A year later, no legacy for Carlie

Published Jan. 30, 2005|Updated Aug. 24, 2005

Joseph P. Smith, the man accused of killing 11-year-old Carlie Brucia, has been the locus of much misery.

His trial this November will mimic the frenzy that followed Carlie's abduction a year ago Tuesday, when a nation of startled parents watched her fateful encounter with a man in dark clothing, captured on a car wash security camera.

While most have distanced themselves in the interim, those closest to Carlie's death remain trapped in its anguish.

Her family has struggled to fulfill promises made after their daughter's death. Smith's family has gone into hiding. And there is Smith himself, who sits in a Manatee County jail.

"He messed up big time," said Smith's former business partner Edward Dinyes. "Now, there's a lot of us dealing with it."

In the days after authorities found Carlie's body, the Sarasota community came together and demanded change.

Thousands offered support at several memorials. Children cried in school yards and tied purple ribbons to big, brown oaks. Susan Schorpen, Carlie's mom, attended one tribute in a white limousine, wearing black and holding a red carnation.

There, the Rev. Paul Kirbas credited her daughter with uniting an entire community.

"Carlie, what we want you to know is that what we will remember about you for years and decades to come is that you brought out the best in us," he said.

The reality since then has been less auspicious.

Lives torn further apart

The purple orchids and heart-shaped balloons have disappeared from the front of Carlie's home, replaced now by a white fence, six feet high. Two mattresses lean against the home.

Inside, life has wilteds.

Carlie's stepfather, Steven Kansler, was arrested in May when after a night of drinking, authorities said he grabbed Schorpen's throat and pushed her into a stove at their McIntosh Road home.

Then in July, Schorpen lost custody of her 7-year-old son, Leif, after she failed a drug test.

Schorpen and Kansler would not comment.

Meanwhile, the woman who last said goodbye to Carlie also has been arrested.

Carlie had left Connie Arnold's house about 6:15 p.m. Feb. 1, starting the mile home along busy Bee Ridge Road after a sleepover with a friend the night before.

In December, Arnold pleaded guilty to felony drug possession.

Sarasota Circuit Judge Harry Rapkin, the man criticized for not sending Smith back to jail when Smith violated his probation in 2003, withheld judgment and fined Arnold $30.

She did not return phone calls.

A failed promise?

While Carlie's family has struggled over the past year, the Sarasota community has returned to normalcy.

The front door at Nick's, a Bee Ridge Road bar, is propped open at 9:30 a.m. and its stools are filled with men. Conversations revolve around sports and work.

Down the street, customers wait in line at Evie's Car Wash, where on Feb. 1, a security camera recorded a man in mechanic's uniform grabbing Carlie and her pink backpack.

"To some degree, it's probably healthy that people have moved on and are living their lives," said Kirbas, pastor of Church of the Palms.

"But what we've lost is that sense of community," Kirbas said. "There was an opportunity for us to come together to talk about combating drugs or eliminating street violence."

Adam Tebrugge, Smith's public defender, said the initial outrage has long since dissipated. He said he once thought his client could never get a fair trial in Sarasota.

"For a while, it was nonstop wherever I went," Tebrugge said. "Now it rarely comes up."

Shunned, shamed

A couple who befriended Smith fled the state. Smith's wife has "gone underground," a friend said.

Jeff and Naomi Pincus said they have been shunned by former colleagues and friends after scrutiny began to center on their north Sarasota home. Smith, who had been kicked out of his home, stayed with the Pincuses and authorities say he used their station wagon in the alleged abduction.

Subsequent newspaper reports said the Pincuses ran a sexually suggestive Web site. The family contends the articles included lies and have sued, asking for a settlement of $4.5-million. They also have left town.

Smith's wife, Luz Castrillon, won a divorce in August that barred Smith from his three young children from that marriage.She sold their home in north Sarasota for $140,000 and now lists her address as a post office box.

And Christine Montalvo, a Sarasota woman who Smith visited hours after he allegedly kidnapped Carlie, said she remains too traumatized to speak publicly.

Finding lessons

As Smith awaits trial and city leaders try to reunite the community, , elected leaders are trying to find lessons from her death.

"Carlie came from a broken home. She came from an atmosphere of drug abuse," said Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton. "We need to look at those prevailing causes in crime, I believe, and we need to treat them early."

Sarasota County officials will consider judicial reforms that include pouring resources, such as money, into crime intervention. State legislators continue to discuss several proposals to better track parolees after one bill failed last session.

In Washington, U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris has abandoned efforts to pass "Carlie's Law," opting instead for a broader bill that would close federal loopholes for human traffickers.

Today, whether in churches, community halls or on Capitol Hill, Carlie's legacy remains fuzzy. Reminders, however, are abundantly clear.

"I cannot imagine anyone driving down that segment of Bee Ridge Road, and not with clear recollection, have that tragedy burst into their memory," Thaxton said. "I know it's in my memory. And it will be there forever."

Information from Times files was used this report.