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True crime. Casually done.

The Smiley Face Murders

We’ve plenty to be afraid of these days: terrorism, killer viruses, roving gangs of angry English football fans (unlucky lads), and so on and so on. If you’re of a nervous disposition, you might want to skip this one, because we’re preparing to add another piece of paranoia to the pile: the Smiley Face Killers. If you’re not familiar with this murderous gang, you’re not alone. 

Their enemies claim that this group of super organised, extremely calculating serial killers have been flying under the radar for decades. Nobody knows who they are or what they look like, only that they’ve slaughtered potentially hundreds of victims, and made the majority of their crimes look like accidental deaths.

In fact, the expertise with which they dispose of the bodies means that some doubt these killers even exist. The only concrete evidence we have of their existence is a calling card, found near the crime scenes, that connects these seemingly unrelated deaths into one marathon crime spree (hint: the clue is in the name).

Today we’ll be looking at the story of the detective who believes he first uncovered this network of killers, and his decades-long quest to finally haul them out of the shadows. This is the story of the Smiley Face Murders…

Trust me, it’s darker than it sounds…


The Death of Patrick McNeill

On February 16th 1997, Fordham University student Patrick McNeill went drinking with friends at  his regular: a dive bar in Manhattan called Dapper Dog. The place was packed out that Sunday night, mostly with students from the university, who knew that this was the place to drink yourself paralytic, without the bar staff cutting you off or checking IDs. 

Patrick was generally well-liked among his peers: good-looking and intelligent, he had aspirations of one day joining the FBI. He was also a fairly big, athletic guy, who could usually handle his drink. But that night, it seemed as if the cheap booze got the better of him — after just a few, he was stumbling around like a lightweight freshman.

Not long past midnight he was already ready to call it a night. After forcing himself to be sick in the toilet, he said his slurred goodbyes to his mates, and prepared to walk home with a female acquaintance. When she took too long to follow, leaving Patrick shivering out on the street, he decided to head off alone (with that kind of homing-pigeon instinct that only the severely inebriated know).

People on the street reported watching Patrick with concern, as he stumbled along the pavement, tumbling over every now and then, before slowly rising to his feet, dusting himself off and walking on. Hardly an uncommon sight when you live near a university, but some of the witnesses noticed something odd: a van seemed to be tailing Patrick, matching his pace and stopping whenever he fell.

When he continued up the street and turned left onto 90th Street, that same vehicle turned behind him. That was the last that anyone would see of Patrick McNeil for quite some time. Over a month later, the 21-year-old was floating face up in the East River, spotted by walkers on a Brooklyn Pier about 12 miles from where he was found. His body was badly decomposed, and the only clothes left on him were his jeans and socks. 

Up to this point, the police had been absolutely confident that the missing man would turn up on his own. His family’s insistence on a proper investigation was treated as an irritation, countered by digging into Patrick’s personal life, to round up all the reasons he might be actively avoiding the search. One detective told the papers that popular Patrick had gotten multiple women pregnant, and was running away from the stress. 

In a similar vein, a manager at the Dapper Dog suggested he was off “shooting heroin on the Westside.” All of that character assassination looked pretty damn distasteful, now that the poor guy’s family were being told their son had fallen into the river drowned that night. If he really were running away from his responsibilities, then the young guy was apparently willing to go pretty damn far. 

All of his family’s efforts — which included handing out 10,000 flyers with an army of volunteers — were in vain. Now there was just one question left to answer: did he fall, or was he perhaps pushed? Determining which was the case was the job of top NYPD homicide detective Kevin Gannon. 

Judging by Patrick’s unsteady legs, testified to by dozens of bar patrons and pedestrians, it seemed likely that he had fallen in by accident. But Gannon and the coroner both agreed that some things just didn’t add up. 

For one, the pooling of blood in the body suggested he had died face down, not face up like he was found. And the fairly unadvanced state of the ‘slippage’ of his skin suggested that he hadn’t actually been in the water for the entire two months. If you’re not familiar with the ins and outs of human decomposition, ‘slippage’ means the skin bloating then literally slipping off the body after death (try not to think about it too much). 

So if Patrick wasn’t floating in the water all this time, where was he? Well, the post-mortem revealed what could have been ligature marks around his wrists and neck. Gannon had a theory that the young man had been kidnapped and help against his will on that night in February, then killed somewhere indoors, before being dumped in the river post-mortem. 

Suddenly that van crawling down the road behind the victim looked all that more significant. Gannon discovered that one of the witnesses actually managed to note down a partial license plate number for the vehicle, after realising how strangely the driver was behaving. So the detective applied for authorisation to run a search, and match this fragment of information against vehicle databases to figure out who the owner might be.

To his dismay, the request was denied, citing costs. The department wasn’t convinced enough that the death was suspicious to approve this (relatively inexpensive) bit of admin. That was basically the end of the matter — on April 16th 1997, the medical examiner officially ruled the death an accident, and the case was closed.

But for Gannon, it would forever remain open. He had befriended the parents along the way, and the mother asked him: “Please, just try to prove that Patrick wasn’t some drunk kid that fell into the river.” 

He told her “I promise you. I give you my word. When I retire, I’ll prove that your son wasn’t that individual and that he was abducted and murdered.”Over the next decade, he would go on to meet many other parents like them, whose sons had drowned under what seemed like highly suspicious circumstances, and deal out the same promise time and time again: he was the only one determined to reveal the truth about what happened to their children.

As it turned out, the McNeill case was the first time that Gannon came up against a nemesis that would haunt him for the rest of his days…


The Smileys

Gannon turned the McNeill case into a personal project retiring from the force. His goal was always to have the investigation reopened, so that the circumstances of Patrick’s disappearance could be properly examined as a kidnapping.

Part of the process was looking into the databases of similar cases from around the Northeast USA, to see how they compared in terms of physical evidence and official verdicts. Hoping to find a precedent for a fresh look at the case, he actually found something far more disturbing: it seemed like there was an epidemic of suspicious drownings around the area, all of which were written off as accidental. 

Over the following years, Gannon started collecting notes on further deaths that bore eerie similarities to the swathe of suspicious drownings stacked up on his desk:

– Brian Welzien, 21 years old: left a New Year’s Eve party in Chicago on January 1st 2000; body found 77 days later, 30 miles away in Lake Michigan. Minimal decomposition suggested he wasn’t exposed to the elements for long, and perhaps died only 36 hours before hitting the water.

– Todd Geib, 22 years old: left a party in Muskegon, Michigan on June 25th 2005; body found 22 days later floating upright. Traces of unprescribed antidepressants in his system.

– Lucas Homan, 21 years old: went missing after drinking with friends at Oktoberfest in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in autumn 2006; found three days later in the Mississippi River. His friend was attacked that night, and a clothing analyst determined he was only in the water for 3-12 hours.

This is just a small selection of dozens of potential leads. The victims in the cases were almost always young men — college students studying in the towns where their bodies were found. They tended to be athletic, popular, and successful in their studies. Every single one of them went missing after drinking with their friends, and was later found floating in a body of water. Their deaths were either declared accidental or unexplained.

While compiling his list of cases, Gannon made the acquaintance of another retired detective named Anthony Duarte. He agreed that the McNeill case was highly suspicious, and that many of the accidental drowning cases identified by Gannon had indeed been horribly mishandled. 

The coroner’s reports all had eerie similarities to that case from 1997: bodies found in the water probably after being killed, as their lungs didn’t always show clear signs of drowning, and the state of  decomposition was different than you would expect for a corpse left outdoors for days or weeks.

For example, in the 2005 case of Tommy Booth in Pennsylvania, his body was found in a creek behind the bar 14 days after he went missing. What made things extremely suspicious is that the entire area had been searched extensively in the days immediately after the disappearance, and no body was found. Was it overlooked because the creek freezed over afterwards, or as his family claims, was it dumped there later?

Well, the coroner recorded that rigor mortis was detected in several joints, which typically subsides just 20-36 hours after death. Add to that the fact that a suspicious pair of footprints were found nearby, and what may have been drag marks were found leading to the body, and it seemed like the ‘accidental drowning’ verdict was more a convenience than anything.

In other cases, just like with McNeill, the faint suggestion of rope burns on the skin meant it was possible the victims were tied up before their deaths. And the toxicology reports shed some light on exactly why the first victim might have gotten so drunk so fast that night in 1997: traces of the date rape drug GHB showed up in several of the later bodies. As for the others, it’s possible that it degraded in the bodies by the time they were tested.

This led to the theory that the men were targeted by people in the bars where they drank, who would slip drugs into their drinks, snatch them off the street, then keep them captive (perhaps to torture them). After that, the victims were strangled and dumped in bodies of water to make it seem like a drunken accident, thereby cleansing away most of the physical evidence. 

It seemed that the kidnappers often went to lengths to stage the scenes to make them look accidental. For example, when 21-year-old Chris Jenkins was found in the Mississippi River four months after he went missing, he was floating on his back with his arms crossed over his chest. With a long list of cases like this, Gannon and Duarte started looking into the possibility that these were not just isolated incidents.

They scoured hundreds of evidence photos and reports of all the little incidental details from the scenes, looking for some idiosyncratic common thread that might link the crimes together. That’s when they discovered that the phantom killer (or killers) had actually left a calling card at the scenes: a tag which marked out their kills, and taunted the hapless police.

Not a pentagram, not an anarchy symbol, just a simple little smiley face, scrawled with spray paint near where the bodies entered the water. That might seem pretty harmless, but when the investigators started cross-referencing their list of cases with graffiti reports, the strangely unnerving symbol kept popping up time and time again. 

Varying in shape and colour, sometimes with devil horns or a cryptic message, sometimes not, these calling cards gazed out over the crime scenes with smug little grins. Now the two detectives were absolutely convinced that these tragic cases weren’t only suspicious, they were all the work of one extremely accomplished serial killer…


The Theory

So what do we have so far? Suspicious drownings, evidence of possible foul play, similar victims, and a recurring symbol that seems to confirm that a serial killer might be at work. This hitherto incognito individual spent their days staking out college bars, drugging young men, and dumping their bodies in water. So far, so good.

But prepare yourself, because Gannon and Duarte took the frameworks of this interesting theory, and proceeded to absolutely jump the shark. By the time it hit the mainstream, The Smiley Face Murder Theory had come to resemble something straight off the back of a coke-addled screenwriter’s bar napkin. 

In 2008, the two men published a landmark report on their findings, which catapulted the theory to fame in the blogosphere. The book itself sounds pretty dry, Case Studies in Drowning and Forensics, but its thesis is more like a thriller novel than an academic textbook.

Ostensibly a manual on the proper handling of drowned bodies and aquatic evidence collection, the book actually goes on to argue that the 14 cases within could be the work of a highly-organised network of serial killers, with chapters in several major American cities. 

Gannon explained to Oxygen.com: “What we’ve determined is they’re a well-structured, organized gang with cells in major cities across the United States who drug, abduct, hold the victims for a period of time alive before they murder them and then place them in the water.”  

When the guys eventually turn up dead, there’s usually a smiley face graffiti tag, on “the nearest man made structure near the location of disposal”. In some instances, it’s found in other spots, as was the case with Tommy Booth: the symbol was painted on the back wall of the bar where he was last seen drinking with friends. As for a motive, the detectives believe that these killers are just frustrated losers with no jobs or friends, so they feel the need to target young guys who are doing well in life.

These ‘Smiley Face Killers’ get a kick out of leaving their trademark tag right out in the open, perhaps as a way of claiming the kills and verifying them with their fellow members. As for how they organise the murders — some of which happened on the same nights, hundreds of miles apart — the gang are said to communicate through the dark web.

Gannon and Duarte even claim they once managed to get access to the group’s login page, where they were asked through live chat to enter their credentials and turn on the webcam. It’s an unwritten rule of the internet that you don’t turn your webcam on for some anonymous creep unless they’re willing to pay your rent, so the two men obviously refused. 

The two cops organised a press tour finally been drag this murder gang out into the national spotlight after over ten years of activity, beginning with Patrick McNeill way back in ‘97. Many were skeptical, including a Minnesota professor of criminal justice named Lee Gilbertson. But after meeting with the detectives in person, he too became convinced, and is now one of its biggest proponents. 

He, along with the two original detectives and a third named Mike Donovan, now make up the core of the vigilante investigation squad. But if you’re planning on walking home alone tonight, you’ll be very unhappy to hear that they haven’t managed to bring down the gang yet. In fact, quite the opposite. 

The Smiley Face Killer investigation is now well past its twentieth anniversary, without any arrests. That means the sadistic gang are still at large, potentially expanding their influence further and further as the years go on…


Fresh Cases

The bodies didn’t stop piling up after 2008, and Gannon and Duarte continued to dedicate their lives to investigating these suspicious drownings. Gannon even remortgaged his own home to fund the team’s investigation. They were joined by a new army of amateur sleuths who bought into the theory through online forums. These volunteers will spend hours identifying and filing cases that they believe are the work of the Smiley Face Killers.

The 14 cases mentioned in the textbook were only a selection of around 40 the two ex-cops had identified at the time, but now the number of potentially connected cases is well over 100! In 2019, the team succeeded in bringing their theory to even wider public attention with a six-part TV series on the Oxygen network: Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt for Justice.

Through it, they cover more alleged crimes from as recent as January 2017: the death of Dakota James. He was last spotted on CCTV in downtown Pittsburgh, turning down an alleyway. The official verdict is that he then walked down to a section of the riverside near the Clemente Bridge to urinate in the water, and ended up falling in. But his parents never accepted this.

Dakota was captain of the swimming team, and would surely have been able to get himself out without much problem. Instead, he was found 40 days later, floating 10 miles away from where he was last seen. To make matters more suspicious, five weeks before his death he had been on a night out with the same group of friends, and suddenly found himself on an unfamiliar street, alone and disoriented.

He panicked, and texted his friend Shelley to come get him. “I don’t know where I am. I’m so cold. Please help me. I’m lost,” he told her through tears. When she eventually found him using his phone’s GPS, he was on the bottom floor of a residential building. A dark SUV was parked in the wrong lane, and Dakota was walking straight towards it when she pulled up and shouted him over.

He wouldn’t explain what had happened to him, only that he had lost about four hours of memory from 7pm to 11pm. She asked if he wanted to go to the hospital, thinking he had been drugged or raped. She may well have been right: GHB was later found in his autopsy report. But Dakota just asked to go home, and never spoke any more about it. Was the driver of that SUV waiting to kidnap the young guy?

And five weeks later, did they succeed on a second attempt? Gannon found a piece of evidence that suggested. A look at the autopsy photographs revealed “suspicious marks” on the young guy’s neck which had seemingly gone unnoticed. Forensic pathologist Dr Cyril Wecht concluded “the death may have been due to ligature strangulation.”


Finds like this are why the team are willing to sacrifice so much time and money, locked in a crusade against a hidden menace plaguing the youth of America. If we throw ourselves further down the rabbit hole, and follow all of the auxiliary investigations that have popped up online, then the Smiley Face Killers may have already expanded their reach overseas!

Websites supporting the case claim that this network of killers have struck more than a staggering 350 times, across North America and as far afield as Europe. That means that, no matter where you are, if you’re walking home from a bar alone at night, the Smiley Face Killers might have already marked you out. Every one of us is at risk of becoming their next victim.

But hold on a minute — let’s dial down the panic for a second. Sure, Gannon and Duarte have won a handful of victories in their quest for justice, and their work is often extremely important for the desperate families. But does any of that mean they’re right about a bloody dark web murder conspiracy?

Surely I don’t need to tell you this, but… not really…


Drowning the Smiley Face Murder Theory’

The believers in the Smiley Face Murders theory are still holding out hope that the FBI might bring in the big guns and take down the gang for good. But they’re in for a major letdown, because the truth is, the vigilante detectives have already succeeded in bringing these ‘murders’ to their attention. 

In 2008, Special Agent Richard J Kolkata issued a statement saying: “The vast majority of these instances appear to be alcohol-related drownings. The FBI will continue to work with the local police in the affected areas to provide support as requested.”

Secret Service and FBI agents
Secret Service and FBI agents. By Wiki image 2000, is licensed under CC- BY-SA

Essentially some of the top investigative minds in the country have basically already debunked the theory. So what the hell is really going on here?


The Problem with Smileys

We’ll start with the smileys. First, a little experiment: if you’re currently outside in a town or city, do a quick 360 and see if you can’t spot some smiley face graffiti. In certain parts of certain towns, you’d probably have taken in about half a dozen of them within that one little pirouette.

My point is that smiley faces are probably the most common graffiti symbol by far, the only other contender being the classic cock and balls. This was one of a laundry list of criticisms that the Centre for Homicide Research lobbed at Gannon and Duarte back in a 2012 article called Drowning the Smiley Face Murder Theory. 

They argued that in these drowning cases you can only ever get an approximate estimate of where the person entered. And for obvious reasons, you’ll very often find a bridge nearby (absolute hotbeds of graffiti vandalism). In the Jenkins case, there were actually seven within a mile of where the body was found! 

So perhaps these seasoned detectives are actually just on the trail of hundreds of bored teenage vandals. It’s not even just smiley faces they look for; Gannon and Duarte claim that they’ve identified over a dozen recurring symbols used by the group (so basically any common graffiti will probably do).

Consider the fact that, when faced with cases that displayed all the same markers bar the petty vandalism, the detectives just claimed the killers arbitrarily decided not to do it on those occasions. So their big-brain method is: search for graffiti literally anywhere and claim the victim was thrown in there, or fail to find any and claim you’re still right anyway. Top detective work boys.

The psychological term for the tendency to see patterns in randomness is apophenia, and it’s basically to blame for 99% of the bullshit true crime theories out there. Essentially, if you pick a common enough signifier, you can link together all kinds of crimes into one cohesive theory.

Give me a few hours of access to UK police records, and I promise you I’ll find at least half a dozen public toilet overdoses in which the aforementioned cock and balls were scribbled on the door in permanent marker. Does that mean that Britain is being stalked by the Cock and Balls Killers, a group of organised murderers picking off addicts up and down the nation? 

Absolutely not (although if Oxygen can offer up a 6 episode documentary deal, I’m more than willing to run with it).


The Problem with Water (and College Kids)

So if you’re satisfied enough that the dark web gang conspiracy has been basically debunked, a more important question still remains. Are these deaths genuinely murders, albeit unconnected ones, which deserve a second look regardless? 

I mean, if you just claim every drowning death is suspicious, you will eventually get a hit or two. In some cases, the suspicious state of decomposition was undeniable, and there really were what appeared like binding marks on the victims. As for the other cases, true believers will tell you that the water washed all this key evidence away.

But according to experts on aquatic investigations, this ignores the fact that water can actually have a preservative effect on dead bodies. With proper techniques, you can even get fingerprints from the skin of victims who have been underwater for some time, especially when the temperature is low (most of the cases we’ve mentioned happened in autumn and winter).

And speaking of low temperatures, District Attorney Stephen Zappala, who was involved in the Dakota James case, has gone on record saying: “that time of year, with the water temperature, you only have a couple minutes before you go into shock and that’s that.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re captain of the swimming team or not, if you’re smashed on alcohol and fall into freezing water, you’re in real trouble. That would explain why this ‘serial killer gang’ happens to only target male college students: that demographic tends to drink pretty excessively, walk home alone, and maybe stop off by the water to relieve themselves. Staggering down an embankment and over the edge is actually far more common than you’d think.

And have you ever tried to go swimming while high off your face? If you tried, you’d soon find out that not all drugs are performance enhancing. Aside from its use as a date rape drug, apparently GHB can also be used to achieve similar effects to MDMA: “Euphoria, increased sex drive, and tranquility,” and a similar flip side: “[…] loss of consciousness, nausea, hallucinations.” (According to Drugs.com)

That means, in at least a few of the 30 cases that this or very similar substances were reportedly confirmed in, the drugs might’ve been taken willingly, and could have contributed to the lack of physical coordination once the victims plunged into the water. 

For a lot of reasons, that idea doesn’t sit right with some of the grieving parents. They quite reasonably want to understand why their sons died in such a senseless and tragic way, even though there’s not always an answer to be found…


Wrap up

We’ll leave the final word up to you on the Smiley Face Murder theory: too wild to be true, or given the nature of people and the internet, somewhat inevitable? Either way, those 100+ young men did die tragic deaths, leaving behind 100+ families still desperate for answers that will probably never come. 

Honestly, I believe that ‘dark web murder gangs’ will be seen as the new ‘Satanic Panic’ when we look back in 20 years time. It sounds like something my granny would come out with because she’s terrified of the internet. Some people call Gannon and Duarte vicious opportunists, who are exploiting the grief of parents for clout. But in the end, this conspiracy stuff doesn’t detract from the fact that a lot of these deaths are genuinely quite suspicious. 

If it takes a sensationalist theory to start bringing them to public attention, is that really a bad thing? Ethically dubious, yes, but also kind of pragmatic. You could spend far longer than we have today throwing yourself down the rabbit hole of this theory (which we might do in future, to do proper justice to some of the more credible cases). 

For the vast majority of them though, it appears like a series of horrible, unrelated accidents. In some ways, those everyday tragedies are far more worth worrying about than anything else. So as the bars start to open back up again this year, we should all keep in mind that friends don’t let friends walk home shitfaced (or get kidnapped by dark web murder cabals).

Stay safe out there. 

Dismembered Appendices

1. Although these Smiley Face Killers probably don’t exist, there was one killer who used the symbol as their calling card. From 1992 to 1995, a Wyoming man named Keith Jesperson murdered eight women, and sent anonymous letters to the press which he signed off with a smiley face. This won him the nickname The Happy Face Killer, and at one point he claimed to have murdered a staggering 185 victims.

Keith Hunter Jesperson prison photo.
Keith Hunter Jesperson prison photo. By Murderpedia.org

2. While Gannon and Duarte’s intentions are more than likely pure, the same probably can’t be said for ‘Hollywood medium’ Tyler Henry, who featured Tommy Booth’s mother on his TV show in 2019. This celebrity ‘clairvoyant’ claimed to channel the spirit of the dead young man to basically confirm he was murdered. Imagine taking money from people to act as a ventriloquist for their deceased loved ones. That takes a special kind of scumbag.

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