Let’s Discuss The Smiley Face Killer

Trigger warning: violence

There is no denying science (unless you live in Donald Trump Land, of course). Fact, logic, and common sense have a place in our daily lives. Recently, I listened to a podcast called Crime Junkie — specifically, its 13th episode, “Conspiracy: The Smiley Face Killer.” Like other crime podcasts I’ve listened to, this one held my attention as Criminal, Serial and Embedded did.

The story explores some 40-plus unsolved murders of young white and Asian men with the same cause of death: drowning. The men were all drugged with gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB — also known as the “date rape drug”) and found along with the murderer’s “calling card”: a smiley face nearby.

Serial killers typically have a clear pattern. The FBI reports, “serial murder is defined by the FBI as two or more killings separated by a span of time. A majority of serial killings are sexually motivated. Serial murders are relatively rare. Fewer than one percent of homicides during a given year are committed by serial killers.”

When we think of serial killers, most of us think about Ted Bundy who killed women in the ’70s in multiple states; he was caught and confessed. Or Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed and confessed to killing 17 people, some of whom he kept in his freezer (all of his victims were killed in the Milwaukee area where he lived). Then there is Samuel Little, who confessed to killing 93 people across 16 states over the span of 35 years.

My point is this: just because every single detail within these 40 murders is not identical, that does not change the fact that this is the work of a serial killer — science, common sense, and all of these other serial killers have given us enough bodies to see the patterns left behind by the Smiley Face Killer. With the serial killers above, they’ve been caught, confessed, and we have their face to associate with the murders, some solved and some unsolved (e.g., the victims’ bodies were never found). If you’re like me, and you’ve watched enough episodes of Criminal Minds, you know enough to know that anything is possible in the mind of a killer, especially a serial killer. 

What we don’t have with the Smiley Face Killer is a solid suspect, only theories.

The killings happened between 2005-2017, all with the same, eerily similar details: college-aged white or Asian men, found drowned in a body of water, drunk and with GHB in their system, and smiley face graffiti found at most of the murder sites — either new or old — near their bodies. In the case of the Smiley Face Killer, Rolling Stone magazine contributor Nile Cappello took a closer look and noted, “According to a 2015 report by the Center for Disease Control, the two leading causes of death for white males under the age of 44 are accidents and suicide, respectively. A fact sheet by the CDC shows that men ages 18-34 are most likely to binge-drink, that binge-drinking is twice as common among men as it is among women, and that its risks include unintentional injuries.” This is why investigators often didn’t look further than “accidental drowning” as an explanation for these deaths. What this point leaves out, however, is the presence of GHB in the victims’ systems.

In their book, Case Studies in Drowning Forensics, NYPD detective, Kevin Gannon (who investigated the cases in early 2005) and professor of criminal justice Dr. Lee Gilbertson take the cases of six of the men, and deep dive into the circumstances surrounding their deaths. Reporter Bruce Vielmetti for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel states, “Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte believe hundreds of college-aged men found drowned around the country since 1997 were victims of homicides orchestrated by a group that left smiley face symbols near where the men went into the water, mostly rivers.” A group — not just one single murderer.

By the time the podcast ended, I was left confused — puzzled, really — as to how one could think these murders are a conspiracy. What I do not believe is that these murders were done by a group of serial killers, The Smiley Face Serial Killers, a cell of men who were coordinated enough to orchestrate the murders of these men. I do believe the victims’ families need justice, their murders need to be solved, and that there is only one person responsible for their deaths — not many. But whether you agree with my assessment or not, there’s one question that remains … and that question is, who?

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