Back in 1997, Patrick McNeill went for a drink one night with some friends and never made it home. A month later, his body was found in the East River, and his death was ruled an accidental drowning. However, some people believe he may have been targeted by a group of assassins dubbed “The Smiley Face Killers.” This group is believed to be targeting smart, athletic, white young men whom they see as privileged.
They drug and kill the victim before dumping their body in a river and leaving smiley face graffiti nearby as a signature of the crime. However, law enforcement never took this theory seriously and dismissed it on several occasions. But some investigators are convinced there is truth to it and have dedicated their lives to cracking the case.
Here are both sides of the Smiley Face Crime Theory.
On October 8th, 2009, 24-year-old William Hurley called his girlfriend, and all he wanted was to go home. Hurley was a Navy veteran attending a Boston Bruins home game. But he asked his girlfriend Clair Mahoney to come to pick him up early, telling her he was exhausted from a long day of work as a greenskeeper.
While he was on the phone with his girlfriend, Hurley warned her that his phone was about to die. She asked for his exact location, and someone yelled “99 Nashua Street,” right before his battery ran out and the line went dead.
Mahoney got to the address minutes later, but she couldn’t find Hurley anywhere. Six days later, his body was discovered in the Charles River. The cellphone he used to make that final phone call was found smashed nearby. Hurley’s official cause of death was ruled an undermined drowning since police found no evidence of violence or foul play.
However, Claire Mahoney and others close to Hurley disputed these claims, using his crushed cellphone as evidence. Plus, his injuries included blunt-force trauma, and a toxicology report found high levels of GHB – more commonly known as the date-rape drug.
But Hurley wasn’t the first college-aged male to die under these mysterious and often debatable circumstances. More than ten years before Hurley disappeared in Boston, Fordham College senior Patrick McNeil stumbled out of a bar on New York’s Upper East Side in 1997 and was never seen again.
McNeil was missing for about a full month before his body was discovered in the East River. And his death was ruled an undetermined drowning, just like Hurley’s. But Kevin Gannon, one of the detectives working on McNeill’s case, didn’t agree with the official cause of death of the 23-year-old and promised his parents he would find answers. Now, more than 20 years later, he is still trying.
Hurley and McNeil are part of what Gannon, fellow former NYPD detective Anthony Duarte, and Criminal Justice professor Lee Gilbertson refer to as an “epidemic” of college-educated, young white men who vanished after a night out with friends and were later found in local lakes or rivers.
Like Hurley’s death, most of the cases were ruled as undetermined or accidental drownings and were blamed on alcohol consumption. But since 2008, Gannon, Duarte, and Gilbertson have argued that these deaths are actually the work of a group of domestic terrorists dubbed the Smiley Face Killers because of the happy-face graffiti found near the bodies.
According to the trio, these young men didn’t drown; they were targeted, abducted, and murdered by a dangerous group which remains at large and continues to kill. The investigators believe that the motive is jealously since the killers tend to go after men whom they perceive to be privileged, or as Gannon put it, “the best of the best.”
The Smiley Face Murder Theory is still alive because of the ongoing threat, with more deaths fitting the profile every year. The theory led to Gannon, Duarte, and Gilbertson’s six-part Oxygen series entitled Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt for Justice.
In 2008, when the three investigators announced their theory about the Smiley Face Killers publicly, they also revealed that they had identified over 40 more possible murders that were ruled accidental or undetermined drownings.
Ever since, they have found more physical evidence and, more notably, expanded their database of potential Smiley Face Killer victims to 335 cases of suspicious or mysterious drownings very similar to Hurley’s. But as they explained, their evidence goes beyond the circumstantial. They really poured their hearts into this theory in the hopes of cracking the case.
First of all, the trio looks at the decomposition timelines. “The lack of decomposition on the bodies is inconsistent with the period of time that the victims are missing,” Gannon said. One of the cases they investigated on the Oxygen show is that of Dakota James. He was missing for 40 days but only showed decomposition for three days.
Another was Todd Geib, who had been gone for 21 days, but when they found his body, it showed decomposition for only about two and a half days. This certainly makes you think something more suspicious was going on.
Gannon also mentioned that the presence of land insects, pale patterns, and lack of bloating seen on the recovered bodies suggest that the victim actually died on land and not in the water. The detectives also noticed a specific chemical. “We have the presence of GHB, which is a date-rape drug usually used to facilitate rape, in 99.9 percent of the cases,” Gannon explains.
Typically, GHP isn’t included on post-mortem toxicology tests. However, many families of the potential Smiley Face victims have asked for the coroner to test the chemical during the autopsy or sent Gannon, Duarte, and Gilbertson samples so that they could test it themselves. Given all of this, the trio feels that the forensic evidence proves that the young men were drugged before they were kidnapped, then murdered, and then put into the water.
Gannon, Duarte, and Gilbertson’s main goal is to get these deaths reclassified as homicides. The second priority is proving that these cases are all linked. Other than the similar victim profile and circumstances surrounding their deaths, they also found 13 symbols, including smiley-face graffiti near the believed crime scenes.
According to Duarte, the reason these deaths weren’t initially ruled as homicides is due to a “disconnect” between police and the medical examiner’s office because each division is usually looking to the other for signs of how they should proceed.
“The medical examiner says, ‘We don’t know exactly how he died, so we need to wait for the police to let us know,’” Duarte said. “And the police say, ‘The medical examiner isn’t calling it a homicide, so we’re not going to make it a homicide.’”
This type of management can present challenges not only at the department level but at the jurisdictional level as well since cases where the victims are found in rivers usually require collaboration between the state and local agencies. With other investigations taking priority, the detectives feel like these cases were overlooked and closed too quickly. Gannon said, “Nobody’s looking beyond.”
But there is another reason the police haven’t investigated further than the accidental drowning ruling to find evidence of the Smiley Face Killers. As much as Gannon, Duarte, and Gibson are convinced that these deaths are murders, there is another possibility: These deaths are nothing more tragic accidents, and the idea of the Smiley Face Killers is just a conspiracy theory.
The day after the trio announced their theory, the FBI released a statement that they had “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.” Instead, “the vast majority of these instances appear to be alcohol-related drownings.”
Two years later, the nonprofit Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis came out with a more comprehensive study titled “Drowning the Smiley Face Murder Theory.” It brought up 18 points that disprove the idea that these deaths were connected – or anything other than unfortunate drownings.
The researchers noted that there was no physical evidence of a serial killer. When the bodies were found, there were no signs of torture, strangulation, inexplicable blunt-force trauma, or any other evidence pointing to “homicidal drowning,” which is an extremely rare crime. That’s why the medical examiners almost always ruled the deaths accidental or undetermined.
With the lack of evidence shown in the study, the Smiley Face Killer Theory was pretty much debunked. But there is still one thing that really stands out about these strange drownings. Why did all these men have a date rape drug in their system?
The presence of GHB was the smoking gin in Hurley’s case, as well as many others. But detractors found alternative explanations for these results: the chemical process of decomposition, the possibility that they willingly took the drug or problems with the trio’s testing process.
The study went on to explain away the possibility of a killer (or killers) involved. They even raise concerns about the smiley face graffiti. Photographs of the graffiti show all different types of style, size, and timing, and some were painted way before the deaths took place.
Researchers showed a lack of consistency in terms of locating the graffiti. Law enforcement is only able to estimate where a body would have gone into the water; it’s impossible to know exactly where the smiley face graffiti should be found to fit the pattern.
“Saying graffiti was found near the scenes is dubious at best,” according to Canadian criminologist and true-crime expert Michael Arntfield. “In most cases, we don’t know where the men went into the water or where they actually died.”
More research conducted by Arntfield’s students found that a smiley face is actually the most common non-gang-related graffiti tag in the United States national database. So, basically, the smiley face means nothing. “You can find, in any city, a smiley face graffiti tag somewhere along the water,” Arntfield explained.
So, what do the Smiley Face Murder Theory skeptics think happened instead? Instead of a gang of killers, they believe that college-aged white males are at a higher risk for excessive drinking, risky behavior, and accidental drownings.
A 2015 report by the Center for Disease Control brought up that the two leading causes of death for white males under the age of 44 are accidents and suicide. The CDC fact sheet also showed that men between 18-34 are most likely to binge drink and that binge drinking is twice as common with men than with women. It also states that the risks include unintentional injuries.
“The cases align with larger patterns we see data-wise across the U.S., and not just in college towns,” Arntfield explained. In 2010, a report was released by the La Crosse, Wisconsin police (which some believe to be a hub of Smiley Face killers) supported this explanation.
They noticed that between the fall of 2006 and February 2010, law enforcement and foot patrol in the area prevented at least 65 intoxicated people from approaching local rivers late at night. It’s no secret that people who are intoxicated are at a higher risk of accidentally hurting themselves.
This report also detailed 20 cases of near-drowning victims who had survived. Many of their testimonies include dares, suicide attempts but, most commonly, accidents. The Center of The Homicide Research’s team found that footprint slip marks are actually common on the riverbanks of Minneapolis.
Still, Gannon, Duarte, and Gilbertson aren’t convinced, nor are they concerned that their theory has been debunked. “They don’t have a clue what we have,” Gilbertson said, referring to police who handle individual cases, and know of the trio’s evidence: GHB levels, lividity, insect presence, decomposition rates, and of course, the smiley face graffiti.
Even though the detectives presented their evidence in the Oxygen series as well as in a 2014 book called Case Studies in Drowning Forensics, they don’t feel like the majority of jurisdictions have taken their work seriously. Although the Smiley Face Murder Theory is usually dismissed by law enforcement officials and crime experts, some do believe that Gannon, Duarte, and Gilbertson are onto something.
“There are a lot of guys on the job, working in the field, boots-on-the-ground-type of guys, who agree with us,” said Gannon. “I have plenty of emails from officers and detectives who have told us that we’re on to something and keep going.”
Some of the people who agree with the trio’s theory, or think it’s possible, include Detective Sgt. William Fazekas (from Indiana), Officer Joe Fisher (from Boston), and a number of forensic pathologists from the Oxygen series.
And the investigating trio aren’t the only ones who’ve kept the Smiley Face Murder Theory alive. I mean, the idea of a gang of dangerous murderers targeting young white men have only gained momentum over the years. TV specials, newspaper articles, and online forums continue to discuss the theory, and many are convinced it’s true.
But for the people believe that these drownings are accidents, this unwillingness to let go doesn’t signify the veracity of the Smiley Face Murder Theory but of psychological factors. Christine Sarteschi, an associate professor of social work and criminology at Chatham University, explains that it’s human nature to reject the unknown.
“People don’t like to live with ambiguity,” she stated. “They don’t like to not know.” Serial killer expert and Criminologist Scott Bonn also looks at the fear of uncertainly as a driving force for these cases: “We as people have a need for closure, a need to understand things.”
Arntfield studied the Smiley Face Murder Theory with his students and referred to this desire to give a narrative an “intuitive human response to tragedy.” Identifying the threat allows us to distance ourselves from the danger.
“The underlying human emotion is fear and the need to control that,” Bonn explained. “By reducing evil, we don’t have to understand it.” However, this can cause a false sense of security: “It protects you. It reduces the world to us and them. And it enables you to point the finger, to have someone to blame.”
Blaming something or someone is a natural instinct; the desire to finger point contributes to a much larger phenomenon called Moral Panic. It’s a spread of fear stemming from an often exaggerated or mischaracterized social threat.
These threats could include anything from the Salem witch trials to the “satanic panic” of the 1980s. The spread of moral panic comes with technological advancements, specifically, social media and its influence over society. When Jack the Ripper was roaming around London, for example, it was at the extremely early stages of tabloid newspapers.
“As news spread around the world, people thought Jack the Ripper was in their backyard in Chicago,” Bonn said about the notorious 19th-Century serial killer who may have not been one person but multiple killers who were all active at the same time.
According to Arntfield, the Smiley Face Murder Theory is just a conspiracy: “Jack the Ripper and the Smiley Face Killer are two great examples of the press combined with opportunistic people turning a series of tragedies into a myth of a killer that doesn’t exist.”
But the reasons for attributing what are probably accidental deaths to something more wicked can also be personal. “I don’t think people like the idea that their loved ones could have been blamed for something,” Sarteschi noted. “They don’t like the idea that they could have done something differently and have lived.”
It’s an especially wise thing to consider when discussing the Smiley Face Killers, where many of the deaths happened because the victim drank too much and walked outside intoxicated and alone. “The reality is, maybe had the person not been drunk that night or gone out, then they may not have died,” Sarteschi added. “That’s a hard thing to sit with.”
Former FBI special agent Bryanna Fox, who teaches in the department of Criminology and the department of Mental Health, Law, and Policy at the University of South Florida, added that the denial could be a form of cognitive dissonance.
“For many people, the idea that such a tragedy could occur to us, our sons, our brothers, or our friends is difficult, if not impossible, to truly digest and believe,” Fox mentioned. “Therefore, the ability to mentally attribute these accidents to a ‘boogeyman’ who can be avoided, if known, alleviates the cognitive concern that such a terrible thing can happen to us or someone we know.”
Both sides of the Smiley Face Murder Theory continue to be debated. The families of men like William Hurley have to live their lives with no sense of closure, with law enforcement decision-makers thinking that the official cause of death is accidental.
But Gannon, Duarte, Gilbertson signify hope for those who believe the police got the details of their loved ones’ death wrong. And so, the trio keeps the theory alive, and plenty of others are on board after being convinced by some of the evidence – mainly, the traces of GHB (or the date rape drug chemical) found in many of the victims’ blood.
Meanwhile, the bodies of while young men continue to be found in rivers across the United States. As long as they are considered undetermined drownings, the Smiley Face Murder Theory will continue to circulate, and Gannon, Duarte, and Gilbertson are continuing to investigate.
In fact, the trio feels like they could be reaching a pivotal moment in the case. “When we put out who’s doing this and why, I don’t think [the FBI] will have any option but to get involved,” Gannon said. They have dedicated years of their life to this theory and are convinced it’s real.
Despite FBI statements, debunking attempts, or expert analyses, these three continue to pursue what they believe is the truth. “We have to do something to bring the individuals responsible for this to justice,” Gannon expressed. “And I’m telling you, we won’t stop until we do.”
This theory is certainly an interesting one. I mean, smiley face graffiti is quite common. That said, it’s strange that all the young men seem to fit a similar profile, and even more strangely, had a date rape drug in their systems. Do you believe that there could be truth to the Smiley Face Murder Theory, or that it’s just some conspiracy?!