Big Smiles: The Legacy of the Unsolved Smiley Face Killer
In some ways, serial killers are old news. Jack the Ripper was the first serial killer of the modern age, and he’s been around since 1888. Over the last century or more, we’ve seen a lot about these monsters in human skin, and though we certainly wouldn’t want to run into one in a dark alley (or a light one, for that matter) we know most of what there is to know about them.
What about a serial killer that was just never made public?
Thanks to modern crime shows, there’s always a big media story when a serial killer is confirmed, we know what they’re looking for, how they do their deeds, what they might look like or where they might work. Let’s face it, serial killers are big news, and journalists love a scoop.
That might not be the case with the Smiley Faced Killers
If you grew up in the Midwest through the nineties and the early aughts, there’s a chance that you’ve heard of the Smiley Face killers or the Smiley Face Gang.
The story goes something like this. A young man goes missing, and for several days, people search for him. It’s usually winter, and the young man in question is from a college town. People worry, people post flyers, and people host vigils.
These young men are usually popular, good-looking and fairly social. They usually disappear on a night after they have been out drinking. People replace their last steps, and soon it becomes clear that all is not well. For one reason or another, they’ve wandered off the beaten path.
Panic starts to mount up, and rescue operations intensify. Everyone is pretty sure that something horrible has happened, even as they try to maintain hope. The search posters on the walls and lamp posts get tattered and torn with time and rain.
Not long after, the rescue team makes a break in the case. The young man is found in a local body of water, whether it is a pond, a river or a lake. There is a great deal of mourning as the community grieves a life cut short.
This sounds like something that can happen anywhere and at any time, but two police detectives beg to differ. NYPD detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte started putting the pieces together, and over time, they both began to share the same suspicions.
At first, the explanation for the deaths of the young men seemed obvious. Drinking plus deadly cold water lead to tragedy. It is true that many of these men were walking home from a bar when they disappeared. It is certainly true that accidents happen and that some mistakes are simply fatal.
However, Gannon and Duarte pointed out a piece of graffiti that was found at many of sites where the bodies were discovered. This graffiti, an innocuous little smiley face, served as the link for several murders spread out over the Midwest.
In short order, Gannon and Duarte released information that there was a serial killer operating throughout the area that targeted drunk young men. Even worse, it was a serial killer that had been operating throughout the LaCrosse area in Wisconsin ever since the nineties. The number of young men drowned in winter varies depending on what reports you look at, but some names keep coming up again and again. It was the death of a 21 year old named Christopher Jenkins in LaCrosse who started Gannon and Duarte on their search. Most recently, Thomas Hecth and Nick Wilcox of Milwaukee were victims. Between, there have been no less than 40 young men from Wisconsin and the surrounding states who might have fallen victim to the same killer or the same gang.
Gannon and Duarte have refused to release the smiley face symbol found at no less than 11 of the supposed dumpsites, stating that to do so might contaminate future sites.
Gannon and Duarte’s theory has gained little ground with LaCrosse police or the FBI. Both organizations state that there is not enough evidence for a serial killer, that young men make up the vast majority of drowning victims and similar things. However, the people who live in this area feel differently.
What could be preventing even the discussion of a possible serial killer? With so many young men dead, all young, all white, all drowned, it seems that there is more than enough information to launch at least an inquiry. The chilling theory put forward by many locals who live in the affected areas is that the killer may be law enforcement or may be someone so highly ranked that he can use the Midwest as a sinister hunting ground.
No matter who the killer is or why there has been investigation, Gannon is clear on at least one thing.
“This is a chance for them to have power and control over somebody else and manipulate. The fear of death is just as important as the act of death itself,” Gannon said.