The Smiley Face Murders: A (Totally Ridiculous) Crime Theory
A lot of you reading this are crime junkies or serial killer enthusiasts. As in, you find serial killers interesting to read or hear about. I don't mean you're all like "serial killers, hell yeah, stab stab stab." Well, if that describes you (either one of those, really), you may well have already heard about the smiley face murder theory.
For those of you who don’t have a suspiciously strong interest in murder theories/actual murder, let me bring you up to speed. A couple retired detectives and a professor theorize that there's a network of psychos who like to drown white dudes in college (meaning college dudes, not “drown in your filthy, filthy dorm bathroom you Midwestern specimen”). A bunch of college-aged males disappeared after a night out drinking, with their bodies later turning up in nearby rivers, lakes, or very, very, very large rain puddles. How many college-aged males? Depending on which write-up you're looking at, either 40, 45, 70, or even 250.
Near many of the locations where the bodies were discovered, a graffiti smiley face turned up. All these cases occurred between the late '90s and the early '10s. Most of these deaths were ruled as drownings by investigators, but the theory states that not only were these deaths foul play (dun dun dun), but that they are all the work of a group of killers operating across the Midwest (dun dun dun dun), who communicate on the dark web (dun dun dun dun DUN). An illuminati of bro killers, essentially.
Why are we looking at this theory right now? Well first of all, it’s the spooky month, so it seemed thematic. More importantly though, the theory seems to have gotten quite a bit of attention in the last few years, with a documentary and a movie by Bret Easton Ellis, the mind that gave us Patrick Bateman, famed Huey Lewis buff and punctilious murderer of Jared Leto. So, ready for some good Halloween frights? Well, nope, get ready for the complete opposite. I'm here to reassure you that the theory is most likely rubbish.
Now, despite the number of episodes of Criminal Minds I’ve seen, I’m not an expert on serial killers. Or crime more generally. Or keeping my single plant alive, or being a responsible adult, really basically anything. But setting aside all that, I am still an armchair theorist of anything that happens to cross my mind. In this case, here's what my theorizing has led me to conclude. Yes, there's plenty of evidence in quite a few of the cases that the victims did not simply drunkenly drown while they peed in bodies of water. There's evidence they were in fact murdered. But a cabal of killers who really have a thing for young white guys isn’t behind it.
Running through the evidence real quick, what potentially connects the cases? Well, the victims were all “smart, athletic, popular, college-age white men who went out drinking and never came home,” as The Daily Beast writes. “Weeks later, their bodies were discovered in lakes or rivers with smiley-face or other graffiti specifically connected to the group spray-painted nearby,” it continues. That paragraph claims about 70 deaths were connected in this way, and 30 of those had the date rape drug GHB in their system. Other sources claim that only about a dozen of the deaths had the smiley face graffiti found near the bodies. While almost all the deaths are officially accidental drownings, there are a few that have been reclassified as murders. Multiple cases have the bodies showing evidence of strangulation.
Clearly, the cases have some similarities. However, they span twenty years, and the U.S. has just under 4,000 fatal accidental drownings per year. That means from 1995 to 2015, the most generous time frame for this theory, there were 80,000 drownings. I’m not a math person, but it seems to me entirely statistically plausible that 40 or 45 or 70 cases out of 80,000 are going to have similarities, right?
Even the highest potential number connected to this, 250, is still less than one third of one percent of the total drownings (0.3125% to get really, really exact). My point is, again, with so many accidental drownings, aren’t a lot of them going to be similar? There can’t be that many ways to accidentally drown, and the profile all of these victims fit isn’t an uncommon type of person, particularly in the homogenous, white with dairy Midwest.
Now this is where someone says, “But the smiley faces!” Yes, the smiley faces. Well, first, not every victim linked to this theory was found with a smiley face nearby. At most, half of them were. Second, it’s not like the smiley faces were found on the bodies. They were found sprayed on buildings, bridges, and whatever other things graffiti artists like to spray paint on.
And smiley faces are pretty common bits of graffiti even when no dead bodies are nearby, right up there with peace symbols and skulls. As criminal profiler Pat Brown puts it (she's one of the biggest skeptics of the theory), “It’s not an unusual symbol … If you look in an area five miles square, I bet you could find a smiley face.” It is weirdly coincidental, sure, but still coincidental.
If you don’t buy what I've said in this article, whoa, not cool, haven’t we earned your trust? But seriously, good for you for not automatically believing the first thing you read about a topic. You might want to also check in with the FBI or basically all of the law enforcement experts who have looked into the theory and laughed it off, or analysis by reporters that conclude the same thing.
Were some of the deaths probably murders? Yeah it seems so. Were they all? No, it doesn’t appear so. And most importantly, were they all done by the same person or group? Most assuredly not. Unless you're talking about that most terrifying group known as "water"—which, now that you mention it, suspiciously has had some contact with every murder victim in modern American history.
Top image: Linnaea Mallette