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 two retired New York City detectives, Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, that a number of young men found dead in bodies of water across several Midwestern American states over the last decade 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. The response of law enforcement investigators and other experts to Gannon and Duarte's theory has been largely skeptical.
Gannon and Duarte's investigation
As recently as 2008, Gannon and Duarte were examining evidence 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.
Gannon and Duarte have theorized that the young men were all murdered, either by an individual or by an organized group of killers. 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.
Reception of the theory
Other police forces that have investigated the deaths dispute the conclusion that the cases are linked. The La Crosse, Wisconsin police department, which was in charge of eight of the investigations, released an official statement reiterating their original conclusions that the deaths were accidental drownings of inebriated men and stating that no smiley face symbols were found in connection with any of these cases. The Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis, Minnesota published a research brief that also attempted to scientifically refute the theory. 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 which discussed the alleged murders.
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."
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)
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 isn't 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.
- Disappearance of Brian Shaffer, a 2006 case in Ohio considered a possible victim of the killer
- Gannon, Kevin; Piehl, Kristi; Piehowski, Justin (2008-04-25). "The Investigation". Gannon interview (extended coverage). KSTP. Retrieved 2009-03-30.
- "Smiley face killers may be stalking college men", CNN, May 21, 2008.
- "Detectives: 40 Drowning Victims May Have Been Murdered by 'Smiley Face Gang'", Fox News, April 29, 2008.
- Drake, et al. "Drowning the Smiley Face Murder Theory" Center for Homicide Research. Retrieved 2010-07-15.
- Larry King Live March 26, 2009. CNN Transcripts. Retrieved on August 25, 2009.
- Smith, Matt. "Minneapolis/st. Paul - City Pages - The Blotter - Criminal Profiler Debunks "Smiley Face Killers"". Blogs.citypages.com. Retrieved 2009-02-20.
- "FBI Statement Regarding Midwest River Deaths" (Press release). fbi.gov.
- 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
- Nationwide Investigations - Gannon and Duarte's official web site