What Is The "Smiley Face" Murder Theory? The Controversial Idea Remains Unproven

When a young man's body is recovered from a river after a night of heavy drinking, the simplest explanation is that he drowned in his intoxicated state — tragic, but not necessarily the stuff of national headlines. But what if dozens of men died in a similar manner? According to the "Smiley Face" murder theory, the drowning deaths of approximately 40 college-aged men across the Northeast and and Midwest might be more sinister than they appear at first glance. Put forth by two retired New York City detectives, Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, the theory claims their deaths could be the work of an alleged serial killer or organized group, rather than fate. The incongruous name comes from the alleged killer's supposed calling card: A graffiti smiley face found near the scenes where the bodies washed ashore.

If you're thinking all this sounds a little too far-fetched to be true, most law enforcement would agree; indeed, the Center for Homicide Research has an article laying out all the holes in the "Smiley Face" murder theory that you can read online. But that certainly hasn't hurt the theory's popularity — although it has been around for several years without explicit confirmation, the idea of the "Smiley Face Killer" resurfaces on the internet every so often.

So what's the reasoning behind the theory? According to ABC News, it all began when Gannon investigated the death of Patrick McNeill, a Fordham University student whose body was recovered from the East River in New York 1997. He had last been seen leaving a bar, but apparently there were indications that he may have already been dead before his body ended up in the river. (At the time, a police officer commented according to the New York Times that there were no signs of injury, which suggested that foul play was unlikely. An autopsy ruled that he drowned, but according to the New York Times, the report listed his manner of death as "undetermined.")

Then, in 2003, Gannon and Duarte looked at the death of Chris Jenkins, a University of Minnesota student whose body was found in the Mississippi River four months after disappearing on Halloween the previous year. His death, initially attributed to unknown causes, was later investigated as a homicide by police after a break in the case.

After Duarte and Gannon did some investigating into Jenkins' death on their own, they came up with a theory they believe connects dozens of other deaths. According to the detectives, there are several similarities between the cases: Virtually all the bodies identified had been white, good-looking college students; many attended schools along the Interstate 94 corridor; they were recovered from bodies of water; and graffiti depicting a smiley face was found near where the bodies were found. Sometimes, the word "Sinsiniwa" was also found nearby.

The theory posits that each alleged victim was drugged before their bodies were dropped into water to demolish evidence and make the deaths appear accidental. The detectives believe the alleged killers could possibly be motivated by jealousy; Duarte described them to CNN as "not smart, someone not good in school, maybe doesn't have a job, not popular" — essentially the opposite of the alleged victims.

The "Smiley Face" murder theory isn't popular among law enforcement; the FBI released a statement in 2008 saying there was "no evidence" supporting it, and Minneapolis police told CNN in 2008 that they couldn't confirm or deny its plausibility. Either way, however, the idea of a group of alleged killers targeting young, male students has persisted for a reason: It makes for a fascinating story — the kind of thing from which urban legends are born.

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