Drowning the Smiley Face Murder Theory

By: Dallas S. Drake, Cheryl M. Bebernes, Brandon J. Wheeler, Eden Z. Stelflug,
Peter D. Espenson, Angela M. Van Auken, Kevin R. Olson, Agathe M. Panaretos, & Ben J. Anderson

A theory has developed that credits the drowning deaths of a number of young
men in the Midwest and Northeastern United States to the work of a serial homicide
offender. In 1999, journalists first reported that college-aged students were
drowning in rivers after an evening of heavy drinking (Maller). These deaths were
said to form a pattern, and it was soon proposed that it was the work of a serial
killer, or team of killers, who were deliberately targeting young men for murder
(Kaye, 2008). Smiley face graffiti was sometimes, though not always, discovered
near these death scenes. This serial murder explanation is now called the smiley
face murder theory (Smiley, 2010).

Central to the claim of serial homicide offending is the alleged linkage of
victims by the discovery of painted graffiti proximal to the location of the victim
(Piehl, 2008a). As many as 22 smiley faces have been identified by investigators, as
well as an occasional discovery of the word "Sinsiniwa" (Associated Press, 2010).
Investigators interpret the graffiti as a taunting of the police (Kaye, 2008). The
theory of these deaths includes offenders drugging a victim with GHB or a similar
drug (Kaye), abducting the victim (CNN, 2008c), driving the victim around for
hours in a van truck, torturing them (Hitzeman & Staff, 2008), and then slipping the
body into the water (Kaye). Detectives allege the motive for the dumping of
remains into the water is to wash away evidence (Kaye). In the Jenkins case, a
correctional inmate is said to have confessed guilt for the killing to a cellmate
(WCCO, 2006). A general assertion has been that all of the identified victims are
male (Kaye, 2008) and finally, that people don't fall into the water by accident
(CNN, 2009).

A well-respected criminal justice professor at one of Minnesota's state-run
universities initially said he did not believe this theory, referring to it as an "urban
legend" (Lyden, 2006) and calling it "highly unlikely" (Marburger, 2007, p. 1), but
later changed his position (Kaye, 2008). He and other proponents, including two
retired New York City homicide detectives, began to amass along a pro-serial killer
theory line (Kaye). The professor now says that he sincerely believes that a serial
killer or group of killers is on the loose (Piehl, 2008a). The two detectives who are
spearheading the investigation are firmly convinced that many of these deaths are
linked and are the result of intentional nefarious acts. To date, only two of these
drowning deaths have been ruled homicides (Nationwide Investigations, 2009;
Piehl, 2008a). Still, no substantive evidence exists indicating that any of the
drowning deaths were the result of serial offending.

Graffiti is omnipresent. There is a problem of time-order. now called the *on-Recreational Outdoor Drowning Deaths Database (2010). This data was initially problematic since it came with no protocols or criteria (which CHR staffers have since developed). 1992). The database. Burgess. In science we have to show that the two correlated factors occur in the correct sequence (Babbie. While determining age of paint is forensically possible. serial killer Keith Jesperson of Wyoming sent anonymous letters to news reporters signed with a hand-drawn smiley. Although linkage has been asserted by investigators. In many instances. width. CHR researchers have used this data as a springboard for thinking about this topic and to assist in forming a critique of the shortcomings of this misguided and conspiracy-laden theory. Some of the photographs of the graffiti show faded worn-out paint that looks to have been applied years earlier. Because these vandals know that many cities work to document every instance of graffiti for later identification and prosecution (e. curl. 3. again. They exist anywhere from children's stickers to commercial logos.. This cheery graffiti is a cynical slap at the police by the vandals. 2010). There is no proof of when any of them were painted. However. none of the murders were drownings. However. 2. 1997). one "Happy Face" killer did exist. 2000). This makes it difficult to connect one incident to the next in the process of what investigators call linkage (Eggers. investigators admit the paintings are all dissimilar (Piehl. one of the smiley faces exactly match one another. and it has some shortcomings in the form of missing data. There is no common paint stroke. height. It is quite simply a taunting of the police by graffiti vandals. 2008b) © Copyright 2010 Center for Homicide Research Page 2 of 12 . Burgess. Starting in 1992. no credible linkage has been documented between any of the painted smilies. CNN. see City of Minneapolis. Therefore. & Ressler. not only were his victims female. His use of a smiley appears eerily similar to the Watchmen comic book series from 1986-1987 that included smiley faces dripping with blood to symbolize the death of innocence. In other cases the graffiti was found months afterward. However. Smiley Faces were first invented in 1964 and have since spread everywhere (Smiley. 1984. and the comic's use of vaporization as a means of death (Watchmen. painting a smiley makes more work for the police. Douglas. only narrowing to the year of origin (SWGMAT. 2008b. contains over 150 cases occurring in the United States. it is technically imprecise. Smiley-faced graffiti must be proven to have been painted at or immediately after the time of the killing. Smilies have now become a universal symbol of happiness. no smiley faces were found at all. Historically. the finding of these faces is most likely the result of chance.g. whirl. Several problems exist with the theory of a smiley face killer: 1. 1998). 2010) is not a common serial killer signature. One reason this graffiti is found everywhere is that smiley faces are among the easiest forms of graffiti to paint. Researchers at the Center for Homicide Research (CHR) identified an Internet database of 40 water-related deaths and have continued adding cases to it. 2010). none of them were drowned (Associated Press. To the contrary. or drip.

2008a. They only account for two-tenths of one percent (0. IL. Sinsiniwa. as can hundreds of trees. and try to explain away this dissimilarity (CNN. Homicidal drowning is extremely rare. it occurs as the name of three streets. MI. The word "Sinsiniwa" is a red herring. 1920). IA. and lacking in any identifiable pattern. there are too many constantly changing variables to ensure accuracy. 2008). can be located upstream of any body recovery location. 2008). Within the confines of a city. In the Jenkins case (using Google Earth). thereby illuminating their bias. 907 homicidal drownings were recorded over the course of 21 years (Fox). WI. 2008) is disingenuous. and WA.an estimation.S. Sinsineua (Clementine.2) of all U. o criteria has been established specifying the necessary distance that a smiley face must occur in proximity to a deceased body in order to be counted. Estimating where the body might have entered the water is simply that -. 6. The claim that the uniqueness of each smiley is the result of multiple artisans (Kaye. In the United States. Investigators have begun distancing themselves from the smiley. seven bridges can be located within one mile upstream. using a liberal interpretation of ages 18-24. It is commonly found throughout the Midwest and therefore is randomly occurring in graffiti found painted near several drowning sites. including a religious order called the Sinsinawa Dominican Congregation of the Most Holy Rosary of the Order of Preachers (Grant County. 5. Sinsinniwa. 1876). one river.] this evidence was present. The Christopher Jenkins family alleges that their son was driven around the city for hours while he was tortured (Piehl. According to CHR staff researchers. In some cases the smiley or word “Sinsiniwa” is within close proximity and with others it is quite distant. most involve parents drowning their own children or on occasion a husband will drown his wife in a bathtub. CNN. including MN. various commercial businesses. Torture tends to leave signs of trauma. 2010). according to FBI data. Even when based on experimental testing. There is no evidence of victim trauma. but he was deceased prior to entering the water and did not drown (Nationwide Investigations. Sinsinewa. Sinsinawe. which commonly evidence graffiti. 2003). 2000). nearly half (416) were victims aged eight or under (usually filicides). There is no sign on the vast majority of these recovered remains that they were the recipient of trauma. 2008c). there were only 117 © Copyright 2010 Center for Homicide Research Page 3 of 12 . Like the smiley faces. 2009). It is an Indian-based word meaning “Rattlesnake” (as cited in Smith. killings (Fox. It also has accrued several spellings including Sinsinawa. 1930) or “Home of the Young Eagle” (as cited in Centennial Records. Considering the age range of the college students. 4. Jr. 7. Sinsinnawa. There was no physical trauma identified in this case consistent with an assault (MPD. saying that the smiley faces are not all that important and represent only 1/13th of the amount of linked symbols (Fox News Radio. "Sinsiniwa" is a relatively common term that appears in over 15 different locations around the country. Of these. schools and other assorted place names. bridges. In one death [Patrick McNeill. Of the few cases that are known to exist.

. 2005). However. Vronsky. 2009). p. When correctly processed. Block & Christakos. To the contrary. 2005). These drownings don't fit a serial killer motive. 1998. "investigators can obtain a variety of forensic evidence" in water recoveries (Becker. Powerless people such as correctional inmates are known to exaggerate and make up stories in an effort to obtain social status or notoriety (Conti. 1995) based on psychological motivations. water that is cold (as in many of these northern cases) acts as a deterrent to decomposition. homicidal drownings of college students in the United States over 21 years (three one hundredths of one percent or 0. For instance. The idea that water washes away all the evidence is a myth.. Confessions by correctional inmates are unreliable. 2006. in an area © Copyright 2010 Center for Homicide Research Page 4 of 12 . sexual activity. as was used to convict Wayne Williams of the Atlanta Child Murders (Deadman.. All drownings appeared to have occurred at night and after dark. These were not thrill killings. 2004). There was no financial motive such as the collecting of social security checks or theft of money. 10. 114. it has been argued that these victims were quite unaware of their surroundings due to alcohol intoxication and/or drug toxicity (Richmond. 1997). p. To the contrary. 2006)." (Kaye. nor do these deaths qualify as mercy killings. 1). p. John Karr and almost a dozen others have confessed to killing JonBenet Ramsey (Alfano. Yes. strangulation. Thrill killers are profiled as organized killers and therefore highly intelligent (Fox & Levin. 1984. None of that is in evidence in these victims [except possibly McNeill]. 2000). investigators have shown that it is possible to obtain fiber evidence and blood evidence from the recovered remains. 1999). 2008. Crenson. 1999). Becker. water might wash off blood. 2006). these deaths do not show any of the related indicators one would expect to find.not smart. The occurrence of serial homicide is a manifestation of a syndrome of behavior (Block & Block. 8. maybe doesn't have a job.. someone not good in school. 2004. Van Zandt. including the lifting of latent finger prints from the surface of the deceased's skin (Sampson & Sampson. 2004). in stark contrast to the proposed smiley faced killer profile. 4). ". and physical torture of a victim who is "alive and aware of what is happening" and able to feel pain (Holmes & Holmes.03). 9. an inmate confessed to his cellmate that he was responsible for the death (WCCO. because they require long drawn-out killing processes that include bondage. From river drownings. There is no known serial offender who has ever drowned victims (Vogt & Morgan. thereby preserving the wound patterns. Many criminals (12%) make voluntary false confessions (Sigurdsson & Gudjonsson. 2008. a claim by a prison convict of having killed one or several people is not credible on its own. The general environment of these disappearances are conducive to accidental drowning. 1992. Kaye. 11. but investigations show that much can be recovered from an immersed body. Of the many possible varieties of serial homicide (Morton & Hiltz. In at least one suspected homicidal drowning case [Jenkins].

see Jungen. Many of these drowning cases are likely to have involved aspects of auto- assassination. in combination with a lack of barriers. 1). one can find "more than 300 places to buy alcohol in La Crosse – triple the number of churches" (Howlett. 2010). accidental near-drownings are fairly common. Drinking is a large part of the culture in La Crosse. and males are more likely to engage in risky behaviors even when not drinking. Such alcohol-related deaths contributed toward making that city the focus of intense scrutiny. Intoxicated people typically experience disorientation and impaired coordination which makes them susceptible to falling (PDR. 2009). The process by which intoxicated men accidentally fall into the river is already known and well-documented. but a style of living with reckless disregard for one's own life. Alcohol and risky behavior have been shown to be major factors in drowning cases (WHO). college-aged drinkers are typically less experienced drinkers. accidents. 2004. Causes included dares. 2007. "nine intoxicated college-age men have drowned in area rivers" (Associated Press. Many of these drowning victims appear to be drinking to © Copyright 2010 Center for Homicide Research Page 5 of 12 . 15. This. Kinzie. that was documented with investigational photography. 13. In La Crosse. Contrary to popular belief. not far from bars and colleges. 12. The LaCrosse Police Department issued a report detailing the circumstances of at least 20 imminent drowning victims who have survived. between 1997-2010. 2). It is also probable that females are dying from intoxication in other ways. Many access points to the water lack barrier protection such as walls or fences. Footwear slip-marks have been documented on the riverbank in Minneapolis by CHR researchers. 2010). Males are more likely than females to die or be hospitalized from drowning (WHO. Wisconsin. is a recipe for accidental drowning. Rivers are typically downhill from these drinking establishments and only a few blocks away. Responsible drinking does not involve drinking to the point of intoxication (CDC. and most commonly. Auto-assassination is not suicide per se. 2010. La Crosse is also the scene of a particularly snowy college-aged drowning. Furthermore.g. 2009). The supposition that only males are drowning does not necessarily support a serial killer theory. just above where the body was found. such as falling from a river bluff. 2010). Wisconsin foot patrols and police have stopped over 50 intoxicated persons (fall 2006 through February 2010) from approaching the river late at night. people are still referring to this instance as the work of a serial killer. using firsthand accounts (La Crosse Police. Photos clearly depict a single set of footprints leading in the snow out onto the river's ice. and are more likely to drink to get drunk or binge drink. or dying in a dormitory room from acute alcohol intoxication (e. Most all victims were intoxicated at the time of the near-drowning. 2001). Intoxicated victims can and do fall in the river. 14. suicide attempts. No other footprints are in evidence (Hardie. La Crosse. where according to USA Today. though not typically well-documented. p. Eyewitnesses were present for several of these instances.. The footprints end at the water's edge. Inebriates who stagger away from bars are more likely to walk or stagger downhill because it is easier. However. p.

2004). Two errors in observation come to mind. UT. & Maitre. 2004). GHB seems less relevant since alcohol alone can cause effects similar to those associated with GHB. 16. The deaths in other countries are never linked by nefarious activity. 2006). criteria. (CDC. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in people aged 15-24 (CDC. Second. First. but by climate. such as loss of muscle coordination. 1973). GHB and other substances do not stay in the body very long (Zvosec. The drowning of college students is not limited by region. Hechler. groupthink may be at work. this is simply an untested and un-testable supposition. Instead. 17. the point of total inebriation. 2008). Twenty-five percent of all suicides are immediately preceded by alcohol use (Goodwin. States such as AZ. Presence of GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyric acid) in the victims’ bodies does not indicate whether these victims were maliciously drugged or they knowingly administered the substance themselves. the decomposition process can release additional GHB into the system (Teter & Guthrie. In some cases GHB was detected alongside high levels of alcohol in the deceased (Richmond. etc. Kemmel. Binge drinking is a strong predictor of actual suicide attempts (Windle. A highly decorated and well seasoned lead homicide investigator from the largest city in the United States acts as the central authority in the © Copyright 2010 Center for Homicide Research Page 6 of 12 . and that it was a drug not detectible by autopsy (Kaye. While some of these drowning victims do evidence GHB presence. with regard to people who believe this serial killer theory. The wonderful thing about science is that it helps to eliminate bias from empirical observations through the use of definitions. It happens in the United Kingdom (Powell. Perpetuation of the serial murder theory is perplexing to scientists who routinely use critical thought and the systematic method to obtain results. 2008). 18. 1999). One claim being made is that drowning victims were drugged by the offenders prior to their abduction to obtain control over the victim. just the accidental behavior of inexperienced and intoxicated youths. 2001) and Canada as well (The Edmonton Journal. 2005). 1877/2009). 2001). Observational bias continues to be a problem however. these deaths actually may be suicides. a bias may occur in the form of a belief that may become fixed and resistant to change. the holders of such a belief are resistant to change. This is because belief is not founded on facts in the same way reason is (Pierce. In some instances. all lack cases due to their absence of water in a desert climate. there is no evidence to support that the drugging was malicious. Andriamampandry. 1972). and NV. Though typically produced in small amounts. dizziness. GHB is a naturally produced chemical in the human body (Gobaille. This problematic claim is not falsifiable unless investigators were purposefully looking for a specific suspected toxin. Groupthink is the condition by which observers are unduly influenced by the apparent authority of other observers thereby creating a form of peer pressure to conform their viewpoints (Janis. 2010). Malicious drugging of victims is unsupportable by the evidence. protocols and procedures. No matter what new information is presented.

the lead smiley face investigator said. dragons.com. our fears © Copyright 2010 Center for Homicide Research Page 7 of 12 . blogs such as Kristi Piehl's sfkillers. myths. and hatred onto these beings. This information vacuum becomes the breeding ground of rumors. When I retire. just try to prove that Patrick wasn't some drunk kid that fell into the river. an "Emmy-award winning" investigative news reporter continues coverage of the serial killer theory on her personal news blog.and she [Pat's mom] said. Emotions are so intense that people become blinded to logic and to reason. Emotional investment of an authority figure further perpetuates this misguided theory. whether the aftermath of a loved one's abrupt drowning. Myths and urban legends are both perpetuated and dispelled with the advent of the Internet. 25). It is also fed by our media's lack of resources. Martians. UFOs. 'I promise you. a clear sign of emotional entanglement (CNN).' And I said. to dig deeply into what actually happens when each of these deaths occurs (Gans. In times of great uncertainty. Over-identification with either the victim.com or snopes. 17). or the community's struggle to cope with rapid technological change. 2008. the first case. Monsters of the past have included Big Foot. sadness. and to exclude contradictory information. Monster mentality is fed in part by the secrecy of "ongoing investigations" (Morton & Hilts.. or perhaps resolve. During a CNN interview. 2008a). 2003). Still other observers are affected by their emotions. or the victim's family. which is repeated and believed as true (Goode. This is especially true for family members and friends who are deeply wounded by the loss of their loved one. Hickey. the Boogy Man. 2006. 2005..com receive thousands of comments on posts that inform proponents of recent news. 'Please. In the case of non-recreational drowning investigations. 1994. 1996. Even the media accounts become emotionally embroiled in the story. p. Homicide and other forms of death then become mysteries. Pat McNeil in New York back in 1997. p. Death investigation is one area inherently in great need of public explanation but often lacking in available credible knowledge. This detective went on to say that he went so far as to even mortgage his own house to pay for the investigation. emotional involvement is also clearly an issue. society has always needed to produce monsters. While many myths are verifiable on websites such as urbanlegends. "Well. witches and the like. I'll prove that your son wasn't that individual and that he was abducted and murdered'" (CNN Transcript. and all forms of monster-making. I give you my word. xxxii). legends. obviously that became very emotional and connected to the family. Kristi Piehl. 2004). 1). to help explain the unexplainable (Jenkins. The expansion of the Internet allows audiences to narrow their information consumption to specialized sources that meet their interests and needs (Tewksbury. To prevent this. Media exposure then amplifies the detective's authority thus solidifying the ability to convince interested parties of the conspiratorial claim. 2005). even after having been laid-off (Gustafson. p. we feel a need to project our excessive fears. Throughout history. often called folk devils. p. News reports confirm a certain public image of the events and those who perpetuate them. 55). online communities also grow around the proponents of certain urban legends.Smiley Face Killers case (Piehl. p. In the case of the smiley face murder theory. investigators are warned "not to become emotionally involved" in their investigations (Geberth. can cloud the investigator's ability to think clearly and to remain impartial. As a culture. 2008.

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Dan McJunkin.S. From an overlook at Beartooth Pass (U. Montana (looking Northwest). but easily misconstrued as sinister. Smiley is 16 miles south of Red Lodge. These are an example of two co-occurring events. Hwy. Forest Service of Custer National Forest's Beartooth Ranger District. Poster is located in Red Lodge. © Copyright 2010 Center for Homicide Research Page 12 of 12 . a mountain stream. Montana of unidentified human remains discovered 16 miles south of Red Lodge on U. Appendix Smilies are everywhere. reports the smiley face was created as early as 1984. It consists of painted white rocks. unrelated by time. August 2008. Carbon County. According to Jeff Gildehaus. 212). the smiley is about 50 feet in diameter and has existed since before 1992.S. located on Glacier Lake Road.S. This site is near the north gate to Beartooth Pass and only one third of a mile from Rock Creek. Carbon County Undersheriff. Hwy. of the U. 212 in 2004.