As a reporter, I’ve moved around a lot. Little Rock, Arkansas. Dallas, Texas. New York, New York. Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Some stories stick with you along the way, some actually haunt you, like the story I am reporting on tonight on Anderson Cooper 360°.
While I lived and worked in the Midwest for seven years, I reported on at least half a dozen college-age men who had simply vanished.
These men would disappear after a night of drinking with friends, and their bodies would turn up in the Mississippi River or some other body of water weeks or perhaps months later. Local police always wrote them off as drunk college kids losing their way and accidentally drowning.
But what was strange was that college-age women didn't disappear, and it only happened during the winter months, never during the summers when college guys, no doubt, were also out partying.
A few hours away in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, nine male college students disappeared in a decade. Strange, right? Some locals started suggesting a serial killer might be at work but police there never could find a connection.
Well now it turns out two retired cops from New York City say the bizarre drownings of at least 40 men around the country were not drownings at all, but murder.
They say they have evidence connecting them. And guess what? The evidence is, among other symbols found at crime scenes, smiley faces. They vary in size and color but were found painted on trees and sidewalks nearby where the retired cops think the bodies were placed in the water.
Of all the cases they’re examining, only one has officially been ruled a homicide. I covered that one for years in Minneapolis, so it feels personal to me.
The victim was Chris Jenkins. I got to know his parents, Steve and Jan Jenkins, who feel their son “was murdered and thrown away like a piece of trash.”
They still visit the spot where his body was pulled from the Mississippi River on the anniversary of his death. They leave a dozen red roses, and one white rose for him.
It’s been 5 and a half years and when I went to the river with them a couple of weeks ago, Jan Jenkins broke down in tears. Losing a child, she said, is something you never get over.
Chris was a senior at the University of Minnesota. He was out bar hopping with friends on Halloween in 2002 and simply vanished.
Chris was a good-looking kid. A smart kid who was co-captain of the lacrosse team. Chris’s image stuck with me.
Then, four years after his death, a tip from an informant suddenly led Minneapolis police to rule his case was not an “accidental drowning” but a homicide. They haven’t released details about that tip but that was what detectives Gannon and Duarte needed. This was the break that has helped them continue their crusade to figure out who, in their opinion, is murdering these college men and why.
They don’t believe it’s the work of one person. It would be too much for just one killer since the cases span 11 states and 25 cities.
This is personal for Detective Gannon, too. Turns out, in 1997 when he investigated the drowning death of Patrick McNeill, a college student at New York City’s Fordham University, he made a promise to his parents that he wouldn’t quit until he solved it. That was where it all started and he’s still going.
Could all of this be a coincidence? Or is there a gang of Smiley Face killers out there targeting young college men?
The FBI told us they don’t see any connection or give this theory any weight… What do you think?
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
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