Is a shadowy but organized cabal of serial killers responsible for murdering 40 or so drunken white college-aged males and then dumping their cadavers in waterways to wash away the physical evidence? And are these demented ’n’ demonic bastards taunting police by drawing smiley faces near where they send the bodies to a watery grave? Should we—as Americans generally, but more specifically the drunken white college-aged males among us—be very, very afraid?
Or is the “Smiley Face Killers” theory simply some implausibly grandiose delusion concocted by a pair of attention-starved former police detectives who’ve woven a fairy tale around what most experts insist is a string of accidental and unrelated drownings?
In other words, is the theory for real…or just really dumb? Either way, it is stubbornly persistent. It won’t die, no matter how many people try to kill it.
In 2008, retired New York police detectives Frank Gannon and Anthony Duarte went public with what many have dismissed as a cockamamie theory. They claimed that starting around 1997 and stretching across eleven states from New York to Minnesota, more than three dozen waterlogged corpses that had been dredged from rivers and lakes and ponds shared too many similarities for it all to be coincidental:
• Almost without exception, victims were white, college-aged males whom Gannon and Duarte described as athletic, good-looking, and academically successful. They theorize that the perpetrator was possibly clumsy, ugly, and dumb—and therefore motivated by envy.
• The victims all been spotted at local bars or parties getting drunk on the evening they disappeared.
• In at least a dozen cases, smiley faces were found painted near where the detectives determined the bodies had been dropped in the water.
• Nearly all of these alleged drowning victims were discovered in frigid Northern climates during the winter months—a ball-shrinking climatic scenario in which even the drunkest of frat dudebros might hesitate to wander near a body of water—yet there was no discernibly similar pattern of alcohol-related drownings in the much warmer Southern states, even in summertime.
• Since some of the disappearances occurred on the same night in different states, the detectives concluded that a “well-structured” organization of killers was responsible.
Nearly all of the alleged “Smiley Face” murder cases are still classified as accidental drownings. But at least two of them were eventually determined to be homicides:
1) Twenty-year-old Patrick McNeil was last spotted drinking with friends at Manhattan’s Dapper Dog bar one night in February of 1997. His corpse was dragged out of the East River two months later and twelve miles away. He was found floating in the water face-up, which is extremely rare for drowning victims. An autopsy revealed ligature marks around his neck. His groin area—skip this part if you’re easily nauseated—showed housefly larvae that had to have been laid g on his body indoors and under warm conditions. In other words, McNeill was dead before he ever hit the water. And although he’d been missing for two months when his body was found, the absence of what’s known as “skin slippage” under his feet indicated he’d been in the water for less than a day.
2) On Halloween night 2002, twenty-one-year-old University of Minnesota student Chris Jenkins was last seen being kicked out of a Minneapolis bar. Four months later, his body was found encased in ice in the Mississippi River, face up with his hands folded across his chest—again, not the typical position for a drowning victim.
Despite its glimmering sheen of wackiness, some experts support the “Smiley Face” theory. According to forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, “the statistics are so stacked against this number of men, young men, Caucasian males, found in bodies of water in that cluster of states, within that period of time” that it’s almost mathematically impossible for these incidents to be unrelated. Professor Lee Gilbertson, a “nationally acclaimed criminologist” from Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University, originally dismissed the theory as an “urban legend.” After scrutinizing the evidence, though, he unabashedly declared that the Smiley Face Killers were a real “nationwide organization that revels in killing young men.”
Despite such support, Gannon, Duarte, and their goofy little theory have legions of critics. Criminal profiler Pat Brown calls the theory “ludicrous,” “absolutely insane,” and notes that smiley faces are one of the most common forms of graffiti: “It’s not an unusual symbol….If you look in an area five miles square, I bet you could find a smiley face.”
In 2008, the FBI issued a press release claiming that “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.”
In 2010, the Center for Homicide Research released a document called “Drowning the Smiley Face Murder Theory” that outlines 18 reasons they feel it’s false. Among these points are “None of the smiley faces exactly match one another,” “There is no evidence of victim trauma,” and “These drownings don’t fit a serial killer motive.”
Gannon—who once claimed to have mortgaged his house so he could pursue his Smiley Face investigations—seems to have stopped researching the case sometime around 2012. He and Duarte have reportedly moved on to more lucrative cases. Several surviving parents of alleged Smiley Face victims have also expressed doubts about the former detectives’ motives for ever making a big public stink about their theory. When Bill Szostak’s son died in Albany, NY, it was classified as a drowning, although Szostak says he still thinks it’s murder. But he’s utterly disenchanted with Detective Gannon:
I feel Kevin is like a sponge—he latches onto the families, sucks the life out of them, and when he has nothing else to suck, he dumps them….Do I think he has revictimized families and done more harm than good? Yes, I do, and that’s a shame.
Despite all this, the Smiley Face theory persists. It was invoked after the 2012 disappearance of a Northwestern University student whose floating corpse was found near “smiley face graffiti on a tree.”
It was invoked by a black Wisconsin columnist after a young white male’s body was found in the Milwaukee River. According to Eugene Kane of OnMilwaukee.com:
I’ve been warned in the past not to talk about a secret killer of white men in Wisconsin who prey on drunken, college-age males in order to find a way to drown them in the river….I’m still intrigued why black males who drink a lot don’t end up in the river and why that particular racial angle seldom gets discussed.
Most recently, the Smiley Face Killer theory was invoked this February in regards to the reputed drowning death of 21-year-old Shane Montgomery, who had last been seen drinking with friends the day before Thanksgiving but whose body wasn’t found until right before Christmas.
If I had to venture a guess, I’d say the theory is wrong. At most, its proponents may have unwittingly spurred one or two copycat murders by some bored dimwits in the frozen Midwest. Otherwise, it’s mostly coincidence. But the myth lingers to feed that oddly persistent and almost universal human need to be terrified.
Whatever the truth is, it’s obvious that somebody is fucking with us—and smiling about it.
Language is a funny construct. It is the basis for our communication, separated and splintered over the world. There are roughly 6,500 recognized, spoken languages in the world. Language, however, is far more expansive.
There are languages made for emotions and states of mind. There is a language associated with being honest and one associated with lying. There is a language for hate and one for kindness. There is a language for acceptance and one for excommunication. For many people, these languages are not consciously tapped into. We naturally use them when we need them. However, there are people who recognize the existence of these languages and their purposes; this in turn allows them to use these languages as they see fit. Everyone can pretend to feel a certain way, but not everyone can be truly bilingual in this way. Not everyone can recognize and apply the nuances of feelings as they deem necessary.
For some occasions, being bilingual is useful. Being able to be truly emulate and falsify an emotion has its merits. A more harrowing purpose, however, exists for this familiarity with the languages of emotion. Deception occurs as often as breathing does, and being bilingual is one of the most effective ways to ensure the lie’s success. Why is it that we tell lies? More often than not, it is to cover something up.
Knowing the language of being stable and normal keeps people away from the damaged personas that are kept locked up. The ability to come and go as we please, never being identified as the truly broken individuals that we are, is a dangerous skill. In a very twisted way, it’s an art form. Ensuring that the structure of such an expansive lie doesn’t crumble around you takes effort and practice. Never letting the wall you’ve built around you crack and be seen through is difficult. You have to be flawless in the language. All of it. The words. The actions. The looks. The movements. You have to consciously put effort into making it all cohesive and natural.
You have to be truly terrified or ashamed of what’s behind the wall to almost completely give up your “primary language”; the fact that the language of happiness and stability isn’t your primary language in the first place is troubling enough. No one, or at least very few people, will ever hear you speak the language you learned through experience rather than the one you learned through the necessity to shield your fractured being.
So we go about our lives, a fake smile plastered to our face. Our words always appropriate and cheerful. No one ever the wiser that they’re conversing with a shattered being ready to just collapse, waiting for a reprieve from the intricate falsehood we’re constantly composing. People who are bilingual in this way get told, “I never would have expected you to be depressed.” We don’t attract suspicion because we have a gained understanding of what normal looks like. We know what stability looks like. We understand what happiness looks like. We know all of these things because we know that they are the opposite of what we feel and what we are.
You’ll hear the words we want you to hear. You’ll see the things we want you to see. We’ll use our second language’s words to drown out the outcries that we want to make. And that’s what’s happening behind our words. We’re vehemently wishing that we could just drop the lie so everyone could understand what our pain actually looks like. We wish we could show people the scars we have and how they’ve shaped us. We wish we could do these things. But we don’t. We’re scared or ashamed or some combination of the two. We fear that everyone seeing behind our mask will create an even more isolated hell than the one we created for ourselves. So we remain paralyzed in that place and dig ourselves deeper one word at a time.
We’ll keep speaking that language. We’ll keep trying to convince you that we’re something other than what we are. We hope you’ll see us. We hope you’ll catch us. Because we don’t want to keep hiding. We don’t want to keep using this language when we don’t mean it.
Don’t give a shit. About anything. Be totally chill about everything. Pizza!!! Don’t use exclamation points, though. Lame. Don’t get too excited about anything. Remain meh. Be just meh about everything. Fuck it all. Give zero fucks. Watch Netflix until your eyes bleed. Stay at home. Do nothing. Cancel plans on friends who care about you. “Rain check!” Rain check your way out of friendships. Fuck it! Give zero fucks! Oh wait, no exclamation points. Sorry. Be over everything. E V E R Y T H I N G. Be like, ewwww feelings. Be like, ewwww sentiment. Be like, ewwww poetry. Be like, ewwww genuine displays of emotional responses. Stop caring about shit. Be chill. Whatever. Meh. Be a little bit of bitter. A little bit of jaded. Hate everything. Including people. Especially people. They’re the worst! Oh, sorry. They’re the worst. People. Ugh. Meh. Pizza. Be a little rude. Because rude is cool. Be snarky. Because snarky is cool. Who’s kind? Not cool people. Talk shit on other people. Judge. Judge. Judge. Never say something real. Being real is lame. Being earnest is lame. Being hopeful is lame. Why hope? Hope is for suckers. And deeply uncool people. But, whatever. It’s meh. It’s all meh. Meh. Hate yourself, but like, comically. Write this post, but like, ironically. Try too hard to look like you’re not trying hard. Care too much about looking like you don’t care at all. Judge (yourself). Feel uncomfortable. Judge (others). Feel better, …But just for a moment. A moment. Before it begins again. Ugh! No. Ugh.
It’s 12:52 AM on a Tuesday. The club is not going up. I’m clicking on a new thing every two seconds.
Click. Click. Click.
My brain works in morse code, trying to piece together my own incoherency when everyone else is too busy soaking up sleep. The messages stop. The texts cease. So it’s just me.
I’m typing patterns with my own fingers. Click. Stop. Click. Stop. I’m lonely. Click. Stop. I’m not sure what’s wrong. Click. Stop. I need to go back to therapy. Click. Stop. I can’t afford what they’re going to tell me. Click. Stop.
I do the usual rounds: Twitter, Facebook, Email, YouTube. Look at my phone at Snapchat. He’s looked at my Snap. No text though. I reached out for help, and he ignored it. Funny, I think. He told me he was an asshole. Should have believed it.
Click. Think about how foolish I’m becoming. Or maybe more brave. I’m filtering myself less and less. Does this mean I’m learning to love myself? Does this mean I’m taking charge of my own truth? Or am I an asshole in artists’ clothing? I cringe as I predict a comment: “HA, she called herself an artist.”
I think about this insomnia, how it continues getting worse and worse. What little slumber I fall into is sporadic, interrupted every few hours and I realize that’s all it’s been. But at least my dreams stay vivid, so full of color, I can almost taste them. I feel so light, even as I’m chasing after broken promises and shadows that I can never reach. It feels good, when I’m finally asleep.
I know this sleep cycle means something needs my attention and I’m ignoring it. It eats away at me, but instead I’ll eat something else. My feelings. Distracting myself with whatever I can consume. Media. Media. Media. I’m too busy Click. Click. Clicking on everything. Distraction is always in conjunction with depression, nipping at it’s heels. Even now as I type this, Gilmore Girls is playing softly in the background. A separate window of Netflix, minimized. I keep trying to minimize everything. Fit it smaller and smaller. More screens. More distractions.
Something hurts, so I get up and eat. I’m not hungry. But I’m hurting and maybe I just want this hurt to be something I can easily fix. How cliche, trying to numb emotions with a box of cookies. I can’t even be original in my sadness. I’m a living, breathing Tumblr blog. Click. Tumblr.
I’m always searching for something, but I never know what for. Click back on Twitter. Smile at something someone said. Try to savor this weird moment of social interaction. I think of the last time I actually looked someone in the eyes. Realize I talk to people all day, but haven’t socialized in a while. Did I even leave my room? I don’t answer my own question.
I start to rub my temples, a headache that I can’t ever seem to kick. I could say it’s from this blue screen. Oh, that glowing blue screen.
The internet, this vast plane of potential and heartbreak. Unlimited creativity and a breeding ground for hatred. What a place. And really, it’s done so much for me. It’s connected me to beautiful people, created real friendships, jobs, career starters. A place for a voice to be heard, even if I’m the only one under the assumption people are listening.
Click. I start to think of the different ways the internet has directly impacted my life.
Facebook, how that one boy came crawling back into my mouth and arms after months when we found each other in tagged photos. Twitter, where a photo of a cute boy with thick rimmed glasses turned into a real boy with thick rimmed glasses and eager hands that undid my bra. YouTube, the place it all changed. Melodramatic, sure. But the internet is a place I love so very much.
But do I love what it has done for me more than I actually love myself? I don’t answer this question either. The headache sits in the back of my skull. Perhaps staring at anything too long can make you sick.
Distraction, it’s what I do all day long. Finding ways to avoid the problems. Avoiding conversations. Avoiding the mirror when I pass by. I like the way I look, most days. I feel good in my own skin, despite the scars from the past.
But when I stop clicking and really take a look, I’m shocked at my reflection.
Someone else is looking back at me. I’ve been so distracted, I’ve forgotten who I even am.
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We all love to post “TGIF!” on Friday, because as Loverboy so profoundly put it, “Everybody’s workin’ for the weekend!” TGIF is a nice, succinct way to celebrate 48 hours of free time with friends and family. But what about Monday? Using DGIM would eliminate lengthy and lame status updates such as “Oh man, here we go again. Back to the grind in the hellhole. Got a bitch of a hangover on top of it. Monday. Ugh.”
2. OMGIWUFYA – One More Game Invite and I Will Un-friend Your Ass
I’m not into Candy Crush Saga or that other game with the TV commercials that star Kate Upton’s boobs, but apparently these kinds of games are as addictive as black tar heroin. Hey, if you want to get hooked on app-crack, more power to you. The problem is these Candy Crushers turn into Pesky Pushers, relentlessly requesting that we take a hit of their their digital drug: “Jane Doe has invited you to play Jelly Splash.” Again. And again. The requests appear on my screen faster than I can delete them. “Come on, everybody’s doing it. You’ll be cool. I’m not gonna be your friend unless you try it.” I think similar tactics are used to recruit new members into fanatical religious cults. Sorry, Jim Jones, I’m not interested in your Candy Crush Kool-Aid. BTW, OMGIWUFYA!
3. TLI – Too Little Information
The flipside of TMI (Too much information). TMI serves us well when friends are over-sharing: “Just got back from the doc. As you can see from the selfie, the rash is spreading. Hope the ointment helps!” TMI, indeed. Sometimes you get the opposite. An enigmatic post that requires some sort of explanation or context: “It’s finally here!!!” or “This could be the day…” or a true head-scratcher like “Pancakes in my closet! ” Before I “LIKE” or attempt to comment on such a post, I need clarification, hence, TLI.
4. LOTI – Laughing On The Inside
Does that silly YouTube video really warrant an ROTFLMAO? Or an LOL, for that matter? When it comes to describing our reaction to funny posts, we tend to overdo it. Are you really “laughing out loud” at the kitten falling into the bean dip? Is that snarky comment so hilarious that you’ve lost the ability to stand and are now writhing on the linoleum in a spasm of uncontrollable guffaws? I doubt it. The typical “man, this is so hilarious, you have to see it” post illicits nothing more than a small inner chuckle. So tell it tell it like it is. LOTI.
5. FYL – Fuck Your Life
We’re all familiar with the FML (fuck my life) updates of Debby Downer, full of overwrought handwringing about trivial inconveniences: “Stupid phone battery died. FML.” As bad as these whiners are, I’ll take them any day over the blessed individuals whose Facebook updates are an endless stream of how fabulous their lives are, with no humility in sight. From “2 wks. off. So long suckers. Belize here we come!” to “Pix of the new Camaro! Start drooling! #mydreamcar” not to mention “Got the promotion. I’m a big $ hustla now!” Give me a break. Nobody’s life is that incredible all the time. Even their problems are fantastic: “The flight to Paris was excruciating!!!” Enough already. You know what? FYL. Fuck your life.
6. FFF and TTT – Flash Forward Friday and Time Travel Thursday
Flashback Friday and Throwback Thursday are so 2014. Let’s stop living in the past! No more mullet-headed yearbook photos. Forget the grainy Polaroid vacation pix. That little trip down memory lane takes you straight to the sleepy town of Yawnsville. So how about some photos of what you’ll look like and be wearing in the future (FFF)? Or better yet, a selfie of you actually in the future (TTT)! Now you’ve got my attention!
7. IMUO – In My Uninformed Opinion
You wouldn’t argue with a chess master about the merits of the Budapest Gambit or the Sicilian Defense if you didn’t know which way the horsey piece moves, because you’d look like a dumbass. The same goes for chiming in on social media regarding the latest hot button issue, when you have no idea what the hell you’re talking about. If you insist on doing so, please preface your comment with IMUO. This is a slight alteration of IMHO (In my humble opinion), but it makes a big difference. I’ll read a humble opinion anytime if it based on facts and reality and the person has a well-rounded grasp of the various sides of the issue. I don’t want to waste my time with the opinion of someone so clueless they make Cher Horowitz look like Rene Descartes.
8. FBDA – Facebook Display of Affection
Reminding your loved one that they are cherished and appreciated is a wonderful thing. I’m just not sure Facebook is the place to do so. Some of these gushing platitudes (complete with pet names and baby talk) would be more appropriate scrawled on a Hallmark card than posted on a public forum. FBDA would work like a spoiler alert so we can avert our eves from updates such as “I love my beautiful wifey-woo-woo. So talented, smart and sexy. KISSYFACE!!” You probably felt good posting this, and that’s great. For the rest of us it’s as uncomfortable as if we were watching you and your wife tongue wrestle on the baked goods table at a church picnic.
1. Wasted off nothing. Summer concerts, even the ones without live music. A friend’s playlist in a living room and nothing to do. Lazy days for sipping and sparking, for slow burns. Extended highs, mostly of the sober variety — but you’re sun-drunk and wouldn’t know the difference, really.
2. The smile soreness of neverending clowning. Corny jokes that don’t quit, things you know that no one else will ever find funny. The bits you go back and forth with on long car rides, in grocery store aisles — the stupid impersonations, the comically annoying voices.
3. The post-sand and saltwater powdery softness. After the beach when it’s all dusted off, annoyingly stuck in your car, on your clothes, everywhere else but your feet. You feel gross and cleansed at the same time, content in salty summer skin.
4. Mouth-watery starved at the scent of barbecue. Smelling it cook all day and sustaining yourself on chips and potato salad while you wait for the good stuff. The slathered stuff, the charred hot dogs. Everything eaten with your hands, sloppy.
5. That happy tired feeling after an unexpected all-nighter. Prolonged conversations that come easy, the pre-sleep sleepover discussion that goes on past every “goodnight” and is forgotten when your eyes open in the morning, but thought about fondly 4 daaaaze.
6. Perpetually tipsy. Off everything, feeling dumb good for no reason. No alarm set. Content. Like a cat in the sun in front of a window, lazy and happy. Consciously oblivious.
7. Dragged to sleep by the waves, hours later, post-ocean in your own bed. Is there a word for that, the feeling when you’re drifting to sleep and can still feel the swaying? It’s a different kind of tired, a rhythmic exhaustion.
8. The whatever of wearing nothing. No shirt, no shoes, no — well, plenty of problems still, but honestly? Everything feels ten times easier when you aren’t bundled, when your fit is loose and you aren’t carrying layers. Weightless, as much as you can be.
9. Crisp linens on fresh sunburn. The sting and the brush feel good together, the reassuring cotton freshness of one thing and the rawness of the other. Both new and ready, vulnerable but
10. Just careless, timeless, and everything-less. Less bullshit, more room for all the goodness. For what feels like — hopefully — forever.