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The Smiley Face Killer

Black graffiti on a white wall of a smiling face
Image: Shutterstock

In the decade or so between 1997 and 2008, authorities in the midwestern and northeastern states of America pulled the corpses of nearly fifty young men from bodies of water. Various similarities surrounding the mysterious deaths led a pair of retired former New York Police Department detectives, Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, to investigate in some detail. It was their eventual conclusion that the deaths were linked. Not only that, but that foul play was involved.

At many of the original body recovery sites, unusual graffiti was discovered. That of - you’ve guessed it - a smiley face. It was Gannon and Duarte’s theory that these stylised daubings of grinning humanoids were the calling card of a killer or killers. Effectively serving as signatures, but also arrogant taunts to police.

As time went on, more and more of these similar and seemingly connected deaths were being reported and investigated; to the point where it went beyond being statistically explicable. A young man would go missing and within days be found dead in water. Soon, other areas seemed to be reporting such cases. Then Canada and Europe were experiencing the phenomenon. Some followers of the Smiley Face Murder theory now claim there are hundreds of victims of these linked but ultimately unexplained ‘drownings’.

The first case

The Smiley Face Killer theory was born while the two detectives watched their employer declare that no foul play was involved inthe 1997 death of 21-year-old Fordham University student Patrick McNeill. McNeill was last seen alive drinking with friends in a bar in Manhattan bar. Two months later and some twelve miles away, McNeill’s half-naked body was found close to the entrance to New York Harbor. For a variety of reasons, Gannon and Duarte were convinced McNeill was murdered and vowed to keep working on the case.

The victims

People die unexpectedly all the time. But it’s the similarity in the victim profiles that first drew the ex-NYPD investigators to deduce that there was a connection between the various deaths.

The victims are almost always college-aged white males, usually enrolled in a college or university near where they were found. They were all fit and athletic, good-looking, outgoing and well-liked. ‘Popular and sporty’ were terms that came up in friends and family testimony time and time again.

The wider hypothesis

Gannon and Duarte have both spoken at length several times about their theory and how they believe the men met their ends. They claim that the men are accosted in or outside bars, often while inebriated. They are then further drugged, led somewhere, overpowered, abused, tortured and then killed. Their bodies are later left in nearby bodies of water to obscure marks or bruises and wash off traces of DNA.

This is backed up by some of the coroner’s reports on the victims stating that drowning was not the actual cause of death. Though that had been the assumption, many of the victims seemingly found themselves in water post mortem. Sometimes, as in the case of Patrick McNeill, with faint ‘binding marks’ still visible on the skin. Toxicology reports in large numbers of the cases linked to the Smiley Face theory also show that the date rape drug GHB was present to some degree in the victim.

The authorities

Despite the fact that the theory that many of the reported deaths are connected comes from two former police detectives, authorities have seemingly dismissed the idea completely.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation even issued a statement in April of 2008 to throw water on the hypothesis. It read:

'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.'

Other local police departments have issued similar statements pouring doubt over the deaths being intentional or connected. Those that follow the Smiley Face theory argue that a mixture of police incompetence, laziness and a desire to suppress panic lay at the authorities’ enthusiasm to reject the idea.

While not exactly an ‘authority’, the non-profit research and education organisation The Center for Homicide Research back up the official line in a report entitled Drowning the Smiley Face Murder Theory, in which they conclude that the deaths are all alcohol-related accidents and nothing more.

The misleading motif

To add further confusion to the story, many deaths which bear all the hallmarks of the ‘Smiley Face’ killings show no existence of the graffiti. To those that say the deaths are intentional and connected, they conclude that those responsible have simply stopped leaving the face motif at the scenes. To those that dismiss the theory in its entirety, they simply point to this as proof that the ‘Smiley Face’ theory doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

All the theories and possibilities

As it so often is in life, it’s tempting to think in rather black and white terms here. Are all these deaths linked or all accidental? Complex crimes are rarely solved with simplistic thinking, though. There are usually shades of grey involved. So, in hat-tipping deference to that complexity, let’s explore - in full - all the potential possibilities:

An extremely prolific serial killer

The deaths are all murders and they’re all the work of one man. We’re talking about one extremely unusual person here. An incredibly hard-working, clever and careful killer that’s an expert in evading capture.

A group of serial killers

The scope of the murders is too wide to be the work of one murderer. A group of killers are working together. Their signifier? The universal symbol of the smiley face. This is Anthony Duarte’s explanation. 'It's so widespread. We have so many different victims in so many different areas,' Duarte told US news giant CNN. 'It would, in my view, be impossible to be one person...'

A murderous cult

The killings are organised, consistent and almost ritualistic in nature, with the deaths serving as a form of offering or sacrifice. Some form of sect are behind the very similar killings.

Unconnected murders

These deaths smell fishy because they are. But there’s no overarching connection, the intentional drownings are the work of separate people with individual grudges and motives.

Gang initiation

The faces are graffiti tags for a gang that requires a murder as an initiation rite.


The deaths are intentional. The young men are taking their own lives, jumping into cold and dangerous bodies of water on purpose. Suicide isn’t as rare as society would like to imagine. Compared to their female counterparts, twice as many young men aged 18 to 24 commit suicide. The men are killing themselves.

Accidental drownings

All the deaths were men falling in water and drowning. They were just tragic accidents and there’s no connection. The statistics on accidental drownings do point to it being something more common in younger men (80% of such victims are male). Across the world, men die in waterways after falling in. The Smiley Faces are just coincidental and of no significance at all.

All or some of the above

There are so many ‘Smiley Face Murders’ that the only explanation is that there is something to the idea that murder is afoot. Some will be random one-off murders. Some will be the work of a person - or a group of people working together - drowning the men. Cult or gang activity will account for a minority of the murders. But unlawful killing doesn’t account for all the deaths of these men in water. Some will simply have slipped and fallen into the water, unable to get out. Some may have committed suicide.


So, then. What are we left to think? Well, who knows? With so many theories, ideas, arguments and question marks surrounding these deaths, it’s difficult to know what’s really happening. Is this merely the realm of conspiracy theory? A nothing case fuelled by internet sleuths and retired policemen with too much time on their hands? Or is there something else at play? Something deeper and darker...? It’s unlikely that any of this grim mystery will be cleared up any time soon. Which, more than anything, is just a sad prospect for the dead men’s friends and relatives. All we know for certain is this… None of us will ever look at a smiley face in quite the same way again.

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