The Murder of Carlie Brucia

A Child Is Abducted on Videotape

Carlie Brucia
Carlie Brucia. Family Photo

On Sunday, February 1, 2004, in Sarasota, Florida, 11-year-old Carlie Jane Brucia was on her way home from a sleepover at her friend's house. Her stepfather, Steve Kansler, was on his way to pick her up en route, but never found her. Carlie, deciding to cut through a car wash not far from her home, was approached by a man and led away, never to be seen alive again.

The surveillance camera at the car wash showed a man in a uniform type shirt approaching Carlie, saying something to her, and then leading her away.

NASA, with some technology used in the investigation of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, assisted the investigation by working with the video to enhance the image. The FBI also worked to help find Brucia and the man who abducted her.

After receiving tips as to the identification of the man, the Sarasota police questioned Joseph P. Smith, who had been in their custody on an unrelated parole violation charge since the day after Carlie was abducted. A woman who said she lived with Smith was one of the tipsters who contacted the police. Smith refused to admit to any involvement with Carlie Brucia's disappearance.

On February 6, it was announced that Carlie Brucia's body had been found. She had been murdered and left in a church parking lot just miles from her home.

A History of Kidnapping

Joseph Smith, a 37-year old car mechanic, and father of three who had been arrested at least thirteen times in Florida since 1993, and had been previously charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment, was held in custody as the main suspect in the murder of Carlie Brucia.

On February 20, Smith was indicted on a first-degree murder and separate charges of kidnapping and capital sexual battery was filed by the Florida attorney's office.

The Trial

During the trial, the jury saw the videotape and heard testimony from several witnesses who said they recognized Smith when they saw the video on television. The video also picked up tattoos on Smith's arm, which were identified during the trial.

The videotape was not the only evidence linking Smith to the crime. DNA evidence was presented that identified semen found on the girl's clothes matching that of Smith.

The jury also heard testimony from Smith's brother, John Smith, who led police to Carlie's body near a church after his brother confessed to the crime to him during a jail visit. He told jurors that his brother told him that he had rough sex with the 11-year-old Sarasota girl before he strangled her to death. He also testified that he had recognized his brother in the videotape that pictured Carlie being lead away by a man behind a car wash.

Closing Arguments

During Prosecutor Craig Schaeffer's closing statement, he reminded jurors of the videotape showing Smith leading Carlie Brucia away, and to Smith's DNA found on her shirt and of the taped admissions that he killed her. "How do we know this man killed Carlie?" Schaeffer asked the jurors. "He told us."

Smith's defense attorney shocked the courtroom when he declined to give a closing statement. "Your honor, opposing counsel, members of the jury, we waive closing argument," Adam Tebrugge said.

Found Guilty

On October 24, 2005, a Sarasota, Florida jury took less than six hours to find Joseph P. Smith guilty of first-degree murder, sexual battery, and kidnapping of Carlie Brucia.

In December 2005, the jury voted 10 to 2 for the death sentence.

During a hearing in February 2006, Smith cried while apologizing to the court for murdering Brucia and said that he tried to kill himself by taking overdoses of heroin and cocaine on the day of the murder. He also asked the judge to spare his life for the sake of his family.


On March 15, 2006, Circuit Court Judge Andrew Owens sentenced Smith to life in prison without the possibility of parole for assault and kidnapping.

"Carlie endured unspeakable trauma, which began at the time of her kidnapping," Owens said before the sentencing. "The image of the defendant taking her arm and leading her away no doubt will forever be etched in our minds...During the sexual and physical abuse, Carlie was subjected to, at 11 years of age, there is no doubt she was aware of her dire predicament and that she had little or no hope of survival...Her death was consciousless and pitiless ... calculated and premeditated."

He then sentenced Joseph P. Smith to death by lethal injection.