Four years ago I did some profiling on the case of Chris Jenkins, a twenty-one-year old University of Minnesota college student who disappeared on Halloween night after he was tossed out of a popular local bar. He was finally discovered in the Mississippi River when the ice started melting at the beginning of spring. The police ruled Chris's death a suicide, stating that he leaped off the Hennepin Bridge just down the block from the bar where he was celebrating Halloween with his friends.
The family immediately questioned their conclusions as their son was not suicidal and the physical evidence didn't make sense to them. They fought the ruling with a private detective, a profiler, and a team of experts on river currents.
What they found was that Chris could not have gone into the river where the police claimed he did. He did not jump off the Hennepin Bridge. More interestingly, Chris, still clothed in his Halloween costume of an Native American, was found lying in the river with his arms neatly folded across his chest, and his pull-on moccasins still on his feet. Now that would be quite an unlikely result should Chris have climbed over a rail and leaped into the waters below. It looked more as if Chris had been placed in the water at a quiet location, where he stayed, becoming frozen within the ice, and then eventually floating downstream as the temperature of the water warmed and the ice broke apart. Eventually, the police changed their ruling on the manner of death to homicide.
Next, they said they had found Chris's killer. They theorized that Chris--who had been thrown out of the bar for being intoxicated and left out in the cold without wallet, keys, or cell phone--had attempted to walk home. On the bridge, he was met with a violent offender who later was convicted of murder. This seventeen-year-old youth decided for some reason to kill Chris and picked him up and tossed him off the bridge. With this ludicrous story, which included no angry words, fighting, robbery attempt, beating, stabbing, or any other kind of altercation, police expect us to believe the smaller teen picked up the hefty Chris Jenkins and, without a struggle from the victim, held him above his shoulders and threw him over the railing. Quite a strong fellah! Chris hit the water, drowned, and all the while the moccasins stay glued to his feet and his arms remained folded over his chest.
I don't know what this police department was smoking, but the story was incredible. That the detectives could get a convicted felon to give them this story is either good interviewing or outright deal-making, but to believe it and think it fits the evidence and worse, think the public will believe it, is rather sad.
And, now, the story takes an even more incredible turn! Two retired New York police detectives, Kevin Gannon and Antony Duarte, claim Jenkins is but one of forty some male students who have been systematically murdered by a nationwide group of serial killers they have dubbed "The Smiley Face Gang" or "The Smiley Face Killers." They claim there is a bunch of men who target athletic, blond, college boys and drown them in bodies of water near their colleges. They insist that these young men were not victims of binge drinking, hypothermia, foolishness, or depression, that none of these deaths could be attributed to accident or suicide. Nor do they believe that most of these deaths could have been accidents or suicide and some deaths, perhaps, the work of one serial killer or serial killer team. No, they believe each and every one of these young men was the victim of an organized group of serial killers that does in college boys for . . . well, they are clothed . . . not for sexual purposes . . . and they don't show signs of extreme violence . . . not for sadistic reasons . . . um . . . I guess just because they want to make statements about smart college boys.
So, supposedly, this group finds a handsome young man, abducts him, drowns him, and then, somewhere in the vicinity of where the body is put in the water, they paint a smiley face on a building or a tree or a bridge. Not in most of the crimes, mind you, but some of them. Gannon and Duarte can't even prove that where they found the smiley faces is where the bodies went in the water, but the fact that such a symbol was in the area . . . well, a rather large area . . . they claim these symbols have got to be made by this gang--they couldn't have been made by anyone else.
Now, I might buy this if the symbol, this signature, was a bunny rabbit with wings coming out of its back and sporting big green teeth, but a smiley face? Wow! How rare! I went on Google Images and in less than a few minutes, I found a dozen images of smiley faces people had added to the outdoor landscape. Yet, according to these retired cops, it is an extraordinarily rare graffiti.
So, we are to believe there is a group of young men on the Internet who plan these crimes, drive a van over to a potential location and grab a strapping young man. They are smart enough to eliminate all the evidence by putting the bodies in water, but can't resist taunting the police by leaving artwork somewhere in the town that says, "We did it!"
Chris Jenkins (pictured left) was murdered, yes, but most likely by someone who knew him and with whom he had a run-in with at the bar. One of the earlier theories was a possibly a sleeper-hold-gone-wrong by one of the bouncers. Other theories ranged from a jealous lover to a serial killer suspect I had been investigating who lived in the area and liked drowning young men. He could have been involved in Chris's death and even a few others. But, an Internet gang of serial killers who drive all over the country to kill? Or is it that a cell in each area that does local killings and then brags about it to the others. I think this is the theory Gannon and Duarte are working on.
Possible? Sure, anything is possible, but I have never seen such a thing in the history of serial killing. Maybe this is a new weird trend, but, so far, I see no evidence of any kind that links the deaths of these forty college boys and proves they were all homicides. The only evidence I see so far is some overactive imaginations on the part of retired policemen and the desperation of some of the parents to believe their sons were innocent of any foolish behavior which might have led to their deaths.
Even though my speciality is serial killers, a serial killer is not always behind deaths that have a similar cause. Especially when you expand the area of linkage to fifty states, you are bound to find deaths that appear similar. I bet if you expand the area to include Canada, one will find the "Smiley Face Gang" has struck there as well!
I have no issue with dedicated detectives working as hard as Gannon and Duarte have to solve crimes and bring closure to families, but it is irresponsible and cruel to promote a theory as a reality when, in fact, there is not the evidence to prove it.
It will be interesting to see if they are ever able to find proof of any such gang or whether the "Smiley Face Killers" will simply live forever in the world of conspiracy theorists.
Okay, so if there isn't a serial killer gang offing young college boys, why are so many found dead in the water? Well, let's take a look at Minnesota. This is the land of 10,000 lakes and I guarantee most colleges and bars aren't far from the water. Add the cold of winter, and hypothermia can add to the confusion and disorientation of an already drunk young person. He may even go swimming to cool off or he may simply stagger the wrong direction and fall into the river or lake. He may go to urinate and pass out.
Many parents and even young people do not want to admit the huge problem we have with binge drinking, drugs, and mixing binge drinking with drugs. Frat boys and athletic boys are at the top of the list for excessive drinking practices.
Well, some have argued, these young men might have gotten really drunk but this doesn't account for why they would chose to go alone into an area with water. Folks who say this are in serious denial, especially the parents who claim, "My boy would never . . . He is smarter than that." I hate to tell you, parents, I have seen your boy and heard stories about your boy. He was drunk as a skunk, passed out in the middle of the road, was found wandering behind a gas station, boasted to his friends he could swim to the bottom of the lake (thank God they stopped him), and asked his buddies the next day if they could tell him what he did the night before because he couldn't remember a thing. Sometimes your boy shows up on a gurney at the hospital or the morgue and sometimes your boy doesn't show up at all until next spring when the ice melts.
Most likely, in the majority of these cases, the only serial killers here are booze, GHB, Ecstasy, and the foolish behaviors of college boys who think they are young and invincible.