May 21st, 2008
07:39 PM ET

Behind the scenes investigating "the Smiley Face killer"

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/05/21/art.smileyface.jpg caption="Smiley face painted near one of the crime scenes"]
Randi Kaye
360° Correspondent

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?


Filed under: Crime & Punishment • Randi Kaye
soundoff (91 Responses)
  1. Jane

    This story reminds me of a young cadet drowned in lake Ontario four years ago. Sorry, I lost his name unfortunately..... but as a healthy and sportive cadet of the Royal Militairy College in Kingsto,n Ontario, he had suddenly disappeared and found later dead in the water. Even his girlfriend, a student as well at that time, has never understood 'what happenend'.

    There has been several investigations, but the cause has never been determined. This while the father has always believed that he was murdered.

    It is such a sad story.

    May 22, 2008 at 12:48 am |

    One other thing. I grew up in La Crosse, WI, and was young when there were more bars in La Crosse within one mile of each other than anywhere else in the world, supposedly a Guiness Book of World Records entry. These bars were also within 2-3 blocks of the Mississippi River. The Oktoberfest beer fest has been a local endeavor since the mid 1960's and a more recent annual Riverfest has also been held on the banks of the Mississippi River. Still no deaths during these fests from drunk drownings off the fest grounds or nearby bridge until last fall. No similar drownings happened during my high school and college era or until the recent group of deaths here. So if this is just what happens to drunkards, then why not old drunk men or drunk women, only young drunk men?

    May 22, 2008 at 12:42 am |
  3. Barb, Des Plaines, IL

    Thank you Randi and CNN. This is a print and save article for our kids. My two sons are in this age group, and it's really eye opening to hear their stories of the things that are going on in the bars and clubs. Kids out for a good time are the targets of all kinds of crimes. This is, however, is the creepiest thing I've ever heard of.
    It's time for the cops to wake up and deal.

    May 22, 2008 at 12:40 am |
  4. John

    I heard about this story a few weeks ago and it has stuck with me since. There is no doubt in my mind that these deaths are not accidental. Gannon said it best in the interview. "Nine from one small town all walk a few blocks in the same direction and fall into a riven? That doesn't make sense to me."

    I hope the FBI starts taking it seriously.

    May 22, 2008 at 12:38 am |
  5. Stats Guy

    This is the unfortunate reality of 'finding what you are looking for' or as the person above mentioned observational bias. The Smiley faces are not at the 'murder scene' but rather are found somewhere upstream. Many of them are quite far away, some are clearly painted months after the men went missing, etc. Just for fun, go looking in your city for a smily face painted somewhere – guess what, you will find one.

    We have had 2 people go missing from my college in Canada over the past 20 years who ended up in the river. Accidents and suicides are much more common when drinking and a body of water is a logical site for both events. I do feel sorry for the families, but more importantly, I feel shame for CNN – I thought Lou Dobbs was criminal in his reporting, but I used to think more highly about Anderson...

    May 22, 2008 at 12:32 am |
  6. Ross

    My good friend from high school was Jared Dion, one of the boys who "got drunk and walked into the river in LaCrosse" in 2004. Nobody believed it then. Nobody believes it now.

    This is a public relations nightmare for any university. It doesn't surprise me that the LaCrosse police department and the University have been ruling these "accidents" time and time again.

    This is clearly something that needs to be examined much, much further before it happens again. Because it will.

    May 22, 2008 at 12:32 am |
  7. Peter

    When I was in East Dubuque, I was approached by an attractive woman who had two "guy friends" in tow. We partied for a little and then she asked me to meet her at her apartment but I was leery of this as she told me one of the guys, an older gentleman was her "sugar daddy" and he may get jealous and have the other guy- a real hulk that went by the nickname chainsaw – mess me up. Heck no! Exit stage left! But all I could remember was Matthew Kruziki who disappeared. I kept thinking that maybe this is how it happened to him.

    May 22, 2008 at 12:24 am |

    Jared Dion was my student at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse. On Easter lSunday, the day after he went missing and 4 days before his body was found in the Mississippi River, I specifically told where he would be found, that someone killed him and that he would have his hat missing, but that his hat would be found by and in the possession of someone not his killer. On the following Wednesday, his body was found where I predicted and his hat was brought to the police by the finder I mentioned. I believe his killer was immediately behind his left shoulder as he was leaving the bar that early morning at closing time. He was about the same height, possible a little bit taller, than Jared with dark hair. I do not know if there was/is video of that on bar cameras. One of the most renowned state judges discussed this at length with me and was also convinced Jared did not drown by accident. However, the local university, police, district attorney and FBI continue to insist he did. Also, well before I ever heard of Chris Jenkins or any circumstances regarding his death, I foretold a young college man would be found dead under the bridge in the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities with his Halloween costume on and his death would be ruled an accident or suicide, and also it would be several months between Halloween and the time his body would be found. Furthermore I said he was taken when he left the bar he was at, his costume would be dry and his body would be found under the bridge which had already been checked before to no avail. This seems to be the situation with Chris Jenkins, whom I do not know. Maybe somebody should try to see if a well respected psychic would be able to discover any further details on these tragic deaths of so many young men, at least 6 in La Crosse, WI, alone.

    May 22, 2008 at 12:20 am |
  9. kelly

    Following the story on cnn about the smiley face murders, I also remembered a boy named Kyle from SUNY Geneseo who went missing from in 1991. (see post from Tricia). He was later discovered dead in a river near the school. He went missing following a night out partying. He was a freshman. As Tricia did, I decided to see if I could find any info on him on the web. Absolutely nothing. Does anyone know if his death was investigated as maybe an early smiley face murder. The detective on CNN spoke about a possible organized/gang affiliation to these deaths. How about fraternity initiations? Geneseo has a very large greek/fraternity population.

    May 22, 2008 at 12:20 am |
  10. Patrick

    Being familiar with the college towns near the river, it is such a stretch that these 2 detectives are saying "serial killers". People get drunk and fall in the river, it is as simple as that. Maybe a different logo or marking would make sense, but a smiley face, come on..

    May 22, 2008 at 12:15 am |
  11. Jane

    I am very suspicious of the investigator that you interviewed.

    May 22, 2008 at 12:01 am |
  12. Tania

    Please let this investigator know that just last month a young freshman male student at Ithaca College was found dead under exactly the same circumstances and they also called it an accidental drowning due to alcohol. You said that the latest death was in Albany in December, Ithaca is also upstate NY and it took place in April.

    I was always doubful of the accidental drowning theory and am terrified by this. A few years ago we ha a series of "drowned" young men in NY and I was always afraid of a serial killer. Now I am convinced!

    May 21, 2008 at 11:58 pm |
  13. Lynda Innis

    My son's hockey teammate Nick Garza is a first year college student who has disappeared from Middlebury College in Vermont without a trace. He had a bright future and was well thought of back here in Albuquerque. They are currently dragging the river next to the college looking for him. He has been missing since the beginning of February. These disappearances sound chillingly like his situation. Are there any instances of this happening in Vermont or in the near vicinity?

    May 21, 2008 at 11:53 pm |
  14. Amanda

    Places that don't get watched a lot tend to develop graffiti. And if people were watching, they would have watched a drunk college guy go in the water. Smiley faces are a very common form of graffiti, and there seems to be no similarity in the style in which the smiley faces were drawn that would indicate a common artist. And why in the winter? Umm, because in the northern Midwest the water is so cold that you may have a few minutes after you fall in the water to get out. Anybody who falls in the river in the summer can usually swim to shore.

    May 21, 2008 at 11:50 pm |
  15. Jason from Minnesota

    I'm guessing they correlate online somewhere and have some kind of pact to carry this stuff out. Because it is so widespread, you would think that it's coordinated online somewhere. I hope they figure this out quick though!

    May 21, 2008 at 11:45 pm |

    A friend of mine, a young black man, was found drowned last October in Kingsport, TN. To my knowledge, no explanation has been found for his death.

    May 21, 2008 at 11:39 pm |
  17. Beck

    I forgot to mention, they were all young white males, generally with dark hair. Gives ya goose-bumps.

    May 21, 2008 at 11:39 pm |
  18. JL

    With so many people gone missing over such a long period of time, can't they find any witnesses to the abductions? Was there a smiley found for every one of these people? If there was, that would be more convincing. There are many sick people out there as we all know.

    May 21, 2008 at 11:37 pm |
  19. Beck

    If you look back just a few years ago, I thought there was a serial killer who prayed on youngmen in the NYC Metro area. There were at least 3 to 4 cases where youngmen disappear from Upper Eastside or Westside bars/nite-clubs only to be found in either the East River or the Hudson Rivers. They were labeled accidents but I am sure they are open cases. Since the retired police officers are from NYC they should look back and see if there are any clues either that were documented by the crime scene officers or on the bodies that may spark a link. I always found it mysterious that nothing was emntioned locally for a while but I told a friend there maybe a link there. Pretty weird but that is the world we live in.

    May 21, 2008 at 11:36 pm |
  20. Lane

    Everyone keeps saying "serial killer"....am I the only one who thinks this feels like a terrorist attack against our young men? Killing them before they can join the fight against terror.

    I certainly hope those two retired detectives are considering THAT possiblity.

    May 21, 2008 at 11:34 pm |
  21. Andrea

    It's scary to think that something like this could be happening in my lifetime. I think about serial killers of the past and I just feel so removed from it.

    May 21, 2008 at 11:34 pm |
  22. Jerky

    Having lived across the street from a river (the Charles in Boston) and seen countless drunk kids wandering home after long nights of partying, I have yet to remember one "accidentally" falling into the river while intoxicated. As much as the police would like to think, it really requires a concerted effort to end up in a river, and for that to happen ALL these people is totally improbable!w

    May 21, 2008 at 11:22 pm |
  23. Missy

    There definitely is something going on...it doesn't make sense that this many young, white, athletic, good looking males all died under such similar circumstances. They're purposely being targeted so it's not only females that need to be careful bar hopping – men do too.

    May 21, 2008 at 11:18 pm |
  24. Mary Barsalou

    This story really creeps me out. Good luck to the cops in catching these guys (or guy).

    May 21, 2008 at 11:13 pm |
  25. Edwina Steussy

    oops i meant "colleges have always had heavy drinking" not also

    May 21, 2008 at 11:11 pm |
  26. Edwina Steussy

    Thank goodness someone is investigating this, and also, thank the reporter. I'm in Madison WI, and just as a private citizen, I noticed this disturbing pattern...our colleges have also had heavy drinking, but the drownings of college drunks would happen more like one every two years. And I live in Madison, with a campus situated between two lakes. Also, the drunk-student drownings for my first 25 years here tended to cluster in summer, not winter...I will try to find out how to thank these investigators myself, but if I can't, I really thank you and them for pursuing this.

    May 21, 2008 at 11:06 pm |
  27. Trish

    Does anyone know if this list of 40 young men has been made public? Just before my freshman year at SUNY Geneseo (upstate NY) in 1991 a young guy went missing. I think I heard that he was later found in a nearby river, though I can't find one story on-line about it.

    May 21, 2008 at 11:05 pm |
  28. Mark Peterson

    Randi: You were a terrific reporter and TV presence in the Twin Cities Market; you were clearly destined for bigger things, and you have done great work for CNN. But you are flogging a very dubious story in the "smiley face" killings. There must be great pressure on all CNN reporters to compete with Fox for lurid crime stories, but people like Kevin Gannon and his speculating bretheren appear to be interested only in becoming the next Mark Furman, with media exposure and a book deal, and very little real interest in doing the work to get closure for the relatives of these (probably unconnected) murder victims. Please show us some evidence; don't let the victims' loved ones depend upon newshounds' theories for their comfort.

    May 21, 2008 at 11:04 pm |

    man!.... this is super creepy! ... i fit the profile of the guys that are winding up dead ... i live in new york and remeber that one kid going missing around new years ... there was fliers everywhere in the city looking for him ... man! it stuck with me .... my heart goes out to the families ....

    May 21, 2008 at 11:02 pm |
  30. SJU fan

    Saint John's University in Collegeville MN, had similar mysterious (presumed) death of young man who disappeared after party several years ago. Has that one been connected to the other deaths of young men by drowning in in Minnesota?

    May 21, 2008 at 11:01 pm |
  31. Rach

    Is there any way that I can get in touch/give a lead to the detectives? Please let me know because this same scenario occurred on my college campus 2 years ago. Please get in touch with me or put up something in the blog so that I can send a case to these detectives. Thank you.

    May 21, 2008 at 11:01 pm |
  32. CM

    I was at the party with one of the guys the night he disappeared in 2002. My friends and I were all interviewed by the local police and the FBI. Even though I had never met him before that night my stomach dropped when I saw him on the list of victims of a possible serial killer. Five and a half years ago his death was attributed to being drunk and accidentally falling in the river although that never really seemed to make sense. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends and I hope that either way they find the answers they haven't had since that night.

    May 21, 2008 at 10:57 pm |
  33. magus

    Its so sad that the parents just cant admit to themselves that their kid got drunk and stupid. If you live near a river drowning is just one of the hazards. Easy enough to avoid. The smiley faces connecting them is really a stretch. The faces have been used as graffiti for 30+ years. One of the easiest and most common things people will draw. The FBI even investigated this matter in Lacross WI and ruled they where just drunk and the serial killer idea was just hype. So the FBI has good reason for their lack of interest. They already investigated and found it just wasnt so. Of course there will be drownings, its nature weeding out the stupid and unlucky. Add booze and your all the more likely to get stupid, and do things you wouldnt normaly. Its sad they are dead, but thats life. Its even sadder that the parents of the drowned just cant face the facts. They need some one to blaim and will reach for anything to help them get by.

    May 21, 2008 at 10:53 pm |
  34. Cuauhtemoc

    This is a classic example of observational bias. I feel for the families, I would be devastated if I lost my son. But smiley faces are, contrary to an earlier post, among the most common forms of graffiti. It would not be very difficult to find a smiley face near a body of water (on a bridge or overpass for example). And how could the detectives possibly say that the smiley faces, as common as they are, were drawn near the point of entry? Remember that it is difficult to figure out where the body actually entered the water (the bodies were located in some cases months after the deaths). The effects of cold and alcohol seem more than enough to explain these sad accidents. But the well-meaning detectives are fitting their evidence to their theory, not the other way around. This story is only going to grow because of the ludicrously uncritical reporting going on. If it gets large enough, people will be falsely accused but no one will ever be found guilty because there was no serial crime here.

    At the end of the day, everyone will feel as stupid as they did after playing up the unfounded stories of satanic cults eating babies and murdering hundreds. That was the 90's, do we really need a replay?

    May 21, 2008 at 10:52 pm |
  35. Ian Frazer

    This isn't news. This certainly shouldn't be national news. This story is two ex-cops using their retirements to take advantage of greiving parents and work up material a novel is my read on this story. CNN should once again be ashamed for its fearmongering and exploitation of tragedy. The story ties together "40" "bizarre drowning deaths" without any linking facts. This is just bad scandal sheet reporting.

    May 21, 2008 at 10:41 pm |
  36. Joshua

    Female college students that have perhaps been the victim of date rape after being drugged seems like the most probable explanation. All of these guys seemed to be pretty big guys that could fend off an attack. The only thing that would make them vulnerable would be the promise of attention from a pretty girl. They all look pretty similar and could be lumped in to the" frat boy" catalog. This label carries with it a negative connotation due to the wide spread reports over the years of drug induced date rape. The simple fact that they were not stabbed, struck or in other ways harmed physically implies that it was done by physically weaker person. I believe it is a gross error in judgment to dismiss these cases.

    Berkeley CA

    May 21, 2008 at 10:39 pm |
  37. Susie

    And as far as "assuming" partying - (only speaking on behalf of the La Crosse deaths) - it was confirmed in every case I believe. Their friends would report them missing after a night of binge drinking (I believe most had BACs above 2.0) where they had been down at the bars (again, conveniently located a few blocks from the river).

    May 21, 2008 at 10:38 pm |
  38. Bryon

    I was in LaCrosse when one of the young men was found in the Mississippi. It was during Oktoberfest which is a massive drunk-fest. Some people would say something about a serial killer but, most just blew it off as someone got drunk, wondered off, and fell into the river. People would say "Yes there is a serial killer. It's called alcohol."

    I remember that night very vividly. A lot of panicked people were looking for him. People were handing out flyers. It was very sad to read about the body being found. I just don't understand how the police and the feds think that someone would wonder off away from a group of people and fall into the river. At least not nine times in a decade.

    I agree with Eugenia. I think it's women doing this. Even though serial killers are generally not women.

    Appleton, WI

    May 21, 2008 at 10:36 pm |
  39. Susie

    As someone who lives in La Crosse, I can say I'm still not honestly convinced that a serial killer is responsible for the deaths here. The article didn't state that smiley faces were found near ALL of the locations - only some, and there has never been a single mentioning of finding any near here, nor have I ever seen one while walking in the park near the river. While at first it may seem odd that it's mostly one demographic, when you consider this area (college town, mostly white, has one of the largest bars per capita rate in the nation, including the most bars on one street [conveniently located only three blocks from the Mississippi]) and the sociological aspect of males versus females in bar settings (females tend to stick together more, etc.), it doesn't seem that odd. They have been investigating the heck out of the deaths here and still there's nothing that conclusively says that there is any link. I'll just say that I've never been concerned drinking downtown. With that said, I'm sure there is a killer involved with some of these deaths.

    May 21, 2008 at 10:35 pm |
  40. Winnie

    Having been in law enforcement for many years, the only thing I find surprising about the FBI's lack of interest is that it surprises anyone. Street cops and detectives identify and solve the crimes. The FBI provides "support". For the most part, these aren't folks who have spent any time on the streets. They are overeducated administrators, thinking of theories and psychology. They don't solve crimes. These retired police officers have the skills, education, experience, and, most importantly, sense to know when something is wrong. I hope they are able to solve these crimes and get the credit they deserve for their perserverence.

    May 21, 2008 at 10:32 pm |
  41. Charlotte

    This Case in my opinion should be taken into high consideration. There is too many young college/university men dying. And there must a connection between all of them. The similey face is the killers signature or mark. It is possible that it isnt just one killer it may be several as in a group. It just seems impossible that it would be just one.!! I've lost many ppl who were close to me (family) ... Such question ..why Men!!!???

    I hope that they do find this smiley Face killer.. I send all my condolences to the families who lost their children is this.

    May 21, 2008 at 10:22 pm |
  42. ds401

    What bothers me is that when a male goes missing or found dead, they are assume to be partying and fell. However, when a female goes missing or is found dead we assume foul play was involved. I lost a son. Noone believes moms. I am very interested to see this story.

    May 21, 2008 at 10:02 pm |
  43. B ESS

    Smiley Face? Those pics do not look like any smiley face. Sure it is not an emoticon?

    Catch the sick bastard, and hang 'em high, from a tight noose.

    May 21, 2008 at 9:55 pm |
  44. Eugenia

    I feel for the families of the victims, I lost my brother when he was 7.
    By reading what has been stated so far its seems like it is different groups of females. The police departments really need to keep in communication with one another, unfortunately that is where alot of things (important things) end up falling through the cracks.

    San Francisco, Ca

    May 21, 2008 at 9:21 pm |
  45. Rain

    The smiley faces (or smirks) should not be dismissed as random graffiti. Smiley faces are not generally used by adults as graffiti, especially in the kinds of odd places the detectives found them in. Guys who hang around rivers and drink and party are generally not nerdy types who would paint smiley faces on rocks!

    Too much about this case has been dismissed by authorities. I'm not sure why they deny the evidence. Even the FBI refuses to consider the new evidence. Det. Gannon is a extremely competent and trained detective and he should be given the respect he is due.

    May 21, 2008 at 9:16 pm |
  46. pat

    It could be 2 killers; and maybe the same 1 or 2 have committed all of the murders – they seem to be spread out time-wise. Sure have been going on a long time.

    I, too, think the FBI shouldn't be too quick to dismiss the work and theories of the retired policemen. If the FBI is so sure, then they need to explain WHY and then the cops won't have to worry about it anymore. Sometimes I think the FBI, CIA, etc. just don't want anyone "getting in their way" and think they don't need any help at all.

    May 21, 2008 at 8:59 pm |
  47. Mike in NYC

    "But what was strange was that college-age women didn’t disappear ..."

    What's even "stranger" is that they're all white, from what I gather. The writer doesn't seem to want to touch that part of it.

    Imagine if dozens of young black men mysteriously disappeared?

    Would their race be mentioned? You betcha.

    May 21, 2008 at 8:38 pm |
  48. Dominic Haberman Hattiesburg, MS

    The FBI probably sees no connection between 911 and Osama Bin Laden. Of course there's probably more than a coincidence that links the manner of death, all male victims, with the presence of smiley face markings near the crime scene. In absence of any other leads, what is the harm in investigating this link by the FBI? This sounds like a very interesting story, and the publicity 360 generates very well may help these families and investigators get the information they are desperately seeking.

    May 21, 2008 at 8:36 pm |
  49. Cindy

    Well it has to be more than just a coincidence that so many young boys disappeared and were found in a lake or river with a smiley face near that area. That would be like one in a million chance or something. How can the FBI so easily dismiss it when so many people have died under these strange circumstances? Makes no sense to me!

    Hopefully by keeping on showing this someone will remember something or come forward with some more information to help all of these parents who have lost their sons.

    May 21, 2008 at 8:04 pm |
  50. Joseph Kowalski, North Huntingdon, PA

    Anything is possible. And it seems too much of a coincidence that a "smiley face" shows up at the scene of each of these murders.

    May 21, 2008 at 8:04 pm |
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