NAUGATUCK — About 75 people held thin white candles as David Harris sang a prayer of hope as the sun set on a mild summer night on the town Green.
The Night of Hope event, sponsored by the Smolinski family and LostNMissing, Inc., commemorated the ninth anniversary of the disappearance of Waterbury resident and Naugatuck native William “Billy” Smolinski Jr. on Aug. 24, 2004, at the age of 31.
Billy Smolinski’s mother, Janice Smolinski, said those who attended were dedicated friends, family and supporters, but she wished the issue of missing persons could garner more attention.
She said she works every day to find her son, and has helped others find their missing loved ones along the way through outreach on social media.
William Smolinski’s father, William Smolinski Sr., said police need to take tips, which he said are still coming in, seriously.
“There’s a story that has to be told here, and it has to come out soon,” he said.
Private detective Mike Ward, who has worked with the family since 2006, said Billy’s picture still hangs above his desk in Kentucky, where he has retired.
“This case has been with me every day,” he said. “I will be here until they bring Billy home.”
He said attitudes have changed since Billy disappeared in 2004.
“Fifteen years ago, we looked at a missing person’s case as a waste of time,” Ward said.
He asked police to commit their hearts and souls to missing people.
Janice Smolinski said healthy young men like Billy are still ignored by police, who figure they are off having an affair and will show up sooner or later. She said police and the media pay more attention to children, the elderly and beautiful young women.
Janice Smolinski gave credit to Waterbury police, who now consider any missing person a crime until proven otherwise.
When a person goes missing, Janice Smolinski said, families often go bankrupt and 90 percent of marriages end in divorce.
She said her marriage of 43 years has lasted because she and her husband are focused on the common goal of finding their son. Janice Smolinski said her life and her personality have changed drastically since her son disappeared. She has become more outgoing, and sticks up for herself.
There is still reason to hope, according to state police Sgt. Jim Thomas. He said the state reduced the number of missing persons to less than 200 this year, down 300 from the number listed missing in 2009.
Some of those people, like Eastern Connecticut State University student Alyssiah Marie Wiley, were found dead, but others have been brought home safe and alive.
Thomas pointed to the case of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, who were missing in Ohio for a decade before being rescued alive from the clutches of their kidnapper earlier this year. He said those women’s families never gave up hope.
“Neither should we,” he said.