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  • Writer's pictureJohn Wick

The Smiley Face Killers

A group of retired detectives believed that the smiley face killers were the reason for the killing and disposing the bodies of fit and healthy young men into the waterways for the last quarter of a century. In this post, we explore the legend of the smiley face killers.

For Kevin Gannon, it began on the morning of the 7th of April 1997, with the discovery of a body floating in the New York Bay, not far from the 65th Street Pier. As the duty sergeant of the NYPD's Special Investigation Division, he had been called to assist with the recovery of the deceased by the city's Harbor Patrol Unit. It did not take long at all to identify the victim as 21 year old University students Patrick McNeil, but the circumstances surrounding the death would set in motion a chain of events, which would stay with Gannon forever.

As he flipped through the pages of McNeill's missing person report, the career detective noted that the youth had gone missing almost two months prior, last seen stumbling out of a bar in Manhattan's Upper East Side. But the body laid out on the mortuary slab in front of him had not decomposed enough to have been floating in the water for the last week, let alone eight or nine weeks.

As the autopsy proceeded, Gannon found himself noting down further troubling inaccuracies. In addition to the abnormally low level of decay, fly larvae were found in the body, which would not have been possible given the cold temperatures at the time McNeil had gone missing. There were also minor burn marks and lesions, indicative of the victim having been restrained.

A year later as Gannon continued to puzzle over the tragic death of Patrick McNeil, he received word that another body had been found in the same stretch of water. 22 year old Larry Andrews have been celebrating New Year's Eve with friends in Times Square when he disappeared. His remains had been located just yards from where McNeil's body had been found and the circumstances surrounding the case were just as troubling. Gannon had never been comfortable with the idea of Patrick McNeil drunkenly staggering 60 miles across one of the most populated cities on the planet, without either collapsing or being rendered assistance by someone he'd encountered. Now, Larry Andrews made an equally impossible journey, on one of the busiest nights of the year. The bodies of both men indicated to Gannon that they had been out of the water for the months they had been missing, deposited shortly before their discovery.

Someone had restrained them, held them in captivity and killed them, before leaving their remains to be carried out into the New York Bay. And if all his years as an investigator had taught him anything, it was that there would be more victims, either already missed by the authorities or waiting to be discovered. Upon his retirement from the NYPD, Gannon enlisted the help of two other veteran detectives, Anthony Duarte and Mike Donovan to further investigate the burgeoning number of cases he had uncovered

The team was subsequently joined by Lee Gilbertson, a professor of Criminal Justice, and together they tried to build a working hypothesis to explain the trend they had identified. What they discovered makes for grim reading.

The Shocking Discovery

During a 30 year period, the bodies of over 50 young men have been found lying in water across an area covering 11 states. All were of college age and either successful or promising students. The overwhelming majority of the victims were white males and all had either been out socializing with friends, or were on their way home after doing so. Each case had been investigated and classified as either accidental or unexplained in nature. But in every instance, Gannon easily identified commonalities, or characteristics which contradicted the official narrative. Many of the victims possessed injuries inconsistent with a trip or fall, a significant number had traces of drugs or medication in their bloodstream. And in some cases, their bodies appear to have been staged prior to their recovery.

While investigating the first few cases, the retired detectives began to discover eerily similar graffiti, painted at or near the site where the bodies had been found. These were all variations of a crudely rendered smiley face. The size and style of these logos varied widely, as did the manner in which they had been painted, but all depicted a circular face with a pair of eyes and a wide curving smile. As he interviewed the families of the victims, Gannon promised he would do his utmost to persuade the authorities to revisit their cases and initiate a criminal investigation, but he quickly discovered that the various police departments he approached treated him with open suspicion. Often they refused to accept his findings declining to release autopsy reports and essential crime-scene photographs, which might assist him.

After 20 years of Investigation, Gannon and his team believed that there is a well-organized network of murderers and serial killers operating within the United States. They identify and stalk their targets, striking when the victim is intoxicated and at their most vulnerable. The subject is imprisoned for a lengthy time, before being drowned and then deposited back within the areas where police had already searched. A smiley face is then crudely rendered nearby, where it can easily be found.

The fate of Dakota James

The case of 23 year old Dakota James has many of the hallmarks of the MO put forward by Kevin Gannon. On the evening of January the 25th, 2017, Dakota left a bar in downtown Pittsburgh and headed towards the nearby Seventh Street Bridge, making his way over the Ohio River to his home address. Somehow in the short distance between the bar and the riverside, he disappeared. Forty days later, his remains were recovered 10 miles downriver.

Following an autopsy, the police stated that they believe Dakota had stopped at the side of the Roberto Clemente ridge to relieve himself, and accidentally fell into the water where he became incapacitated and drowned. The body then slowly made its way down the Ohio river impeded by floating and submerged debris, before freeing itself and coming to rest where it was discovered.

Almost immediately, Gannon took issue with the police findings. Once again, the photographs of the recovered remains showed a level of decomposition, entirely inconsistent with a body that had been submerged in water for a month and a half. There was also a complete lack of visible injuries, despite the fact that the corpse would certainly have passed through a steel and concrete dam located 9 miles downriver.

Lee Gilbertson was quick to point out that upon reaching the dam, Dakota's body would most likely have been impeded and would have sustained significant external injuries as it rotated against the concrete whilst caught in the current. Even if its progress for not being halted, the chances of it passing under the dam and not impacting off the sides of the steel gates it did so were minimal. When Gannon was able to obtain copies of the autopsy photos, there was visible bruising around the rear of Dakota's neck, consistent with a ligature. Corresponding bruises were found under the fingernail beds, suggesting that an attempt had been made to try and relieve the pressure of this ligature.

Suspicions were further raised when it was found that there had been activity on Dakota's PayPal account two days after his apparent death. The discovery of a blue smiley face logo, spray painted on a bridge upstream from where the body was recovered indicated to the team that Dakota had been abducted after he left the bar and was held against his will for the subsequent 40 days. He had then been driven down river where he was killed and slipped into the water at a point beyond the dam.

William Hurley's end

The circumstances in which 25 year-old William Hurley died were equally troubling to Gannon. The Navy veteran had been at the TD Garden Stadium on the evening of October the 8th, 2009, watching a Boston Bruins hockey game with friends. Later that evening, he texted his girlfriend complaining that he was feeling tired and needed her to come and pick him up. Claire Mahoney duly got into her car and drove across Boston to meet him, texting to ask where he wanted to be picked up from. As she approached the stadium, she received a garbled phone call from William, stating that his battery was running low and that he was standing near to 99 Nashua Street, before the line suddenly went dead.

Moments later when Claire arrived at the location, there was no sign of William.

For the next hour, she drove repeatedly up and down the road, calling out his name and stopping to ask passers-by if they had seen him, but to no avail. A search of the streets the following morning uncovered William's phone, discarded and apparently having been run over by a car. But of the handset's owner, there was no trace.

Six days later in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the Boston Harbor Police were called to a report of an object floating in the Charles River. The body of William Hurley was found approximately 25 feet from shore, his keys and wallet still in his pocket. After a short investigation, the authorities decided that William had become disorientated whilst trying to make his way through Nashua Park and had fallen into the river striking his head as he did so.

Once again, Kevin Gannon took issue with the official version of events. CCTV cameras outside the stadium had caught William staggering out of the building in a confused state, as if severely intoxicated. The friends who had been out with him at the time, stated that he hadn't drank too much, on account of feeling ill and the toxicology report revealed traces of GHB in his bloodstream. With nobody able to explain how the drug had come to be in William's system, Gannon began to suspect foul play. Injuries sustained to the victims nose and right eye socket indicated deliberate and direct trauma, rather than the generalized bruising that a fall into the water might have caused.

The fact that William's dead body had somehow made its way upriver during the six days after being missing, moving against the prevailing current was even more damning. William was one of three men whose bodies were recovered from the same location within Boston Harbor. Shortly after he arrived in the city, Gannon's team were directed to a silver smiley face logo, which had been spray-painted on an electrical box outside the Harbor Police base. Above it had been painted three stars, with Gannon believing that each star represented a different victim and was openly mocking of the police.

Tommy Booth's case

Twenty-four-year-old Tommy Booth hailed from Ridley Township in Delaware, Pennsylvania. On the 19th of January, 2008, along with eight of his friends he traveled to the neighboring town of Woodland, drinking at a local bar named bootleggers. Towards the end of the evening, two of the group were ejected from the premises for smoking marijuana, and whilst the rest were gathering to leave, they found that Tommy was now missing.

As this was totally out of character, the group immediately carried out a search of the bar and the surrounding area, including a creek which passed roughly 30 yards to the rear of the building. When they were unable to find Tommy, they reported him missing to the police. It would not be until two weeks later that his body was discovered lying face down in the same Creek 200 yards further downstream. There were no cameras at the rear of the bar and CCTV footage from cameras at the front showed that Tommy had not left through the main entrance. The police report stated that the victim had likely exited via the rear doors whilst drunk, became confused and then fell into the water. This is an explanation which the Booth family have never been able to accept and one that Kevin Gannon is equally skeptical of.

Once again, the state of Tommy's remains was inconsistent with someone who had been immersed in water for 14 days. There was no skin slippage, discoloration or swelling. More worrying still, the officers who recovered the body noted it was still in a state of Rigour mortis, a stiffening of the muscle which only occurs within the first 24 hours after death. Fixed lividity in the rear of Tommy's head and buttocks indicated that when he had died, he had been lying on his back and yet the crime scene photos showed that he was located lying face down in the creek. But the most damning evidence of all to be found at the crime scene was a single boot print pressed into the wet mud near the body, which did not match Tommy's footwear and with what appeared to be drag marks behind it.

Gannon's findings were rejected out of hand by the local police department, who stated that the Creeks have been frozen over during the time Tommy was missing, which would have preserved and trapped his body before later releasing it. Despite this, Gannon maintains that the death is suspicious. Friends and family who searched for Tommy during the period that he was missing were adamant that the area he was found in was surged and that the body was not there at that time. He had apparently been receiving threatening phone calls in the weeks, leading up to the incident, to the extent he had considered moving to live with extended family in Florida. Two haunting Smiley Face Logos were later found painted on the rear of the bar.


It is impossible to fault the determination and tenacity with which Gannon and his colleagues have approached the cases they have investigated. Their findings have underlined serious flaws and inadequacies in the police investigations that were carried out, exposing numerous incidents, which are almost certainly homicides. And yet the theory they advocate remains largely implausible. A large percentage of the smiley face incidents are clearly the results of murder, but the prospect that they are organized killings, all somehow linked to the same secretive organization simply does not stand up to scrutiny. During the 30 years they have been occurring at least some evidence of their alleged existence would have come to light, be this through witness or survivor testimony, or their activities being caught on camera.

Gannon has been accused of being selective in the evidence he presents, disregarding any material that undermines his theories and cherry-picking facts in an attempt to keep his hypothesis firmly within the public domain. There is also the very real question about just how beneficial his actions have been to the grieving families of the victims and the level of emotional harm his assertions may cause them.

In reality, the likelihood is that the modus operandi that Kevin Gannon created has indeed become cemented in the public consciousness, and has taken on a life of its own. The reason that there is such a great degree of variance in the smiley face logos is because they are painted by different individuals, perhaps even deliberately near bodies of water, in anticipation that at some point in the future, a death will occur and further propagate the narrative.

On the other hand, perhaps a smiley face is just the most common form of graffiti innocently drawn since time immemorial by people the world over. And the fact that they are found near to where bodies are discovered is mere coincidence. Regardless of what degree of truth exists behind the smiley face pillars theory, there is no denying that Gannon is right to continue probing inadequate police investigations. In doing so, he is drawing attention to clear miscarriages of justice, and increasing the chances that the murderers will be caught.

He and his team should be commended for this fact alone. Our thoughts are with the families who have lost loved ones in this manner. We hope that one day, they will receive answers to any questions left hanging over such a tragic loss.


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