Since 1997, former New York Police Department detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte have been investigating dozens of mysterious accidental drowning cases involving hundreds of college-aged men. Gannon and Duarte believe these deaths are the work of a group of serial killers they have dubbed the Smiley Face killers, referencing the eerie symbol left at many of the body recovery sites — a spray-painted smiley face.
Though local law enforcement have closed the cases, Gannon and Duarte have theorized that the victims were drugged, murdered and then dumped in a body of water to wash away crucial evidence. According to Duarte, the killers then painted the smiley face symbols on nearby surfaces to "taunt" authorities. Gannon told the Daily News that the smiley faces symbolize the killers "laughing at the police."
Along with the former detectives' theory, there are several others floating around the internet about who — if anyone — is responsible for the Smiley Face murders. Scroll down to read the five most compelling explanations.
1. Serial killer
Aside from the fact that the victims disappeared after a night of drinking with friends and were later found dead in a body of water, the young men themselves also shared many similarities. According to Gannon and Duarte, they were all athletic, well-liked and successful students who were likely targeted because of these traits.
Duarte told CNN the serial killer would be "the opposite" of his or her victims — someone who is "not smart, someone not good in school, maybe doesn't have a job, not popular."
2. Group of serial killers
If the deaths are ultimately connected, the most plausible theory is that a group of Smiley Face killers is responsible for the murders since some of the drownings occurred at the same time in different states.
“It's so widespread. We have so many different victims in so many different areas,” Duarte told CNN. “It would, in my view, be impossible to be one person."
Some believe the killers have created multiple cells throughout the U.S. that follow one leader or core group.
3. Gang initiation
Another theory that hinges on multiple murderers is that the killings are a gang initiation. In order to join the Smiley Face gang, prospective members would hypothetically have to murder a person of the gang's choosing. The Smiley Face gang could be targeting intoxicated college-aged men who walk home alone at night after partying.
With the exception of one case, all of the potential Smiley Face killings have been ruled accidental or undetermined drownings. Local police forces stand by these rulings, and the FBI has also denied any possibility of the deaths being homicides.
The FBI said in a 2008 statement, "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 drowning."
One father, Bill Szostak, whose son Josh’s body was found in the Hudson River after he was last seen in a bar in Albany, NY in 2007, does not agree with his death being ruled an accident. Szostak told CBS’ “Good Morning America” that he watched surveillance footage of his son inside the bar, looking fairly sober, then staggering outside of the bar only moments later.
Reportedly, Szostak believes that tight municipal police budgets are partially responsible for a lack of homicide investigations.
5. Unconnected foul play
Others believe the drownings might be the result of foul play, but they do not agree that they are part of the Smiley Face killings. As Gannon and Duarte pointed out, the smiley face symbol has not been present at every death site. These drownings could be unrelated to the other cases, even if they are viewed as suspicious deaths.
[Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Lee Gilbertson]
Crime Time is your destination for true crime stories from around the world, breaking crime news, and information about Oxgen's original true crime shows and documentaries. Sign up for our Crime Time Newsletter and subscribe to our true crime podcast Martinis & Murder for all the best true crime content.