Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt for Justice is a look at a decade-old theory that young men are being targeted by a serial killer or a serial killer group. This theory is not widely accepted, but the Oxygen miniseries will start by investigating the death of the most recent alleged victim of the smiley face killers. The theory, which has been heralded by retired New York Police Department detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, hypothesizes that young men who often appear to have drowned were actually murdered and their bodies dumped in bodies of water. When Smiley Face Killers premieres on Jan. 19, Gannon, Durante, and other investigators will focus on the mysterious 2017 death of Dakota James to try to prove he could have been a victim. But there have been many alleged victims before him.
The smiley face killer theory begins in 1997 when Gannon was investigating the disappearance of 21-year-old Patrick McNeill. The Fordham University student's body washed up nearly two months after he disappeared and the New York City Medical Examiner ruled the cause of death as drowning. But McNeill's parents and Gannon believed there was something else to his death.
When Gannon retired in 2001, he returned to investigating the case and came up with the smiley face killer theory that believes that more than 40 (and quite possibly up to 100) college-aged men in the Northeast and Midwest are being murdered by a serial killer group. Their deaths are usually presumed to be the cause of drowning and Gannon believes the killers leave the mark of a graffiti smiley face when they dump the bodies.
Gannon created his own agency, G.D. Investigations, in 2007 with Duarte, Mike Donovan, and D. Lee Gilbertson. In 2014, Gannon and Gilberston published the book Case Studies in Drowning Forensics, which looked at the deaths of 14 young men. The deaths by drowning investigated in the book occurred between the years 1997 (McNeill's death) and 2009. The two men who died in 2009 were Jelani Dante Brinson and Gerald Lee Smith.
As the Twin Cities Pioneer Press reported, Brinson's body was found in a pond in Anoka County, Minnesota. Nine months after his body was found in April 2009, the medical examiner's office was still unable to determine the cause of death. They had determined it was not drowning, but there were no indications that it was homicide either and the toxicology results came back negative.
Smith's death in May 2009 was less mysterious. The Tribune-Star reported that the 22-year-old Indiana State University student drowned in the Wabash River. The toxicology report found he reportedly had a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.149% (the legal limit is .08%). When the toxicology results were revealed, the director of public safety at Indiana State University said, "The manner of death is classified as accidental and the cause is consistent with drowning."
Since then, others have theorized that drowning deaths may be the result of the smiley face killers. For example, NJ.com outlined how the 2016 discovery of 24-year-old Matthew Genovese's body in the Hudson River prompted members of the community to bring up the theory. Three other cases of men's bodies being found in the Hudson were discussed as potential evidence of the smiley face killers' involvement. But officials in Hoboken, New Jersey, said, "Every case has been determined to be accidental or voluntary entries into the river." And there's no indication that Gannon's team looked into it.
For Smiley Face Killers, the 2009 deaths of Brinson and Smith won't be examined. But the first episode will look at the 2017 death of James and this is one of the most recent cases that Gannon and his team believe the smiley face killers are involved in. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the 22-year-old Duquesne University graduate student's body was found in the Ohio River six weeks after he went missing. The Allegheny County medical examiner's office ruled his death as an accidental drowning, but James' parents and Gannon disagree.
All of these young men are alleged victims of the smiley face killers since the theory has not been considered valid by the FBI. But you can see if Gannon and his team will sway your belief when Smiley Face Killers premieres on Oxygen.