alliance of CT.

   “The Naugatuck River has given us life,” Burton said, “and we’ve drained the life from it.”

   Burton went on to describe the efforts of environmentalists to restore vitality to the river and said there is now, “life and animals back in the river. We are in the early stages of recovery, and we are gathered here today to find ways to work together to restore the Naugatuck River.”

  Congressman Chris Murphy called the gathering a “who’s who of the past, present and future of the Naugatuck River.” Murphy went on to describe the damage inflicted on the river “a testament to what man can do to a river with dyes and toxins”, and the forum was “a testament to what man can do to undo that damage.”

   Before the forum considered development and environmental issues, Laura Wildman, of Princeton Hydro, gave a concise and devastating history of the river. She described the Naugatuck River as an industrial sewer that changed colors every day, and was so toxic at one point that “the river caught on fire.”

   From that horror Wildman now sees a river that will support wildlife, fish, inner tubing and kayaking. ‘We turned our backs to the Naugatuck River for 200 years,” she said. “Now we are turning and facing towards it.”

   The recreational opportunities are exploding. An annual canoe and kayak race draws hundreds of thrill seekers to the river every Spring. Sport fisherman are catching brood stock salmon, and when a fish by-pass is completed this summer at the Tingue Dam in Seymour, ocean going fish like Striped Bass will return.

   Bird watching is getting richer and more rewarding by the month. Three Bald Eagles spent a portion of the winter fishing along the Naugatuck-Waterbury town line, and Wood Ducks, Great Blue Heron and Egrets are now commonly spotted.

   One of the most listened to speakers at the forum was Dan Esty, an environmental professor at Yale University, and Governor Dannel Malloy’s pick to head the newly formed Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Esty is also the co-author of Green to Gold, a book that explores the success modern companies can have by incorporating environmental thinking into their core business strategies.

   Esty, who has not been confirmed yet for his state post, provided keen insight into the thinking of the new Malloy Administration. “Our mission is to help generate jobs,” Esty said. “We need innovation to do things different and better.”

   Esty grew up in Watertown and said the success of the Naugatuck River “is personal” to him. Esty applauded the cooperative spirit at the forum and said collaboration is key to any project receiving funding. “It’s important to look at the issues with a holistic lens,” he said, “and partnerships are critically important.”

     The past thinking in Connecticut was that anything environmental was anti-business, and anything business was anti-environmental.

   “We need to change that thinking because business and the environment do not have to be mutually exclusive,” Esty said. “It is our job to change the spirit, and it begins with answering questions.”

   Sustainable development along the river was explored during a panel discussion that included Alex Conroy, the mastermind behind the successful river development project in downtown Providence. The panel was led by Gary O’Connor, the chairman of the Waterbury Chamber of Commerce.

   “Our ancestors failed to understand the need for economic balance with the environment,” O’Connor said. “Their efforts were not sustainable.”

  The goal of sustainable development now is to find a balance with the enhanced environment to generate economic growth. “Our political leaders need to think about the total watershed,” O’Connor said. “We can no longer think about borders and boundaries. Nature doesn’t work this way.”

    O’Connor’s comment touched on the most provactive theme of the Naugatuck River Forum - how do the diverse stakeholders along the river cobble together to view the river in a holistic way? How do we make regional decisons about the health and vitality of our most precious resource?

   Ideas are being explored to create a Naugatuck River website, and to consider the formation of a regional council, or association, that might govern the river. There are obstacles and special interests to overcome, but the river itself may provide the answer. The greatest asset of the Naugatuck River is it’s power to erode the barriers that have fragmented the communities along its 39 mile stretch. Water can carve through rock, and if the Naugatuck River is to fulfill the astonishing promise that lays ahead, it’s clear, strong currents must erode the human barriers that divide us.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Triangle

Marriages crash, couples fight, and the divorce rate in America remains at staggering heights. When the fog lifts there is usually an aggrieved ex-spouse harboring thoughts of vengeance. This is not news.

But the marriage of Ron and Cheryl Tompkins is not your typical love story gone south. It involves a cop and a federal lawsuit alleging an abuse of power by a prominent state prosecutor.

Ron and Cheryl were married for 18 years, had two children, and lived in a beautiful house in Wolcott. It’s impossible to determine the exact date the marriage began to unravel, but April 2008 was clearly significant - it was the time Cheryl asked Ron to move out of their house. She told him she wanted a divorce.

Ron, a Waterbury police officer, was stunned. He wasn’t going to pack his bags and leave. He wanted to talk about it, seek professional counselling, and see if they could save their marriage. But day after day, Ron said, Cheryl kept asking him to leave.

Stubborn, and with no where to go, Ron refused.

The Search

Billy Smolinski was murdered six years ago. The effort to crack the case involves local, state and federal police. The Smolinski Family is now working closely with private investigator Todd Lovejoy, pictured above, tracking down leads.

By John Murray

Six years is a long time to hold your breath.

But that’s exactly what Bill and Jan Smolinski have been doing since their 31-year-old son Billy vanished from his life on August 24th, 2004. When Billy disappeared from Waterbury the Smolinskis immediately knew something was wrong, they just didn’t know how horribly wrong until the days and weeks blurred into six years of hell. They quickly discovered that Billy was involved in an explosive love triangle at the time of his disappearance. And they now know that Billy is never coming home alive. Several suspects in the case have all confirmed that Billy was murdered that night and his body stashed beneath the rich farmlands and forests of the lower Naugatuck Valley.

The big question now is where?

The Storyteller

                                                    Lost Rights author David Howard 

   One day before Abraham Lincoln was murdered at the Ford Theater in Washington D.C., a soldier from the Union Army entered the statehouse in Raleigh, North Carolina, and swiped one of the 14 original copies of the Bill of Rights. Robert E. Lee had already surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, but word traveled slow, and members of General Sherman’s army continued to plunder the South.

   At the end of the war the soldier returned to Ohio and sold the historic document for $5. The new owner was a young man, Charles Shotwell, from NYC, who eventually became a grain broker in Indianapolis.

   The document hung in his office for years before getting moved to his family home, where it remained for almost 100 years. When his daughter was moved to a nursing home the document followed her there, and upon her death, the third generation of the Shotwell family to possess the document decided to sell it.
In the 1990s two of Charles Shotwell’s granddaughters tried to sell the document for several million dollars, and eventually relinquished the prize for $200,000 to Woodbury antique dealer Wayne Pratt, and former Waterbury developer Bob Matthews. When the two men tried to flip the Bill of Rights for $5 million, they were snagged in an FBI sting. The stolen document was seized and returned to North Carolina.

                                                                   Wayne Pratt

   The astonishing 140-year-journey of the document is captured in riveting detail in “Lost Rights”, a book written by David Howard. The book has been called a “great beach read” by the New York Times, and has received glittering praise in reviews across the country. The book was released on July 2nd and Howard has been traveling through Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and North Carolina on a book tour. He is sweeping through Connecticut and the Northeast in the weeks and months ahead.

   Lost Rights is a terrific read for anyone interested in American history, antiques and the murky world of historic documents. The book is a must read for the residents of North Carolina, and of keen interest to the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives were touched by Wayne Pratt and Bob Matthews.
Pratt, now deceased, was one of the most influential antique dealers in America, and often appeared on TV as an appraiser on the Antique Road Show.

   Matthews was a brash, loud, name-dropping, social climber who lavished politicians with donations and made sure everybody in Waterbury knew who he was. He bought a lot of buildings, used a helicopter to arrive at an event at the Mattatuck Museum, and when the real estate market caved he slipped out of Waterbury leaving the banks holding the bag. Matthews reinvented himself in New Haven where he leveraged a state backed loan to purchase an office building for $2 million, and later flipped it for $20 million.

                                                                   Bob Matthews

   In the 1980s Matthews handed Waterbury Mayor Joe Santopietro $25,000 in cash in a brown paper bag, and ten years later was a central figure in the impeachment inquiry into Governor John Rowland. Pratt described Matthews as a Houdini for his ability to escape trouble. Matthews avoided legal consequences for his bribe to Santopietro, his monetary gifts to Rowland, and for his involvement in attempting to sell a stolen copy of the Bill of Rights. Matthews now lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, and appears to be in financial trouble again.

   Lost Rights is an absorbing read, but to me the most interesting character in the project isn’t Pratt or Matthews, it’s the writer, Dave Howard. I have known Dave for more than 20 years. I met Dave when we both worked at the Register-Citizen newspaper in Torrington, CT. Dave had just graduated from college and had a trial assignment to cover a lottery winner. An anonymous call to the newsroom informed us that a Torrington resident had just won a multi-million dollar jackpot, and our job was to confirm this, and bag an interview. Dave was the reporter and I was the photographer.

                                           Howard working on his book at 4:30 am

   The individual answered the door with a phone pressed to his ear saying, “I didn’t win. Why is everybody calling me?”. One of his “friends” had triggered the rumor as a goof, and the news had swept across Torrington in hours. I fired off a few pictures and Dave stayed behind to work an angle that would impress the editors. An hour later the phone rang in the darkroom, It was Dave. He hemmed and hawed and then blurted out that he had locked his keys inside his truck. Dave didn’t want the editors to know, and asked if I could help him, He eventually got a tow truck driver to open his door, wrote the story, and landed the job.

   The locked-keys-inside-the-car-routine became a standing joke between us. We both repeatedly found ourselves locking keys inside our cars, losing wallets and generally misplacing all our valuables. Dave eventually left the newspaper in 1992 to travel across the country, and I left to launch The Waterbury Observer in 1993 with Marty Begnal.

   While Marty and I were struggling to sell ads and produce our first issue, Dave pitched in and wrote our front page introduction to the community. In the second issue of the Observer Dave wrote an in-depth article about spending election day shadowing independent candidate for mayor, Andy Michaud.
Dave then landed a paying job at the Torrington bureau of the Republican-American newspaper, and later transferred down to Waterbury where he covered the raucous 1995 mayoral battle between Mike Bergin, Philip Giordano and Jimmie Griffin. One year later Dave launched a freelance writing career and joined the Observer as an editor-at-large. He wrote one in-depth feature article per issue and cleaned up copy throughout the paper. This arrangement gave Dave the time needed to explore freelance assignments and he was soon writing for Connecticut Magazine and the New York Times.

   Dave’s stint at the Observer was extraordinary. We worked on massive projects documenting the history of the black community in Waterbury, explored the mysterious death of a homeless man and shared the story of Eileen Hosier and the 45 German Shepherd she housed inside her Lounsbury Street home. In “The Grip” we uncovered - big surprise - a direct link between politics and police in Waterbury.

   In 1997 we drove down to New Orleans to hurl ourselves into the riotous mix of Mardi Gras and Super Bowl, and nearly drummed the Observer out of business when I decided to run photographs of three topless women on Bourbon Street.

   But more significant than the stories and events we covered, Dave shared a farmhouse with me and my daughter Chelsea for almost two years. When you reduce life to it’s essence, what more powerful compliment can you give a man than to say your daughter and your dog love him.

   But soon a different kind of love swept into Dave’s life and he left the Observer to embark on a two month bike tour of Chile with his girlfriend, Ann. Afterwards, he followed his heart to NYC to live with Ann and continue his writing career. His first job was at Working Mother, followed by a stint at National Geographic Adventure Magazine. Dave continued to freelance and wrote a story for Travel and Leisure Magazine about an 80 mile hike we took through the jungles of Guatemala to interview archeologist Richard Hansen.

   In 2002 Dave and Ann were married in the Canadian Rockies and Chelsea and I traveled to Jasper, Alberta, to be the only witnesses of the ceremony. Two years later Dave and Ann had a beautiful baby boy and named him Vaughn. (He is the little red head sprinting in the picture above). Dave accepted a full-time position as an editor at Backpacker Magazine and the family settled in Emmaus, PA.

   Backpacker, Runner’s World, Bicycling and a host of other publications are owned by Rodale, and book publishing is one of the many components of the company. A former Rodale employee, Jeremy Katz, had left the company to become a literary agent and he was on the prowl for clients. Katz had read some of Dave’s articles and approached him to find out if he had any interest in writing a book. Of course he did, he said, but he wasn’t sure what the subject would be, or how to go about getting a book published. Jeremy brainstormed with Dave and they settled on the expansion of an article Dave had written for Connecticut Magazine about a stolen copy of the Bill of Rights.

   “Charlie Monagan, the editor at Connecticut Magazine, is the one who turned me on to the story,” Howard said. “I always knew there was a lot more to the subject, so with Jeremy’s help, I wrote a book proposal.”

   Katz took a few dozen copies of the proposal into NYC and delivered them to various publishing houses. Katz said if any of the editors wanted to meet Howard to discuss the book he would be in town for five days. Several editors brought Dave in for interviews and seven or eight publishing houses submitted a bid to publish Dave’s book. When the fog cleared, the winner of the book auction was Houghton-Mifflin, and Dave had one year to research and write the book.


   Dave used his journalism skills to investigate the story and travelled to North Carolina, Washington D.C., Ohio and Connecticut to probe for details. While in Waterbury Dave interviewed many of his old political contacts about their dealings with Bob Matthews, and sat down with Wayne Pratt several times in Woodbury to document his side of the story.

   The book was completed at about the same time the U.S. economy collapsed and the publication of Lost Rights was delayed for almost two years. Dave used the time wisely and re-worked the story several times to make the book tighter and cleaner. Now that it is out Lost Rights is making a splash. Dave was invited to address a gathering inside the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and has been interviewed by Colin McEnroe on WNPR, the Martha Stewart Show, Larry Rifkin on WATR, and a talk he gave in Washington D.C. was filmed and will appear on CNN’s Booktalk in the next few weeks,

   I’ve known Dave for 20 years and we have wild, loose and creative conversations that can last for 12 hours straight. But through all our talks I never asked him about the actual mechanics of writing and how he mastered the nuances of the English language. When Dave was at the Observer he would write a 3000 word story without using spell check and not one word would be misspelled. Me? Without spell check I would be doing manual labor. So how did he do it? I called him up one night and asked him to share the story of how he developed as a writer.

   “I always loved books and my Mom would read to us every night. Where The Wild Things Are made a huge impression on me, as did Dr. Suess and Curious George. I used to wait for the baby sitters with a pile of books in my hand.”

   Then in 3rd grade at Andover Elementary School Dave said a teacher, Dave Caron, made a colossal impact on his life. “I was always making up stories with the Story Starter program and Mr. Caron saw something special in what I was doing. He encouraged me to take out a book anytime I wanted and to write. A good teacher notices when a kid has a gift and they encourage them along. I was lucky to have had several great teachers along the way.”

   In 10th grade another teacher intervened to push Dave even harder. “His name was Mr. Canny and he’d tell us over and over again that the first draft of anything was vomit on a page. He’d say there was material there to work with, but it needed to be cleaned up. Then he’d tell us to clean it up again, and again, and again. A teacher saying this to you at that age made a big impression on me.”

   And obviously Dave Howard learned his writing lessons well.

   The first draft of Lost Rights was vomit on a page, but he cut 35,000 words, re-organized the structure of the story and cleaned it up over and over again.

   Just like Mr. Canny taught him. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Vision Quest

Steve Schrag and WCLEAN Have Green Ideas For Anamet Site

Steve Schrag has spent his life as an organizer and activist fighting for positive change in the work place. For the past 30 years in Waterbury, however, Schrag has repeatedly found himself in opposition to major development projects.

He was against EWR in the 1980s.

He was against a super mall.

He was against building a casino in the South End.

He was against First Light building a generator in the South End.

He was against Chestnut Hill BioEnergy building a trash to energy plant at the old Anamet site.

While spearheading the community uprising against Chestnut Hill BioEnergy this past summer Schrag was repeatedly asked what ideas he had for the 17-acre brownfield lying on the east bank of the Naugatuck River. If not a trash to energy plant, what?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Full Monti

{The following profile was published in December 2009 in the Long Island Business News. It is a profile of Don Monti, who is the CEO of Renaissance Downtowns, who is looking to set up shop in Waterbury)

The Full Monti
by Ambrose Clancy
Published: December 4, 2009
Long Island Business News

Don Monti is in a hurry.

By his count, the development world has spent the last 60 years screwing things up, and now, somewhere north of 60 himself, he’s on a crusade to fix it all and fix it fast.

No more sprawling suburbs and the shopping meccas on which they feed. An end to the single-family, picket-fenced, ticky-tacky boxes in which post-war America boomed.

“That model isn’t broken, it’s shattered,” Monti said on the run, a favored form of communication. “We have to stop being afraid of the ‘u’ word and the ‘r’ word. Urban and rental. Get over it.”

The gospel according to Monti is smart growth – walkable, high-density downtowns with apartments above shops close to public transportation.

It means building up rather than horizontally, finding salvation by mixing the commercial with the residential. It also means encouraging galleries, boutiques and restaurants to set up shop; allowing spaces where culture can grow organically.

His passion and energy has won his company, Plainview’s Renaissance Downtowns, development deals in New Hampshire, Connecticut and here on the Island.

That same passion has won him admirers. An equal number can’t stand him.