Friday, March 18, 2011

Murderitaville: Solved and Unsolved Serial Cases

by Elizabeth Gerardin 

In March 2000, an inconsequential woman is lured to a busy parking lot where she is abducted and murdered. Eleven years later, the case remains open. In February 2004, a young girl is abducted beneath a surveillance camera. By the time her sexually assaulted body is located, the incriminating videotape has been broadcast internationally. Two years later, a multi-millionaire serial pedophile is charged with defrauding Medicare of more than $17 million. 

In between these crimes are many others.

They are all related.

She was 25, single, and lived with her parents in Bradenton, Florida. She had lupus. She had borne a daughter in her late teens who she had given to the child’s father to raise. She  quit a dead-end job at a medical lab in nearby Sarasota after qualifying for disability.

She must have had second thoughts about relinquishing her daughter because in 1994 she initiated custody proceedings that were still ongoing in 2000. Around 5:30 PM on March 27, 2000, she received an anonymous phone call. A man told her he had information crucial to her custody case that he would share if she would meet him at the parking lot of the local WalMart.

Her parents begged her not to go.

Later, her father found her abandoned car in the parking lot with the lights on and the keys in the ignition. Two days later her nude and battered body was found face down in the mire of a popular mudbogging area 1200 feet away.

Nine years later, I spoke with a local homicide detective about a cold case article for a crime rag. He selected Tara Reilly and told me they knew who killed her and why. All they wanted from the article was some heat to apply additional pressure and perhaps encourage a witness to come forward. He explained they knew her child’s father ordered the murder and one of his employees had committed it. And in fact, other mutual friends were witnesses to the act that was staged as a sex crime.

This begged the question, was there any proof? Actually, no, there wasn’t. There was no DNA and after initial questioning the two suspects did what only the guilty do – they lawyered up. Oh, and the other proof of guilt – it’s always the husband or the boyfriend.  Yet he managed to impregnate two other women he didn’t marry, who had also taken him to court and they were still above ground. The detective shared details of the crime scene that could not be released, as it was still an open case; these details did not indicate this murder was the contract hit on a bothersome ex. 

I wrote basically what he requested, and did so reluctantly, because I thought it was a lame investigation. I believed it was not a murder to eliminate a petitioner in a court case, a case that she was losing anyway, but a crime committed by someone who enjoyed what he did, someone who had experience along those lines. And when has any group of people ever been able to keep a secret of this magnitude for years?

On the afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday 2004, 12-year-old Carlie Brucia was walking home from a sleepover in Sarasota Florida. As she cut across a car wash lot, she was approached by a man. She appeared to recognize him. They spoke briefly and hand in hand they walked away. There was no struggle nor did she appear to be frightened or reluctant; if there is any expression on her face, it is a slightly quizzical look. How do I know this? I have watched these 18 seconds over 100 times. I watch her leave the realm of childhood and enter the valley of the shadow, one in which her life expectancy is no longer measured in decades or years–t is down to minutes. She and her captor walk out of the frame of the camera and poof–she is gone.

Unlike Tara Reilly’s, Carlie’s abduction-murder will be solved in days. Actually in about two days, since her abductor, Joseph Smith, managed to commit the most heinous of crimes within the range of a surveillance camera. Once the film was enhanced, the name emblazoned across the pocket of his mechanic’s shirt became visible and people watching the broadcasts called in to identify him. He wasn’t hard to locate either – he had been picked up shortly after the abduction for an unrelated drug offense and was in the Sarasota County jail.

Joseph Smith was convicted of her abduction, rape, and murder in 2005 and sentenced to death. Smith had one of the best public defenders in the state, and one of the few who was death-qualified. Adam Tebrugge is the antithesis of the Machiavellian defense attorney. I have seen him post trial while co-counsel is heading to a bar to celebrate an acquittal, or drink away the sting of a conviction. Adam always declines; he is going to church to pray.

Facing a jury out for blood, Adam presented as mitigators the fact that Smith was a long-time drug addict lacking the ability to formulate premeditation; he loved his daughters and was kind to animals, none of which was compelling.

The sex murder of this young girl was horrendous. She suffered greatly and experienced excruciating fear. Crimes such as these compel one to ask, what is the nature of evil within a human being that erodes any sense of decency or compassion for a child?
What made Joseph Smith a monster? No answer seemed forthcoming.

Joseph DeGregorio

In 1981, Joseph DeGregorio was 24 and ambitious. A native of Brooklyn, he had managed to win a million dollar settlement against a New York hospital when he alleged an injury by a security guard. He used some of his windfall to help a 13 year old boy from the hood who suffered from a rare from of cancer. Soon the 13 year old and his 15 year old brother were under the sway of DeGregorio who convinced their mother to let him adopt the younger boy and bring them both to Florida where they set up housekeeping in Sarasota in 1983.

Over the years, DeGregorio “adopted” many young boys he wanted to “help.” Their mothers always agreed. Thirteen years later, the younger of the brothers made the following allegations to a Sarasota detective who gave the following sworn testimony: He alleges he has known DeGregorio since he was 13 and was molested as a child by DeGregorio. He identified 7 other boys he alleges DeGregorio molested. He alleges DeGregorio adopts boys from dysfunctional families and gets them because he has money.

By the late 1990s, DeGregorio estimated his fortune at almost $40 million. The infusion of wealth did not discourage him from suing creditors to avoid satisfying his debts. His business, Acculab Inc., maintained a staff of in-house lawyers and doctors. He even sued the local gas station to avoid paying his corporate fuel bills. He sued a cop who attempted to question him over stalking two teens that were the victims of his road rage. He sued the teens and their parents for petitioning the court for a restraining order. He sued an employee for saying his company might go bankrupt; he sued his neighbors over slights. He prosecuted a 15-year-old “adopted son” he alleged attempted to extort money from him by an accusation of molestation. Needless to say, no one dared to comment on the steady stream of young and disturbed boys living with him.

Highly intelligent and ruthless, his talent lay in the selection of his victims – he could always find the boy whose single mother was broke, jobless, homeless, miserable and offer her a job and an apartment, but one too small to accommodate her child who he would graciously offer to take home to keep his own “son” company. The mothers were always compensated, some lavishly and for long periods of time. Affidavit after affidavit tells the same story:

"No, I never told anyone; my mother sent my sister into foster care when she told her our brother molested her. No, I never told anyone; my mom was evicted when she got fired–we went to our church and the elder knew Joey and said he would help. No I never told; I was ashamed."
Other affidavits alleged that DeGregorio occasionally conducted liaisons with women, that technically he was bi, but preferred young boys. One affidavit alleged the affiant accompanied DeGregorio on trips to New York for business. When asked what the business entailed, he answered that DeGregorio had business with John Gotti and visited him in jail. There was speculation regarding money laundering through his different lab facilities, several in Florida and one in Las Vegas.

When the victim is also the beneficiary of gifts, money, security, vacations, it is more confusing because the despoiler alternates the carrot and the stick, skewing reality. But without exception each of DeGregorio’s victims, as adults, were testaments to ruined lives. None ever recovered from the experience.

After almost 23 years of manipulating the legal system in Sarasota, DeGregorio was brought down by an employee who approached the feds with a qui tam, or whistleblower’s suit. The employee presented evidence that DeGregorio had systematically defrauded Medicare of at least 17 million dollars. When the feds seized his computers and documents, they found child pornography. Lots of it. Held without bail, his victims began to come forward.

Their stories were horrifying.

He issued death threats against witnesses, victims, and cops from his jail cell, offering fortunes to prisoners about to be released. An offered bribe to facilitate an escape finally landed him in solitary.

After his business went bankrupt and his assets seized, his in-house attorneys left him in the hands of a public defender and he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for multiple counts of sexual battery/victim younger than 12. His subsequent appeal was denied.

Another Cold Case

A few weeks after I wrote the Tara Reilly article, I was looking for another cold case and went to neighboring Sarasota. I told the homicide detective about my last article and he stated, "I know who killed Tara Reilly."


He had been one of the detectives working the Carlie Bruscia murder and he said that while Joseph Smith refused to discuss Brucia, he wanted to talk about his involvement in the death of Tara Reilly, a murder that was outside the Sarasota jurisdiction.

The detective continued to tell me that Joseph Smith and his younger brother John had been brought to Florida in their teens by a wealthy serial pedophile. That the pedophile continued to control them well into adulthood with money, drugs, blackmail, Baker Acts, carrots and sticks. That he continued to engage them both in sexual activity as a form of dominance even after Joseph Smith married. That this pedophile was the most dangerous and brilliant sociopath he had ever encountered. And thank God, Joseph DeGregorio would never see the outside of a cell again. 

But Tara Reilly? What happened?

Tara Reilly worked for DeGregorio at Acculab. She had left to take disability but she attended a New Year’s Eve party there in 1999. She claimed that she was sexually assaulted after the party by Joseph DeGregorio and Joseph and John Smith. She was terrified and waited a couple of months before approaching us. At the time of her death she was coming forth with her allegations and DeGregorio knew that.

"Did you share this information with the Bradenton detectives?"

"Oh, yeah… they didn’t want to hear it cause it conflicted with their boyfriend theory."

Joseph Smith had several previous arrests for violent attacks on women.

The Sarasota prosecutor said on the record that he could not discuss the sexual assault of Tara Reilly because even long after her death, the case was open, but he felt confident of the detectives’ assessments.

Sometimes when I watch the video of Carlie walking into oblivion, I wonder if Smith has any insight into the source of his rage. Heroin and cocaine, even in copious amounts, did not silence his demons. The wife he loved and the daughters he adored did not silence them either. Even facing the death penalty, he did not offer his early victimization at the hands of DeGregorio as a mitigating factor in his crime. I never told; I was ashamed.

Several years ago a grim-faced Patricia Davis, mother of the Smith brothers, signed an affidavit swearing that DeGregorio was the legal guardian of her younger son. At that time John Smith was in his late 30s, still living with his captor.

In 2006 she stood outside the Acculab facilities glaring at federal agents who filled three box trucks with evidence against her sons’ molester, her benefactor. Did her son’s rage manifest itself against females as betrayers, collaborators? Was it easier to blame the mother who turned a blind eye than to blame the predator?

Consider this: In America where even people living below the poverty line have a television and the much of the population is insulated from the real terror and depravity of existence, genuine evil is understood primarily as the plot of a horror movie. Terrible things happen, but they occur in the context of entertainment where there is a hero, a villain, a beautiful woman and all loose ends are resolved within 120 minutes.

Living in denial is, for some, the only option. Since the beginning of time, people have created myths to try and explain the unexplainable. America is a country of laws, where we must believe that our system of justice is capable of protecting even its most vulnerable citizens.

Perhaps that is our modern myth.

I called the agency that was still investigating the Tara Reilly murder and spoke to the sergeant. "Are you aware of the theory that Joseph Smith murdered Tara Reilly?"

His boredom radiated across the phone lines.

"Yeah, I’m aware of it. When you get into the Tara Reilly case, there are trails that go down trails that lead down other trails… ."

He was through talking and no longer listening.

Where he saw trails that meandered and diverged into other trails, I saw a straight line.

Elizabeth Gerardin is an investigator for a Florida law firm and a certified pistol instructor who occasionally works cold cases for local law enforcement agencies.


Anonymous said...

I was Tara's best friend..I remember her coming to me and telling me she had been raped by the guy/guys at acculab..the awful things she told me that they did to her..we're so unbearable to hear. I really hope they catch the right killer soon!

Anonymous said...

It is interesting how you can take a few facts and combine it with fiction and extrapolate it into a work of fantasy.

As far as Tara, she did not attend the Acculab party in 1999 which was held Dec 11, 1999. She did attend the 1998 party, and severed her employment in early 1999.

As far as lawyers, at most Acculab had 3 lawyers, including Howard, Brown & Brewer. Brewer had remained after the lab shutdown. It is not unusual for a medical facility to have a bunch of lawyers, there were EEOC lawsuits, and every time a doctor got hit with a malpractice lawsuit the lab would be named as a defendant and required legal representation. As far as doctors, it was required by law that the director of the lab be a licensed physician, and some of the testing required a signoff by a doctor. None of this is unusual, although you sensationalize it.

And in the case of Brewer, he was threatened by law enforcement to walk away or they would hit him with money laundry charges. That is the MO of Sarasota Law Enforcement in this case, intimidation, coercion, blackmail, etc against lawyers, witnesses and even victims.

Degregorio had already issued a notice of claim against Sarasota in federal court, and was days away from actually filing the paperwork. These cases was a pre-emptive strike against Degregorio to squash the compliant.

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