Is there a serial killer stalking college-aged men? The FBI insists no one is drowning inebriated college males and leaving behind a painted smiley face where he dumps the bodies. But no matter how many times officials try to squelch the theory, the rumor of the Smiley Face Killer will not die. And the bodies keep cropping up.
The theory originated with two New York City police detectives, Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte. They concluded that the deaths of at least 45 young men by drowning have too many similarities to be unrelated. Although the theory began in connection with bodies found in New York City, it spread to include murder cases from the Midwest. In at least a dozen cases, a painted smiley face was found near a body of water where a victim's corpse was dumped.
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Nearly all the victims of the supposed Smiley Face Killer were white college men. The detectives speculate the motive may be jealousy, as all the men were good looking, athletic, and academically successful. Because some of the deaths occurred the same night, but in different states, the NYC detectives altered their theory slightly, believing that the murders were carried out by an organized gang of killers. They believed their theory enough to reportedly use their own personal money to continue the investigation when official funds dried up.
The smiley face killer theory all began with the 1997 death of 21-year-old Patrick McNeill. McNeill was last seen drinking with friends in a Manhattan bar. Volunteers plastered the city with thousands of “Missing” fliers. McNeill’s body was found two months later and 12 miles away, near the entrance to New York Harbor. Police found no evidence of foul play, but detectives Gannon and Duarte were not convinced; they pledged to keep working on the case.
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Nearly all of the subsequent deaths have also been ruled accidental drownings involving alcohol. The FBI and several police organizations have researched the deaths and concluded there is no link. The Center for Homicide Research went so far as to published an exhaustive report called “Drowning the Smiley Face Theory.” It lists 18 reasons that the theory doesn’t hold water, including the fact that smiley faces are a very common form of graffiti and that murder by drowning is extremely rare.
But a few criminologists agree with the detectives that there are too many similarities in the deaths to put it down to pure coincidence. And there have been frequent requests to the FBI to pick up the investigation, including one in 2008 from a Wisconsin congressman.
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The Smiley Face Killer was invoked as recently as 2016 after the drowning death of a 24-year-old in Hoboken. Matthew Genovese had last been seen drinking at a local pub with friends. Like so many of the other supposed murders, Genovese’s body showed no signs of foul play. Despite this, many Hoboken residents began to panic about a phantom serial killer possibly living among them.
Despite this most recent case, even Ganon and Duarte have given up on their theory. After spending years (and seemingly a significant chunk of their money) on the Smiley Face Killer theory, the pair stopped researching the case in about 2012.
The victims' families and a number of internet sleuths, however, still hold out hope that the Smiley Face Killer theory will prove to be true. It would lend some sense of meaning to the deaths of the many victims whose unexplained drownings still haunt their loved ones.