Over the past 20 years, hundreds of college-aged men across the US have died as the result of undetermined or accidental drownings. While many believe their deaths are just that — accidental — former NYPD detectives Kevin Gannon, Michael Donovan, Anthony Duarte and professor of criminal justice Dr. Lee Gilbertson are convinced that most of these drownings are homicides.
In the majority of the cases, the victims were successful students and athletes who disappeared after a night out drinking with friends, and they were ultimately found dead in a body of water. At some of the sites where the victims' bodies were found, smiley face graffiti had been left behind.
Local police theorized the men simply got too drunk, fell into the water and drowned, but Gannon, Donovan, Duarte and Gilbertson investigated their deaths as the work of an organized group of serial killers dubbed "The Smiley Face Killers."
More than a dozen of these cases have been outlined in Gannon and Gilbertson's book "Case Studies in Drowning Forensics," but there are six deaths in particular that stand out as potential Smiley Face murders:
1. Dakota James
[Photo: Courtesy of Pamela James]
Dakota James was 23 years old when he went missing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On January 25, 2017 around 11:30 p.m., James was walking back to his apartment after a night out drinking with friends and co-workers. He never made it home. The last known sighting of the Duquesne University graduate student was caught on a surveillance camera in the downtown area. The footage captured James entering a dark alley, and that was the last time he was seen alive.
The following morning, James did not show up for work. His boss informed his family, who filed a missing persons report 72 hours later. James' parents later hired a private investigator who organized a massive citywide search, which led to the discovery of James' body in the Ohio River on March 6, 2017, 40 days after he had disappeared. The Pittsburgh police theorized James fell into the river while crossing a bridge near the city center and drowned. They believed his body traveled for almost 10 miles and even went through a dam before its discovery.
James' body, however, had almost no visible damage, which was highly suspicious because it had traveled through heavily trafficked river.
A smiley face was found spray painted on an underpass near where James’ body was discovered.
2. Tommy Booth
[Photo: Courtesy of Barbara MacKay]
Tommy Booth, 24, disappeared on January 19, 2008 from a bar in Woodlyn, Pennsylvania. That night, he had been celebrating a friend's 21st birthday with a group of friends. Surveillance footage captured Booth entering the bar where the celebration took place, but there is no video evidence of him leaving.
About two weeks after he went missing, Booth's body was found facedown in a creek behind the bar. His death was ruled a probable drowning, and there were no signs of trauma. The area had been searched repeatedly in the weeks before his body was discovered, but no one had seen Booth. According to former detective Kevin Gannon and Dr. Lee Gilbertson, when Booth was found, his body was in full rigor mortis, which normally dissipates within 24 to 36 hours after death. This finding is inconsistent with the belief that Booth drowned the night he disappeared. Gannon and Gilbertson also noted the body appeared to have been staged — three sticks were strategically placed around his body, and there were shoe and drag marks in the soil.
A smiley face was painted on a wall of the bar under a deck.
3. Lucas Homan
[Photo: Courtesy of Patricia Homan]
On September 29, 2006, 21-year-old Lucas Homan vanished from La Crosse, Wisconsin. The day of his disappearance, Homan had been celebrating Oktoberfest with his friends. After a night of barhopping, Homan headed home at around 10 p.m. with a friend. Homan and his friend somehow got separated during their walk home, and his friend ended up at the ER detox with a head injury after being picked up by police. He told investigators he could not remember anything that happened that night.
Homan did not arrive for a golf outing the next day. Search dogs scoured the downtown area where Homan was last seen alive. According to police reports, one dog later hit on an an SUV owned by a local band member, who had played a show at the bar the night of Homan's disappearance, but the K9 alert was inconclusive. Officials did not implicate the band member in Homan's death. The morning of October 2, Homan's body was found not far from the shore of the Mississippi River. His death was ruled an accidental drowning, and the autopsy report noted "acute alcohol intoxication was a major contributing factor."
According to Gannon and Gilbertson, Homan had various injuries on his head, hands and arms, and they theorized that a mark on his forehead may have been a footprint that was the result of Homan being held down. Homan was the eighth accidental drowning case in La Crosse over a nine-year period.
A smiley face was found spray-painted near where Homan’s body was found.
4. Todd Geib
[Photo: Courtest of Kathy Geib]
Todd Geib was 22 years old when he went missing during the early hours of June 12, 2005, at a bonfire party in an orchard close to his home in Casnovia, Michigan. He was reported missing later that day by his mother, and a massive manhunt ensued. The night of his disappearance, Geib made several calls from his cell phone. One of them was to a friend who said she heard Geib say, "I'm in a field" before the call dropped.
Geib's body was found three weeks later in a lake that had previously been searched. His death was ruled an undetermined drowning. Oddly, Geib's head and shoulders were sticking out of the water as if he had gone for a swim. Geib's remains also had very little signs of decomposition, which would have been present if he had died the day he went missing — 22 days before the recovery of his body. Alcohol and antidepressants were found in Geib's toxicology screen, but it was reported that Geib was not suffering from any form of depression at the time.
A smiley face had been spray-painted on a tree near where Geib's body was found, and a smiley face sticker was later placed on his gravesite.
5. William Hurley
[Photo: Courtesy of Claire Lebeau]
A Navy veteran, 24-year-old William Hurley went missing after leaving a Bruins hockey game in Boston, Massachusetts. On October 8, 2009, Hurley went to the game with two friends. Halfway through the game, Hurley called his fiancée, Claire Mahoney, pictured above, and said he wanted to leave. Hurley walked outside while Mahoney drove to the stadium to pick him up. When she arrived, however, he was nowhere in sight.
When Mahoney called Hurley to find out where he was waiting, Mahoney said he answered the phone, and she heard him ask someone where he was located. The man said "99 Nashua Street,” and Hurley said his cell phone battery was going dead. Mahoney drove to the address, but Hurley was not there. She called him a second time, but his cell phone seemed to be out of battery. Mahoney said she drove around for an hour before returning home, thinking Hurley got another ride, and that when she got back, Hurley was still gone.
She then reported Hurley missing, and various searches were conducted. Six days after his disappearance, Hurley's body was found in the Charles River, close to where he asked Mahoney to pick him up. Investigators said there was no sign of foul play, and his death was ruled an undetermined drowning.
Hurley's mother received a copy of the autopsy report and allowed a physician to analyze the report. She found out that her son had reportedly suffered blunt force trauma to the head, his eye socket and behind his left leg. GHB was also found in his system along with alcohol.
A smiley face was found painted near the river.
6. Brian Welzien
[Photo: Courtesy of Stephany Welzien]
On January 1, 2000, Northern Illinois University junior Brian Welzien went missing from Chicago, Illinois, after a night of celebrating Y2K with his friends. The 21-year-old finance student rarely partied since he was dedicated to the university's soccer team, but he decided to have a few drinks for the new year. Welzien's friends said he had only three or four drinks, but by the end of the night he seemed very intoxicated.
Welzien told his friends he wanted to call it a night and go back to the hotel where they were staying. One of Welzien's friends, Nic Young, stayed behind. During the drive, Welzien started throwing up. His friend told him to get out of the car while he parked. Various witnesses outside the hotel saw Welzien vomiting in the street. His friends went up to their room and never saw Welzien again. When Young came back to the hotel a round 4 a.m. and realized Welzien was not in their room, he searched the area outside the hotel. He could not find Welzien and reported him missing around 1 p.m.
After extensive searches, Welzien's body was found 77 days later on March 17. It had been washed ashore on a beach in Gary, Indiana, 30 miles south of Chicago. Police said there were no signs of foul play, and his death was ruled an undetermined drowning. Investigators believed he could have walked to the edge of Lake Michigan, a five-minute walk from the hotel, and fallen in. His blood-alcohol concentration was only 0.08 percent.
Police have not said if a smiley face was present near the death site.
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