Suspect in girl's apparent abduction keeps quiet

Friday, February 6, 2004

SARASOTA, Fla. -- An unemployed mechanic with a criminal record refused to answer questions about the whereabouts of an 11-year-old girl, though "strong evidence" linked him to her abduction outside a carwash, authorities said Thursday.

Authorities said they believe Joseph P. Smith, 37, is the tattooed man in a mechanic's shirt who was seen in a carwash surveillance video leading sixth-grader Carlie Brucia away by the arm Sunday evening.

Smith has not been charged in Carlie's disappearance but was jailed without bail for possessing drugs in violation of his probation for a cocaine conviction.

"We have made it clear to Joseph and his counsel that we want to know where Carlie is," Sheriff Bill Balkwill said.

An assistant for Smith's attorney, Adam Tebrugge, declined to comment.

Smith, who was once acquitted of kidnapping a woman, was taken into custody at his home Tuesday after authorities got a telephone tip that he was the man in the video, investigators said. The man in the video was wearing a shirt with a name patch.

Smith's car was being searched, and investigators late Wednesday took several paper bags, presumably holding evidence, from a home he had recently lived in.

"We have strong evidence that he is in fact the perpetrator," said Capt. Jeff Bell, the lead sheriff's investigator on the case.

Investigators were seeking a pink backpack Carlie was carrying when she disappeared and urged TV stations to continue showing images of Smith's car, a Buick Century station wagon. Law enforcement officials said they are certain it was used in the kidnapping.

"Air that face and air that car as often and as much as possible. I need my daughter home," said Carlie's mother, Susan Schorpen. "She's a very, very important part of this family and community. And that car, if people can keep seeing it, maybe we'll get some more leads."

Smith served 17 months in prison for heroin possession and prescription drug fraud and was released in 2003. He was arrested eight days later on a cocaine possession charge and was placed on probation for three years.

In 1998, he was acquitted of kidnapping and false imprisonment. The 20-year-old woman told deputies, "He got on top of me and told me to shut up or he would cut me."

Smith called it a misunderstanding.

"He testified he believed the woman was going to try to harm herself by throwing herself into traffic," said prosecutor Brian Iten, who said the acquittal surprised him. "He said she misinterpreted his actions because of his tattoos."

Probation records show Smith worked at an auto shop for much of last year. Joe Papy, who leads the Department of Corrections probation services covering Sarasota, said Smith left the job in August because of a medical condition, which Papy would not disclose. Smith was working odd jobs recently, Papy said.

Papy said that on Dec. 30, a probation officer asked a judge to declare Smith in violation of his probation because he had not paid all his fines and court costs. That could have sent Smith back to jail, but the judge declined to find him in violation, saying the medical condition that cost Smith his job was the reason he did not make full payment, Papy said.


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