The Smiley Face Murders are an alleged series of connected homicides in the midwest of the United States of America which are said to be the work of the Smiley Face Gang.
The story began in the year 1997 when Patrick McNeill, who was studying accounting at Fordham University and lived in Port Chester, New York, went missing on the 16th February after drinking at a bar on East 92nd Street. His body was later found in the Hudson River on the 7th April 1997 near the 69th Street pier in Brooklyn. Detective Kevin Gannon of the Missing Persons Squad was in charge of the case, and although he failed to come up with any explanation as to how McNeill had ended up in the river, he apparently made a promise to McNeill's parents that he would never give up on the case. Indeed despite later retiring from the force in 2001 Gannon was said to have "devoted his life to keeping that promise" and even mortgaged his house and spent "tens of thousands of his own money" in pursuing the case.
It was a year later in 2002 that Gannon became aware of a number of similar deaths in Minnesota. He then enlisted the help of a former New York Police Department colleague Anthony Duarte, to look into the possible connection between the Minnesota deaths and that of Patrick McNeill. Their enquiries were later extended to include further similar deaths in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Iowa. In total they identified around forty deaths in twenty-five cities in eleven different states which they believed shared certain similarities. In each case the victims were popular, athletic and good-looking white males of college age who disappeared after a night of drinking at a bar or college party, and who were later found drowned, and in each case the investigating authorities had ruled them as accidental drownings or possible suicides.
Gannon and Duarte however, begged to differ, and focussed their efforts on identifying the exact locations where the bodies might well have first entered the water, and having done so they then found that in twenty-two cases the location had been marked with a spray-painted smiley face, and that in nine of these cases the smiley face had been drawn with horns, creating what Gannon later described as an "evil, happy, smiley man". Despite the fact that the paint colour and size of the smiley faces they'd found varied from place to place, Gannon and Duartre concluded that this was the calling card or signature of a serial killer. They further concluded, based on the assumption that the it was unlikely that a single perpetrator would be able to subdue a healthy athletic young male, that they were dealing with a group of individuals, who were probably located in more than one state; the Smiley Face Gang in other words.
This was all very well, but it all remained under the radar, until that is the pair brought the case of Christopher Jenkins into consideration.
Christopher Jenkins was from Racine County, Wisconsin and studying at the University of Minnesota. He went missing on the night of the 31st October 2002 having last been seen leaving a downtown Minneapolis bar dressed in his Halloween costume. He was later found in the Mississippi River on the 27th February 2003 still clad in his costume. Even at the time that Christopher Jenkins was missing there was speculation that his disappearance was somehow linked to another five local disappearances, however as far as the Minneapolis Police Department was concerned, it was simply another accidental drowning, and they closed the case on the 30th July 2004 on the basis that the autopsy had failed to reveal any signs of foul play whilst their investigation had also failed to turn up any evidence of criminal activity.
It seems however that Christopher's parents, Steve and Jan Jenkins, were never quite satisfied with the efforts of the Minneapolis PD, and had hired a private investigator named Chuck Loesch and utilised the services of both psychics and search dogs in the quest for their son. Neither did they accept the conclusion reached by the Minneapolis PD following the discovery of their son's body, as they were convinced that there was indeed foul play involved. They eventually established that some hair had been found clutched in Christopher Jenkins's hand when he was pulled from the water, and this, together with other inconsistencies in the accidental drowning theory convinced the Minneapolis PD to change its mind. On the 20th November 2006 they apologised and announced that they were now treating the death as a homicide and had re-opened the case. However although the Minneapolis PD claimed to have found an eyewitness and developed a suspect, no charges were forthcoming, and the case remained unsolved.
That was that, until the spring of 2008 when a journalist named Kristi Piehl working for KSTP-TV Channel 5 Eyewitness News in Minneapolis, reported on the connection between the death of Christopher Jenkins and all the other 'accidental' drownings. She had apparently been in contact with the Jenkins family for some time, and was therefore no doubt aware of the fact that they were already convinced that their son's death was linked to other similar cases, or as Chris Jenkins had put it, "Someone is taking these kids when they're vulnerable and premeditatedly making them go missing". Naturally Gannon and Duartre had contacted the Jenkins family and shared their findings, and they in turn it seemed willingly accepted that Christopher Jenkins was simply yet another victim of the Smiley Face Gang. This was essentially the story that Kristi Piehl outlined when the results of her investigation were broadcast in two parts on the 24th and 25th April 2008, when the convenient label of the Smiley Face Murders generated some considerable interest in the national media, with the result that both Gannon and Duartre found themselves on Good Morning America on the 28th April 2008.
Gannon and Duartre advanced the hypothesis that the victims were in each case incapacitated in some way, possibly with the so-called 'date rape drug' GHB, and then dumped in the nearest river and left to drown. They also claimed to have uncovered an informant who had links with the gang responsible, and to have established a motive for the killings, although they declined to give any further information about either.
Of course bearing in mind that in most cases the bodies were not found for weeks or months after the individuals had first gone missing, most if not all of the forensic evidence had been washed away, and therefore there was little in the way of hard evidence to link any of these individual cases beyond the prima facie similarity of the circumstances of their deaths. The connecting evidence amounted to nothing more than the co-incidence of the smiley face graffiti found at various locations by the two former detectives. Although they did also refer to one case in Michigan, where they had found the word 'Sinsiniwa' amongst what they regarded as the group's graffiti, which it was said provided a link with another case where the body was recovered close to Sinsiniwa Avenue in Dubuque, Iowa, whilst they additionally claimed that some examples of the graffiti they had found included the nicknames of people who were members of this alleged group of serial killers.
It seemed nevertheless as if the evidence was sufficient to convince the Jenkins family that their son was indeed one of the victims of the series of Smiley Face Murders, as Jan Jenkins was quoted as saying that "The level of evil we are dealing with here is rampant, it's deep and it's widespread". Whilst James Sensenbrenner, a Republican congressman for the 5th district of Wisconsin, took the trouble to write to the Federal Bureau of Investigation asking it to renew its investigation into the "drowning deaths of several students in Wisconsin and across the nation".
However it did not appear as if everyone was entirely convinced that there was indeed a gang of homicidal maniacs on the loose. The official line from the Minneapolis Police Department was that, "Although we have collaborated with investigators from the FBI and communicated with other jurisdictions in which similar drownings have occurred, we can neither confirm nor endorse the 'Smiley Face Murders' theory currently being publicized." Even the the FBI felt obliged to issue a statement on the 29th April concerning what they referred to as the "Midwest River Deaths" which said that, "To date, 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." Neither was the New York Police Department convinced of the serial killer theory. Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne insisted that as far as the cases that fell within his jurisdiction were concerned, they were all accidental drownings, and that "We have no evidence to suggest otherwise, and no one has come forward with any evidence to suggest otherwise".
Some excitement was also generated by the case of a college student named Joshua Szostak from Latham, New York who had earlier disappeared after leaving the Bayou Cafe on South Pearl Street in Albany, New York just after midnight on the 23rd December 2007. His body was found in the Hudson River at Coxsackie on the 22nd April 2008 just before the Smiley Face Murders hit the headlines, and on the 2nd May 2008 it was reported that police had found a smiley face painted on a tree near the Port of Albany. However Detective James Miller, speaking for the Albany Police Department was similarly sceptical of the whole smiley face theory and claimed that this evidence had "no credibility whatsoever", and that it appeared far more likely that someone had placed it there as a result of "all the national hype".
We should of course remember that over the past ten years or so there have been a number of college aged white males in the United States of America who have indeed drowned in circumstances where no one quite knows why or how they ended up in the water. Indeed there is an entire blog titled Footprints At The River's Edge (which was set up in memory of the aforementioned Christopher Jenkins) devoted to the propensity of young American males living in the Great Lakes region to end up floating in some river or another, and which lists another forty-six other cases of 'mysterious' deaths-by-drowning across the north-west.
As it turned out Gannon and Duartre weren't the first to suggest that there was a serial killer at large. An Associated Press report of the 3rd September 2007 noted that there were widespread rumours of a homicidal maniac at large in La Crosse, Wisconsin who was "lurking in college-area bars, waiting to drown good-looking young men", whilst the TruTv Crime Library had already devoted a whole article to the subject of the unsolved deaths at La Crosse under the title 'Only the River Knows'. This article drew attention to the opinions of a profiler named Pat Brown, who had come across an unnamed individual from St. Charles, Missouri who was in the habit of informing local police officers that he was "going to be the next Jeffrey Dahmer" and had developed a drowning fetish, and implied a connection with the Minneapolis series of drownings where, as we have seen the serial killer theory was first put forward back in 2003. Unfortunately apart from identifying the 'Missouri Man' as a "psychopath" who might have been inclined to kill people by drowning them, there wasn't the slightest piece of evidence suggesting that he had in fact done so, or indeed, that anyone had in fact been murdered.
However such was the state of anxiety across the campus at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse regarding the presence of a serial killer, that the La Crosse Police Department called in the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime to look into the suggestion, and the conclusion was that there was no evidence to support the serial killer theory. Indeed LaCrosse Police Chief Ed Kondracki appeared to be at pains to explain to the public that of the eight known individuals who had survived falls into water in the area none had reported any contact with anyone else, and neither had there been any reports of any suspicious individuals approaching men. It was also noted that following the death of Luke Homan in September 2006, that student volunteers had began patrolling the Riverside Park in LaCrosse, but all they'd come across were a number of drunk people cavorting along the water's edge.
Curiously enough one might have imagined that the focus would have been on the aforementioned eight survivors and to see what they had to say on the subject, but the only one of these that appeared to have been identified was Cullen Fortney from Viroqua, Wisconsin who was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Having spent the night drinking in downtown La Crosse, he became separated from his friends at around 1.45 am on the 8th January 2006 and ended up in the Mississippi River. In Fortney's case he managed to drag himself out of the river and present himself at the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center some five hours later. There were later reports of mysterious e-mails circulating that claimed that Fortney had been slipped a Mickey Finn and that the incident was in some way 'connected' to other similar incidents. However tests revealed that Fortney was simply intoxicated, whilst he himself was unable to shed any light on the matter whatsoever, since he couldn't remember anything that had happened after he'd left the bar that night.
Of course such consideration have not prevented the serial killer theory from swirling around the campuses of America and all that Gannon and Duartre have done is to add in to the mix the idea that it is all the work of a gang who have left their calling card 'smiley face' at the murder locations. However whilst Gannon and Duartre might have put their best efforts into identifying the locations where the various alleged victims entered the water, that remain only conjecture, whilst they only found a smiley-face graffito at twenty-two out of these forty or so locations and, most importantly of all, without evidence regarding the distribution and frequency of smiley face graffiti across the country, it is impossible to state whether this was any more than might be expected from any random selection of sites.
As a result there are those who believe that such tales of a mysterious death cult stalking the youth of America bear all the hallmarks of an urban legend in the making, and are scathing about the whole thing, and the involvement of Kristi Piehl in particular, who is said to have "done her part to bring the yarn to the huddled masses yearning to breathe the vapors of another massive conspiracy". (Although doubtless she doesn't care one or the other, given the publicity she has enjoyed.)
Incidentally Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte have now set up their own agency Nationwide Investigations, which "provides expeditious and thorough consulting and investigative services for open or closed cases involving missing persons and mysterious deaths", and have been joined by a pair of academics from St. Cloud State University named Lee Gilbertson and Adam Carlson. Gilbertson in particular, has previously displayed an interest in the subject and is known to have challenged his criminology students to search for patterns in the disappearances of Minnesota and Wisconsin college students. Whether they have ever found anything is another matter altogether.
- 6 Disappearances: Coincidence Or Serial Killer?, Milwaukee News, February 12, 2003
- William Wilcoxen, Minneapolis police apologize, say student's death a homicide, Minnesota Public Radio, November 21, 2006
- Detectives: Chris Jenkins murder connects dozens around country, 5 Eyewitness News, 04/23/2008
- Kristi Piehl, Detectives Chase 'Smiley Face' Murder Mystery, ABC News, April 28, 2008
- Sensenbrenner Writes FBI For Renewed Investigation in Wisconsin Drowning Deaths, Washington, DC, Apr 28
- Murray Weiss and Andy Geller, Killer Gang Drowns 40: Sleuths, New York Post April 29, 2008
- FBI Statement Regarding Midwest River Deaths April 29, 2008
- Carol DeMare, Gang of killers theory rejected Albany (NY) Times-Union April 30, 2008
- Paul Walsh, Police: Evidence doesn't support TV report on Jenkins' death, Star Tribune, April 30, 2008
- Steve Perry The smiley-face killers: a born-in-Minneapolis urban legend takes wing, May 07, 2008
- Seamus McGraw, Only the River Knows:Is there a homicidal maniac at work in La Crosse, Wisconsin?
- Nationwide Investigations: Justice for Victims, Their Families and Society