Two retired New York police detectives say they've discovered a link between the drownings of at least 40 men in 25 cities in 11 different states. The symbol of a smiley face was found at the various locations where the bodies went into the water. A nationwide criminal network is suspected of the murders.
How did the members of this network meet, if they really are from different parts of the country? Could they all have known each other at one time? This would suggest they went to school together or attended the same gathering--a music, political, or social festival. It could be they all come from the same geographic area and simply travel around the country seeking victims.
Many like-minded individuals first meet each other on the internet. This group could have met in a chat room or on a message board, thought of a plan, and moved their discussion to email or phone and they agreed to meet in person or made plans for killing their intended victims, even though each person may live in a different part of the country.
What motivates a network like this? They could be "unaffiliated" and simply share an evil mentality and desire to be serial murderers, perhaps having read about famous killers. They could also be Satanists or members of another religion. It's possible they are Islamist terrorists and are executing a plot hatched by their masters abroad.
Precious little is available on the idea of a criminal group meeting over the internet to engage in serial murder. Most crimes involving the use of the internet (other than cybercrime) are individual adults soliciting underage kids for sex, or adults soliciting other adults with a crime as the end result of the eventual personal encounter.
UPDATE: 8/29/08: A Smiley Face Victims Investigation Fund has been established to fund the efforts of Gannon and Duarte, and gather signatures to get the FBI involved in the investigation. A fundraiser will be held Sept. 5 in Latham, NY. Bill Szostak, who started the fund, plans a big announcement in October. Police in Albany say the death of Joshua Szostak was a “tragic accident.” Otherwise, there hasn’t been much news lately about the Smiley Face case.
UPDATE 5/29/08: This morning Megyn Kelly, on the Fox News program America’s Newsroom, interviewed an investigator about the disappearance of Brandon Swanson, a 19-year-old from Marshall, Minnesota whose abandoned car was found in a ditch May 14 and hasn’t been heard from since. Gary Peterson, the investigator in charge of the Swanson search (he also led the search for Nick Garza, who was found dead Tuesday), said Swanson had been talking on his cell phone to his dad and the call ended abruptly. His phone continued to ring for several days afterwards. “Something interrupted this young man’s journey and we’ve got to find out what it was,” he said. Peterson can’t say if there is a connection to the Smiley Face deaths because he hasn’t been to the scene yet but will be there tomorrow. Peterson said he has a list of 104 missing young men who suddenly disappeared and some are found later in a river. “There is something that’s happening to these young men, be it an organized gang or some sort of a drug that renders them helpless.” Police say these are college kids getting drunk on Saturday night and they fall into a river, but “if they are so inebriated then how are they able to walk for a mile or two miles?”
UPDATE: 5/21/08: CNN prominently placed a story on their website with some noteworthy details. Nine of the deceased attended the University of LaCrosse. Detectives Gannon & Duarte believe the victims were given a drug that can’t be detected by an autopsy and were sometimes physically abused—the water washing away the evidence. But of course, all that is conjecture since there is no evidence to back it up. Duarte speculated on a profile of the killers “The type of person that would be the opposite [of the victims], not smart, someone not good in school, maybe doesn’t have a job, not popular.” A second congressman, Mike McNulty (D-NY), has asked the FBI to reopen the case.
UPDATE: 5/18/08: The Mirror (UK) writes about the case and says the killings “bear a striking similarity to the cult Watchmen comic book series” in which a murder (or murders) was committed and the body found next to a blood-stained smiley face, which is a recurring symbol in the series.
UPDATE: 5/16/08: Greta Van Susteren on Fox News hosted an extensive segment on the Smiley Face case. The death of Chris Jenkins, originally thought to be an accidental drowning, has been reclassified as a homicide. The Chief of Minneapolis Police was interviewed and said he has suspects, and “we know what we need to get those people charged.” The Chief isn’t sure if these suspects are affiliated in any way with others across the country, or if the other drowning are related, but told Gannon and Duarte the police need evidence to support that idea. He has “very good leads” on the suspects—not enough to bring charges yet, but enough to reclassify the case, and the coroner was supportive as well.
Mark Fuhrman, former LA Police Detective, was interviewed for his opinion. He saw the autopsy report and “I saw nothing that is even remotely close to a homicide.” The Jenkins case was an accident that was turned into a homicide “because of a jailhouse snitch.” The smiley faces can’t be tied to the deaths. That graffiti, he added, has been around since the 1960s and isn’t uncommon. Fuhrman said the smiley face is a common sign to put on ecstasy tablets, and ecstasy combined with cocaine or alcohol causes an overheating of the body, suggesting this might cause a person to dive into a river. Another guest pointed out there was no evidence ecstasy was present in the Jenkins case. Fuhrman closed his comments by saying “the investigators are too close to the investigation and they’ve lost their perspective.”
UPDATE 5/7/08: Searchers found a smiley face somewhere in the vicinity where Nicholas Garza was last seen alive, although it’s unclear from the story the distance between the place where Garza disappeared and the smiley face. That smiley face is supposedly similar to the ones found near other supposed victims in other cities. But is there really any connection? If a serial killer gang existed, wouldn’t they make it easier to find their “calling card” and link it to their crimes? Otherwise, why draw them? So far, it just doesn’t make much sense. Police are skeptical and say the smiley face is two years old. People magazine has a story advertised on its cover (no online link to the story yet). In the story, the police chief of Eau Claire says he asked Gannon and Duarte for specifics, but “I heard theory or conjecture, not evidence.” Police found a smiley face somewhere near the place where Tommy Booth disappeared. Gannon & Duarte now have their own website, but it is extremely disappointing in that there is very little information available there. I suspect people with an interest in their theory are expecting much more.
UPDATE 5/1/08: Law enforcement officials around the country remain skeptical of the Smiley Face serial murder theory. Albany police believe a smiley face near the place where Joshua Szostak was last seen is a prank. Iowa police believe Abel Bolanos’ drowning death was accidental and not a murder. South Bend police doubt Chad Sharon’s drowning death was anything but an accident. An editorial in the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram criticizes the two retired detectives, accusing them of presenting “shoddy” evidence and suggesting they are exploiting the victims’ families for their own purposes.
UPDATE 4/30/08: The FBI issued a statement late yesterday rejecting the Smiley Face murder theory. A New York Police Commissioner said there was no evidence linking two deaths in NY to serial killers. All the supposed victims were male and 93% were white, according to an Ohio-focused story. Gannon and Duarte suggest as a link that many of the victims have high GPAs, athletically-inclined, and well-liked, but it seems unreasonable on the face of it that murder victims would be selected based on those criteria, and at least one of the killers would have needed to know the victims personally and be familiar with their academic records and social status. A smiley face has been found in at least 12 of the crime scenes, so it would be helpful if the detectives would provide all the photos together on a website for comparison and commentary. At this point, the ball is in the court of the two detectives to provide more evidence linking the smiley faces with the victims, and the victims with a gang of killers. Apparently there are no marks on the bodies that would link them.
UPDATE 4/29/08: Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner writes a letter to the FBI asking that they reopen the case. Minneapolis Police say they don’t have enough evidence to support a criminal prosecution, and they can’t confirm the Smiley Face murders theory. The New York Daily News has a story focusing on the NY angle.
UPDATE 4/28/08: The Fox News story (see below) says the FBI and others don’t agree the drownings are linked and the work of a gang. I think that would depend whether there is evidence suggesting the victims were tortured, as has been suggested, and if so, were they tortured in the same way. And are the smiley faces the work of the same hand? A smiley face isn’t exactly an uncommon graffiti, and their appearance somewhere near the scenes of the crimes could be a coincidence. The public hasn’t been given enough information to know the answers to these questions. Shepard Smith discussed the story on Fox News today and a story is on the front page of their website. The Chicagoist has a story ("Did a Serial Killer Group Hit Chicago?") about Brian Welzien, who drowned in Lake Michigan several years ago, although from the story, I dont see that anyone found a smiley face near his body. And from KSTP: "Jenkins Investigation Goes National."
UPDATE 02/10/10: Several young males in the Midwest have gone missing recently but there is no "smiley face" link to any of them. It is unknown if foul play is involved. The missing include Jonathan Lacina, Sylvester McCurry, and Eric Peterson.
UPDATE 02/14/10: Police have closed the Dan Zamlen case and found no evidence of foul play. His mother found a street sign nearby with "smiley face" graffiti on it, but police said they found no connection.
UPDATE: 02/17/10: Serial drowner on the loose? The body of Craig J. Meyers was pulled from the Mississippi River in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Police believe alcohol is responsible for the area drownings, not foul play.