Sunday, August 23, 2009

Billy's Law

In her tireless effort to find her missing son, Billy, Janice Smolinski uncovered systemic problems with the country’s national data banks, and the way law enforcement officers collect and process DNA samples. Congressman Chris Murphy is introducing federal legislation to correct the problem, and has named it “Billy’s Law”.

Janice Smolinski, center, watched Connecticut Congressman Chris Murphy unveil plans to upgrade the national system of the Missing and Unidentified Dead at a press conference in Hartford, CT. The legislation is being named "Billy's Law" after Smolinski's 31 year old son, Billy, who vanished five years ago.

The first time missing persons advocate Janice Smolinski met with Congressman Chris Murphy two years ago she had a difficult time reading him. They had originally agreed to meet at a coffee shop in Cheshire, but Murphy had to reschedule, and they ended up meeting inside his office in New Britain.

The meeting lasted 45 minutes and Smolinski said she did most of the talking. She told Murphy about the 40,000 unidentified human remains being stored around the country. She told him about the 160,000 missing persons in America, and the difficulty using national data bases to try and connect DNA samples from the missing to the unidentified dead.

“I threw a lot of information at him and he didn’t say too much,” Smolinski said. “When I left the office I didn’t have a good feeling. It didn’t seem like he had grasped the enormity of what I was saying to him.”

Murphy agreed.

“It was my first term in office and I wasn’t sure there was anything I could do to help her,” Murphy said. But he began to study the issue by researching news articles and getting his aides to gather information.

As Murphy digested the information, Smolinski continued to seek state and federal legislation to address the national crisis. She met with Senator Joe Lieberman’s staff and Senator Chris Dodd’s. They listened, but the issue didn’t seem to resonate loud enough to act upon. Smolinski also sought to change the way Connecticut law enforcement officers responded to the report of a missing adult.

The driving force behind Smolinski’s crusade was the disappearance five years ago of her 31-year-old son, Billy. When a sluggish investigation by the Waterbury Police Department resulted in lost DNA samples and an inadequate report to the National Crime Information Center, Smolinski took the search for her son onto the Internet.

“I was stunned at what I discovered,” Smolinski said. “What we experienced in Waterbury was happening every day all across the country. Police officers have not been properly trained to collect and process DNA samples, and very few police departments knew how to use the national DNA databanks. Training was years behind the science.”

Although the Smolinskis now believe that Billy was murdered in Woodbridge, and is buried in an unknown grave in Shelton, they could not turn away from the mess they uncovered while trying to unravel his mysterious disappearance. During the past legislative session in Hartford Smolinski fought to mandate DNA training for all law enforcement officers, but with the massive state budget deficit, the bill was sidetracked and never made its way to the floor of the house for a vote.

This spring Jan and Bill Smolinski’s phone rang and they received a heads up from a national expert that federal legislation was developing from a Connecticut politician as a direct result of Jan’s lobbying.

“They couldn’t tell us who was working on the legislation,” Janice said. “And we honestly had no clue.”

It was 5th District Congressman Chris Murphy, who unbeknownst to the Smolinskis, had quietly done the homework necessary to tackle the complex issue. The Smolinskis then received a call from Linda Forman at Congressman Murphy’s office asking for specifics they would like to see in the legislation.

“We were stunned,” Smolinski said. “We have been working hard to get someone to pay attention to this issue, and this came out of the blue. We were thrilled.”

Congressman Murphy.

On August 6th Congressman Murphy held a press conference in Hartford to announce the legislation he is calling Billy’s Law. And it was clear to anyone at the press conference that Murphy is knowledgeable and passionate about closing the gaps that exist between the missing, and the unidentified dead.

Murphy explained that the federal government has two main data bases that track the missing and the unidentified remains, one operated by the Department of Justice, and one by the FBI.

“The problem is that these two data bases don’t talk to each other and only one of them is available to the public,” Murphy said. “This legislation will give family members access to all information in this country relative to missing persons and unidentified remains.”

Murphy also announced that Billy’s Law would provide $2.5 million a year in funding to improve the data bases and to insure that local, state and federal law enforcement officers know how to collect and process DNA, and input the information into the data bases.

“Billy’s Law will give families the tools and resources they need to be part of the search for their loved one,” Murphy said.
Murphy applauded the Smolinski’s efforts to find their son and said “I would not be introducing this federal legislation if it were not for the Smolinski family. They brought their case and their cause to me, and they educated me how difficult it was to sort through the disconnected data bases at the federal level.”

Congressman Murphy told the Smolinskis that he will introduce Billy’s Law when Congress reconvenes in September. The legislation has already been endorsed by the National Forensic Science Technology Center, the National Forensics Center, the Doe Network, and the Center For Hope.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Murphy said, “and we hope we can get it through Congress by the end of the year.”

Congressman Murphy speaks to the Smolinski family - Bill, Jan and Paula.

Several other developments in the Smolinksi investigation are worth noting, A front page story published about the case in the New Haven Register has led to a hot tip being called in to the Smolinski family, and they have passed the information on to their FBI agent.

Also, The Waterbury Observer has won a legal victory in a lawsuit filed against it by Madeleine Gleason, Billy Smolinski’s former girlfriend. Gleason was involved in a love triangle with Billy Smolinski and a prominent Woodbridge politician at the time of Billy’s disappearance. When the Observer published an in-depth article revealing the love triangle, and printed a photograph of Gleason - in public - tearing down a missing person poster of Billy Smolinski, she sued Janice Smolinski, Paula Bell (Billy’s sister), and the Observer for invading her privacy.

Gleason hired prominent New Haven attorney John Williams to sue the Smolinskis and the Observer in July 2006. The Observer retained the services of Attorney Mark Lee of Waterbury and Attorney Kevin Greco of Stamford. Lee and Greco filed a motion to strike the six counts filed against the Observer, and on July 20th a Superior Court judge in New Haven ruled that the charges against the newspaper were “legally insufficient”, and removed the Observer from the lawsuit. Attorney Williams has filed a notice of intention to appeal.

The suit against Janice and her daughter remains.

The following comments were made by Janice Smolinski on August 6th during a press conference held by Congressman Chris Murphy to announce legislation to address the systemic problems in the world of the missing and the unidentified dead.

Janice Smolinski addressed a press conference in early August flanked by her husband, Bill, and daughter, Paula Bell. In the back row is State Representative Selim Noujaim, Congressman Chris Murphy and State Representative Larry Butler.

Good afternoon and thank-you Congressman Murphy for having the courage to tackle the tragic disconnect in our country’s effort to find 160,000 missing people in America today. I have been asked to explain my family’s involvement in trying to reform a labyrinth of databases, police reports and DNA samples.

The answer is that my son Billy vanished five years ago, and in our efforts to find him we opened a Pandora’s Box of problems plaguing the world of the missing and the unidentified dead. Currently there are more than 40,000 unidentified human remains being stored by coroners and medical examiners around this country, and experts in the field believe many of the unidentified dead are the missing, By using DNA samples we can cross reference the two groups and connect the missing to the unidentified dead. We can name the unidentified and help bring closure to thousands of grieving families. Congressman Murphy’s legislation will help connect the dots in this national nightmare.

In our case just about anything that could go wrong in our effort to find our son went wrong. The system we encountered was broken. We have tried to change the system so no family has to endure the anguish we have lived through these past five years.

Uncertainty is a cancer that crushes the spirit of loved ones left behind, destroys marriages and tears at the tissue of family bonds. Each and every face on “THE QUILT OF HOPE” hanging behind me here today had a life and was loved. The faces you see on the quilt are missing from coast to coast, including Hawaii. I have spoken to every family member of the missing persons on the quilt and some of the squares are made from the actual clothing of the missing loved one which makes it personal to the families. Since the quilt was started a year ago, two of the missing on the quilt are now classified as a homicide, and an unsolved homicide.

Our story - and there are 160,000 other stories in America - began August 24th, 2004, when our son disappeared. The local police were slow to react to our call that something had happened to Billy. We are a very close family and immediately knew something extraordinary had occurred when Billy left his dog unfed and locked inside his house, with his truck parked oddly in the driveway. When our initial attempts to get the police to investigate Billy’s disappearance failed, we organized our own search with family and friends.

One of the many problems in this issue is that law enforcement officers across the country are slow to respond to the report of a missing adult.

That has to change.

International homicide expert Bill Hagmaier, a great leader in fighting for reform, has publicly stated that a majority of the 160,000 missing Americans aren’t just missing, they have been murdered. The quicker police respond to a report of a missing adult the better the odds of solving these violent crimes.

Reports need to be sent promptly into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), and the information of a missing person needs to be shared with medical examiners and coroners. This is not happening right now, and in rural parts of the country unidentified remains are still being cremated without gathering DNA samples first.

After reports have been filed, if the missing individual is not found, the next step is to collect DNA. A quick mouth swab from a family member will gather the DNA material needed to send to a state or federal lab that can analyze and upload that information into a national data bank.

None of this happened in our case. It took four years for the proper information to be filed with the National Crime Information Center, and the collection of DNA was incompetent. Seven separate samples were misplaced or lost by our local police department, and it wasn’t until the FBI took over the investigation that the proper reports and DNA samples were collected and filed.

When law enforcement doesn’t have the proper training to collect DNA and upload that information into national data banks the notion that we are living in a CSI society is nothing more than a television fantasy. Training has to catch up with science and technology and Congressman Murphy’s act will ensure that it does.

When law enforcement does not properly investigate a missing person the only recourse is for the family to do it themselves. In our case we had to organize search parties, bring in search dogs, hire private investigators and spend thousands of hours looking for Billy ourselves.

Billy Smolinski vanished in August 2004.

Eventually we uncovered information that led us to believe Billy had been murdered in Woodbridge and buried in Shelton. We discovered that Billy was involved in a love triangle that included a prominent politician in Woodbridge, and a school bus driver in Woodbridge.

When we tried to hang missing person flyers on telephone poles in Woodbridge I was arrested by the Woodbridge Police, a charge that was quickly dismissed.

After a local paper tried to report on the crazy twist and turns in our sons disappearance, the reporter, and my daughter and I, were all sued by the mother of the man we believe murdered Billy.

None of this would have happened if the police had responded quickly to our calls for help. Instead of help we received insensitivity and callousness. Two years after Billy disappeared a high-ranking police officer told a journalist “Billy was probably having a beer in Europe and would come home when he was ready.”

Appalled, we confronted the Waterbury Police Department, and former chief Neil O’Leary listened to our concerns, studied the issue, and ordered mandatory training for all his officers. Reform has occurred in Waterbury and in many departments around Connecticut.

In 2007 the Department of Justice created a National Missing Persons and Unidentified Persons System called NamUs, which built a bridge between the data being collected from the missing and the data collected from the unidentified dead. A critical part of Congressman Murphy’s act authorizes more funding for NamUs, and also connects NamUs with the FBI’s crime information center. These are major breakthroughs.

On a personal note, my husband Bill and I are uncomfortable in the spotlight, but events beyond our control have brought us to this day. The Help Find the Missing Act has been named Billy’s Law in honor of our son and it is our fondest hope that these changes will help bring closure and peace to thousands of families wrestling with the horror that stains every second of their lives.

America’s sense of well-being was shattered on September 11th when we tragically lost 2974 in a terrorist attack. That horror unfolded in mere hours and was seen by billions around the world. After September 11th, the need to match the missing with the unidentified dead was magnified, and the seeds were planted to create NamUs.

Today changes everything. Congressman Murphy’s effort to address this national nightmare is long overdue, and the Missing Community applauds his effort. This act is named after my son, but it’s not for him, or the Smolinski family. This act is for every American, and is the ultimate act in Homeland Security.


Anonymous said...

Fabulous work, all the more amazing because it was performed by a family under stress, searching without help for a family member.

Years ago I worked on a missing person/presumed homicide case and learned a similar thing. In that state, information about the person was supposed to be uploaded by state statute into a state database. It never was. I discovered this and brought it to the attention of the police department in charge of investigating the case.

Finders of John Doe-s used the database to try to identify the bodies they found. Without doing the simple uploading of the information, it was useless.

Also, at that time the state database would be queried for national cases, and perhaps uploaded regularly to NCIC, so not submitting the information to it was inexcusable.

Very good work. I know what you have gone through re harsh treatment. Your experience was not unique, it's common. I am sorry you had to suffer.

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