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The Kidnapping Of Carlie Brucia: What Happened To The Florida 11-Year-Old?
Florida sixth grader Carlie Brucia was last seen alive in a carwash surveillance video with a dark-haired man with tattoos, later identified as her abductor, auto mechanic Joseph Smith.
On Feb 1, 2004, 11-year-old Carlie Brucia was walking home from a friend's house in Sarasota, Florida. It was Super Bowl Sunday and she wanted to watch the big game with her family. She never made it.
She was kidnapped in broad daylight from in front of a Sarasota car wash, an act that was actually captured on surveillance video. The sixth grader's body was found days later near a church not too far from the site of her abduction.
A parolee named Joseph Smith, who had a string of drug arrests in his past, but had also been charged and later acquitted in a kidnapping and false imprisonment case, was identified as Carlie's killer.
Here's her story:
What happened to Carlie Brucia?
As many Americans gathered around televisions to watch Super Bowl XXXVIII in Texas, a Florida family’s worst nightmare was unraveling a thousand miles away.
That day in 2004, Carlie Brucia had also planned to watch the marquee sports event. She’d spent the afternoon at a friend’s home and later had decided to walk home to watch the Super Bowl with her family. But she never arrived, police said.
At around 6:20 p.m., surveillance footage captured Brucia cutting in front of Elvie’s Car Wash on Bee Ridge Road. It was the last time she’d been seen alive.
According to reports from the time, Brucia’s family had normally driven the young girl when she needed rides, however, that day her stepfather, Steve Kansler, was driving his other son when the 11-year-old was kidnapped. Kansler told investigators he’d missed picking up Brucia by “just a couple of minutes at the most," per a CNN report.
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Only 30 minutes after she’d vanished, her worried parents reported Brucia’s disappearance to authorities.
"I knew immediately something was wrong," her mother, Susan Schorpen, told PEOPLE Magazine. "In my heart, in my mind, I knew."
The carwash surveillance footage later showed Carlie's abductor, a dark-haired man with tattoos — who police later identified as Smith — confronting the 11-year-old and briefly speaking with her in front of the business. The grainy footage later shows Smith leading Brucia by her arm out of the view of surveillance cameras. The carwash where the abduction occurred was adjoined to a complex that included a miniature golf course and an ice cream parlor.
"There were people less than 300 feet away from the abduction," her father, Joseph Brucia said. "There were people here. It was in daylight."
A $25,000 reward was subsequently issued for any information leading to the arrest of Brucia’s abductor.
Where was Carlie Brucia found?
Four days later, Brucia’s remains were found near a church, just a few miles from where the 11-year-old was originally abducted. She was found nude from the waist down, except for a single sock that was on one of her feet, Fox News reported. According to an autopsy, Brucia had been sexually assaulted. She died of strangulation, prosecutors said.
Police made the grisly discovery after zeroing in on a person of interest in the case, then-37-year-old car mechanic Joseph Smith, who revealed the location of the body during police interviews.
Smith’s car, a Buick Century station wagon, had been searched by sheriff’s investigators for clues in the disappearance of Carlie.
Who killed Carlie Brucia?
Joseph Smith, a father of three and a tattooed unemployed auto mechanic originally from Brooklyn, was arrested, charged and later convicted in Brucia’s murder.
Police at the time said “strong evidence” tied him to Brucia’s murder.
A pink backpack, which Brucia had been wearing at the time of her disappearance, was one evidentiary item that implicated Smith to the Florida girl’s murder, CNN reported at the time. A yellow 1992 Buick Century station wagon, which Smith had been driving at the time of Brucia’s kidnapping, was also spotted by surveillance recordings in the car wash parking lot minutes before she was taken. Investigators said DNA evidence had also linked Brucia to the Buick.
Smith’s roommate, told CNN at the time that she’d reported him to authorities after seeing him in the surveillance video at the heart of the case.
Smith was jailed on unrelated drug possession and probation violation charges at the time he was charged in Brucia’s murder. He had a long rap sheet for a number of narcotics offenses, officials said. In 1998, Smith was acquitted on false imprisonment and kidnapping charges.
Did Carlie Brucia know her killer?
Carlie Brucia didn’t know Joseph Smith prior to her abduction, her family said.
Brucia’s parents, Susan Schorpen and Joseph Brucia, told ABC News, that by judging from the look on the young girl’s face in the surveillance recording that she didn’t know her assailant, later identified as Smith.
"Take a good look at my daughter. Look at her face," Joseph Brucia said on "Good Morning America." "If she knew him and wanted to be with him, there would be a big smile on that face.”
What happened to Carlie Brucia’s killer?
Smith was ultimately found guilty by a jury and was sentenced to death in 2004.
In July 2021, Smith died while on death row at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida, jail records show. His cause of death wasn’t released by officials. He was 55.
“While nothing can bring back Carlie, we are grateful that her family, her friends, and the entire Sarasota community will finally have closure and will not have to endure any further court proceedings to bring Smith to justice," state attorney Ed Brodsky’s office said in a statement.
Brucia’s father, meanwhile, said he was “elated” upon learning Smith had died in 2021.
"I feel wonderful," Joseph Brucia said. "It’s long overdue. The inept and corrupt criminal justice system could not get it done, so the natural order of things finally took care of it."
Nearly two decades after his daughter’s death, Joseph Brucia had said Florida’s criminal justice system failed his family.
"Then they drag this thing on from 2005 to 2021 and still going and it’s not even done yet," he added. "So, I have a lot of venom and disdain for the criminal justice system."
Prior to Smith’s death, authorities had also probed the possibility that he’d been behind the unsolved abduction and murder of 25-year-old Tara Reilly, whose naked body was found behind a Walmart by a pond in Bradenton in 2000. Smith, however, was never charged. The case remains unsolved.
In 2021, Joseph Smith’s brother, John Smith, who testified against his brother at his trial in Brucia’s murder, however, said he’d “bet [his life” his sibling was also responsible for Reilly’s cold case murder.
Brucia’s mother, Susan Schorpen, did not live to see Smith’s death. She died in 2017 of a suspected drug overdose, PEOPLE.com reported.
“Carlie’s death was something impossible for Susan to recover from, this was clearly one of the biggest blows imaginable in her life,” friend and child advocate Judy Cornett said at the time.
In 2004, U.S. lawmakers proposed "Carlie's Law," which would mandate an offender's probation be automatically revoked if they've committed felony acts of violence, including unlawful sexual conduct, against minors. The bill was introduced by Republican Representative Katherine Harris, but it didn't pass before the 2004 session of Congress expired and was never re-introduced.
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