Smiley Face Killers: Is The Theory True?

What would you think if over the past few decades more than 80 people were found dead? Not much right?

Well, what if those found dead had eerily similar consistencies in life and in death?

  • Athletic, white, college males
  • All were last seen leaving a party or bar with alcohol in their systems
  • All found dead in rivers or streams. Many were missing for a long time and were finally found in an area where searchers had already combed.
  • Many attended the same college:
    • According to CNN,  many attended colleges along the Interstate 94 corridor in the Midwest — in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. The deaths took place at colleges near big rivers. Nine of the deceased attended the University of LaCrosse, in Wisconsin. Three attended college in New York.
  • Police rule almost all the drownings as accidental due to the alcohol and rule out any foul play… even though some of the positions the bodies were found do not indicate their deaths were accidental. One example, from The National Terror Alert Response Center, was University of Minnesota student Chris Jenkins. “His body was found encased in ice in the Mississippi, his hands folded across his chest in an odd pose that was inconsistent with a chance drowning.”

Ask retired NYC detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte and they’ll tell you they know exactly who’s behind it. The “Smiley Face Killers”. It’s a theory that would send chills up anybody’s spine.

Smiley Face Murders

The Smiley Face Killer theory: Gannon and Duarte claim the drownings of these men in 25 cities in 11 states since 1997 were not accidental, but murders done by one person or a gang called the “Smiley Face Killers.”  The name “Smiley Face Killers” came about when Gannon and Duarte discovered more than 12 smiley faces near the area where they believed the victims had entered the water. The Associated Press also printed there was an occasional discovery of the word “Sinsiniwa” near the drowning sites. Many investigators say these graffiti signs are to taunt the police. Since many of the deaths happened on the same night Gannon and Duarte believe it is a gang committing the murders.

Smiley Face Murder Investigations

According to the Smiley Face Murder Investigation, “The above map pattern was discovered by (private investigator) Mike Flaherty and shows the image that appears when you connect the dots between the towns where suspected Smiley Face murder victims have died or went missing. The yellow dots are the suspected victim locations. The red is the basic shape of the mouth complete with a uvula. The white areas appear to be fangs and the towns of Moorhead and Beverly appear to be dimples. The evil look of the face matches a clue that was left at a death location in Ames, Iowa which said, “Evil Happy Smiley Face Man”. This clue used backwards letters which was something often done by the Zodiac killer.” To view the list of towns on the map visit click here.

Since 1999, when the theory became widely publicized, there have been many for and against the theory. It’s always interesting to see opposing viewpoints, here are a few experts and non-experts and why they are for or against the theory (all quoted directly from the sources listed):

St. Cloud State University criminal justice faculty member Lee Gilbertson on Larry King Live:

If you actually look at the statistics on drownings, most drownings occur during the summer and they’re related to water activities like boating and water skiing and things like that. Very few drownings actually occur during the winter. And those are generally associated with ice fishing and snow- mobiling and things like that, up in our northern region. When I looked at these cases, the first thing that jumped out at me was the victimological profile. It’s not a normal distribution. You don’t have tall, fat people or tall, skinny people, and short fat or skinny people. They’re all right in the middle. The profile is very, very thin. The standard deviation is only 0.4 on their weight and height.  As I started working on this more and more, I found that there were six distinct patterns that told me that these cases were linked. Now, if you’re going to do — all of my careers, whether I was a signal intelligence analyst in the Army and now I teach crime mapping to my students. So I look for patterns. I use criminology and victimology. If you’re going to look for serial crimes, the first thing you have to do is determine which of these events that you’re looking at are crimes, in fact, and then look for the patterns.

Duarte explained to CNN some of his theories:

The effect of water on evidence makes for an almost perfect crime, Duarte said. Not only does it make it appear like an accidental drowning instead of a murder, but the water frequently washes away key pieces of evidence such as fingerprints and fibers, so the killer can’t be identified.

CNN also quoted the FBI, who have its doubts:

“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 drowning,” the bureau said in a statement.

Ames Tribune Journalist Luke Jennet writes in his blog:

I don’t believe in the Smiley Face Killers, or in any of the variations that have been forwarded to avoid using the phrase “Smiley Face”. I don’t believe in it because as of yet there is no proof of it being accurate, merely some space between the known facts where some suppositions can be wedged in. However, I will not say that it is not true. Because that’s the nature of critical thinking; to reserve judgment until all the facts are known and evaluated.

The Center For Homicide Research came out with some research they conducted which indicated the “Smiley Face Killers” theory isn’t possible. Here are a few points they made (quoted directly):

  • Problem of time order: In science we have to show that the two correlated factors occur in the correct sequence (Babbie, 1998). Smiley proven to have been painted at or immediately after the time of the killing. Some of the photographs of the graffiti show faded worn years earlier. In other cases the graffiti was found months afterward. There is no proof of when any of them were painted. Could have been coincidence they were found near the men.
  • Graffiti is omnipresent: Smiley faces were invented in 1964 and now people can find them all over the world. They are the easiest forms of graffiti to paint.
  • The smiley faces don’t match each other.
  • No evidence of victim trauma: There is no sign on the vast majority of these recovered remains that they were the recipient of trauma.
  • The idea that water washes away all the evidence is a myth. To the contrary, water that is cold (as in many of these northern cases) acts as a deterrent to decomposition, thereby preserving the wound patterns.
  • Drownings don’t fit a serial killer motive. The occurrence of serial homicide is a manifestation of a syndrome of behavior  (Block & Block, 1992; Block & Christakos, 1995) based on psychological motivations. These were not thrill killings, because they require long drawn include bondage, strangulation, sexual activity, and physical torture of a victim who is “alive and aware of what is happening” and able to feel pain (Holmes & Holmes, 1998, p.114; Vronsky, 2004). None of that is in evidence in these victims [except possibly McNeill].
  • The supposition that only males are drowning does not necessarily support a serial killer theory.  Males are more likely than females to die or be hospitalized from drowning.

Whether or not there really is a “smiley face killer” or a “smiley face gang” it looks like, for now, the case has been halted. According to an article published in the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram on March 7, 2010, Gannon keeps promising the public a “big lead” in this case, yet each time he appears on television it’s a huge letdown. The newspaper states he appeared on “Geraldo Live” and a promo said he would introduce an “exclusive” break in the case. But no exclusive stemmed from that interview. The Leader-Telegram writes,

And now a growing number of family members who once considered Gannon “a knight in shining armor,” as the father of one victim described the ex-cop to me, believe it’s time for him to put up or shut up.

“I still believe my son was murdered, but I also think it’s time that (Gannon) stop going on TV and come out and show some proof,” said Kathy Geib, mother of a Michigan drowning victim. “I have not heard from him in a year and a half.”

“I, frankly, never bought into it,” added Carol Noll, the mother of Michael Noll. The body of the Rochester, Minn., teen and former UW-Eau Claire student was found in Half Moon Lake five months after his disappearance more than seven years ago. Noll and her husband, Jeff, resent that their son’s name still shows up in numerous articles and Web sites promoting the serial-killer theory.

And whether or not the theory is true, it just pains me every time I see a new young face in the paper. So as the media continues to pour over this theory, or perhaps not pouring over the theory now that Gannon is so keen on keeping to himself, I think we should not forget the lives of these men. We should remember each of them have parents, siblings, relatives and friends who care deeply about them. To keep grouping them as victims of “the smiley face killers”, when we don’t truly know if the theory is correct, can start to wear down on the families. So remember them as the young men they were, not as victims of the “smiley face killers.”


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