Alcohol and Night Swimming: A winning combination………. for muuuuuuuurder

I’ve spent the last 4 days trying to put together a post on chicken pox. I thought I should maybe try to finish it today, but I don’t feel like it and there’s something else that’s been really annoying the living crap out of me: The Smiley Face Killers.

Sure it’s been a couple of weeks since they’ve been mentioned, but that doesn’t mean that the annoyingness of it all hasn’t been building up in my brain.

For those of you who have not heard of these Smiley Face Killers, they are a national gang of serial killers who follow drunk college aged men around, maybe kidnapping them, killing them then dumping them in a river or lake or maybe pushing them into bodies of water, drowning them. The gang then spray paints a smiley face nearby as a calling card. Pretty terrifying stuff. I mean, spray painting a smiley face where you just killed some random kid? There’s no adjective to describe how twisted that is. And no one knows who they are.

So far they’ve killed at least 22 men across the country and the media is taking this very seriously. They will not rest until every last one of these murderous graffiti aficionados is found and brought to justice… never mind that no one has covered this story for a couple of weeks now in lieu of “real” news (I assume).

22 men, all about the same age, all leaving bars or parties, all drowned, all with the exact same graffiti at the scene. At first glance it seems plausible. But since I have way more time on my hands than a busy journalist like Anderson Cooper or Meredith Viera, I decided to do some research into the facts of this story.

When I first heard about the Smiley Face Gang the number 22 caught my attention. 22 college aged men. 22 is a lot. From what I’ve seen on Law and Order, this is more than enough to make a definitive connection to a single killer or group of killers. But then there was a tiny little bit of information that made the needle jump on my bullshit detector: The first “murder” happened in 1997.

We’re talking about 22 college-aged drunk guys who drown over the last ELEVEN years. For a serial killer, that’s still a pretty significant number. But a quick check with the CDC’s Water-Related Injuries: Fact Sheet gives us some information on drowning that puts it all into perspective (I know, it’s hard to believe I’ve gone to such lengths in my own personal investigation):

  • Drowning deaths in 2005 alone totaled almost 3600.
  • Most people over the age of 15 who drown do so in natural waters (all Smiley’s victims were dumped in natural water)
  • Men are 4 times more likely to die in a drowning accident than women
  • Almost half of all drowning deaths involve alcohol

If we are to assume that 2005 was a year of epidemic drownings, and the number was triple that of a normal year (more likely than not, though, it was probably pretty typical), that means 1200 people die every year in drowning accidents. Over 11 years, that’s 13,000. If 80% of those are male, that’s 10,400 men.

When you figure that over ten thousand men drown over those 11 years, it doesn’t seem all that ridiculous that 22 of them were drunk, walking home from college bars or parties and fell into a lake or river. I’m pretty sure you see at least triple that many drunk guys taking a stroll by the lake in Chicago on any given Tuesday night. Over the last 11 years, at least 500 of them were hanging out with me. Next weekend I hope to send a few more young males on their stumbly way through the city.

The other major link connecting all of these “murders” is the presence of smiley faces spray painted near where investigators guess is where the men fell into the water bodies were dumped. Perhaps smileys aren’t the most popular symbol tagged onto the walls and rocks of America, but come on they’re not that uncommon.

Most media accounts show this image as an example of the gang’s trademark:

Now that is a pretty unique smiley. If this particular smiley was at all the “crime scenes” I would be out every weekend warning young men to travel in groups. But here are some other examples of smileys:

There’s nothing these symbols have in common. Some have circles around the faces. Some have noses. One is red. Hell, one isn’t even smiling! And I’m not convinced the one on the top left is actually even painted. Perhaps they should have more been more appropriately named “Ambiguous Generic Face Usually Spray Painted Near Possible Crime Scenes Killers” or AGFUSPNCS Killers for short. Or would that not be catchy enough to cause national panic?

If a gang is leaving a trademark to let people know “Smiley Face Killers were here!” I’d think they’d want some more consistency rather than these. They’d want something that would absolutely scream SMILEY FACE KILLERS if not for publicity but at least to communicate with other gang members. There’s no use in drawing a smiley that could have been made by any douchebag with an index finger and a paint can.

I also find it fascinating that the retired detectives piecing this all together have come up with an MO. See, this is a group of kids who meet on the intertoobs to schedule murder meet-ups. They get a box truck or cargo van. Then they kidnap the some drunk guy…. then something something something…. then dump the body to make it look like an accidental drowning. Then the guy with the paint can in his pocket finds a rock and sprays a smiley on it. Repeat as desired for 11 or so years.

No one cracks. No one has a crisis of conscience. No one notices groups of men in vans or box trucks outside of bars or parties. No rental car companies report having vans or trucks returned with blood or spray paint. No one has found where the scheduling of these meet-ups takes place ( And the FBI says shut the hell up with your retarded conspiracy theories and go back to enjoying your retirement, detectives, why not try shuffle board or sudoku?

Nope, instead they’re all like “Psssssh whatever. No one gets on Anderson Cooper 360 for playing shuffleboard. We need to keep families from getting closure on the untimely deaths of their loved ones to get on that show.”

And CNN was all, “Nothing like causing panic over graffiti to get ratings!”

But in all seriousness, it’s probably a good idea to stay away from bodies of water when you’re walking home drunk.  You will probably not get kidnapped and murdered by artistically-challenged spray-paint can owners, but you could fall in the water and you won’t really be any better off than if you got kidnapped.


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

Related Articles


  1. “Over the last 11 years, at least 500 of them were hanging out with me. Next weekend I hope to send a few more young males on their stumbly way through the city.”

    Could this be…a confession?!

    Quick, someone check Elyse for a index finger callous.

    So Elyse provided have of the logical check on this with the rough numbers of drunk downers. the other side would be to see how many instances of happy faces you can find.

  2. Well, I will point out that if these guys are real serial killers, the likelihood of them ever having a crisis of conscience is low. A lack of a conscience is one of the signs of a sociopath, which is what someone would have to be to do something like this.

    Having said that, I think you’re probably right that someone is really stretching to make this look like a serial spree, at least based on the smiley faces that are supposedly all linked. Since this is the first I’ve heard of this, your article is all the information I have to go on right now. (And based on what you’ve written here, I admit I’ve been convinced there’s little point in researching it further.)

  3. Whoa. Well done, inspector Elyse! I heard about the “murders” in passing a few weeks ago and hadn’t given it much thought since. It didn’t even occur to me how blown out of proportion it might be…

  4. Very nice. This is how conspiracy theories start – when people start looking for commonalities they find them.

    (I’ve been a lurker for months, but your article made me join and say kudos. KUDOS!)

  5. Dear friend!

    Im sending you this to let you know of a great new opportunty. I myself have now retired comfortably, as have five of my closest friends, a neighbour, a relative’s hamster, and a man called Bob Jones. Bob at first didn’t believe and was almost run over by a truck but then he changed his mind and won the lottery the next day. And he didn’t even buy a ticket.
    How can I share in this good fortune I here you ask. It’s quite easy.

    Step 1: Kidnap drunk guys and push them into _fresh_ water. Make sure their’s a smily face nearby, or it won’t work.

    Step 2: …

    Step 3: Profit.

    Mail this to all your friends within 46 minutes, or all yur base will belong to us.

  6. ::sigh::

    I just don’t know what to make of the way the media is running with this thing.

    It’s just going to make it that much harder the next time I kidnap a drunk and drown him. Work, work, work…

  7. I think part of the reason that conspiracies like this are so popular is that we like our villains to be smart.

    Think about all of the good serial killer movies about psychos who are smooth, clever, charming, and capable. We tell each other stories about how fiendishly brilliant these people are and how well they cover their tracks.

    As a result, we start to look for the very small coincidences that link strange events because those are the only kinds of clues that Hannibal Lector would leave. We tend to skip over the part where real serial killers do things like send notes to the police and leave dead bodies lying around.

    As has already been noted, if this really were a serial killer – especially one who went to the trouble of “signing his work” – these smiley faces would all be very noticeable and very uniform.

    At least, that’s what the movies tell me.

  8. durnett

    Statistics on drowning are pretty easy to get. Statistics on images in graffiti art are a bit harder to find. According to, 5% of graffiti is “generic” (I assume smileys fall in there somewhere). So smileys are not typical graffiti, but I still stand by the fact that they’re not really rare.


    If it were one serial killer or even a pair of killers, it’s unlikely that anyone would have a crisis of conscience. But this is a national gang of killers. At some point, one of them is bound to sleep with another member’s girlfriend, pissing him off and sending him to the police in retaliation.

  9. In the years 1997-2008, 22 young men were found drowned.In each case, an enigmatic smiley face was found spraypainted nearby.

    While researching the story, newspaper reporter John Dinovo finds reports of a strikingly similar string of unsolved drownings in the years 1947-1958, each with a “Kilroy Was Here” graffitti scrawled nearby.

    Every fifty years, the terror strikes.

    When will it end?

    Read Dean Koontz’s riveting new novel Doodlers.

    From Bantam.

  10. RSLancastr, my favorite part of that Koontz book is the section dealing with Andre the Giant’s posse: Are they friends? Are they foes? Who are they REALLY working for?? Page-turning stuff, there.

  11. OMG, Jeffy Buckley drunk and drowned to death in 1997, the very year the murders began. We didn’t think to look for smilies at the time but…

    My goodness. It all fits!

  12. It’s the new smilieface cult. Those kids killed themseleves after painting the image of the Smilieface God on the wall… :) <- something like that

  13. It’s the new smilieface cult. Those kids killed themseleves after painting the image of the Smilieface God on the wall… <- something like that.

    Oh heyyyy, way to think outside the box, Blakut! We’ve just been assuming that the killings came first and the killers left the smiley faces afterwards, but what if it’s … THE OTHER WAY ROUND? What if the smileys are in fact part of the reason for the deaths? What if the drunk guys painted the smileys and then jumped in lakes out of remorse? What if the smiley faces have MAGIC POWERS and they make people fall in rivers? CNN might have the cause and effect completely backwards! :O

  14. About 15 years ago a young lady here in San Diego was apparently killed by a shark while swimming a little tipsy at night. The conspiracy theorists have been screaming cover up ever since. The evidence? “Why would anyone go skinny dipping in the middle of the night?”

    There’s just no slowing conspiracy nuts down.

  15. “After checking out photos from the scene of Jeff Buckley’s “accident”, I found this image on a rock nearby.”


    Now we know why his last, uncompleted album was entitled “My Sweetheart the Drunk.” CONSPIRACY.

  16. weatherwax: “The evidence? ‘Why would anyone go skinny dipping in the middle of the night?'”

    Maybe I’m just a big skinny dipping n00b, but isn’t the middle of the night prime skinny dipping time?

  17. Coincidentally, this is why you never get a case of a smilie-face jumper. People don’t spray paint grafitti on the roofs of tall buildings.

    Although I’m surprised they didn’t mention the smilie-face muggers …

  18. It’s just hit me. The killers are mermaids. The first effects of the sirens song is a feeling of bliss, causing some to draw a smiley face. As the song continues, the victim is drawn into the water, where the mermaid eats his soul.

    Mermaids are real. The smileys prove it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button