by Jared Keever
It didn’t take much, just a morning news story.
I was back in the Midwest visiting family for the holidays. We were all in my parents’ living room, getting ready to leave the house for the day. The television was on. I had other things on my mind but the story caught my ear. A Pennsylvania college student, 21-year-old Shane Montgomery, had gone missing.
He was last seen by friends at a bar in downtown Philadelphia. That was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I was catching this news story just a few days before Christmas, so Montgomery had been missing for almost a month. Police were searching along the banks of the Schuylkill River.
All the details called to mind a brief piece I had written earlier in year about a theory called the “Smiley Face killer.”
I grabbed my notebook and jotted down Montgomery’s name and the details of case: Philadelphia, Schuylkill River, white male, college student, bar.
I didn’t know much about the theory but I knew enough to know that the particulars of the case so closely matched those of dozens of other cases I almost couldn’t believe it wasn’t mentioned in the news story.
I promised myself I would look into once I returned home and to my writing desk.
By the time I had, police had recovered Shane’s body. The West Chester University student was found in the Schuylkill River Jan. 3, more than a month after he had disappeared. The Philadelphia medical examiner ruled the death an accident. Montgomery likely stumbled from the bar drunk, made it to the banks of the river and had fallen in, police said.
And that has been the ruling for dozens — some say hundreds — of similar deaths across the Northern part of the U.S. since the 1990s. Such a string of “accidents” is improbable according to those who believe in the Smiley Face killer theory.
To understand the theory one needs to go back, at least, to Halloween night, 2002 in downtown Minneapolis.
That’s the last time anyone saw 21-year-old Chris Jenkins alive. Just as with Montgomery, there are few details about the night Jenkins disappeared. What police and his friends do know is that the University of Minnesota student was kicked out of the Lone Tree Bar & Grill sometime around midnight. His coat, keys, wallet and cell phone were all left behind in the bar. It was 20 degrees that night.
He wasn’t found until four months later. His body was discovered, floating face up in the Mississippi River. His arms were crossed across his chest. Police ruled the death an accident or possibly a suicide. He either fell in or jumped off the nearby Hennepin Bridge, police told his parents.
But a surveillance camera on a nearby building never captured an image of Jenkins on the bridge. And a police dog, during the initial investigation, reportedly picked up the young man’s scent and followed it into parking lot adjacent to the bar. There, police found a few droplets of blood and a red feather which might well have come from an Halloween costume Jenkins was wearing that night.
His family refused to accept either the suicide or the accident theory. And Jenkins’ father eventually reached out to a retired New York City police detective.
Kevin Gannon was a likely candidate to work with Jenkins’ family. Just five years earlier, when he was still with the New York Police Department, he had promised the mother of 19-year-old Patrick McNeill he would never rest until he brought her son’s murderer to justice.
But few believed McNeill had been murdered. Just like Jenkins’ death, McNeill’s was ruled an accident because the teen disappeared after leaving a bar, presumably dunk. He disappeared Feb 17, 1997 and police fished his body out the East River 50 days later. He was floating face up, a position most investigators say is rare in accidental drowning cases.
Gannon never believed the boy simply fell into the river. The body was recovered 12 miles from where he disappeared, for one. He also had ligature marks on his neck and, Gannon believed, the body showed signs of torture — mainly small black spots on the body Gannon thought were burns but the medical examiner dismissed as early stages of decomposition.
Others facts detailed in the autopsy report also troubled Gannon. Fly eggs, found in the young man’s pubic hair, suggested his body had spent some time on land before it was slipped into the river. And the absence of “skin slippage” suggested the body had only been in the water for about 24 hours.
Gannon would later admit he became obsessed — to the point of being unhealthy — with the McNeill case. He never caught his man and its unclear if he was ever able to get the medical examiner to change the cause of death to homicide.
But what is clear is that in 2006 Minneapolis police changed reopened Jenkins’ case and began investigating the death as a murder.
By that time Gannon, and his partner Anthony Duarte were both retired from the NYPD and working together as private investigators. In that capacity they had continued to work on the McNeill case and were investigating other drownings in New York State and other states as well. They had spoken to the Jenkins’ family as early as 2003.
In 2006 they went back to Minnesota and continued their work, and their Smiley Face theory began to emerge.
By 2008, a Minnesota television reporter named Kristi Piehl,had picked up on the theory and begun reporting what the detectives were up to.
Through the course of their investigations into the deaths of Jenkins and McNeill, Piehl reported, the detectives had come across 40 other drownings in which the victims were white, college-aged, males who were last scene leaving a bar or party, possibly drunk, only to disappear and have their bodies turn up weeks or months later floating in a body of water, usually a river.
Using GPS and river current information the detectives tracked backwards, from where the bodies were found, and attempted to pinpoint the location where they might have been dumped into the river.
At many of the sites, often times a park, they found graffiti of a smiley face. That was a sign, a calling-card, left behind by the killer or killers Gannon suspected. They found other links too. For instance at a number of sites they found the word “sinsinawa” spray painted nearby.
And with Piehl’s reports a killer was born. Rather the theory of a killer — or gang of killers — was born and it quickly took on a life of its own. The strange trajectory of the theory’s life is reminiscent of some of the best police stories — something that could be straight out of HBO’s True Detective.
In short, Gannon believes that 40 deaths are the work of a gang of killers working in conjunction, taking victims across the Northern U.S. They nab these young men from bars, possibly by drugging them, or possibly just picking vulnerable ones who are observed stumbling away from their friends, alone. The men are then tortured, possibly for days, then killed and dumped in the river. The killers leave behind bizarre graffiti, like the smiley faces, to taunt the police, Gannon says. Placing the bodies in the rivers has the advantage of destroying evidence.
Gannon and Duarte found graffiti smiley faces at theorized crime scenes in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa. In all they found victims in 25 cities, across 11 states, along the Interstate 94 corridor that they believe were killed by the gang.
The FBI investigated the theory and dismissed it.
An academic paper from the Center for Homicide Research examined it and found no scientific evidence to support continued belief in the theory. There was the trouble of chronological succession with the spray paint, for one. There was no proof that the graffiti had been placed nearby when the the bodies were dumped, the paper argued. The graffiti could be years old. Not too mention that, as graffiti goes, a smiley face is a pretty common thing. But what about “sinsinawa” that strange word that turned up at some of the scenes? It’s a Native American word, common across much of the Midwest the paper argued.
That was 2010. But the theory persisted. Gannon and Duarte never backed away from it.
But Gannon did suggest he and Duarte were running out of money to work on the case. As private investigators and businessmen they went to cases that could pay. Internet research suggests Gannon’s work on the cases, or at least his media appearances, began to slow by 2012.
But the theory’s persistence — or perhaps it’s our persistence in clinging to it — is what’s interesting.
A simple Google search for “Smiley Face killer” will turn up countless blogs of amateur web detectives, convinced they are the trail of a gang of killers. Many of the blogs are created by family members of some young man who disappeared from a bar and was found in a river. The blogs tell stories of slap-dash police investigations, that hurriedly arrived at the answer of an accidental drowning. Unable to accept the police determinations, family members start searching for a killer.
That might be chalked up to a distraught loved one attempting to cope with an accidental death. That would be understandable. But it doesn’t account for the countless others who remain convinced that Gannon and Duarte are — or at least were — on to something, and are determined to find the proof.
It is as if the existence of a torturous gang of killers, hunting midwestern bars for victims is somehow preferable to a rash of accidental drownings. Is that possible? Or do people just love a good mystery? Or perhaps, the search for a killer that may or may not exist is tied to a human desire to be scared. Knowing that a gang of monsters lurks in the shadows, is indeed frightening and strangely, somehow, affirms life.
Wilcox, a college-aged, white male, disappeared from a bar in Milwaukee, only to be found later in the river. Police said he got drunk and fell in.
This happened a year after Gannon seemingly backed away from media appearances. But one Milwaukee columnist, Eugene Kane, against the advice of editors and police, brought the Smiley Face killer theory back into the spotlight. It’s too early to discard the theory he argued. There are still too many unanswered questions.
Kane’s column is among the most recent, and stark, examples of the theory’s ability to terrorize us. While coming very close to accepting that the deaths could be just what the police say they are — accidents — Kane kept the possibility of a monster alive in his readers’ minds.
Many in the city argued that the Smiley Face theory was distracting people from a serious problem of binge drinking, he wrote.
“More than a few people I’ve discussed this issue with insist the real problem is that drunken young whites males go out on a bender and get separated from friends who apparently aren’t looking out for them,” Kane wrote.
“But I’m still intrigued why black males who drink a lot don’t end up in the river and why that particular racial angle seldom gets discussed,” he added, on his way to making a point about a Milwaukee serial killer everyone knows.
“Years ago, black and Hispanic men of a certain background started disappearing from the lives of their families and friends but nobody paid attention until it was too late,” Kane wrote. “That killer’s name was Jeffrey Dahmer.”
Patrick McNeill case from Gannon’s own PI site:
Kristi Piehl Story:
This is the research paper mentioned in Mr. Keever’s article:
Eugene Kane column:
Click here to view Jared Keever’s previous posts:
About Jared Keever: Jared is a full-time writer and journalist living in southeast Georgia. He has lived in Indiana, Montana, Washington state, and Florida. His interests include history, literature and true crime. When he isn’t reading or writing he is usually on a bike or spending time with his family.
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