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Man Linked to Florida Girl's Disappearance

Sarasota authorities question a suspect held on other charges. Carlie Brucia is still missing.

February 05, 2004|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

MIAMI — Authorities in Sarasota said Wednesday evening they were questioning a man in the disappearance of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia, whose apparent abduction as she walked home was filmed by a surveillance camera at a carwash.

The girl's whereabouts were not immediately known.

The FBI asked for and obtained assistance from an image lab at NASA to enhance the digital images, which show a man, apparently in his late 20s or early 30s, who walks up to the sixth-grader, talks to her, grabs her arm and leads her away. The man is wearing a shirt with a name patch and has tattoos on his arms.

The man being questioned, Joseph P. Smith, 37, has been in custody since Tuesday on unrelated charges, officials in the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office said, without giving details. His car, a Buick station wagon, was being searched for clues.

"We have strong evidence that he is in fact the perpetrator," Capt. Jeff Bell, lead investigator in the case, told Associated Press.

Smith has been arrested at least 13 times in Florida since 1993, according to state records. He was arrested in 1997 by Manatee County officials on kidnapping and false imprisonment charges, but was acquitted a year later, records show.

Other arrests range from misdemeanor battery to felony drug possession charges, the records show.

The girl disappeared Sunday evening after taking a shortcut behind the carwash on her way home from a friend's house about a mile away. Bill Balkwill, the Sarasota County sheriff, said his investigators were pursuing more than 400 leads, and were led to Smith by a phone-in tip. A reward of $50,000 had been offered for the capture and conviction of the person responsible for the girl's disappearance.

Investigators believe that "Carlie was taken against her will, and we are treating this as an abduction," Maj. Kevin Gooding of the Sarasota Sheriff's Office said on CNN. "We fear for her safety."

In the pictures from the carwash camera, the girl does not appear to know the man who takes her by the arm, and Carlie's mother and father said they did not recognize him. In appearances on national television, the parents begged anyone with information to come forward. "I just love my daughter very much and I need her home," Joey Brucia said.

"I would like to make another plea to the man who abducted my daughter," said Susan Schorpen. "You have the power to change all of this. You can end it. Please. Give us our daughter back."

In the community on Florida's Gulf Coast where Carlie lived, neighbors drove to the abduction site and offered their assistance to sheriff's deputies. Friends from her former Girl Scout troop skipped school for a day to pass out fliers about her disappearance, as well as pink ribbons bearing her name.

Across the state, engineers at Kennedy Space Center pitched in, using equipment that can enhance images as much as 1,000% and is usually used as part of NASA's ongoing efforts to return the space shuttle to flight. Balkwill said investigators were hoping for a clearer picture of the man's name patch and tattoos.

Steven Kansler, the girl's stepfather, said the family has been encouraged because a psychic believes Carlie is alive.

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