I’m not big on conspiracy theories.  They sound interesting but the moment you start digging for actual facts you are almost certainly going to be disappointed.  There is one so-called conspiracy theory that has been digging at me for a long time, something I’ve been following on a surface level at least for many years.  It is commonly referred to as the Smiley Face killers theory.

Retired NYPD detectives Anthony Duarte and Kevin Gannon held a press conference in 2008 to make the public aware of a dozens of deaths that are officially listed as accidental drownings, deaths that the two former cops allege are actually murders linked to one another.  “I believe we’re looking at an organized group that has a hierarchy and is involved in murder and other criminal activity,” Gannon said.  Such a revelation would, if true, re-write a large portion of what we think we know about criminology.  Experts would tell us that serial killers don’t work together in teams, in fact in extremely rare instances we have only seen them work in pairs.

Unless of course these are not serial killers per se but rather something else entirely.

Starting around 1997, a statistically odd number of educated white males have died in and around the water mostly focused around the Great Lakes region of North America (to include Canada) and Eastern Coastal cities like New York and Boston.  Other similar deaths pop up in Arizona and the pacific northwest.  Taken together, our sample size encompasses over a hundred individuals meeting the criteria listed above.  According to law enforcement agencies, these are not murders but accidental drownings that involve inebriated young men falling into the water and drowning.

There is a multitude of reasons why this explanation makes absolutely no sense and to understand one really has to begin digging into the case studies.  The main resource for this is “Missing 411: A sobering coincidence” by David Paulides whose fact-based research sets a standard for this investigation, one that eschews speculation and conspiracy theory.  Now fair warning, Paulides is a retired police officer who became a Sasquatch researcher prior to getting interested in missing persons cases, but his research sticks to the facts and is helpful for investigating this subject.

Here is a quick rundown of some very odd reasons why the accident or suicide theory does not add up, aside from the obvious demographic pattern represented by the victims.  Many of the men did not die in the water as coroner’s reports reveal.  In some cases they were missing for a week, but were only actually in the water for 48-hours prior to their remains being discovered.  In other words, they were being held captive before being drowned.  Some of the victims appear to have been drugged prior to their disappearance and have tested positive for the “date-rape” drug post-mortem.

Coinciding with the fact that many did not actually die in the water, nearly twenty victims were found by police or search parties in areas which had been previously searched, indicating that the victim did not die in that location.

The Smiley Faced killers theory gets its name because smiley face graffiti sometimes appears at the scene of where the remains are found.  What this actually means is inconclusive, as graffiti frequently appears in cities, under overpasses, and so on.  While this piece of evidence may or may not link the victims with a perpetrator, the other pieces of evidence are far more compelling.  It appears that the police have been strongly denying any insinuation that there is a serial killer on the loose, even though some of the drownings have now been re-classified as homicides.

Many theories have been advanced, including the argument that none of this is actually happening and it is just a lot of hot air and hysteria.  The FBI’s ViCAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program) office that gathers statistics on homicides nationwide claims that there is nothing odd going on here, although ViCAP has historically had a less than stellar success rate, much of which is due to poor reporting methods and inter-agency bureaucracy.  To really get the full argument for and against the so-called Smiley Face killers theory, one really needs to read the Paulides book as the evidence is too lengthy to cover in an adequate manner in this article.

Having examined the publicly available data myself and assessed various explanations offered, it is my opinion that there is in fact something nefarious taking place around these deaths.  I would further offer that there are bad actors involved and some form of institutionalized intelligence is orchestrating the murders.  By analyzing the murders themselves, we can draw some inferences as to the organizational structure behind the killings.

The choice of victims indicates a fetishization behind what would be mission-based murders.  The killers usually choose well-educated white males as their victims for an ideological or religious reason.  There appear to be no political linkages between victims or institutional bonds between them aside from that many are college students.  Two victims in Boston both served in the Navy, some stayed at the same hotel, some disappeared within a week of each other, but these links seem circumstantial, the only thing that would link them together is the killer(s) and the manner in which he, she, or they targeted the victims.

The killers are also hyper-competent.  Whoever they are, they represent something that we haven’t seen yet, something that is not yet described by criminal psychology.  Perhaps, there is a small sub-set of serial killers that is in fact predisposed to working together and whose behavior is not oriented towards a deep-seated desire to be viewed by the public, discovered by law enforcement, or a hope of being caught.  The level of competence, tight operational security, and seeming occult leanings suggested by the choice of victims leads me to believe that these are absolutely not serial killers of the variety that we are familiar with such as John Wayne Gacy or Ed Gein.

This leads us to another uncomfortable question: what group of people have the institutional knowledge required to pull off a long running string of murders while cunningly avoiding CCTV cameras, leaving behind no physical evidence, and alluding the detection of law enforcement?  Granted, I have my own cognitive bias based on my experience and history.  A rogue operator is not out of the question.  The possibility that someone from the intelligence community, special operations, or even within law enforcement itself has gone off the reservation cannot be discounted out of hand.  Such a case would not be unprecedented as former Delta Force operator Marshall L. Brown was discovered to be a fairly prolific serial rapist who used his urban climbing and lock picking skills to break into women’s homes.

However, it would also be a huge mistake as well as arrogant to think that only members from our own community could be competent.  One need not have insider knowledge or be a highly trained government operative to elude police.  Reading textbooks and case studies on forensic science, evidence collection, and criminology would suffice.  A rogue operator could be plausible, but a group of rogue operators turned serial killers seems extremely improbable.  Some of us are more moral than others, but we are all institutionalized by the system, and wholesale unsanctioned murder within America is something alien to us.

Another question is why these murders begin to appear in clusters largely beginning in 1997?  Similar murders in the Great Lakes region actually date back to the 1700’s but the big surge begins in ’97 and continues to this day.  Why?  I would hypothesis that the game changer that took place here was the internet.  The internet existed previously for a long time and pedophiles were using dial-up modems to trade child pornography in the 1980’s.  Yet, it wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1990’s that the internet truly became popular for the masses.  This advancement in communications technology would allow previously isolated individuals with similar ideas to suddenly find each other and gather into semi-clandestine cliques.

The serial killer epidemic no one is talking about

Read Next: The serial killer epidemic no one is talking about

Cullen Fortney was nearly a victim, but survived and was interviewed by Kevin Gannon.  One moment the 21-year-old was having a drink in a bar.  Then, after a prolonged period of missing time that lasted from 2AM to 6:45AM, he woke up floating downstream in the freezing Mississippi river.  Swimming to shore, he staggered up to the street and by some miracle was right in front of a hospital which he entered at about 7AM.  If he had been in the water, or exposed to the elements much longer, he certainly would have died.  These are not normal accidental drownings, Cullen was drugged and thrown into the water with the intention of drowning him.

At this point you are no doubt wanting me to reveal who the killers are and solve the mystery for you, but I can’t.  The best I can offer is speculation as to who the killers are. As I noted previously, their method of operation and the data points gathered over a long period of time indicate a well-organized, competent, and intelligent small group of people.  Their actions are planned in detail and rehearsed ahead of time.  They have not made any big mistakes over the course of two decades, indicating discipline and unit cohesion.  There is a central belief system that binds these individuals together, although I cannot be sure of what it is.

I would speculate that the killers are a type of cult.  Technically, they are serial killers but not the kind we are used to dealing with.  They may be a cult, but also not the type of cult we are used to thinking of, such as the Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate cults.  This cult may be a subset of an existing cult or religion, one that has a two-tiered belief system, one which is for public consumption and one which is only for a small group of hardcore believers within the organization.  The well-educated and athletic young men that are chosen as victims are probably seen as ritual sacrifices to this group’s god, gods, demons, or whatever it is they believe in.  What is done to the victims during the “lost time” between the when they are drugged and when they are thrown into the water remains unknown.  Sometimes it is a period of hours, sometimes it is days.

Furthermore, I would speculate that a portion of this group’s organization exists above the surface and has public visibility.  This would help ensure the group’s social camouflage, better allowing it to blend in and providing plausible deniability to the killers for being near each other at certain locations at certain times.

This cult is likely to have been in existence for a long period of time, or members of the cult have a long history of murder behind them.  The organization carries with it an institutional knowledge that is passed down from the elders to the younger generation.  How recruiting and induction is initiated, I can’t possibly know; although I would stick to my thesis that it began on the internet in the mid-1990’s or at least ramped up at that time.  What the core beliefs of the cult are and what motivations individual members have can also only be hypothesized, but I believe that there are occult beliefs represented.

It all sounds like an episode of True Detective, and the amount of red herrings such as the occult references and smiley faces make cases like this that much harder to sift through.  It is easy to pass from a fact-based investigation, to a wild conspiracy theory, to outright hysteria resembling the Salem witch trials all in the blink of an eye.  For instance, I’m old enough to recall the insane grumbling of Ted Gunderson, wild claims about Dungeons and Dragons, and TV talk shows having guests on talking about how Satanists were abducting children from a daycare center via a secret tunnel for ritualistic abuse.  One has to be extremely careful about wandering down the rabbit holes.

I would also speculate that an intelligent serial killer or killers would float obscene occult evidence in front of our eyes intentionally, in order to distract the public and throw law enforcement off their scent.  For now, there are only alcohol related accidental drownings with no connection to one another.  There is no such thing as Smiley Face killers according to the authorities.

Perhaps that means that everything is going according to plan.

If I were assigned to investigate these murders, one hypothesis that I would look at is whether or not there was a specific special target within the grouping of so-called accidental drownings.  In other words, I would be asking if there was not a high value target hidden within the cluster of murders.  The killers could very well be inoculating the police and the public to killings that fit a certain profile, and with that accomplished they are then going to move on to their high priority target knowing that his murder will be overlooked as they have reshaped our culture and desensitized their area of operations.  The serial killer thesis has already been beta-tested in the media and has been rejected by the authorities, giving a green light for those looking to take advantage of the situation.

Serial killers usually don’t present a national security threat, but one day they might.

(lead picture courtesy of the author)