Dead Boyz Can’t Swim: Student Bodies & The Smiley Face MurdersBy Shawn Baker / Saturday, October 31st, 2009
He sank beneath the wave,
No mother there to save,
No father’s hand to help him,
He filled a water’s grave.
He left a lonely brother
And friends to mourn his loss,
His broken-hearted parents
To bear a heavy cross.
– “The Drowning of The Heber Springs Boy,” The John Quincy Wolf Folklore Collection
Patrick McNeill had been found floating in the Hudson River in April of 1997, two months after disappearing after a night out with friends. He was last seen leaving an Upper East Side bar to catch a train back to Fordham University in the Bronx.
Even in double-time Big Apple tempo, his weirdly random death — ruled an accidental drowning despite his family’s protestations — was still being bandied about Fordham’s Manhattan campus in the fall just as I was beginning my freshman term.
Good ol’ F.U. had more than its fair share of dust-ups and sweep-unders involving the student body during my tenure there, but none cut as close to the bone for me as McNeill’s fate did. He was a foil for me in every sense: a local boy instead of a transplant, a family guy rather than a loner, a junior majoring in accounting in lieu of a print hopeful, and Irish-Italian kid from the block and not a conspicuous Scandinavian rover from the upstate Tundra — in short, a somebody. Somebody to be missed in a city full of young, rootless nobodies.
The accident angle never seemed to fly with the public, including me. Drug-free and graduation-bound students don’t just pull a Lady of Shallot on a dime after a night of bar-hopping. Just how a guy with only a moderate amount of alcohol in his system careens headlong into a river like a Bowery bum is hard to picture. I’d say I was far more likely to crack-up from the loneliness, shallowness, and constant back-biting I weathered there.
The McNeill Mystery assumed a Twin Peaks-style obsessiveness for me. All the pulpy, noirish elements were in place: the body of a doomed Everyguy finding its way down the river after he vanished into the night, a killer possibly still lurking about (someone he knew on campus even?), a police investigation concluded too patly, and a sense that something far bigger than a death by improbable misadventure was behind it all.
Armchair sleuths like me will tell you that McNeill didn’t pull a swan dive in a boozy haze; he was by current deduction the stone’s throw in what’s now being coined the Smiley Face Murders, a ripple effect of slayings disguised as suspect drownings targeting collegiate males across ten states and twenty cities. Authorities lending the theory credence estimate the death toll at near-fifty, while a Veronica Mars following the case may put the number at upwards of twice that.
Maddeningly murky, the unifying elements to the deaths have fallen into place out of admitted conjecture and extrapolation. A male student in his late teens or early twenties is stalked and/or dosed with a date rape drug inside a bar, frat house, or party setting. He disappears sometimes within a mere few hundred feet of where he strays from his companions. He’s perhaps held for some nefarious purpose by his captor(s) for a brief period. He’s disposed of in a body of water still-breathing but incapacitated that same night. He ultimately turns up days, weeks, or months later with his personal effects discovered miles away and his end deemed a drunken mishap.
The media-friendly sobriquet for the crimes is credited to the cryptic graffiti symbol –the Smiley Face — that beyond-banal cultural shorthand for contentment found spray-painted in the vicinity of multiple crime scenes.
A new urban legend, you ask? Maybe, if you’re cynical about the hysterics of killer sects and overwrought political plots that have been ascribed to the motivation. The whole idea of Satanic cults, black magic killings, and recovered memory of ritual abuse has always come across as bunk lifted from Rosemary’s Baby or Race With The Devil. The Smiley Face Murders have even been attributed in some circles to the handiwork of Islamic terrorists committing some sort of jihad on college boys or a militant Black Power Movement aiming to trigger a race war, proving villainy is too often a catch-all boogeyman impulse.
It took the drowning death of Minnesota student Chris Jenkins being officially determined a homicide by medical examiners in 2003 to mortar public sentiment that way too many young men were similarly wandering to their deaths in the water to be merely coincidental. Wisconsin’s Chris Melancon, Michigan’s Morgan White, Ohio’s Keith Noble, and Illinois’s Ryan Katcher are but four in an ever-expanding list full of young men unofficially believed to be victims or otherwise inexplicably missing under congruent circumstances.
I’ve perused their faces, ones you could pass on any street. It all leaves me with the sensation of brushing my hand up against something damp when you take in the density and ease with which they either ended up cold and alone in the river beds or seemed to be swallowed up by the mist in the neighborhoods they knew. It’s enough to make any hardened urbanite cast a shuddery glance over his shoulder.
When The Bone Collector hit cinemas during my junior year, its nightmare vignette involving a college kid falling for the rouse of a killer passing himself off as a cabbie gave me the sinking suspicion that that was perhaps how McNeill and others might have been taken right off the street. Just the idea of unlicensed cabs and changeable plates has forever left me eagle-eyed for medallion numbers and at-the-ready to kick out a window.
In the case of Wisconsin’s Cullen Fortney, we potentially have the one who got away.
Fortney woke up in a La Crosse river in the early a.m. of January 2006 after becoming separated from friends earlier that evening, able to drag himself from the current and wander to nearly Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center. He had no memory of how he ended up half-drowned. His friend Nick Thompson also awoke passed out in the lobby of the same hospital, equally dazed and clueless about how he ended up there.
Their hang-out of choice that night?: La Crosse’s John’s Bar, located within a safe bus shuttle’s distance from the University of Wisconsin, and coincidentally, the last place where Jared Dion was seen before being recovered from the Mississippi River two years prior, his death chalked up to yet another cold water drowning.
The efforts of Detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte to tie the disparate deaths together as the deeds of a lone killer or criminal syndicate may have curried favor with the public, but the F.B.I. has written off the hunch wholesale. Criminal profilers have also failed to reach much in the way of consensus, some convinced that the series of eerily similar deaths constitute a pattern, while others insist no foul play is evident.
For adherents like myself, too many coincidences, parallels, and unanswered questions abound to allow for the theory of a pattern killer or killers at work to be effectively shot down entirely. Thrill killers have functioned in pairs or groups before, and it’s not uncommon for a woman to be the mastermind in a deadly co-dependent cocktail of personalities. In this instance, could she be the lure that baits the snare?
If the smiling spray-painted symbols discovered in remote areas aren’t a signature, then what does the decidedly less mundane and cryptic scrawl Sinsiniwa found at the scene of a Michigan death-by-drowning mean?
The Sioux word roughly translates to “home of the young eagle” ( I’ll admit I thought it sounded like the esoteric title of an X-Files episode upon first hearing its connection with the case), and some prenotations have seized upon it adding a vein of Native American mysticism to the cases. Could it be a chilling reference to the name of the intersection in Iowa where victim Matt Kruziki is posited to have been placed in the Mississippi River — the last place police dogs were able to detect his trail?
My theories — I’m the healthy kind of obsessive – are free of much of the schlock theatrics you’ll find elsewhere. I’m of the mindset that we have a single killer or even a pair based in the Midwest and branching out when the opportunity allows. It would be interesting to know if young women are dying in accidental drownings at the same frequency that young men apparently are. I’d assume such deaths to be more common during the daylight hours in the summer or during spring break, taking place at beaches or lakes where watercraft, swimming, and booze aren’t the most winning combination. I just can’t buy that the disorientation and lethargy that comes with extreme inebriation could really allow for all these guys to drive or stumble — or in the apparent case of McNeill, take a subway ride — for blocks or even miles to a river.
Would anyone who’s so drunk that the shock of freezing water doesn’t deter him from wading into dark water still have the presence of mind to leave his wallet, watch, baseball cap, holy medal, cell phone, and other personal effects on the shoreline, as so often is what occurs in these deaths? If I were a clever predator, I’d know few things obliterate evidence in the way that prolonged exposure to submersion does.
I ask myself: if the notion of a serial killer committing interstate crimes targeting young men is so ludicrous to the F.B.I., then why has it created a database to link the slayings of female runaways, hookers, and motorists to long haul truckers traveling the nation’s highways? Five hundred women falling prey to men unified by a shared-if-concurrent M.O. is plausible, but the deaths of forty men being brought about by a man or men with access to transportation, and say, jobs that call for travel is out of the realm of conceivability?
It’s the much-discussed Trane Theory that may have the strongest legs for me. Under all its many wacky tangents and byways, the central reasoning is not meritless: our boy the SFM could be in the employ of the Wisconsin HVAC supplier Trane Commercial Sales (interestingly, located in La Crosse, WI, where several drownings have occurred) or any such similar entity, thus allowing him plenty of time on the road, a vehicle useful in nabbing a victim, and even a uniform that permits him to move essentially unseen. A young, like-minded protÃ©gÃ© able to infiltrate youthful settings effortlessly has crossed my mind as well.
I wonder if all serial-based crimes like these come down to sex and only sex. Do the Smiley Face Murders reveal the presence of a new type of pattern killer, one whose pathology is not sex-based, who’s able to prey outside of a comfort zone, whose victims represent something to him that can’t be textbook-profiled, and who doesn’t want to be caught? Has too much in the way of pop cult psycho lore narrowed our vision of how a real Dexter in our midst would be operating?
And so Patrick McNeill is always in my thoughts, a reminder of what shouldn’t have been, what can frighteningly come to pass when our guard is down. If all these lost boys were found by the roadside, would there be any debate about their deaths being homicides? Maybe resolution in one form or another will come and maybe it won’t, but in the meantime, this collegiate-looking novice flatfoot finds himself that much more aware on long walks home at night, giving an instinctive side-eye to vans and service trucks, and being mindful of too-friendly strangers wanting to chat me up when the alcohol flows free and easy.
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