SARASOTA, Fla.-- A tattooed mechanic with a long rap sheet was charged with murder yesterday after authorities found the body of an 11-year-old girl whose kidnapping was captured on a car wash surveillance camera.
Police said Joseph P. Smith told a witness that he had kidnapped and killed Carlie Brucia, and authorities used that information to find the sixth-grader's body in a church parking lot a few miles from the car wash.
Investigators declined to say how the girl was killed or whether she had been raped. "He will pay the ultimate price for what he did to her," sheriff's Captain Jeff Bell said. Investigators would not give details on the witness who helped them.
Smith, 37, is believed to be the man seen on the surveillance video in a mechanic's shirt with a name patch, leading Carlie away by the arm Sunday as she walked home from a slumber party. Investigators said the man on the tape had tattoos on both forearms; Smith has many tattoos on his arms.
The kidnapping set off a frantic search for Carlie, and the tape was beamed across the nation as her family and authorities pleaded for her safe return.
Investigators were led to Smith after a tipster identified him as the man in the video. Authorities said his Buick station wagon was seen in the surveillance footage shortly before the kidnapping.
Investigators had called on NASA to sharpen and enlarge images of the abduction, but they said the quality wasn't much better than what they already had.
Smith was charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping, and could face the death penalty if convicted. His public defender, Adam Tebrugge, did not immediately return calls for comment.
Carlie's body was found beneath thick underbrush near the Central Church of Christ. While investigators in white coveralls searched the area for evidence, Carlie's friends and family gathered outside the church. Her stepfather, Steven Kansler, and some friends knelt in a prayer circle.
"She's in a better place. She got there in a horrific manner, but now she's watching me all the time," said her father, Joe Brucia.
Smith has been arrested at least 13 times in Florida since 1993.
He served 17 months in prison in 2001 and 2002 for heroin possession and prescription drug fraud. Eight days after he got out, he was arrested on charges of cocaine possession and placed on probation for three years. He also got probation for aggravated battery in 1993 and heroin charges in 1999.
A state correction official, Joe Papy, said that a probation officer had asked a judge on Dec. 30 to declare Smith in violation of his probation because he had not paid all his fines and court costs.
Papy said Circuit Judge Harry Rapkin declined to find Smith in violation, which could have returned him to jail. The judge defended his decision yesterday, saying the probation officer never sent him the evidence he requested that Smith had willfully refused to pay.
Carlie's family questioned why Smith was allowed to be free.
"In my opinion he should have never been out on the street," Joe Brucia said. Neighbors said Smith and his wife had separated recently and he had moved out of the house.
Linda Thompson, who lives next door to the Smith family, described Smith as a good father to his three daughters. She remembered him playing with them in the yard, buying them a puppy, and building them a goldfish pond.
"That's the Joe we saw, so when this started it was hard to believe that there's a different side," Thompson said.
A group of supporters kept up a vigil outside the family's ranch-style house, which was decorated with banners and posters reading, "We love you, Carlie."
Carlie's friends said the blond, blue-eyed girl idolized Jennifer Lopez and enjoyed going to the mall and hanging out with friends. She had a 6-year-old half-brother, a 10-year-old stepbrother, and a cat named Charlie.
"She was loving and caring. She doesn't like to see other people hurt. She'd be really crying if this was one of us or someone else she knows," said Tiffany Meeks, a school friend who placed flowers at a memorial at the car wash. "It's just hard to talk about."