Criminal Profiler Debunks "Smiley Face Killers"

Are a team of serial killers preying on college men across the country, abducting and then drowning them in rivers and lakes, and taunting police with with cryptic calling cards at the scenes of the crime?

The creepy theory of the Smiley Face Killers first aired locally on KSTP's 5 Eyewitness News a few weeks ago and later made national headlines when it was picked up by CNN and ABC's Good Morning America.

According to the reports, two retired detectives from New York have spent 11 years investigating 40 cases of college-age men who died under similar circumstances: They disappeared after a night of heavy drinking, and their bodies were later recovered from nearby bodies of water. The drownings occurred in 25 cities in 11 states, stretching from New York to the Midwest, including nearly 20 cases in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The detectives believe the young men were murdered, even though there was no evidence of foul play. All the deaths were officially ruled drownings, although one case--that of University of Minnesota senior Christopher Jenkins, who died on Halloween in 2002--was reclassified as a homicide after a jailhouse tip.

The detectives base their theory on clues that include one hauntingly lurid detail: In 12 of the 40 cases, the ex-cops say they found painted smiley faces near where they suspect the bodies first entered the water. Because some of the deaths occurred on the same day in different states, the detectives surmise that more than one person is committing the crimes.

It's a bizarre theory, but because we don't have a degree in criminology, we decided to solicit the opinion of one of the nation's best-known criminal profilers. Pat Brown is a former Minnesotan now living in the Washington, D.C., area. She has appeared frequently as a media commentator, including appearances on CNN, FOX, and MSNBC, and she is a regular guest on CNN's Nancy Grace. When we asked her opinion of the so-called Smiley Face Killers, she didn't mince words.

"They don't exist," she said flatly. "It's ludicrous." Serial killers, Brown said, "just don't work that way."

For one thing, she says, sociopaths probably wouldn't work that hard, traveling to several states to find victims.

Second, a serial killer's motive is generally pretty clear. "It's usually a sexual assault," Brown says, which isn't the case in these drownings.

Third, serial killers prefer to work alone. "Sometimes you'll get a pair of them," she says, but not working in separate locations.

Fourth, their choice of victims doesn't match the serial killer profile. "They don't pick on big college boys. They pick on little girls, or teenage girls, or young teenage boys like 14 years old who can't fight back."

Fifth, the idea that they could abduct 40 male college students and drown them all without leaving a suspicious mark on their bodies strains all credibility.

And what about the most suggestive clue--the smiley faces? "It's not an unusual symbol. There could be millions of them around town," she says. If there were ones on the bodies of the boys, on their chests, then I'd say you've got something." The detectives can't know where the bodies first entered the water, so the entry point is only educated guesswork. "If you look in an area five miles square, I bet you could find a smiley face."

So, college students still have to worry about getting drunk and drowning, but Brown doesn't believe they have to worry about an "Internet gang" of killers. "It's just absolutely insane," she says.

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