The smiley-face killers: A born-in-Minneapolis urban legend takes wing

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If you missed Kristi Piehl’s breathless April 25 KSTP-TV report on the pair of retired NYPD detectives who believe there’s a network of serial killers murdering college men around the country — over 40 to date, they claim, and perhaps up to 100 — then you’ve probably also missed the overnight growth of a new urban legend on the web.

To make a weird story short, some background: Two former NYC cops, Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, have spent the past several years chasing after evidence to connect the deaths of several dozen college-age men who have turned up dead in bodies of water across the country, often after leaving parties where they were drinking. Gannon and Duarte not only believe the young men were all murdered; they believe they were murdered by an organized death cult that’s operating across the country.

The Minneapolis connection that led to Piehl’s report taking their claims public involved the death of Chris Jenkins, a 21-year-old student who left a downtown bar on Halloween night 2002 and whose body was found in the river four months later. Jenkins’ death was originally ruled an accident, but in 2006 that was changed to homicide, reportedly because an MPD detective had heard rumors concerning foul play in the case. So far, Jenkins’ death is the only one in Gannon and Duarte’s growing case file that is even classified as a homicide. (It should be noted that Jenkins’ parents subscribe wholeheartedly to the detectives’ theory. His mother, Jan Jenkins, told Piehl: “The level of evil we are dealing with here is rampant, it’s deep and it’s widespread.” According to Piehl, “The Jenkins spent tens of thousands of dollars on private investigators, testing and outside analysts.”)

One common denominator in this vast murder conspiracy, the detectives claim, is a smiley-face graffito on some nearby bridge where the detectives hypothesize that the body was slipped into the water. Not that their theory is seamless, mind you. For starters, consider that a), smiley-face graffiti is not exactly scarce; b), the smiley-face graffiti the detectives found were in places that are only conjecturally connected to a crime scene or even a crime; c), by the detectives’ own account, the smileys have only turned up at a dozen or so of the crime scenes; and d), no one, as far as I can tell, has claimed that a smiley face turned up anywhere in conjunction with Chris Jenkins’ death.

Piehl’s report generated enough media coverage to compel the FBI to address the conspiracy theory. Last week it issued this statement: “Over the past several years, law enforcement and the FBI have received information about young, college-aged men who were found deceased in rivers in the Midwest. To date, we have not developed any evidence to support links between those 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.”

The Minneapolis Police Department followed suit last Wednesday with a media release saying the department could “neither confirm nor endorse” the murder club for men theory. That same day, the Albany (NY) Times-Union ran a similar story in which the local PD rejected Gannon and Duarte’s theory that a student who drowned there was a victim of the cult. (Update: Molly P sent along this link from last night’s KSTP news; apparently there are police in Pennsylvania who recently found a smiley face near a drowning scene.)

A true conspiracy aficionado, of course, eats official denials for breakfast. Piehl’s story aired on the last Friday night in April, and by the following Monday there were over a hundred Google results for the freshly minted phrase “smiley-face killer.” By Wednesday the number had quadrupled as other mainstream outlets — including ABC and the cable news channels — began picking up the story and gave it modest play. As of this morning, 11 days after Piehl’s initial report, the number is 24,900.

The smiley-face killers story is making the rounds of chatboards devoted to serial killers, UFOs, white supremacy, horror movies, Notre Dame alums, video gaming — and that’s just in the first hundred or so results. And let the record show that Kristi Piehl of KSTP has done her part to bring the yarn to the huddled masses yearning to breathe the vapors of another massive conspiracy: The same night her story ran, she did an hour on the Coast-to-Coast AM radio show. C to C is the former domain of the underground radio legend Art Bell, the maestro of paranormal and paranoiac palaver who was once cited, albeit disapprovingly, by the Council for Media Integrity “for encouraging credulity, presenting pseudoscience as genuine, and contributing to the public’s lack of understanding of the methods of scientific inquiry.” (Incidentally, C to C is where I got the claim that Gannon and Duarte believe there are 100 or more victims in all; Piehl mentions it on the air.)

You can hear Piehl’s late-night spiel in a series of 10-minute audio-only clips at YouTube.

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