Nearly 20 ago, two retired New York Police Department detectives started tracking the suspicious drowning deaths of young men across the country. Victims—typically white, athletic, college students—had appeared in multiple cities and states along the I-94 corridor, which passes from Michigan to Montana.
Detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte say it started with the death of college student Patrick McNeill, who drowned in New York City in 1997. At the time, McNeill’s death was ruled accidental due to alcohol intoxication, but Gannon disagreed after his own examination of McNeill’s autopsy, crime scene and evidence photos. He promised McNeill’s parents, who also doubted official findings, that he would prove their son’s death was a homicide.
Eventually, Gannon and Duarte were joined by retired NYPD detective Mike Donovan and St. Cloud University sociology professor Dr. Lee Gilbertson, and the team started digging deeper into closed cases, eventually forming the “Smiley Face Killers” theory.
What Is the Smiley Face Killers Theory?
Gannon, Duarte, Donovan and Gilbertson claim an organized group of serial killers would drug unsuspecting victims at a bar or party then abduct, hold and torture the victims before finally killing and dumping the bodies in water.
The term “smiley face” became connected to their theory when the team revealed they’d discovered graffiti depicting a smiley face near at least a dozen locations where they speculated killers dumped bodies in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa. Even though the paint color, size and style of the faces varied, they remained convinced it was a killer’s signature, claiming responsibility.
In 2008, the team publicly announced their theory during multiple national media interviews.
As the team’s theory gained attention, Minneapolis police did eventually reclassify one of the accidental drowning cases as a homicide, that of Chris Jenkins in 2020, after statements surfaced made by a convicted felon indicating foul play, though no arrests have yet been made. As for the dozens of other cases that remain closed and labeled accidental drownings, the team claims police don’t want to admit they got it wrong.
In 2008, journalist Jessica McBride researched and wrote about the Smiley Face Killers (SFK) theory for Milwaukee Magazine after hearing it associated with the Jenkins case and later the Matt Kruziki case in Illinois, which was also determined to be an accidental drowning. She says she was drawn to the case because Matt’s father, Bill Kruziki, is a well-known retired sheriff’s marshal. “I was curious if he believed these theories,” McBride tells A&E Real Crime.
Like the McNeill family, Bill Kruziki found too many oddities about the circumstances surrounding his son’s death to buy the accidental drowning explanation and wanted foul play definitively ruled in or out.
“The police did eventually reclassify the Jenkins case,” says McBride “I wouldn’t say it gave [the team] more credibility, but it made [their theory] a lot more interesting.”
‘Fuzzy on Details’
One problem McNeill keeps coming back to, though, is the team remains vague about the information they’ve obtained. “On one hand, they devote all this time and energy to these cases and seem to care about victims and families, but continue to be frustratingly fuzzy on details,” she says.
While working on her feature, McNeill attempted to interview team members, but the interview “wasn’t very productive.” Bill Kruziki also stated that the team never attempted to speak with him about Matt’s death either, even though Kruziki is an experienced member of the law enforcement community and reached out to them on multiple occasions.
The lead investigator in another case associated with the Smiley Face Killers theory has also never been contacted by the team.
In late March of 2007, 19-year-old Iowa State University (ISU) sophomore Abel Bolanos went missing after attending several off-campus parties. Days later, his body was discovered in a small lake on campus. While the ME found superficial abrasions on Bolanos’s body, there was no sign of traumatic injury, and his death was ruled an accidental drowning with acute alcohol intoxication.
No Credible Connections Between Cases
Gene Deisinger was the ISU deputy chief of police in charge of the case. He tells A&E Real Crime he first became aware of the Smiley Face Killers theory during the Bolanos case and reached out to other jurisdictions to see if there were any definable similarities beyond the obvious.
Deisinger says there was a multi-department investigation that involved the ISU Police Department, the Ames (Iowa) Police Department, the Story County Sheriff’s Department, state police, the Office of the State Medical Examiner, and later at Deisinger’s request, the FBI. None of those investigative agencies at that time could draw any connection between Bolanos’s death and any other. Furthermore, Deisinger believes that if any credible connection were discovered at any point, the cases would be reopened “with vigor.”
In May 2008, some 14 months after Bolanos’s death, the Smiley Face Killers team came to Ames and toured the lake with a local reporter. It was then they discovered and took the now-famous photo of an orange smiley face with horns and words “Evil Happy Smiley Face Man” spray-painted inside a drainage tunnel near the location where Bolanos’s body was recovered. They proclaimed Bolanos’s death the work of the Smiley Face Killers.
Deisinger noted that what was being reported by the Smiley Face Killers team back then was simply based on “an inaccurate understanding of the facts in the case,” like timing and Bolanos’s route. “If these are supposedly experienced detectives, I found it troubling that they never even tried to talk to the lead investigator…me.”
In 2010, the Center for Homicide Research released a 12-page report, “Drowning the Smiley Face Murder Theory,” further debunking the SFK claims with multiple points, including time-order problems in cases, omnipresent graffiti, differing styles of smiley faces, no criteria for the distance between a smiley face and deceased body, no evidence of victim trauma in the vast majority of cases and well-documented instances of intoxicated men and women falling into nearby bodies of water.
The La Crosse Police Department in Wisconsin, which handled eight of the SFK-associated investigations, stated that no smiley-face symbols were found in connection with any of their cases.
What Does the FBI Think About the Smiley Face Killers Theory?
In 2008, the FBI released a statement also reiterating that their agency has found no connections between cases. “To date, we have not developed any evidence to support links between these tragic deaths or any evidence substantiating the theory that these deaths are the work of a serial killer or killers. The vast majority of these instances appear to be alcohol-related drownings.”
“Sometimes,” Deisinger says, “there’s things you can’t prove in a case, but you can see there’s something there. [In Bolanos’s case] there was no ‘there’ there. For this to happen in a singular case, it’s possible. For it to be happening all across the Upper Midwest with no conclusive evidence boggles the mind.”