My novel How to Date Dead Guys borrows heavily from the Smiley Face Killer Theory. In fact, learning about this theory provided the inspiration for the main story line. If you look closely at the book cover, you'll discover smiley face graffiti haunting a tree in the background. Just like the warning sign over the Chippewa River, the book cover is "beautiful but treacherous".
My first experience with the "Smiley Face Killers" occurred during a spooky late night drive from the Twin Cities, MN to Eau Claire, WI. NPR aired a program advancing the controversial idea that many of the "accidental drownings" of college-aged men in the Midwest were actually murders.
Two retired NYPD detectives, Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, were the driving force behind this theory. Investigating cases back to 1997, they found eerie similarities between at least 40 of these unexplained drowning deaths. Most victims fit the same profile: white college-aged male, popular, athletic, with good grades. When their bodies were found, many were missing cross-shaped necklaces or St. Christopher medals, although their wallets and identification remained.
This string of cases occurred along the Interstate 94 corridor between Minnesota and Wisconsin. The victims were college students from Collegeville, St. Cloud, Minneapolis, Eau Claire, and LaCrosse.
Police knew where the bodies had been found. Gannon and Duarte were more interested in discovering the sites where the bodies had been dumped. Using GPS, river flow patterns, water levels, and police dogs to guide their investigation, they figured out where the bodies entered the water. At these sites of entry, the detectives repeatedly discovered trademark "Smiley Face" graffiti. They also found multiple symbols suggesting gang graffiti, but to protect their investigation the detectives refuse to discuss these findings.
Gannon and Duarte speculate that the victims were drugged, tortured, then disposed of into the water to make it appear as if they'd drowned. Autopsy reports from several cases didn't find any water in the lungs, which helps support this theory.
River disposal removes evidence from the victim's body, such as fingerprints and fibers. Instead of "homicide", these deaths are designated "accidental drownings", making this an almost perfect crime.
Although one Minnesota victim's death has been re-ruled a homicide, Duarte and Gannon's Smiley Face Killer Theory remains just that: a theory, which has been mocked by the FBI and the local police. To date, it does not appear that any arrests or convictions have been made.
Yet the aura of mystery linked to the "Smiley Face Killers" continues to grow. The most recent coincidence is the disappearance of Andrew Fitzgerald, the director of The Smiley Face Killers. While filming this documentary, he went missing on May 8th, 2013. His whereabouts remain unknown. In his absence, his friend Andy finished the film. The creepy promotional blurb for the movie (released January 2014):
80 young men dead
1 missing filmmaker
1 gang of serial killers
What if you were making a documentary
about a gang of serial killers
and they found out?
The more people delve into this conspiracy theory, the more questions bubble up to the surface. Are the killings part of a gang member initiation rite? Are the missing items of religious jewelry kept as tokens by the killers? Has the director of the documentary really gone missing, or is this a hoax in the vein of The Blair Witch Project?