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THE CASE OF THE DROWNING MEN
Written and illustrated by EPONYMOUS ROX © 2012
ISBN 10: 1438223903 – ISBN 13: 978-1438223803
The subject matter of this investigation is derived from a variety of public records and databases including police and forensic reports. It may therefore contain themes and content not suitable for all audiences. The drown cases featured herein were originally classified by law enforcement agencies as accidents and, although a few have since been reclassified as ‘undetermined’ or as homicides, all of them, per the date of this publication, remain unsolved and inactive. However, a number of victims’ families are soliciting support from the public to overturn prior ‘accidental’ rulings so the deaths can be reinvestigated as murders, and are even offering substantial rewards for any information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the party or parties responsible. Wherever available, active links to websites and other reading material for further study of specific victim profiles have been provided at the conclusion of each relevant chapter as well as in the comprehensive resource index at the end of this publication. The views and opinions expressed in THE CASE OF THE DROWNING MEN are based on private, independent research and consultations. As such, the findings and conclusions contained in it are considered speculative in nature and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher, the individuals or agencies who have been quoted. Some data/sources limited via fair usage percents are only extracts.
This book is dedicated to all who have died in vain or too young. May you find, and rest in, peace.
C O N T E N T S
Chapter 1: Dead Certain
Chapter 2: Anatomy of a Drowning
Chapter 3: Corridor of Death
Chapter 4: More Than a Little – Less Than a Lot
Chapter 5: Cowboys and Indians
Chapter 6: Horses of a Different Color
Chapter 7: Profile of a Murderer
Chapter 8: Gradual and Not Swift Moving
Chapter 9: Drowning Out the Opposition
Chapter 10: Smiling Faces
Chapter 11: Prime Time for a Killing Theory
Chapter 12: Mud and a River
Chapter 13: Signs of Foul Play
Chapter 14: Profile of a Serial Murderer
Chapter 15: Sinking Fears
Chapter 16: Profile of a Mass Murderer
Chapter 17: Whitewash
Chapter 18: A Brother, Friend, and Son
Chapter 19: Probable Causes and Statistics
Chapter 20: “You Can’t See What You’re Not Looking For”
“Justice delayed is justice denied.”
William Gladstone (1809 - 1898)
Chapter 1: Dead Certain
Since the mid 1990’s, in the northernmost district of America where Interstates 90 and 94 merge to cut a scenic route toward the west, crossing nearly a dozen states along the way and skirting the border with Canada, scores of young men are vanishing every year without a trace. Only to turn up days, weeks, or months later in nearby bodies of water, dead.
Occurring mainly between the months of September to April, it’s the same story repeating itself every time, with little variation: A young man goes out for the evening with his friends, gets separated from them some time after midnight, and, despite massive search efforts by his loved ones to find out what became of him, is never seen alive again.
For local law enforcement officials the hunt for lost men over the past fifteen years has become an all too familiar tale of woe as well, not the least because it’s costly and disruptive. But as far as police are concerned, even before they launch an investigation, even before a body’s been recovered from the water and an autopsy performed, it’s always a cut-and-dry case: “No signs of foul play.”
Young people are simply drinking too much, the authorities claim. Young people will do crazy and stupid things when they’re inebriated. They’ll even throw themselves into an icy river or lake and drown.
Seems a reasonable enough explanation on its face, if only one or two fatalities occurring every once in awhile, and a scenario that’s not totally impossible to imagine either. But by the hundreds?
And why only males then? All matching the same description? Washing up in places thoroughly searched before…?
I first stumbled upon the case of the drowning men in early 2012, and quite by accident. Indeed, whatever it was I’d originally been researching at the moment, it was undoubtedly not related to death or dying, and I’m also positive it had nothing to do with H20 and its cold-weather hazards. But the brain is an efficient machine and though its focus may be directed to one particular matter it’s still constantly processing everything else on the periphery; sorting, analyzing and connecting all the data-bytes it comes across. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Like dots on a map.
Scientists say one of the things the human brain is very quick to detect is a pattern. If so, that must be the reason why, when I glanced at the February article concerning yet another youth who had wandered away from his buddies and whose corpse was found shortly thereafter floating in the Mississippi, I blurted aloud, “What, not again,” and clicked on the news link. Before that day, before I began to consciously pay attention to this issue, I can honestly say I’d never known of anyone, young or old, male or female, to drink and drown in autumn, winter or spring. Not in all the time I’ve lived in this, the affected area.
Like my fellow citizens who are also lifelong residents of the Great Lakes region—growing up here, going to school, working, vacationing, socializing—I can attest that these two things, drinking and drowning in cold weather, have never been synonymous with each other. Drowning after a night out on the town with your friends during the chilly months of September through April, with nobody else around to help, with no witnesses, just isn’t as inevitable as the police would have us all suddenly believe it is. It’s not, regardless of what age you are or your close proximity to the water, an ordinary way to perish.
This is probably because in these parts, even when people are drunk out of their minds, they don’t usually drown outdoors unless they’re in the act of swimming, or else involved in some other form of water recreation like waterskiing or boating. Activities which, because of our cold, northern climate, are only safely executed in rivers, lakes and ponds approximately three months out of the calendar year, in June, July, and August.
The rest of the time the water’s simply too cold to go in, and most everybody (native and transplant alike) understands that if water is at or below 65 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s not only brutally uncomfortable, it can kill you—a body cools in water twice as fast as it does in air, losing an approximate rate of five degrees per hour. Death from hypothermia only takes about three hours in 40 to 60 degree water; less than two hours at 35 to 40 degrees; and less than three-quarters of an hour at temperatures below 35 degrees.
Those deadly equations are fairly easy to master and, in the land of lakes and rivers and ponds and streams and brooks, youngsters are taught them early on. As for the rare and reckless few who fail to grasp the math, to be perfectly candid, they don’t usually make it to their early teens, let alone full adulthood.
The average age of the males who go missing and are later found drowned in the Interstate 90 and 94 Corridor is between 19 and 23 years. In the entire grouping perhaps a handful have been only 17 and a few others as old as 30, although it must be said, in the case of the more mature victims, they didn’t look anywhere near their true age in posters or photographs.
Grown men drowning in cold weather on their way home at night. That’s become a strange new fact of life and the weird new math those who reside in the northern corridor have now had to learn, based upon figures which have been accumulating for nearly the past two decades.
We’re fond of and rely on facts and numbers to inform us here in the northland because, overall, we’re an educated people. Our extensive waterways, highways, railways, large cities, major industries and fertile farmlands have contributed to make the region one of the most affluent in the country. As a result, many of the world’s finest universities can be found in this region as well, and an overwhelming majority of us have attended them. We’re a schooled and highly trained bunch of skeptics we are, and even a bit conservative leaning.
Which is to say, we tend to mull things over long before we act. We don’t jump to conclusions…
In 2004 the April drowning of yet another popular, athletic, and bright 21-year-old male of medium build, at the University of Wisconsin in La Crosse, provided the tipping point for that community’s stoical tolerance of the matter. In terms of these events La Crosse is one of the hotspots, and by that year there’d been way too many of the same type of men dying under identical circumstances for the public to view it anymore as coincidence. With the inexplicable disappearance of honor student Jared Dion the city was up in arms, and when his body was eventually discovered downriver, the once-whispered suspicions of murder instantly morphed into full blown allegations of a serial killer or a gang of serial killers stalking college-age men in the area, not to mention accusations of police involvement and a cover up.
There were roughly 51,000 people living in La Crosse in 2004, according to the U.S. Census, and, to be sure, they weren’t all hapless students; city officials and the police department were late to acknowledge a crisis at hand, and, when they did finally react to it, the town-hall meetings they commandeered to dismiss the public’s fears as unfounded did little or nothing to calm things down again. Every public debate concerning the river deaths was jam-packed and rapidly descended into a shouting match.
It was probably in a last ditch effort to restore the peace as well as to mitigate harm to the university’s reputation that an open letter from faculty members at the University of Wisconsin in La Crosse was penned and then distributed to the student body. Co-authored by the Chairs of the Psychology and Sociology departments and titled Why we are 99.9% sure it is NOT a serial killer - a data based explanation, this urgent communiqué implored students to use their “critical thinking skills” to evaluate what was really going on in their town. A levelheaded analysis would prove these were only drownings, not murders, the professors assured them. A string of terribly tragic and utterly preventable accidents:
1. Students are drinking too much and incapacitating themselves, a condition which drives some to seek out the river to refresh themselves, during which they slip and fall in.
2. Only men are drowning as a result of intoxication because women are more savvy these days and don’t wander around alone at night, especially not if they’ve been partying.
3. Annually, almost ten times as many males die during water recreational activities and in other types of accidents than females do. Alcohol plays a role in a number of these cases.
4. There are no drowning deaths at nearby universities like Madison because their campuses are beside lakes. Whereas La Crosse’s campus is situated right on the river’s edge, and rivers, being suddenly deep and fast flowing, are far more dangerous.
5. The similarities between the victims constitute “illusory correlations” which can readily be explained through other qualifying factors.
Stepping into the middle of a community’s fray and trying to mediate it was highly unusual for a university, and, in light of the dire subject matter of their “data based explanation” and the negative impact advertising it might have had on future enrollment, a rather risky PR move, too. But the professors’ treatise was also an intelligent, compassionate, and methodical approach to debunking the serial murderer theory before it could take root—the first of many—so the gamble was well worth it. Moreover, this strategy appears to have been quite successful. At least for awhile.
But in 2005, 2006 and 2007, drunk and sober young men continued to go missing along the interstates, sometimes two or more in the very same time span. Their corpses eventually to be retrieved from such rivers as the Calumet, the Hudson, the Charles, the Mississippi, the Milwaukee, the Wabash and the Wisconsin, as well as a number of area lakes, including Great Lake Michigan, Lake LaVerne, and the University at Madison’s nearby Lake Mendota. These latter deaths occurring in seeming defiance of the UW-L professors’ sweeping assertion that a lake doesn’t pose the same risk for drowning because “it becomes gradually deeper and is not moving swiftly.”
Also helping to rekindle the flames of conflict between believers and nonbelievers of a serial killer, new information had begun trickling in from reliable outside investigators which suggested that dozens of the questionable drownings could be linked now not only by an identifiable victimology and a distinct manner of death, but also through cryptic symbols like smiley faces and other taunting messages left at the scenes of a some of the suspected murders.
A subsequent inspection throughout the region confirmed that there was in fact sinister-looking graffiti of this sort at many a river’s edge or lakefront, and, as with the ruckus at La Crosse Wisconsin just a few years prior, a large percent of the student populations in these locations, together with their families and the local citizenry, became understandably very worked up about these findings. Terrified.
It was investigative reporter Kristi Piehl from KSTP-TV out of Minnesota who first broke the story in 2008 of serial killers drowning men along Interstate 90 and 94, and of the doggedly determined pair of retired NYPD detectives in hot pursuit of them. The segment ultimately earning her an Emmy but apparently costing her a job. From that special report, the concept of a “Smiley Face Killer Gang” was born and went instantly viral, not just on websites and in chatrooms, but also in the major media outlets.
ABC, MSNBC, CNN and the Associated Press, among others, picked up the local news item and carried it nationwide, in so doing, widely broadcasting the seeds of what would become one of the most hotly-contested conspiracy theories of our time.
Once again, pandemonium broke out as anxious citizens began mobilizing and actively trying to bypass their own police departments’ authority, demanding instead that federal assistance be provided in order to apprehend a fiendish network of elusive serial murderers stalking, abducting and drowning specific types of young males across the northland.
Experts in criminology and forensic pathology studied the various case profiles as well, and, noting the telltale spikes in certain localities, they also began expressing similar opinions.
"The probability is virtually zero that five intoxicated students just happened to walk similar or even different routes and end up on the riverbank." Dr. Maurice Godwin, criminal investigative psychologist, commenting on the La Crosse Wisconsin cluster
"They could have been murdered but the person was just so good at doing it that they didn't leave any physical evidence…[they] could sedate and drown him in a tub or something like that and then throw him in the river." John Kelly, psychotherapist and profiler
“The statistics are so stacked against this number of men, young men, Caucasian males, found in bodies of water in that cluster of states, within that period of time.” Dr. Cyril Wecht, forensic pathologist
“If you actually look at the statistics on drownings, most drownings occur during the summer and they're related to water activities like boating and water skiing and things like that. Very few drownings actually occur during the winter.” Lee Gilbertson, Professor of Criminal Justice at St. Cloud University
The supporting evidence for those conclusions was so compelling, in fact, that two high-level state representatives joined in the furor. Senator Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin and U.S. Congressman McNulty from New York both submitted requests directly to the FBI urging the Bureau to formally investigate the serial murders being perpetrated in their states and to take swift actions to end them.
“Yes, there’s a serial murderer—alcohol,” La Crosse’s flustered chief of police, Edward Kondracki, retorted when confronted with these latest developments. But, “a rogue cop…or national smiley face gang…there is no serial killer!”
In this growing war of words, rival local-news networks who had failed to show any real interest in the story before felt obliged now to weigh in, some seeking to ridicule the award-winning reporter who had intrepidly launched the Smiley Face Murder Theory into the national spotlight.
Veteran columnist Steve Perry from the Minnesota Monitor unabashedly said of her, "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.” And reporter Brian Lambert at Minneapolis St.Paul Magazine angrily proclaimed that a story depicting serial drownings as actual serial slayings in disguise going on to earn a coveted journalism award was “ludicrous,” and that the very idea of a serial murderer being responsible for the spate of area deaths, "boggles every rational instinct."
But because a homegrown rumor, many years in the creation, had suddenly spiraled into a legend overnight, it would now require much more than scorn and carefully constructed editorial pieces to slam the lid back on the can of worms it had opened. The American public’s imagination and its keen interest in the case had been ignited, and it would take a multi-pronged effort to fully squelch the serial killer theory this time. In that process, a number of reputations would necessarily have to be sullied, a few investigations closed, and taxpayers’ monies liberally spent in order to increase security, and a sense of security, in communities close to water.
Fences, river patrols, safe buses, surveillance cameras, targeted campaigns of every variety aimed at damage control― these costly measures could be justified because public officials knew that, to govern properly, people couldn’t be living in fear day and night, and they couldn’t be distrustful of their law enforcement officers, either. Most importantly, university towns couldn’t expect students to continue flocking to them in droves, as many in this region have been accustomed to for over a century, if they’re suddenly afraid they’ll end up victims of violent crimes there. When it comes to social strife and chaos, in the end the end always does justify the means employed, and, as can be seen today, these strenuous attempts to solve “the problem” have been effective in crushing the ugly stories and criticisms that were running rampant not so long ago.
All throughout the northern corridor now, a truce appears to be in place and holding, and, for the most part, it’s been pretty quiet these past couple of years.
But then there is that plaguing issue of a steadily rising body count.
“With regard to Patrick McNeill, we have a young man who is found [with] a blood alcohol level of 0.16. Probably a third of that is postmortem putrefaction…a relatively low level of alcohol. There's no way in the world that this man then is accidentally going to fall into a body of water, [and] I’m saying that the fly larvae have been laid in the groin area. It's an indoor fly—could not have been an outdoor fly―it was an indoor fly. And the larvae were there, did not move ahead into the later stage. So we have a body that was already dead before it was placed in the water…I would call it a homicide, yes.” Dr. Cyril Wecht, renowned Forensic Pathologist
"Circumferentially around the neck there is a pattern which consists of numerous vertical lines evenly spaced (1/16") around his neck as if to suggest some type of binding." from the McNeill autopsy report by Dr. Charles Hirsch, then Chief Medical Examiner for the city of New York
“Yes, regarding that particular case in New York, that certainly does sound like it was a homicide.” Candice Delong, career FBI Profiler, speaking of Patrick McNeill’s drowning
“Patrick's death was not an accidental drowning. He was stalked, abducted, held for an extended period of time, murdered, and disposed.” Kevin Gannon, NYPD homicide detective investigating the McNeill case since 1997