Is a shadowy but organized cabal of serial killers responsible for murdering 40 or so drunken white college-aged males and then dumping their cadavers in waterways to wash away the physical evidence? And are these demented ’n’ demonic bastards taunting police by drawing smiley faces near where they send the bodies to a watery grave? Should we—as Americans generally, but more specifically the drunken white college-aged males among us—be very, very afraid?
Or is the “Smiley Face Killers” theory simply some implausibly grandiose delusion concocted by a pair of attention-starved former police detectives who’ve woven a fairy tale around what most experts insist is a string of accidental and unrelated drownings?
In other words, is the theory for real…or just really dumb? Either way, it is stubbornly persistent. It won’t die, no matter how many people try to kill it.
In 2008, retired New York police detectives Frank Gannon and Anthony Duarte went public with what many have dismissed as a cockamamie theory. They claimed that starting around 1997 and stretching across eleven states from New York to Minnesota, more than three dozen waterlogged corpses that had been dredged from rivers and lakes and ponds shared too many similarities for it all to be coincidental:
• Almost without exception, victims were white, college-aged males whom Gannon and Duarte described as athletic, good-looking, and academically successful. They theorize that the perpetrator was possibly clumsy, ugly, and dumb—and therefore motivated by envy.
• The victims all been spotted at local bars or parties getting drunk on the evening they disappeared.
• In at least a dozen cases, smiley faces were found painted near where the detectives determined the bodies had been dropped in the water.
• Nearly all of these alleged drowning victims were discovered in frigid Northern climates during the winter months—a ball-shrinking climatic scenario in which even the drunkest of frat dudebros might hesitate to wander near a body of water—yet there was no discernibly similar pattern of alcohol-related drownings in the much warmer Southern states, even in summertime.
• Since some of the disappearances occurred on the same night in different states, the detectives concluded that a “well-structured” organization of killers was responsible.
Nearly all of the alleged “Smiley Face” murder cases are still classified as accidental drownings. But at least two of them were eventually determined to be homicides:
1) Twenty-year-old Patrick McNeil was last spotted drinking with friends at Manhattan’s Dapper Dog bar one night in February of 1997. His corpse was dragged out of the East River two months later and twelve miles away. He was found floating in the water face-up, which is extremely rare for drowning victims. An autopsy revealed ligature marks around his neck. His groin area—skip this part if you’re easily nauseated—showed housefly larvae that had to have been laid on his body indoors and under warm conditions. In other words, McNeill was dead before he ever hit the water. And although he’d been missing for two months when his body was found, the absence of what’s known as “skin slippage” under his feet indicated he’d been in the water for less than a day.
2) On Halloween night 2002, twenty-one-year-old University of Minnesota student Chris Jenkins was last seen being kicked out of a Minneapolis bar. Four months later, his body was found encased in ice in the Mississippi River, face up with his hands folded across his chest—again, not the typical position for a drowning victim.
Despite its glimmering sheen of wackiness, some experts support the “Smiley Face” theory. According to forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, “the statistics are so stacked against this number of men, young men, Caucasian males, found in bodies of water in that cluster of states, within that period of time” that it’s almost mathematically impossible for these incidents to be unrelated. Professor Lee Gilbertson, a “nationally acclaimed criminologist” from Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University, originally dismissed the theory as an “urban legend.” After scrutinizing the evidence, though, he unabashedly declared that the Smiley Face Killers were a real “nationwide organization that revels in killing young men.”
Despite such support, Gannon, Duarte, and their goofy little theory have legions of critics. Criminal profiler Pat Brown calls the theory “ludicrous,” “absolutely insane,” and notes that smiley faces are one of the most common forms of graffiti: “It’s not an unusual symbol….If you look in an area five miles square, I bet you could find a smiley face.”
In 2008, the FBI issued a press release claiming that “we have not developed any evidence to support links between these tragic deaths or any evidence substantiating the theory that these deaths are the work of a serial killer or killers. The vast majority of these instances appear to be alcohol-related drownings.”
In 2010, the Center for Homicide Research released a document called “Drowning the Smiley Face Murder Theory” that outlines 18 reasons they feel it’s false. Among these points are “None of the smiley faces exactly match one another,” “There is no evidence of victim trauma,” and “These drownings don’t fit a serial killer motive.”
Gannon—who once claimed to have mortgaged his house so he could pursue his Smiley Face investigations—seems to have stopped researching the case sometime around 2012. He and Duarte have reportedly moved on to more lucrative cases. Several surviving parents of alleged Smiley Face victims have also expressed doubts about the former detectives’ motives for ever making a big public stink about their theory. When Bill Szostak’s son died in Albany, NY, it was classified as a drowning, although Szostak says he still thinks it’s murder. But he’s utterly disenchanted with Detective Gannon:
I feel Kevin is like a sponge—he latches onto the families, sucks the life out of them, and when he has nothing else to suck, he dumps them….Do I think he has revictimized families and done more harm than good? Yes, I do, and that’s a shame.
Despite all this, the Smiley Face theory persists. It was invoked after the 2012 disappearance of a Northwestern University student whose floating corpse was found near “smiley face graffiti on a tree.”
It was invoked by a black Wisconsin columnist after a young white male’s body was found in the Milwaukee River. According to Eugene Kane of OnMilwaukee.com:
I’ve been warned in the past not to talk about a secret killer of white men in Wisconsin who prey on drunken, college-age males in order to find a way to drown them in the river….I’m still intrigued why black males who drink a lot don’t end up in the river and why that particular racial angle seldom gets discussed.
Most recently, the Smiley Face Killer theory was invoked in February 2015 in regards to the reputed drowning death of 21-year-old Shane Montgomery, who had last been seen drinking with friends the day before Thanksgiving but whose body wasn’t found until right before Christmas.
If I had to venture a guess, I’d say the theory is wrong. At most, its proponents may have unwittingly spurred one or two copycat murders by some bored dimwits in the frozen Midwest. Otherwise, it’s mostly coincidence. But the myth lingers to feed that oddly persistent and almost universal human need to be terrified.
Whatever the truth is, it’s obvious that somebody is fucking with us—and smiling about it.