The Smiley Face Murders

Graffiti of smiley faces located in close proximity to the victims. 

Graffiti of smiley faces located in close proximity to the victims. 

Between 1997 and 2010, over 40 young men mysteriously vanished, only to be found weeks or months later drowned in a body of water. Their disappearances spanned 11 states, from New York to Minnesota. Retired New York City detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte began researching various potential patterns in each case, and went public with a theory in 2008. They believed that the victims were tortured and murdered by a gang of serial killers who left a chilling calling card--a smiley face--at several of the murder scenes. Accordingly, they named their theory the "Smiley Face Murders", based on this supposed calling card.

The Smiley Face Murder theory focused on the similarities of each case. For example, prior to their disappearances each victim was at a party or bar with friends, and drank heavily. All of the victims were white males, and were considered athletic and popular at the time they died. Many of them were found in water that was in proximity of graffiti depicting a smiley face.

Gannon and Duarte suspected smiley faces were used to taunt the police. Other victims were found near the spray-painted word sinsinawa, which is a Native American word that means “Rattlesnake,” or “Home of the Young Eagle.”

Retired New York City detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte.

Retired New York City detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte.

Gannon and Duarte hypothesized that the victims were drugged with GHB or a similar drug at the bar or party before they were killed. Shortly after they left, each victim was abducted, driven around for hours, and tortured. Victims were then deposited into a body of water in order to wash away evidence. While only two of the cases were ruled homicides, the two detectives were determined to prove that all of them were. They questioned family and friends of the deceased, but did not get any leads. Despite the public’s awareness of the theory, they could not find any culprits or any concrete proof that the victims were actually murdered.

The Smiley Face Murder theory has faced growing skepticism over the years due to lack of leads and multiple inconsistencies. The police departments that originally handled each investigation have refused to believe the theory, and the FBI said that the “vast majority” of the deaths were “alcohol-related drownings”.  In 2010, the Center for Homicide Research (CHR) published a report that highly criticized Gannon and Duarte’s theory. In the report, “Drowning the Smiley Face Murder Theory,” the authors provided 18 reasons as to why the theory was invalid. The CHR's report can be found here.

Highlighted areas where the bodies were located.

Highlighted areas where the bodies were located.

One significant inconsistency the CHR found with the theory is that the number of smiley faces located close to where the bodies were found did not match the number of deaths. There were only 22 smiley faces found to accompany over three dozen bodies. Additionally, the chronological order of the smiley faces could not be determined; some may have been spray-painted years prior to the body being discovered. Two other issues they shared were that each smiley face didn’t exactly match, and the distance of the smiley faces from the scene of the crime varied.

A fourth issue they pointed out was that there was no physical trauma to the bodies, aside from the two deaths that were ruled homicides. The CHR wondered how could they have been tortured and not have any signs of torture? Even if the water washed away evidence, any marks made on the body would still be present upon discovery (unless there were only skeletal remains, which there wasn’t).  They also pointed out that homicide by drowning is extremely rare. In fact, homicidal drowning accounts for only 0.2 percent of all killings in the United States. Almost half of these rare cases involve children under the age of eight, an age that does not match the age of the supposed Smiley Face victims.

By 2012, Gannon and Duarte did not have the financial ability to continue their investigation, and they began to pursue other unrelated cases. While Gannon and Duarte stopped pursuing the Smiley Face Theory, other people did not. A simple search online shows that there are many others who believe the Smiley Face Murders theory and have tried to pick up where the two detectives left off. They are convinced that the Smiley Face killers are still at large, and remain vigilant about tracking them down.  In fact, some believe that the Smiley Face Murders struck as recently as September 18, 2016, in Decorah, Iowa when Bjorn Norderhaug, a twenty-one-year-old Luther College student went missing and was subsequently found dead; his body was recovered from the Upper Iowa River the following day. Similar to other Smiley Face Murder victims, Norderhaug was last seen leaving a bar in downtown Decorah at around 2:00 a.m. the morning before his body was found. Prior to his death, Norderhaug had been drinking with friends and was a popular student at Luther College. To date, law enforcement officials have not released any information regarding the possible discovery of painted smiley faces near the area where Norderhaug's body was recovered. 

Could this be another case of the Smiley Face Murders? Or should this theory be put to rest once and for all?