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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Family of Missing Man Must Pay for Defamation

(CN) - A woman was defamed when the family of her ex-lover called her a murderer after his disappearance, the Connecticut Appellate Court ruled, upholding a $52,600 verdict.

Bus driver Bill Smolinski vanished on Aug. 24, 2004, and his disappearance has never been explained.

At the time, he had been working at B and B Transportation and had recently broken up with his co-worker, Madeleine Gleason, a somewhat older woman who was also having an affair with a local, married politician, Chris Sorensen.

With three marriages under her belt, Gleason had experienced her own share of tragedy. Her daughter had killed herself before Smolinski's disappearance, one of her son's did of an overdose in the years after, and another of Gleason's children died around then as well. She would later testify that the suspicions about her role in Smolinski's disappearance made it difficult for her to gain custody of her daughter's child.

Smolinski's parents, William and Janice, and his sister, Paula Bell, had placed missing persons posters throughout Connecticut, but Gleason said they specifically plastered the areas where she lived and worked to harass her. After noticing that their posters were being torn down or vandalized, the family managed to videotape Gleason in the act. There was then a confrontation in the Woodbridge police station.

Gleason sued the mother and sister for emotional distress and defamation after a confrontation at the police station, and testified about the toll their torment took on her.

"Of all people, I would know what it's like to lose a child, but these people all they do is keep following me, harassing me," Gleason said, according to the ruling. "Every time I turn on the news, it's Madeleine Gleason, what does she have to hide? And if you watch on the show, 'The Disappearance,' my name seventy times on the show. And all these newspapers and these television shows are going by what the Smolinskis are telling them; they've never come to me and asked me what my story is. I never even knew I was going to be on television until I watched it."

Smolinski's family denied that they ever called Gleason a murderer or targeted her with the posters. They also said the other issues in Gleason's life could have caused her emotional distress.

A judge in New Haven nevertheless ordered the family to pay Gleason $52,600 in compensatory and punitive damages, and the Connecticut Appellate Court affirmed on April 8.

"The court's findings of fact support its conclusion that the defendants' placement of many of the posters was targeted specifically at the plaintiff, for the defendants' admitted purpose of 'trying to break [the plaintiff] ... until [she] breaks down and gives them information as to the whereabouts of their son and brother,'" Judge Michael Sheldon wrote for the court.

A pole in front of Gleason's house on a dead-end street had 20 posters on it, but there were no other posters nearby, according to the ruling. This took place at three different places where Gleason lived.

"While the content of the posters makes no specific reference to the plaintiff, the court concluded, and we agree, that the context and placement of the posters was designed to 'hound' the plaintiff into providing the defendants with information about the disappearance of Bill Smolinski, rather than to raise a matter of public concern," Sheldon wrote.

The Smolinski family also failed to show that the trial judge was biased, noting that the court had barred evidence as to the custody situation with Gleason's granddaughter.

Though Gleason said she broke up with Smolinski because she could not handle the age difference, a recap of the case by The Investigation Discovery channel says the breakup occurred in the days before Smolinski's disappearance because he had discovered Gleason's affair.

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