Last year, 11 bodies, mostly men in their 20s or early 30s, were removed from the Chicago River and Lake Michigan’s shoreline according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, renewing interest in a theory about a serial killer—or group of serial killers—targeting young men across the Midwest.
Typically, they were last seen in nightlife areas of the city. The cause of death is still unknown in most of these cases.
The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office told Newsweek three of those cases were ruled accidents, one was ruled a suicide and the other seven were ruled as “undetermined.”
“When a drowning is unwitnessed and evidence of accident, suicide or homicide is not present, the manner of death is ruled undetermined,” the office told Newsweek in a statement. “If new evidence is presented, the Office will review it and determine whether the initial ruling should be amended.”
But the mystery of the deaths and the sheer amount of bodies found has led many living in the Chicago area to suspect a serial killer—or, killers—could be to blame.
There is a serial killer in Chicago targeting young men. The amount of men in their early-mid 20s that have gone missing this year is insane. Their bodies are then found in the lake hours later. Huge red flags.. Stay safe out there❤️— Han (@hannahrieker) December 21, 2022
Most recently, on Wednesday, another adult male body was found in the Chicago River in Bridgeport, according to the Chicago Police Marine Unit.
Before that, two bodies were discovered last December, including the body of 25-year-old Northwestern doctoral student Peter Salvino, who had gone missing three days earlier walking home from a party. The Cook County’s medical examiner’s office ruled his death an accidental drowning.
So, Who Is The Smiley Face Killer?
In 1997, two retired New York City detectives, Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, and criminal justice professor and gang expert, Lee Gilberton, advanced the Smiley Face Murder theory. This came after three college-aged men were found dead in city rivers around the same time.
They believe that a string of young men found dead in bodies of water across several Midwestern states from the late 1990s to the 2010s was the work of a serial killer or group of serial killers. In most cases, the official cause of death is listed as an accidental drowning.
The detectives have investigated the deaths of at least 45 college-aged men who were found dead in the water in 11 states in the early 2000s. As of now, Gannon told Newsweek that there are 681 cases in their database that they suspect may be connected.
Gannon told CNN in 2008 that he believed the men were drugged and abducted from bars, held and possibly mentally or physically abused before being killed.
Duarte said all of the young men were popular, athletic and good students who they believe were targeted.
While he hasn’t looked much into the recent bodies discovered in Chicago, Gannon said he believes they are connected.
“The fact that you have so many of them in such a short period of time, I have to say that I would say they are connected,” he said.
He said the group is “becoming more brazen” because they “know they can do whatever they want. “Of course they are picking it up, and why wouldn’t they? There’s no consequences to what they’re doing.”
Gannon added that these alleged killings have been going on in Chicago since 1999.
Why Call Them ‘Smiley Face Murders’?
The name “smiley face” comes from graffiti depicting a smiley face, along with 13 other distinct symbols, found near the locations where they believe the killers dumped the bodies, Gannon told Newsweek.
“The group is actually leaving symbols behind letting you know, ‘Yes this was us, come and catch us,'” he said, adding that each city has their own symbols.
Law enforcement investigators and other experts, however, are skeptical.
Is There Actually a Smiley Face Killer?
In 2008, the FBI debunked this theory after receiving information about “young, college-aged men who were found deceased in rivers in the Midwest.”
“The FBI has reviewed the information about the victims provided by two retired police detectives, who have dubbed these incidents the ‘Smiley Face Murders,’ and interviewed an individual who provided information to the detectives,” Supervisory Special Agent Richard J. Kolko said in a statement at the time. “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.”
He added that the majority of these incidents appear to be “alcohol-related drownings.”
The nonprofit Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis also released a report debunking the Smiley Face Killer theory due to a lack of physical evidence of a serial killer, no signs of torture or blunt-force trauma on the bodies that could point to the deaths being homicides.
But this has not deterred Gannon and Duarte.
Since 2008, Gannon, Duarte, and Gilbertson said these have argued that these deaths are instead the work of a multi-state gang of killers.
Gannon said this is a “well-structured, organized group with cells in major cities around the United States.” He said each city could have between eight to 20 members.
The motive of the group remains unknown, he said, adding that these cases are “gang-oriented,” adding that the group chooses a narrow, specific group to target.
“There’s a ritualistic aspect to these killings,” he told Newsweek. “There is an element of hate. They are equal opportunity killers and they hate almost anybody.”
Gannon said that the autopsies could be key to understanding whether these deaths are accidents or homicides.
In his experience, Gannon said there are some victims pulled from waterways that were not very drunk and did not have water in their lungs, which would be expected in a downing.
He also said traces of GHB, known as the “date rape drug,” were found in some of the victims’ bodies. Gannon said the odorless, tasteless drug could be slipped into a victim’s drink when people are leaving the bar.
The time of year these bodies are found has also been suspicious to Gannon.
He said many of these bodies were found in waterways during the winter.
“Most people don’t go to the water there in the winter months,” he said. “Chicago is an icebox.”
He suspects these incidents happen in the winter because no one is out by the water, unlike in the summertime.
Hundreds of young men found drowned across the country. All had a smiley face spray painted nearby. Join #TheHuntForJustice when #SmileyFaceKillers begins Saturday, January 19 at 7/6c on #Oxygen. pic.twitter.com/fVDEkbunm5— Oxygen True Crime (@oxygen) December 24, 2018