Skip to main content

Forensic News and Education Blog

Debunking the "Smiley Face Murders" Hypothesis

Nearly ubiquitous in western culture, the smiley face symbol has been given a more sinister implication by a couple of detectives who seek to connect seemingly disparate cases into one of the most prolific cases of serial murder in history. To be quite frank, it is also the most asinine idea I have heard in modern forensics. We are talking about Ancient Aliens level departures from reality and vacuous attempts at creating links that make some of the conspiracy hypotheses surrounding the Kennedy assassination seem simple and well supported.


Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, retired NYPD detectives, put forth the idea in 2008 trying to tie roughly 40-45 deaths across eleven states starting in 1997 and ranging from New York to Minnesota. The “victim profile” consists of athletic, good university students who are mostly popular white males. The name of the alleged killer is drawn from the supposed discovery of graffiti depicting a smiley face at the alleged “dump sites” for as many as 22 cases where the bodies were placed into the water. There has also been occasional discovery of the word “sinsiniwa”.


The “profile” of the alleged victims has led Gannon to state that perhaps the “perpetrator” is possibly ugly, clumsy or lacking intelligence with envy being a motive. This is almost as fanciful a claim as saying that Jack the Ripper had to be a surgeon because he was good with a knife. That argument is a huge pet peeve of mine and will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.

I literally snorted soda out my nose when I first read that Gannon had the nerve to not only cook up a series of murders than were not murders but to try to propose a “profile” of the killer or killers. I sent that to an ex-girlfriend of mine who is qualified as a forensic psychologist and she had pretty much the same reaction (a solid 30 seconds of snorting and laughing) before pointing out that a person with such motivations would be much more inclined to display and mutilate their victims to show that he was in fact more “powerful” than his victims. People dumping bodies into rivers after actual homicides are trying to get rid of evidence or hide their crime. That is not the action of someone seeking to overcome insecurity or whatever else Gannon postulates. Gannon has repeatedly failed to provide any evidence to back up his claims. This is not even a theory. A theory must be testable and verifiable through evidence. This is, at best, a hypothesis and one that would not win you even a prize at a first grade science fair at that.


Nearly all of the supposed cases have happened in the northern states in winter. The proponents point to a supposed lack of a similar pattern of alcohol related drownings in the south or during the summer has been pointed out as “suspicious”. First of all….let’s look at the actual statistics on drowning. Drowning the cause of 1.38 deaths per 100,000 people when you average it across the nation using the WISQARS injury database from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I looked into the statistics between 2001 and 2016.Here is the basic breakdown:
67,193 deaths
83.5% accidental
9.4% suicide
6% undetermined manner
1.2% homicides


Regarding those homicidal drownings, the vast majority are in children under the age of nine and even more concentrated in those under the age of five. When you compare it to accidental drownings it shows the dichotomy. Accidental drownings reach their lowest frequency in school age children (10-14 years old) before spiking in the 14-29 year ranges.

The rates of accidental and alcohol-related drownings are HIGHER in the south (especially Arkansas, Alabama, Lousiana, Mississippi and Florida). All of the mentioned states have higher rates of alcohol-related drowning than the supposed northern hunting grounds of the alleged killer(s) in the cases we are talking about.  The statistics reported in the research journal Injury Prevention by Driscoll, Harrison and Steenkamp (Review of the role of alcohol in drowning associated with recreational aquatic activity. Inj Prev 2004; 10:107-113) show that 30-70% of drowning deaths in the US have alcohol in their systems. They point out that a person with a blood alcohol level (BAL) of 0.10 g/dL (for reference: 0.08 g/dL is considered legally intoxicated for the purposes of driving in the US) increases your odds of dying from drowning roughly ten times. The population attributable risk- what amounts to the percentage of deaths that can be directly blamed on being intoxicated- is 10 to 30%.


As for state specific variation:
New York: (Browne M, Lewis-Michl E, Stark A. Unintentional drownings among New York State residents, 1988–1994. Public Health Rep 2003;118:448–58). 49% of drownings while swimming among persons had some degree of alcohol in their system. A quantitative BAL (a specified amount present; as opposed to qualitative “no alcohol present” versus “alcohol present” findings) was reported in 52% of cases with 40% having more that 0.05 g/dL and 35% having more than 0.10 g/dL.

California  Wintemute et al. The epidemiology of drowning in adulthood: implications for prevention. Am J Prev Med 1988;4:343–8): Among persons over 20 years old “wading, swimming or diving”, 63% were intoxicated with 55% >0.05 g/dL and 40%
>0.10 g/dL


Maryland: Dietz P, Baker S. Drowning. Epidemiology and prevention. Am J Public Health 1974;64:303–12.): Persons >15 years old “swimming”. 79% positive for alcohol, 64% >0.10 g/dL and 50% >0.15 g/dL.


North Carolina: Patetta and Biddinger; Characteristics of drowning deaths in North Carolina.Public Health Rep 1988;103:406–11.): Persons over 15 years “swimming and wading” 87% were positive for alcohol. 20% were over 0.10 g/dL. So much for the “lack of alcohol related drownings” in the south. Once again, Gannon and his supporters are playing fast and loose with the truth in order to make something out of nothing.

A lot of folks who talk about this case seem not to understand HOW people drown. Even in crowded settings, most people do not flail or splash or scream like you see on television. As an  EMS provider I worked a case where this happened in a crowded pool. No one realized the child was under the water until someone literally stepped on him. One of the first things taught to lifeguards is that the common perception of a drowning scenario is the exception rather than the rule. In bitterly cold water, it is even more so.


Cold water immersion effects are not what most people suspect. For one, you have what is referred to as a bimodal distribution of the deaths. You have two broad groups of people: those who drown within a minute or so of entering the water and those who survive longer. Why this is has a lot to do with some superficially complex aspects of how the human body has evolved. Give me a second to set the stage a bit and I will explain what I mean.


Another more basic explanation for why no one heard anything is that it is unlikely that many people would be down by the water at night to hear someone cry for help if they did. The lack of frequent traffic actually is the basis for what I believe is a likely scenario in many of these cases. The intoxicated student is stumbling about trying to find his way to wherever he is going. The alcohol, as it does, makes them have to urinate. With a mind clouded by booze and a very full bladder the victim approaches the river or pond. They fall in and the weight of their shoes and now saturated winter clothes pull them under and cause them to drown despite their attempts to stay afloat.


That is if the mammalian diving reflex did not render them unconscious due to a precipitous drop in heart rate, left ventricular contractility- how hard the chamber of the heart pumping blood to the brain and other vital organs is squeezing) and therefore cardiac output. Heart rate in beats per minute times stroke volume- the amount in milliliters of blood being pumped with each contraction- equals cardiac output which is measured in liters per minute.


Basically, your heart slows down and your blood pressure plummets. In a cruel twist of physiological fate, the reflex is most pronounced in persons whose face is suddenly cooled  (such as by immersion in cold water) while holding their breath.Holding one’s breath increases intrathoracic and intraabdominal pressure and puts pressure on the vagus nerve which is responsible for decreasing the heart rate among a bunch of other effects. One of those is increasing the heart’s tendency to produce aberrant beats- referred to as ectopy. If severe enough or falling at exactly the wrong millisecond in the cardiac cycle, these can induce sudden cardiac arrest. The instinctive response to take a big breath and hold it may, in some instances, make things worse.

 

Slightly off topic but an increase in pressure in the chest or abdomen is why people sometimes pass out while on the toilet. This is probably one of the things that contributed to the incident that gave us the colloquial expression “pulling an Elvis”. We actually use this- it’s called a vagal maneuver- in clinical medicine to slow treat abnormally fast heart rates. You can also apply
cold packs to someone's face. If you want to give them the full Norwegian fjord cliff diving experience, you can also dunk their face into a basin of ice water.....which I have seen done exactly once in clinical practice and that was a doc doing it to himself. As if that were not enough, there is a second reflex that makes cold water immersion hazardous. This is the cold shock response. This causes a sudden and involuntary inhalation. A sudden fall into the water or through ice triggers the person to take a big deep breath right at the worst possible moment: while they are submerged. This rapidly leads to drowning in many cases because the reflex lasts for up to a minute so you are involuntarily hyperventilating.


The exertion of trying to swim- especially fully dressed in winter attire- is exhausting in cold water. Even wearing a wetsuit or drysuit you are going to have much reduced ability to function compared to warmer water. You’re going to have much higher demands for oxygen exactly at the time your heart is slowing down and your body- to try to stave off hypothermia and compensate for the drop in cardiac output- is clamping down all of your blood vessels supplying your skin and muscles. Cramps set in. Your ability to tread water decreases even further and...Immersion in bitterly cold water- something I have experienced on multiple occasions over the years as a diver- can be downright brutal. Thankfully I guess the silver lining is that the sensation of intense cold is usually gone within a couple of minutes as your skin goes numb.


Since we are discussing the physiology of cold water exposure, allow me to dispel another common myth that makes the rounds often in association with the various documentaries or movies about the sinking of the Titanic. That is that if you are in cold water or fall through the ice that you will die of hypothermia within 10 to 15 minutes. If you survive the first minute of immersion, most people will survive for between thirty minutes to an hour. Gordon Giesbrecht aka “Professor Popsicle” who is probably the world’s leading expert on hypothermia likes to use the 1 minute, 10 minute, 1 hour, 2 hour rule to explain survival times in very cold (32 degrees F or 0 degrees C) water:
1 minute to get your breathing under control and get your head straight.
10 minutes of meaningful movement: basically to get yourself out of the water or get hold of something to keep yourself afloat
1 hour before you lose consciousness.
2 hours to be rescued with a reasonable chance of survival assuming your head remains above water after you lose consciousness.

This bimodal distribution, basically a pattern with two peaks if you graph when at which someone dies relative to the moment they enter the water, with initial survival may explain why drowning victims are sometimes found facing upwards as opposed to face down which is considered to be more normal due to the impulse to swim. Alleged victim Chris Jenkins’ family likes to point out that he was allegedly found “with his arms folded across his chest” and floating on his back. The news reports when he was recovered point out that he was found tangled in a “mass of debris” and it took two to three hours to extricate him from it due to the current and his entanglement. Even if he had been in such an odd position when he entered the water (which is unlikely), FOUR MONTHS worth of currents would have long since changed that.

However, a person who initially survives cold water immersion would likely try to roll onto their back as it keeps their mouth and nose out of the water. In a current, once a person is no longer able to swim, they would likely wind up floating “backwards” with their arms and legs trailing behind. That is just a bit of hypothetical spit balling there based on hydrodynamics. If a person were found quickly (once again, Jenkins was most certainly NOT) it could conceivably appear like their arms are “crossed” behind them. Whatever position he was in after he entered the water will never be known because he was not quickly found and other factors changed that orientation.


Either they are relying upon a picture taken of him in a body bag- which would not represent the position he was originally found in any more than his position in a casket would- if such an image exists or this is fanciful thinking due to the confounding effects of extreme grief associated with the loss of a child. There are no shortage of examples of cases where grieving parents have led people down a fanciful and convoluted trail that little resembles the actual facts of the case. The example that jumps to mind is that of the Sodder children who died in an accidental house fire secondary to shoddy wiring.


There is another physiological quirk that could potentially explain why someone would fall into a body of water. There is a condition called micturition syncope. It’s a five dollar phrase for a fifty cent event. Micturition is simply the technical term for urination. Now you too can impress your friends with a vocabulary that causes people to go “Huh?”. Syncope is fainting. Micturition syncope is responsible for about 1 in 50 cases of fainting. It usually happens in men and is caused by that harbinger of drowning doom I mentioned previously, the vagus nerve. If someone strains to urinate faster- for example because...well….I can’t speak for anyone else but having my....uh...."wedding tackle" exposed to the wind and cold on a winter night for any longer than necessary isn’t high on my list of enjoyable activities- it increases the pressure in the abdomen and can stimulate the vagus nerve. Down goes the heart rate, down goes cardiac output and out go the lights. Standing on a sloping riverbank….gravity works.


Some, like Vance Holmes- who on his website flails wildly and demonstrates little understanding of forensics or taphonomy (the processes that influence and result in various aspects of decomposition, destruction and/or deposition of remains)- have pointed out that they cannot understand why it takes months for these bodies to be found. By comparison, Vance actually might be the only person involved in this case that make Gannon look like he knows what he is talking about.


This is easy to explain by understanding the processes that make a body float and how cold water slows these down. Bodies don’t usually float immediately after death. In warm weather, a day or two (or hours if the water is warm and shallow) and the body rises to the surface as it the bacteria that once were kept in check by the gastrointestinal mucosae and the immune system run amok in a microorganism version of the French Revolution. The peasants are now the rulers. Bacterial decomposition produces various gases as byproducts of anaerobic metabolism. For those of you with a bent towards the science of this, I am talking about stuff like methane, carbon dioxide and so forth. Much like the difference between an empty balloon and a full one, the body rises to the surface.


If you have a body that is immersed in ice water- or otherwise refrigerated or frozen decomposition effectively grinds to a pace that makes the death row appeals process in California look like a top fuel drag race. Cold temperatures slow down metabolic processes for almost every living thing. Slower metabolism, slower decomposition. Slower decomposition, lower rates of gas production. Less gas, less buoyancy. See where this is going? Once things warm up, the body tends to decompose faster and you get a body that floats.  Holmes also likes to claim that it is unusual that the bodies aren’t found immediately and in the “spot where they fell in” (NOTE: trying to figure out where someone entered the water is usually a crap shoot unless it is witnessed or they dropped identifying personal effects) but rather miles downstream in the river I can explain that- and I really cannot believe I have to do so- with one word: current.


Some persons have claimed that the victims were drugged (with GHB or something similar), abducting the victim and driving them around in a panel van while torturing them. Finally they are killed and then slipped into the water. Holmes likes to point out that he finds it unusual for college students to “oddly drink large amounts of booze, very quickly”. Apparently he does not know the phrase 'binge drinking' and goes on to claim that the “student seems to seems to require a motivator through the scenario -- feeding him drinks or guiding him along, or hiding him, or placing him in the water when no one is looking”. I’m going to guess he didn’t attend many parties in high school and at university. His demonstrated tendency to jump to wild conclusions and make himself sound like some sort of conspiracy nut probably didn’t help that. As for the GHB and other sedatives, those would show up in a toxicology screen that would be performed on any healthy young man found dead in water. Guess what has not been found.


Another point that people make a lot about autopsy findings that someone “didn’t have water in their lungs”. The absence of large amounts of water in the lungs is not an indication that drowning did not happen. Conversely, there are things that can give you wet heavy lungs, (what is referred to as pulmonary edema) without environmental drowning. Congestive heart failure, drug overdoses, etc. This is why it is foolish to latch onto a single observation in a case and make a conclusion based solely upon that. This supposed lack of “water in the lungs” was pointed at in the Chris Jenkins case. It is important to remember that he was in the water for four months before he was recovered. There likely would have been some decompositional changes that masked any significant amount of water in the airways or alveoli.

He was not recovered frozen in the ice (as some reports suggest) but simply in association with the ice that normally was present on the river. Once again….bodies don’t normally float at the surface and even in the brutal cold of an upper Midwestern winter, you might only get ice a couple of feet thick on a river or large creek. Usually with flowing water you actually have thinner ice than you would see for a given temperature of water if the water was not flowing. The ice also is not as fixed in place as people think. You’ll get buckling, folding and cracking due to the wind, the current and so forth. A body submerged in a flowing current is going to be carried along until it either hangs up in something, comes ashore or ends up in some hydrologic feature that holds it in place (an eddy for example). The body of Jenkins was simply carried along underwater until it snagged on the brush and ice at the shoreline. Once again, nothing unexpected or unusual to someone paying attention and/or familiar with aquatic forensics


So I mentioned that you don’t always get frank findings of water in the lungs or airways. Let me review what you often see at autopsy from someone who drowned. Heavy “wet” (edematous in pathological parlance) lungs are exceedingly common. If someone was in really muddy water or very shallow water such in the surf at a beach, occasionally you will find sand or mud in the airways or in the stomach. People sometimes swallow water in the process and so a lot of water or sediment in the stomach can be supportive evidence of a drowning. It is also common to find water (or a muddy or bloody turbid fluid) in the sphenoid sinus which is located behind the eyes and below the brain.


A lot of you will have heard of “dry drowning”. Laryngospasm or reflex cardiac arrest- remember
the vagus nerve etc?- may result in death with minimal water aspiration. Laryngospasm is simply the reflexive closing of the vocal cords to keep things that don’t belong. For example: food, water, the occasional tooth or ‘grillz’ after a person comes out on the losing end of a bar fight out of the lungs. Technically, people can die with minimal water in the lungs as a result but it is more common as the body shuts down for the person to have their vocal cords relax and the last few breaths (more accurately called agonal gasps) result in at least some water being drawn in.

 

Not to harp on the Chris Jenkins case but in the litany of just hallucinatory flights of fancy thathave been put forth, we have the family apparently claiming he was tortured- without or without being drugged- but there were no signs of trauma consistent with an assault. None. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nada.


Some have suggested that he was thrown off a bridge, either while he was still alive or after death. A prison inmate confessed to this but it does not stand up to the facts in the case at all. Some inmates just amuse themselves by leading cops and families on a wild goose chase. Others like the attention. Granted….if he were dropped off a bridge happened it would negate the other claim people make that he was found peacefully floating with his arms crossed. Piece of advice to families and amateur investigators trying to formulate a plausible scenario: pick a line of reasoning and stick with it.


A body falling a considerable distance- such as off a bridge- will often have fractures or soft tissue trauma like contusions. Long falls- more than two times a person’s standing height- can produce internal organ injuries even in a dead body, dropped into what a lot of people think of as a “soft surface”. Due to its density, hitting water after a long fall is not a gentle event. There’s a reason why belly flops even from the side of a pool hurt. If you did it off a high board at a pool...I know someone who did it and broke several of his ribs. This is why the supposition that the victims were dropped off bridges or other similar elevated structures does not, pardon the phrase, hold much water.


Some of these cases have been found with their shoes still on including Chris Jenkins. While it is not uncommon for loosely fitting shoes to be pulled off by currents, one need only look at the “floating feet” cases in British Columbia- where shoes stayed on until the bodies decomposed to the point that the feet separate and floated free- to see that this is not always the case. Honestly, I am not sure what exactly people are trying to get at by pointing out that the shoes were still on the body.


Even with a person who is inebriated, it is hard to drown any healthy adult let alone someone fitting the common description of the alleged victims in these instances. Ever tried getting a drunk friend into a car when he isn’t ready to leave a party? Same sort of uncooperative struggle, only much more frantic and aggressive, applies to trying to push an grown man underwater. Trying to drown someone or even force such a person into the water against their will is going to be difficult to impossible especially if the person is clumsy or unathletic as was suggested by Gannon.


There is also a case that is often included in the "smiley face" series where it appears that the victim walked out onto the ice before falling through, perhaps not realizing in a drunken stupor where he was, leaving a clear set of footprints in the otherwise pristine snow covering the the ice. Unless the alleged killer has the exact same kind of shoes in the same size as the victim, walked perfectly in his footsteps and walked backwards off the ice after killing the victim…..see where I am going here? The difficulties in physically controlling another adult explains why homicidal drowning only accounts for 0.2% of murders in the US. Of these cases, they usually involve parents drowning their own children as Andrea Yates did.


A few cases of a husband drowning his husband in the bathtub often with the aid of medications like antihistamines or benzodiazepines exist. According to the FBI data, there were 907 homicidal drownings in TWENTY ONE YEARS nearly half involving children under the age of 8. If you look at the age range that corresponds with most undergraduates- 18-24 years old- there were only 117 homicidal drownings over 21 years. That constitutes three hundredths of one percent of murders among that population. 0.03%.


The graffiti- both when and when not present- actually argues AGAINST the idea it provided the name for. The graffiti, in the minority of cases where it is present, varies in form and design. Many of those supposedly painted by the alleged killers, the photos purported as “evidence” show faded or worn out paint. In some cases, the graffiti was only found months afterwards. It is possible to forensically determine the age of the paint- at least when it was manufactured- but that is pretty imprecise and honestly does not add much to the case.


Even the definition of the “scene” seems to be played fast and loose with Gannon and a lot of others. Some of these supposedly linked are quite far from the scene where the body entered the water. This brings up another point. I work with a LOT of cases that involve persons or objects- such as crashed airplanes- going into water...in fact my masters dissertation is going to be on something related to that. Unless someone witnesses a body entering the water, there is video footage or you find evidence such as personal effects, clothing etc at a site that are able to be linked to a persons, you can only use a very general starting point if you can define one at all because there is no “point last seen”.


The absence of it at many crime scenes means that the killer or killers, if they exist, are failing to remember to use their “signature”. LaCrosse, Wisconsin PD- which investigated eight of these cases thanks to a riverfront location and a university that is known for its love of drinking- stated that there were no smiley faces found as graffiti in association with the supposed victims in their jurisdiction. Given how ritualistic many serial killers tend to be, this is a strike against these being serial homicides. Quite simply these cases are all lacking in what is known in law enforcement and profiling parlance as “linkage”.

To explain this lack of consistency the proponents of this hypothesis tried to indicate that this is the result of multiple artisans. Here we agree: they are the work of multiple different offenders but the crime in question is vandalism and not homicide. Even the originators began to distance themselves from the smiley face when they were unable to deflect the observation that the smiley faces are not evidence. They then began trying to convey that the smiley faces are not central to the case- think about that for a second- and represent only 1/13th of the quote “linked symbols”


While we’re on the subject of other graffiti allegedly associated with these deaths, “sinsiniwa” was mentioned earlier and needs some explaining. It is simply the word for “rattlesnake” or “home of the young eagle” depending upon the dialect or language. It is a common word in various parts of the country including Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Washington state. It is the name of no fewer than three streets, a river, businesses, schools and places. There is even a Dominican order bearing the name: Sinsinawa Dominican Congregation of the Most Holy Rosary of the Order of Preachers. As with most words originating from non-European languages there are various ways to transliterate it, that is multiple spellings.

Because some of these incidents happened on the same night in different states, the detective duo behind this cockamamie idea have publicly suggested that some “well-structured” organization of killers. The idea of the cabal of killers working together does not work in practicality. Serial killing is generally not a team sport.


There have been a few isolated cases of three or four killers working together but, oddly enough, they largely involve female serial murderers (the Lainz Angels of Death and the Liverpool Black Widows being two notable examples) targeting the infirmed or their own families. The fact that NONE of these cases have ANY evidence they are connected nor ANY evidence that they are homicides negates the idea of a well-structured organization carrying out the crimes. If you cannot come up with a well-structured argument that there were crimes to begin with….


Some amateurish sleuths- which is a distinct subset separate from amateur sleuths- including Vance Holmes, have pointed out that many of these deaths fall along interstate highways. This has been pointed as an indication of a traveling killer or killers. It more plausibly results from the fact that most universities are in cities with decent populations which tend to be in proximity to interstates. Holmes on his website tries to implicate the Catholic clergy at St. John’s University in another case where the victim is still listed as missing. That’s right….he tries to link it to the clergy abuse scandal.

Now, I pointed out that none of the cases were attributable to homicide. What I mean is none of the “found in a river and apparently drowned with no signs of trauma and nothing other than a lot of alcohol on board” cases are homicides. In a feeble attempt to actually put a murder in the series, there was one lumped in that is so different from the rest that it is akin to entering a parakeet into the toy breed competition at the American Kennel Club dog show. This yet again unrelated case involves the death of one Patrick McNeil, age 20. He was last seen drinking in the with some friends at the Dapper Dog bar in February of 1997. His corpse was found in the East River about two months later and twelve miles away. Much is made of the fact that he was found floating face up “which is extremely rare for drowning victims”. As I pointed out, it is unusual but it is not unheard of. However, a little further information on the case shows why this doesn’t matter.


An autopsy revealed ligature marks around his neck. His groin —skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re easily nauseated—was notable for the presence of fly larvae. He died in the winter in New York. The presence of fly larvae strongly argues that he had to be somewhere warm for a period of time post mortem. Perhaps it was a couple of days...it would depend upon the temperature and the stage of the larvae not to mention the species in question.


In other words, McNeill was dead long before he ever hit the water. He was NOT a drowning victim. The fact that he was found face up doesn’t mean a single freaking thing with regards to determining his manner of death. But the conspiracy nuts go on with it and the finding that: “And although he’d been missing for two months when his body was found, the absence of what’s known as ‘skin slippage’ under his feet indicated he’d been in the water for less than a day”.

First of all, “skin slippage” and what you see with water exposure of less than a day- changes called “washerwoman’s hands” or “pruning” just like a living person gets from being in a pool or bath for a few minutes- are two distinct things. Washerwoman’s hands happens very quickly after immersion or other exposure to a wet environment as it is a result of water being osmotically drawn into the cells and interstitial space between them. We see it in bodies that have laid with their hands or unshod feet in snow. We see it- less frequently and to much lesser degrees- in bodies that have lain for a while in wet grass.

Skin slippage is a later finding in the decomposition process. It happens both on land and in water. On land, in temperate conditions, it normally takes around four or five days to a week. In broad and general terms, it takes longer in cold conditions and less time is warmer conditions or in water. Bodies that have been frozen and then thawed can also exhibit rapid onset of skin slippage possibly due to the freezing process helping to disrupt the connection between the epidermis and dermis allowing the skin to slough off. Usually the first skin to slip is that of the hands and feet. The classic form of this is often referred to as a “gloves and socks” or “gloves and stockings” pattern although it is common for the “gloves” or “stockings” to come off in multiple pieces. It can actually kind of help the identification process a bit. The slipped skin from a victim’s finger can been placed over the gloved finger of a member of the identification team. This allows the skin to be “rolled” for a fingerprint just like you would with a live person which is, in my opinion, a heck of a lot easier to do than trying to print the intact hand on a body.


Even under the best of circumstances, you cannot get a precise “time of death” much more defined than a couple of days in a “fresh” body once it has cooled down and rigor has passed (rigor mortis isn't permanent by the way). What you get is more properly called a postmortem interval estimation….a fancy way of saying "Hey doc, can you give me a ballpark estimate of how long has guy’s been dead?". The longer a person has been dead, the broader the estimate of postmortem interval has to.

Without seeing the autopsy photos (or at least a very detailed description of the state of the body neither of which have been publicly released to my knowledge), the temperature of the water, etc….there’s no definite way to apply a scientifically defensible assessment. It actually isn’t even, as I said before, specific to prolonged immersion. It is a common decompositional change.


If forced to give a statement- and I stress this is in very general terms and I would NOT swear to this in court based on the evidence I have at this moment- my conclusions would be as follows: I would argue that he was killed the night he went missing, left lying around for a couple of days then stuffed in a freezer and then finally dumped in the river a couple of days before he was found. That would explain the lack of decompositional changes, the larvae and the postmortem interval. Settling which came first- the freezer or the fly eggs- would require knowing the condition of the larvae. Fresh versus frozen so to speak...


Despite its glimmering sheen of absurdity clinging to this farce, some folks who should know better support the “Smiley Face” theory. Probably the most well known is allegedly forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht. Dr. Wecht is a very bright man bordering on brilliant- and some political and legal troubles aside- I have a lot of respect for him….up to a point. The problem with his throwing his support behind this case is that he has a habit of supporting various tenuous ideas for reasons that remain unclear. He is a staunch supporter of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy hypotheses despite the fact that autopsy data- which should be his area of expertise- is the best argument for the single shooter, lone wolf conclusion in that case.

I say that he is allegedly supportive of the smiley face hypothesis because I have not been able to find independent verification of his supposed statement: “the statistics are so stacked against this number of men, young men, Caucasian males, found in bodies of water in that cluster of states, within that period of time” that it’s basically mathematically impossible for these to be random accidents. Even if he did say it, and given his conspiratorial beliefs in other cases lacking evidence leading to such conclusions I don’t outright discount this, it does not mean he is correct. In fact, what he supposedly points to is actually completely possible “mathematically” unless one is prone to credulity. I have the first round of beers says that if I drew similar general criteria up using common demographics, common scene types, common methods of deaths and a specific time of year, I could produce a similar list with a fair amount of online research. It does not mean there is a serial killer. It means that certain things tend to happen in certain places to certain types of people at certain times of year.


Professor Lee Gilbertson, a “nationally acclaimed criminologist” from Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University, supposedly “originally dismissed the theory as an ‘urban legend’. After scrutinizing the evidence, though, he unabashedly declared that the Smiley Face Killers were a real ‘nationwide organization that revels in killing young men’". Despite being “nationally acclaimed”, I have never heard of him and despite asking other forensics folks about him, I have not found anyone who has either other than in relation to this case and sometimes being used as a “talking head” commenting on cable news and a few odd Youtube videos. His only criminology certifications- aside from a masters degree (his doctorate is in sociology and not in any of the forensic sciences)- come from a “pay to play” “certification” organization focusing on….oddly enough, teaching people to recognize gang, cults and “satanic” crimes. There’s that expression about “If you see yourself as a hammer, all you see around you are nails” and it seems apt here. He’s been conditioned to see patterns where they may or may not exist. The “satanic” crimes thing is another blog post unto itself because of how ridiculous the beliefs among certain groups about its frequency and traits are.

In 2008, the FBI issued a press release claiming that “we have not developed any evidence to support links between these tragic deaths or any evidence substantiating the theory that these deaths are the work of a serial killer or killers. The vast majority of these instances appear to be alcohol-related drownings.”

As for the “white males” argument that Wecht supposedly used…..I turn to the words of Eugene
Kane of OnMilwaukee.com: “I’ve been warned in the past not to talk about a secret killer of white men in Wisconsin who prey on drunken, college-age males in order to find a way to drown them in the river….I’m still intrigued why black males who drink a lot don’t end up in the river and why that particular racial angle seldom gets discussed.”

Here’s the thing that Kane misses in his reporting: drowning in natural bodies of water among
college aged African Americans is nearly identical to white people according to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in 2014 (see “Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Fatal Unintentional Drowning Among Persons Aged ≤29 Years — United States, 1999–2010 https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6319a2.htm ). There may simply be a cultural explanation for this- African college students, at least in my experience, tend to have tighter social circles where people don’t wander off into night to fall into a river. Or it could simply be an unfortunate and insulting selection bias: the deaths of black males simply are not getting reported in the media to the point that people hear about them.


To look at another instance that disproves the “it’s only white men dying like this” argument, we shift our focus a little further west. A similar attempt has been made, this time by Native American activists to ascribe intoxicated men- some with blood alcohol levels that would kill anyone but a hardened alcoholic- drowning in the Rapid Creek in South Dakota to racist murderers who are protected by a police cover-up. The end result and selfish motivations are the same. You have people who see a chance to gain what they see as power, influence or make a little (or a lot of) money. Such an accusation- especially across racial lines- tends to say more about the tendency of most societies to blame their problems on “others” or a boogeyman stereotype that is attached to whichever group the culture finds most detestable. There is no evidence of foul play there either. It is simply easier on the community, instead of addressing the rampant alcohol and drug abuse destroying good people and having to attack multitude of issues that fall within their own control and outside of it, to blame it on others. Granted, the way Native Americans have been treated in this country is has ranged from poor to crimes against humanity across the span of history. It is, however, important to point out that creating false stories of atrocities simply makes those outside of the community (who are not as in tune with the litany of social justice issues involved as an educated person should be) less prone to believe reports of the actual problems. It is the “cry wolf” scenario.


The facade of a credible “investigation” of these cases by Gannon, Duarte and their followers has been shattered. What amounts to little more than a sham has been exposed and a lot of misunderstandings, false attributions and a whole lot of bull**** has been scraped off the face of a lot of unfortunate deaths. Families have turned on Gannon with accusations of profiteering and glory hound behavior. Even the media, originally supportive, have slowly begun to join in. The son of Bill Szostak drowned accidentally in Albany, NY. Szostak is convinced it was a murder. This is likely because it is easier emotionally to blame an unknown killer than to face a harsher reality that it was a combination of poor choices, an unforgiving environment, bad luck and youthful inexperience. Regardless he’s pretty much had his fill of Gannon and his peculiar habits: "I feel Kevin is like a sponge—he latches onto the families, sucks the life out of them, and when he has nothing else to suck, he dumps them….Do I think he has revictimized familiesand done more harm than good? Yes, I do, and that’s a shame.”

To be quite honest, I think that it is probably the most accurate assessment of Kevin Gannon  I have come across although it is pretty insulting to the noble phylum Porifera (sponges for those of you who are not taxonomy nerds) to be used in such a comparison.  However, this case seems  to refuse to die on the internet and in the media. It cropped up again after a Northwestern student was found floating “near” a tree with a smiley face supposedly painted on it in 2012. Now the television channel Oxygen is giving a new soapbox from which Gannon and his supporters can spread their falsehoods with the help of slick advertising and one-sided content. The only link beyond the demographics of the victims is the heavy use of alcohol and reckless behavior around water probably brought on by their intoxicated state. That is not meant to defame or insult the victims. Nothing is further from the intent of my words.

Chasing a phantom killer or killers because it is somehow easier to cope with a phantom than accepting the frailty of human decision making and circumstance hearkens back to the myths and legends of old. Things our ancestors could not readily explain or accept were attributed to the machinations of fanciful but fickle or cruel gods, angels, devils and demons. What once spurned religious fervor now spawns internet conspiracies and quixotic questions for the “truth”.

The supposition that there are a murderer or murderers behind these drownings is simply ludicrous. It is cold -hearted bordering on sadistic to subject family members who are trying to cope with the loss of a son or brother to this sort of attempt to garner attention for oneself and maybe line one’s own pockets in the process.

May the families find peace and may the information I have presented here  help to quash some of the harmful, disrespectful and sometimes predatory rumor mongering that surrounds cases ascribed to the imaginary “Smiley Face Killer(s)”.