Nearly years since the disappearance of a 31-year-old Waterbury man, his mother and sister will return to court in late April to fight a defamation lawsuit filed by his ex-girlfriend with an appeal that argues they had First Amendment rights to post missing person posters and other publicity.
Tow truck driver Billy Smolinski disappeared on Aug. 24, 2004 and his family never heard from him again, according to court documents.
His ex-girlfriend Madeline Gleason, a Woodbridge bus driver, who was reportedly the last person to see him alive, filed a civil lawsuit against his mother, Janice Smolinski, his sister, Paula Bell and Waterbury Observer publisher and editor John Murray in 2006 seeking damages and claiming defamation. She also argued she experienced emotional distress and invasion of privacy due to information spread about her in connection to the case of Smolinski's disappearance, according to the court documents. In 2009, all counts against Murray were dismissed. Meanwhile Janice Smolinski and Bell are appealing a second time.
Gleason claims Smolinski and Bell harassed her, her friends and people she dated by putting up missing persons fliers along her bus route and areas she frequented, accusing her of being connected to his disappearance and following her on numerous occasions, according to her complaint. She also said that they mentioned her name in a television program featuring the cold case and took videos of her that they sent to news outlets, according to the complaint.
However, Janice Smolinski and Paula Bell are arguing that putting up the missing person fliers was not malicious and that they were exercising freedom of speech to disseminate information about their missing loved one that provided valuable public information that has yielded leads to his whereabouts, the court documents state.They also said in their appeal that Gleason and her friends tore many of the posters down and in some cases vandalized them. The defense is also arguing that the posters contained no reference to Gleason and just shared general missing person information.
Gleason and Bell lost their first appeal in the lawsuit and filed another appeal that will take the case to the Connecticut Supreme Court in New Haven for a hearing on April 27.