Smiley face murder theory

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The Smiley face murder theory (variations include Smiley face murders, Smiley face killings, Smiley face gang, and others) is a theory advanced by retired New York City detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, and Dr. Lee Gilbertson, a criminal justice professor and gang expert at St. Cloud State University.[1] They allege that a number of young men found dead in bodies of water across several Midwestern American states from the late-1990s to the 2010s[2] did not accidentally drown, as concluded by law enforcement agencies, but were victims of a serial killer or killers.

The term smiley face became connected to the alleged murders when it was made public that the police had discovered graffiti depicting a smiley face near locations where they think the killer dumped the bodies in at least a dozen of the cases. Gannon wrote a textbook case study on the subject titled, "Case Studies in Drowning Forensics".[3][4] The response of law enforcement investigators and other experts has been largely skeptical.

Gannon and Duarte's investigation[edit]

Letter from Congressman Sam Graves to FBI Director Robert Mueller requesting the reopening of the case.

As recently as 2008, Gannon and Duarte were examining evidence[5] going back to the late 1990s that they believe connects the deaths of 45 college-age males, whose dead bodies were found in water in 11 states, often after leaving parties or bars where they were drinking. The men, according to the former detectives, often fit a profile of being popular, athletic, and good students, and most were white.[6]

Gannon and Duarte have theorized that the young men were all murdered, either by an individual or by an organized group of killers.[6][7] The term smiley face became connected to the alleged murders when it was made public that Gannon and Duarte had discovered graffiti depicting a smiley face near locations where they think the killer dumped the bodies in at least a dozen of the cases.[4]

In 2019, a new article appeared on the Daily Beast that highlighted the theory advanced over the years that a serial killer is abducting and murdering subjects of the previously classified age group.[4]

Coast to Coast AM with Ian Punnett interviewed Nicole Weisensee Egan about the Daily Beast article in January 2019.[8]

Reception of the theory[edit]

Other police forces that have investigated the deaths dispute the conclusion that the cases are linked. Police departments that are involved do not currently view the deaths associated with smiley faces present at the scene as part of a serial killer investigation. [9] The La Crosse, Wisconsin police department, which was in charge of eight of the investigations, released an official statement reiterating its original conclusion that the deaths were accidental drownings of inebriated men, and stated that no smiley face symbols were found in connection with any of these cases.[10] The Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis, Minnesota, published a research brief that also attempted to scientifically refute the theory.[11] In March 2009, Lee Gilbertson, a criminal justice faculty member at St. Cloud State University, voiced his support for the theory on an episode of Larry King Live in which the alleged murders were discussed.[12]

Criminal profiler Pat Brown calls the serial killer theory "ludicrous", arguing that the evidence does not fit what is known about serial killers. Brown also believes that the smiley face images found in some of the cases are likely nothing more than coincidences based upon making a guess at where the body entered the water and searching a wide area until an example of smiley face graffiti can be found. "It's not an unusual symbol," she told Matt Smith of the Minneapolis-based newspaper City Pages. "If you look in any area five miles square, I bet you could find a smiley face."[13]

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has issued the following statement:

The FBI has reviewed the information about the victims provided by two retired police detectives, who have dubbed these incidents the "Smiley Face Murders," and interviewed an individual who provided information to the detectives. 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. The FBI will continue to work with the local police in the affected areas to provide support as requested.

— FBI National Press Office, FBI Statement Regarding Midwest River Deaths (April 29, 2008)[14]

Ruben Rosario of the Pioneer Press questions the motives of Kevin Gannon. He states that Gannon has failed to provide any factual evidence that a group of killers exists, and that others, like reporter Kristi Piehl (the original reporter of Gannon and Duarte's theory), and some of the parents of the young men, who were at first encouraged by Gannon, now wonder if he is not actually hurting the families who are trying to get over the loss of a child. One of the parents, Bill Szostak, and Rosario even speculate that Gannon is out for either money or the notoriety and press attention. Another parent, Kathy Geib, is working with Piehl and others, but their main goal now is just to get police to take a compulsory second look at cases of alcohol-related drownings.[15]

Gannon and Duarte's investigation is the subject of a 2019 docuseries, Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt For Justice, on the Oxygen television network.[16] Episode 1 dealt with the death of Dakota James; episode 2: Luke Homan; episode 3: Will Hurley; episode 4: Brian Welzien; episode 5: Tommy Booth; episode 6: Todd Geib[17]

Oxygen television show[edit]

In January 2019, Oxygen TV released a television show which examines possible victims of the smiley face murder theory.[18] Produced by Alison Dammann, the 6 existing episodes focus on cases of young men who have disappeared and whose bodies are found in a body of water some time after their disappearance. Smiley face graffiti has been found at most of the crime scenes, which is how the cases are connected.[19] All deaths have been ruled as an undetermined or accidental drowning. The show seeks to look at these cases and find a possible connection to the smiley face murder theory in hopes of reopening the cases and redefining the cause of death.

See also[edit]




  • Eponymous Rox (13 June 2012). The Case of the Drowning Men: Investigating the Smiley Face Serial Murder Theory. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN 978-1-4382-2380-3.


  1. ^ Nolasco, Stephanie. "'Smiley Face Killers' gang was behind young men's drownings, former NYPD detectives claim in new doc". Fox News.
  2. ^ "The 'Smiley Face Killer' Theory That Connects 40 College Students' Deaths". Thought Catalog.
  3. ^ "Fourteen Dead Men: Link or No Link?". Psychology Today.
  4. ^ a b c Egan, Nicole Weisensee (January 18, 2019). "Is a Serial-Killer Gang Murdering Young Men Across the U.S.?" – via
  5. ^ Gannon, Kevin; Piehl, Kristi; Piehowski, Justin (2008-04-25). "The Investigation". Gannon interview (extended coverage). KSTP. Retrieved 2009-03-30.
  6. ^ a b "Smiley face killers may be stalking college men", CNN, May 21, 2008.
  7. ^ "Detectives: 40 Drowning Victims May Have Been Murdered by 'Smiley Face Gang'", Fox News, April 29, 2008.
  8. ^ "UFOs & Secrecy - Shows". Coast to Coast AM.
  9. ^ "Why The Smiley Face Killer Has Been One Of The Internet's Favorite Monsters For A Decade". ati.
  10. ^ "" (PDF).
  11. ^ Drake, et al. "Drowning the Smiley Face Murder Theory" Center for Homicide Research. Retrieved 2010-07-15.
  12. ^ Larry King Live March 26, 2009. CNN Transcripts. Retrieved on August 25, 2009.
  13. ^ Smith, Matt. "Minneapolis/st. Paul - City Pages - The Blotter - Criminal Profiler Debunks "Smiley Face Killers"". Retrieved 2009-02-20.
  14. ^ "FBI Statement Regarding Midwest River Deaths" (Press release).
  15. ^ Rosario, Ruben (March 7, 2010), "Column: 'Smiley-face killer' theory losing steam: Detective claimed to have big break, delivered little", Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wisconsin), Pioneer Press
  16. ^ Egan, Nicole Weisensee (2019-01-18). "Is a Serial-Killer Gang Murdering Young Men Across the U.S.?". Retrieved 2019-01-18.
  17. ^ "Episode Guide | Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt For Justice". Oxygen Official Site. December 21, 2018.
  18. ^ "New TV series to highlight 'Smiley Face Killers' theory about drownings". Fox 9.
  19. ^ "Why The Smiley Face Killer Has Been One Of The Internet's Favorite Monsters For A Decade". ati.
  20. ^ Johnston, April (April 2009). "In the Name of the Father". Columbus Monthly. Archived from the original on March 13, 2016. Retrieved March 12, 2016.

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