A Killer with a Smile
“Now this is puzzling — the so-called Smiley Faced murders involve the deaths of dozens of men. But are they really homicides? The debate has torn families and law enforcement apart.” -Larry King (Aired March 26, 2009)
In 2009 retired New York police detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte were guests on “Larry King Live” in which the men discussed a unique serial killer they believed was preying on young, athletic men, many of them college students. The victims came from several cities spanning over multiple states where the detectives argued numerous men had disappeared while out drinking with friends, only to turn up dead and floating in a river several weeks if not months later. All of the victims disappeared while in heavily public places seemingly safe with people they knew, and once their bodies were eventually found, all had the same questionable autopsies. But that wasn’t the weirdest thing these deaths had in common with each other. Gannon and Duarte told Larry King they were certain that whoever was killing these men was also leaving behind a rather odd calling card painted somewhere nearby where bodies were found. It might be on the side of a tree, maybe a rock, or perhaps the side of a bridge, and it might not always be immediately visible but more often than not, a smiley face could be found.
There were too many from Gannon and Duarte’s point of view to be coincidental but there’s one problem, the former detectives have yet to prove these men were murdered let alone that their deaths were the work of a serial killer. With very few to take them seriously, Gannon and Duarte’s argument has been rendered a theory only.
An Investigation Begins
For Kevin Gannon the Smiley Face investigation began twelve years before the Larry King interview in 1997 when Gannon was still working in the Missing Persons Unit with the New York police. At the time, Gannon had been investigating the disappearance of 21-year-old Fordham University student, Patrick McNeil. According to The Observer, a Fordham University newspaper, McNeil had been out at a local bar called “The Dapper Dog” when he started vomiting and decided to call it a night and go home. A friend had offered to leave with McNeil and the pair were planning to take the subway home together but for whatever reason McNeil left without her and was seen stumbling up a sidewalk alone. But McNeil wasn’t alone. A parked van was seen pulling out of its spot on the street and closely follow him until both took the same turn and were out of view. This was the last anyone had seen of Patrick McNeil until his lifeless body was spotted floating in the East River near Brooklyn two months later.
His remains however, were problematic. McNeil had ligature marks around his wrists, burns in various places of his body, and the rate decomposition was off. Gannon did not believe McNeil had been dead that entire time nor did anything about his death appear to be a suicide. All that being said, to Gannon’s surprise it was ultimately concluded that McNeil, given his alcohol level of 0.16 had managed to stumble into the river himself and his death was nothing more than a tragic alcohol related accident. Stalking vans, ligature marks, and inconsistent decomposition levels aside, Gannon felt that given how intoxicated McNeil was; this was precisely why he wouldn’t be able to make it to the river himself. For example, to even get to the river McNeil would have had to cross the FDR East River Drive (FDR Drive for short) which according to The Observer, is difficult to do on foot sober let alone completely shit-faced. This is because McNeil would have had to cross six lanes, three in each direction in the city that never sleeps. Gannon knew McNeil had been murdered but he wasn’t aware that this might be a serial killer until almost exactly one year later to the day when another young male was pulled out of the same river, and in the same area as Patrick McNeil.
It was New Year’s Eve 1998 and 22-year-old Larry Andrews went out with friends to celebrate in Times Square. While researching, Andrews there were conflicting accounts as to when Andrews went missing, but a New York Times issue published Friday, February 13, 1998 mentions a Lawrence Robert Andrews Jr. that became separated from his group and vanished shortly after the ball dropped. The friends made an effort to locate Andrews but in the chaos of the evening they were unable to find him. Andrews was reported missing bringing him to Kevin Gannon’s attention, and his family quickly hung thousands of fliers around the city, and set up a toll-free number with four lines staffed by hundreds of volunteers for anyone that had any information.
While many calls came in with possible sightings of Andrews, none of them were actually him, and no matter how many times his parents tried to retrace his steps, it was impossible to know which direction Andrews went. But forty-three days after his disappearance on the early morning of February 12th a jogger happened to spot a body floating in the water off Owl’s Head Park near where McNeil had been discovered a year earlier. The search for Larry Andrews had come to an end as he was pulled from the river just four days before his sister’s wedding.
This time ligature marks were not mentioned but the condition of Andrews’ body once again presented problems. Like McNeil, his decomposition levels did not seem consistent with the amount of time Andrews had been missing and again, not everyone agreed. The Medical Examiner ruled his death accidental; another drunken young man that partied too hard, wasn’t aware of their limits, and tragically, but accidentally fell into the river and drowned. Gannon however, didn’t buy it. At the very least, Gannon felt Andrews’ death was probable homicide as there were too many eerie similarities between Patrick McNeil and Larry Andrews to label them as merely coincidental. The Andrews family hired a private investigator and every avenue imaginable was looked into from drug use to gang activity yet nothing was found. Andrews was a clean-cut guy with no known enemies nor had he been involved in any criminal activity. Three days after his body was found, Larry Andrews was laid to rest in his hometown of Brewster, NY.
Fast Forward to Chicago where once again it was New Year’s Eve. For those of you that remember 1999 then you remember the chaos surrounding what everyone called “Y2K”. While the idea of morphing into the 21st century was spooky to some, others like 21-year-old finance major Brian Welzien hadn’t given it much thought. Welzien had not made any plans for New Year’s and only decided to go out when he realized both his roommates would be working that evening. Out of sheer boredom, Welzien made a last-minute decision to join four other friends in downtown Chicago where the group had reserved a hotel room and had planned to immerse themselves in the city’s night life. As the evening went on however, Brian’s friends began to notice there was something off about Welzien. While hanging out at the Irish Eyes Bar Welzien had managed to take down a long Island iced tea before he suddenly began to act very strangely. He was nauseous, incoherent, had trouble standing, and before long he was violently vomiting. In The Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt for Justice one of Welzien’s friends that was among the group that night described Brian’s movements as “Jell-O-like”.After vomiting several times, the five friends decided to call it a night and take Brian back to the hotel. When the group arrived, Welzien again felt the need to vomit and the group pulled over to let Welzien out. By the time his friends parked the car and walked back to the entrance of the hotel, Welzien was gone. Two and a half months later Brian Welzien’s body was pulled from shore of Lake Michigan.
Once again Brian’s remains posed more questions than answered. Welzien had been missing for seventy-seven days by the time his body was found yet his organs had remained intact and his lungs were curiously devoid of water and sand. Brian had become mysteriously ill the night he disappeared yet his autopsy showed no drugs in his system at the time of his death. There were no undiagnosed health issues and with a blood alcohol level of .084 Welzien was barely over the legal limit to drive. A doorman at the hotel said Welzien was drunk and vomiting in the street but his friends continue to argue he had only one drink the whole evening, maybe two. The location where Brian Welzien was found was also troublesome. Welzien’s body had managed to travel over thirty miles from downtown Chicago to the shore in Gary, Indiana which Gannon concluded was possible but unlikely that it would have taken him so long to get there. But how did Welzien get into the water to begin with? Welzien’s hotel was not far from Lake Michigan and Gannon postulated that even if Welzien could make it the two blocks to the edge of the city on foot there was still one obstacle in the way; Lake Shore Drive.
Two years later on Halloween night 21-year-old college student Christopher Jenkins put on a costume and went out with his girlfriend and a group of friends to the Lone Tree Bar and Grill in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It is difficult to say why exactly Jenkins left the bar but one story had him urinating on himself and the staff kicked him out. Another was that he was refused service and got mouthy with a bouncer, or they were off-duty security guards, or he wasn’t kicked out at all rather Jenkins stormed off after an argument with his girlfriend. Whatever the reason, it was very late, very cold, and Jenkins was very intoxicated when he took off leaving his wallet, keys, phone, his coat, and his girlfriend behind.
Jenkins’ blood alcohol level was well above the legal limit and police told his parents he had more than likely consumed too much and accidentally fallen into the river; or that he had purposely jumped from the Hennepin Avenue Bridge after a fight with his girlfriend. Jenkins however, was found in the water face up with his arms crossed across his chest with his shirt tucked in underneath his costume. Jenkins also still possessed both of his shoes and considering that they were slip-ons, it seems miraculous that he kept them on after taking a fall into the Mississippi. None of the surveillance footage on or near the Hennepin Avenue Bridge showed Jenkins either walking across it, falling from it, or being thrown from it yet police were satisfied he had fallen, drowned, and that was all there was to it. “He was murdered and thrown away like a piece of trash” his mother told CNN.
Three years later in March of 2006, right around the time Christopher Jenkins’ death was changed from undetermined to homicide, 24-year-old Matt Kruziki was also pulled from the Mississippi in a place ironically called “Deadman’s Slough” in East Dubuque, Illinois, on the border with Wisconsin and Iowa. Kruziki had been traveling with his neighbor, Curtis Lesniewski, and Like Christopher Jenkins, Kruziki was ejected from their chosen drinking establishment, in this case a strip club called the “River Queen” after which the friends became separated. Instead of contacting police the next morning when Kruziki failed to show up at their hotel, Lesniewski hopped in the car and started heading back home to Hartland, Illinois, only alerting the Kruziki family when the car he and Matt had been sharing ran out of gas.
His toxicology report showed Kruziki had very little to drink and had smoked some marijuana which could explain the daze-like state that other patrons reported Kruziki had been in. Not everyone can mix alcohol and marijuana and it is entirely possible that Kruziki was no exception and became ill. However, Brian Welzien had also exhibited daze-like behavior yet THC was never mentioned where Welzien was concerned.
Six months after the death of Matt Kruziki, 21-year-old Lucas (Luke) Homan, a student in his senior year at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse was pulled out of the Mississippi river three days after he disappeared from Oktoberfest. According to a local newspaper between 1997-2007 Homan was the eighth young man to be found dead and floating in the Mississippi. Like the others mentioned so far Gannon took issue with Homan’s autopsy report. For starters, Homan looked like he had taken a beating with what looked to Gannon to be defensive wounds to his arms and hands, but that the real damage had been done to his face. Supposedly, Homan’s face was badly bruised and Gannon concluded that other markings found on his face resembled something of a boot print. There was also Homan’s questionable decomposition levels which again suggested to Gannon that he had not been dead the entire seventy-two hours he had been missing. There was something else as well. Homan wasn’t much of a swimmer and had a genuine fear of the water. He had been aware of the other men that had been found in the river, perhaps he had heard Matt Kruziki’s name in the past few months and Homan discussed with a friend that he too thought these deaths were strange. “If you see the river, obviously you’re going the wrong way” he told a friend only the weekend before his own death, “you’d pretty much have to be a dummy”.
The Smiley Faces
The list of victims seems to go on and on. In fact, there is a website dedicated to them called Drowning in Coincidence which lists one man after another that has either disappeared, or disappeared and were later found dead and floating in water under suspicious circumstances. The men listed so far are only to name a few as Gannon argues the list of potential Smiley Face victims is quite extensive, and all of them have been labeled as undetermined or accidental drownings. But what about the smiley faces? Gannon and Duarte argue that smiley faces, hundreds of them have been appearing in the general areas where bodies were either located, or they may pop up near the bar where one of the victims was last seen. They might be obvious, largely spray-painted in bright and bold colors. Or they might be small, perhaps only seen if you happen to bend over and tie your shoe and look up in the right spot.
Bill Szostak told CNN he had found a white smiley face painted on a tree near the site where his son’s body was found back in 2007. 21-year-old Joshua Szostak disappeared after a night out celebrating a friend’s 21st birthday in downtown Albany, New York. His body was found floating in the Hudson River four months later.
In 2008 a red smiley face with horns was found painted inside a drainage tunnel near the site where the body of 19-year-old Abel Bolanos had been located.
Bolanos disappeared after attending a party on campus at Iowa State University where his body was found several days later floating in a lake near the school. Eerily written next to the smiley face were the words “Evil Happy Smiley Face Man”. In 2016 a silver smiley face appeared on the side of an electrical box outside of the Boston Police Department.
Above the face were three stars which spooked now retired police detective Joe Fisher who had heard of the theory, and was well aware that three young men, Zachary Marr, Eric Munsell, and Dennis Njoroge had recently been pulled out of the Charles River. Seven years earlier the body of William Hurley had been found in the same river. On October 8, 2009 Hurley attended a Boston Bruins game with friends at the TD Garden Center when he suddenly became brutally ill. Rather than make his friends leave the game, Hurley decided to call his girlfriend instead and was seen on camera stumbling out of the stadium.
Hurley managed to make the call but was not able to tell his girlfriend exactly where he was. That’s when another voice called out “99 Nashua Street!” before the phone went dead. Hurley disappeared and his smashed phone found a couple streets away was the only trace of him until six days later when his body was found in the Charles River; his keys and wallet still in his pockets. But what had caused Hurley’s sudden illness if not the alcohol? The answer can be found in his toxicology report. GHB, also known as Gamma-Hydroxybutyrate Acid is a drug used primarily to treat narcolepsy and cataplexy, but it can also be used recreationally in that if taken in small doses, it can produce a euphoric affect. However, if taken in access the drug can also cause dizziness, confusion, and often leads to blackouts. If taken with alcohol the effects can be even more alarming as this often causes severe vomiting and can lead to cardiac arrest and death. Its ability to make one lose consciousness is what attracts predators to its use as a “date-rape” drug which unfortunately became a popular thing to do in the late 1990’s. While GHB is a byproduct of the fermentation process which leaves small quantities of it in beer and wine, it is not enough to be considered dangerous or cause any strange side effects; especially if only a couple beers are consumed. GHB can also be overlooked in an autopsy and was only mentioned in Hurley’s case because the Medical Examiner was diligent and specifically went looking for it. Gannon couldn’t help but recall Brian Welzien, and how he had become so suddenly ill and stood brutally vomiting outside his hotel, disappearing only in the short time it took his friends to park the car. It was almost a decade after William Hurley’s death when curiosity took Joe Fisher down to the water’s edge of the Charles River where Hurley and others had been found. There along the banks Fisher claims there were smiley faces everywhere.
The smiley face in itself is not that uncommon certainly not in the 90’s which saw a revival of 1970’s fashion sporting symbols iconic of the era including peace signs and of course, smiley faces. Walmart began using it as their logo in 1990 which actually caused a lengthy lawsuit with an angry Frenchman that claimed he had created the smiley face logo (the yellow face with black eyes and mouth) when he started a business called The Smiley Face Company. While the smiley face company/Walmart/smiley face feud was going on, Forrest Gump (1994) hit the big screen and grossed almost $700 million at the box office.
Since apparently everyone went to see this movie, we’re all aware of the scene with Tom Hanks wiping his dirty face on a yellow t-shirt leaving behind the famous smile now known as “Smiley”, or “Mr. Smiley”, or as the Frenchman called it, “Le Smiley”. Giving Gannon and Duarte some credit though, killers have used the smiley face before. In 1990 an unidentified woman was found raped and murdered in the bathroom of a truck stop in Portland, Oregon. On the wall was a written confession to the murder signed only with a menacing smiley face. Over the next five years seven more women were murdered, and each time the media received a letter from the killer detailing the crimes, signing each one with the same portentous smiley face. Known in the media as “the Happy Face Killer”, Keith Hunter Jesperson was finally apprehended in 1995.
Jesperson wasn’t the only one to use the smiley face for sinister purposes. In 2002 Luke Helder, also known as the “Midwest Pipe Bomber” planted eighteen bombs across Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Colorado, and Texas covering some thirty-two-hundred miles before he was finally apprehended in Nevada. Helder was described by those that knew him as intelligent; a little weird perhaps but otherwise quiet, and polite. He was at the top of his class at the University of Wisconsin and had no criminal or violent history to speak of. It hasn’t been fully understood why Helder planned a cross-country bombing spree except to say that he suffers from schizoaffective disorder and for this, Helder was found incompetent to stand trial. What does this have to do with smiley faces? We need a map of Hedler’s bombings to answer that.
That’s right, Helder was attempting to bomb a giant smiley face across the United States. Fortunately, he was captured before he could complete the face. Gannon and Duarte have been oddly secretive about where exactly all these smiley faces, (in connection with the smiley face killer) are located. This is a bit weird given their attempts to convince the FBI as well as the public that the faces are part of the killers modus operandi. Gannon appeared on CNN with Anderson Cooper and showed only four smiley faces in pictures allegedly taken from crime scenes in states, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana yet continues to claim there are hundreds of them. In the case of Matt Kruziki, Gannon told ABC News the word “Sinsinawa” was found alongside a smiley face near where his body had been found and that this same word had been previously found with another face in Michigan. Gannon believes the word was a “clue for us or anyone who was paying attention to these drownings” to be in reference to Matt Kruziki as his body was supposedly found near “Sinsinawa Ave”. While Gannon argued this word definitively proved a link between the faces and the murders, nowhere in that article was there a photo of this face or the word he claimed to have found. Gannon also has never reached out to Matt Kruziki’s father regarding his son’s death which Bill Kruziki finds strange given his background in law enforcement.
In 2010 the Center for Homicide Research released a report titled Drowning the Smiley Face Murder Theory, in which they claim Gannon and Duarte’s research is bogus as there is no way to prove that the faces have anything to do with the drownings. The report doesn’t necessarily argue these men weren’t murdered, but that the faces may have been there before these men were killed, or showed up too long after. The face found near Abel Bolanos did not appear until fourteen months after his death. The report also argues that Gannon and Duarte are rather vague about the locations of said smiley faces and of the ones they have made public, the distance between the faces and the location of bodies is dubious. Because Gannon and Duarte don’t know exactly where these men entered the water, Criminologist Michael Arntfield argues it is impossible to know if the location of any given smiley face found near the river’s edge is significant or not. If the faces were the same size, same color, and certainly if there was something directly linking the face to the victim, only then would Gannon and Duarte be able to prove the faces actually mean something. Gannon told Heavy.com that in addition to the smiley faces his team has also found “twelve other distinct symbols” referring to gang graffiti but would not say what those symbols were or where they found them.
This brings us to the final aspect of the Smiley-Faced Murder Theory. Gannon and his team do not argue there is one lone killer committing all these crimes but an entire network of them. Rolling Stone called them a “gang-like organization of domestic terrorists” the main goal of which is to target, abduct, and murder college-age men.
The reason for this is due to the volume of suspected victims and that there are too many from Gannon’s point of view for there to only be one killer. Gannon has also argued that in some cities there were multiple murders in the same night. However, this contradicts his argument that the killers like to hold onto their victims for a period of time before murdering and dumping their bodies in the water. Regardless, Gannon told FOX News Chicago that he considers the Smiley-Faced killers “the most dangerous domestic terrorist group in the United States today” claiming the killers have struck in Chicago alone several times. He told Heavy.com in 2019 that the killers moved with “military precision” meaning members of the group possibly have military backgrounds. The faces, Gannon has argued are the killers taunting and laughing at investigators for failing to catch them and what Gannon considered to be sloppy police work. But this begs the question, what does Gannon and his team know that they aren’t sharing with local investigators or the FBI that might otherwise overturn the ruling in the deaths of these men? “They don’t have a clue what we’ve got” exclaimed Lee Gilbertson, a member of Gannon’s team in response to the report released by the Center for Homicide Research.
Other former detectives have also taken a look at the Smiley-Faced Murder Theory. In 2017 retired Milwaukee Detective Steven Spingola wrote a book called Staggered Paths: Strange Deaths in the Badger State in which he discussed the theory and the “unfound hype” it caused when the real killer was alcohol. Spingola focused specifically on those killed in Wisconsin such as Luke Homan and Chris Jenkins and stated on CBS 58 News in Milwaukee that out of the thirty-one cases he had personally reviewed, there were only a couple that pointed to homicide. Spingola does not believe a gang of murderers are responsible for these deaths and the Smiley-Faced killer, rather one or multiple is nothing more than an “urban myth”, spreading the way it did because that’s what scary stories do. “Clearly, they stretched the truth in some of these cases” Spingola told CBS 58 News concerning Gannon’s investigation. The exception however, was Luke Homan, the one that disappeared from Oktoberfest in 2006. Spingola stated that Homan’s death was probably a homicide but not because of some crazed organization of killers but perhaps a questionable roommate instead. Spingola stated that Luke Homan’s roommate had been seen right after Homan’s disappearance in sort of a disarray as though he’d been in a fight with visible injuries and blood on his feet. While it is possible that Gannon is wrong about a serial murderer, at least in Wisconsin, he may not have been wrong about the sloppy police work.
So, are the Smiley-Faced killers real? No one really knows but as we’ve discussed at length there are different schools of thought on this one. Even though the FBI has rejected the theory, Gannon and Duarte have managed to find their supporters including several of the family members of the victims involved. Gannon has stated before that he has a fear of copycats in this case and has used this as an excuse not to release all the information that he and his team have found. Yet if that’s true, Gannon has spoken about the theory so publicly and attracted so much attention to it that in 2019, he and Duarte became the lead investigators in their own show on the Oxygen Channel, The Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt for Justice. The following year low-budget horror movie starring Crispin Glover was released and take a guess what it was called.
Rather Gannon and his team have real proof of the Smiley-Faced killer or not, there is one thing that sadly remains the same in all these cases. These people are still dead, and regardless of how they ended up in the water their parents are still left with that emptiness knowing their sons are never coming home. Even if the theory turns out to be bogus and Gannon made the whole thing up for publicity, a lesson can still be taken from it. When you go out make sure your phone is charged should you need to call emergency services, or give directions as to where you are. Tell someone where you’re going and who you will be with. Drink responsibly and by that, I mean be aware of your surroundings and drink with people you trust, people you know will take care of you, and make sure you get home safely. It’s easier to apologize later and buy your friends lunch rather than face a possible tragic alternative. Ladies, this is for you as well. Predators are everywhere just waiting for their prey to let their guard down. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to offer assistance to others. Calling someone an Uber might cost you some money but it might also keep that person alive. Although law enforcement agencies have rejected Gannon’s findings, he and his team maintain the killers are real and they’ve grown bolder as murders are becoming more frequent. When Gannon was asked about his show on the Oxygen Channel, The Smiley Face Killers; The Hunt for Justice Gannon told the reporter “We thought, you know what, let’s put out what we have in the court of public opinion. And if the people don’t think there is anything here, then you know, that’s it”.
Managing Editor: The Moratorium