Hundreds of "Accidental" Drownings, 4 Dogged Investigators and 1 Wild Theory: Inside the Hunt for the Smiley Face Killers

Could there be a group of murderers out there responsible for the deaths of young men across the country?

By Billy Nilles Jan 19, 2019 8:00 PMTags
Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt for JusticeAnton Floquet/Oxygen

When Dakota James didn't show up for work on January 26, 2017, his family didn't know what to think.

The Duquesne University grad student had gone out the night before with friends and co-workers, visiting bars in Pittsburgh's Cultural District, before heading home across the Alleghany River around 11:30 p.m. But he never made it there. After waiting the customary 72 hours, Pam and Jeff James filed a missing person's report and, when Dakota still didn't turn up, hired a private investigator.

Their son had last been seen alive on a surveillance camera walking through Katz Plaza entering a dark alley that would have let out near the entrances to the three bridges that cross the Alleghany. After that, he was not captured on any of the three bridges' cameras, ruling out a crossing. And he was not seen anywhere else either. He'd simply vanished.

He wasn't seen again until 40 days after he'd disappeared, on March 6, when a woman walking her dog saw a body floating in the Ohio River, 10 miles and one concrete and steel down river from where he was last seen. And when his death was ruled an accidental drowning by the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office, that's when the real questions began.

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The theory presented by Pittsburgh as to how Dakota wound up 10 miles down river was that he simply fell in while drunkenly crossing the bridge to return home that fateful night and drowned. Never mind the fact that he's not spotted doing such a thing on the Roberto Clemente Bridge or any of the other bridges near where he was last spotted, they say. And that goes double for the fact that, despite allegedly having been in the water for 40 days, and having passed through a dam in a river that hardly ever gets dredged, his body had almost no visible damage. And the date rape drug GHB in his system? Interesting, they say, but not relevant. The ruling remains.

But it's because all of the above that Dakota's parents haven't been able to just simply accept what they've been told by authorities about what must've happened to their son. 

"I want people to know the truth—that he was a good person and not some 23-year-old child that got drunk and decided to pee in the river and fell in on his own," Pam, who started a foundation in her son's name, told The Daily Beast. "Someone did something wrong to him and we need to find the answer. It's not just about my son. It's about helping the other families out there that need the information."

Michael Appleton/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

So, they turned to retired NYPD detectives Anthony Duarte and Kevin Gannon, who, for the past 12 years have been investigating a theory that, of the hundreds of college-aged men found dead in bodies of water across 25 cities in 11 states since 1997, at least 45 of them might be the victims of a network now referred to as the Smiley Face Killers. 

Dakota fits their profile of other suspected victims: smart, athletic, popular college-aged white men who went out drinking and never came home. Like Dakota, more recently, some have been openly gay. About 30 have had GHB in their system. And like Dakota, their bodies were found in lakes or rivers with smiley-face or other graffiti that has been specifically connected to the group spray-painted nearby. 

"Dakota was clearly murdered," Kevin told The Daily Beast.

Kevin and Anthony, along with their investigative partners Prof. Lee Gilbertson, and another retired NYPD detective, Mike Donovan, have had their theories about the so-called serial killer cell debunked in the past. In 2008, the FBI took a look at the deaths and concluded that the vast majority of the deaths were accidental drownings as advertised. In 2012, the Center for Homicide Research looked at 40 deaths and did the same. Meanwhile, despite their steadfast investigations picking up where local law enforcement left off, the various police departments and medical examiner offices in all but one case have refused to change their conclusions.

So, now, the quartet are taking their quest to television in the new six-part Oxygen series Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt for Justice, premiering on Saturday, Jan. 19 with a look into Dakota's death and his family's search for answers.

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"It's been a difficult road and that's why we had to choose TV, to go to the court of public opinion. We felt like there was no other option," Kevin told The Daily Beast, adding, "To me, this is one of the most dangerous domestic terrorist groups in the United States and somebody needs to pay attention to them."

For Gannon, his new life's work began in 1997 with the disappearance of 20-year-old Patrick McNeill, who vanished after a night out with friends at a bar in Manhattan's Upper East Side. His body was recovered two months later nearly 12 miles downriver, floating near a pier in the East River near Brooklyn. His cause of death was ruled a drowning, though the manner was undetermined. But through his investigation, Gannon discovered evidence that, in his mind, pointed towards murder.

There were witnesses who recalled a car with a man and a woman in it that was double-parked outside the bar with Patrick emerged that followed him down 2nd Avenue towards 90th Street. When he turned left, so did they, inching along. "They were good witnesses," Kevin said. And then there was the fact that access to the river isn't so easy. "I walked that whole area," he added. "There's hardly any way to get access to the river there."

Over the next 15 months, two more men around the same age went missing in NYC. One's body turned up near where Patrick's body was found, and the other was discovered in the Hudson River near 138th Street. So when Kevin retired in 2001, he turned to his former partner Anthony to begin investigating the deaths. The following year, he saw a report on CNN about similar suspicious drownings in the Midwest and, by looking into them, eventually linked up with Lee, a criminal justice professor and gang expert at a university in Minnesota who had been studying the Midwest drownings for years.

In 2006, the team began traveling the country to all the site where the victims had been found, which is how they discovered the similar graffiti--the smiley face and 12 other symbols they believe to be specific to the gang--either where the men had been put in the water or where they had been found. Much of the graffiti was found on bridges. 

"Our critics say there is lots of smiley-face graffiti around," Kevin said. "I've been on hundreds of bridges. There aren't as many as you think. But we only include it if the other symbols specific to this group are present, too."

The world first became aware of Kevin's theory in 2008 when he, Anthony and Lee went public via news conference in New York City. At that time, there 40 cases across 29 cities in nine states that they believed to be connected. And in 2014, he and Lee published the textbook Case Studies in Drowning Forensics, which examines 14 of the cases. And today, they believe they know a lot more about the gang than they did back then.

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"The level of sophistication of the group is a lot greater than we'd imagined," Kevin told the Daily Beast. "Now we know they communicate with each other on the dark web. We know there's surveillance and counter-surveillance."

As Lee explained, each city is thought to have its own cell. "There might be 12 in that cell and they go out one night and five of them do this," he told the outlet. "The next time it's a different five. The way it should be conceived is that it's the cell that's the serial [killer] part of it, not necessarily the individuals. Because over time the individuals in the cell will evolve. Some will age out and just keep their mouths shut. Who wants to go to prison?"

And, as he continued, the belief is that, if law enforcement would just re-investigate these cases, the network would begin to fall apart. "Someone will squeal or snitch," Lee continued. "But there's no reason to now. Everything's going fine for them."

"They're constantly recruiting," he added. "Years ago, we were on their dark-web webpage but it was asking us to turn on a video camera so they could see who was about to type in the password and there's no way we were doing that. And we didn't even have the password. We'd just been given their URL, so went to it because we were told that's how they communicate."

As for the group's motivation behind the killings, Kevin asserts that it can range from gang initiation to hate crimes. "They're targeting the best of the best," he said. "These kids are the best students. They're the best athletes and they come from the best families."

Lee added: "These are upstanding young men. So why precisely do they hate them? Because maybe they're succeeding. Maybe it's the haves and the have-nots."

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For the James family, as revealed in the Oxygen series, since the investigative quartet began looking into the case, they've gotten a bit more information. After being barred from seeing Dakota's body when he was found--they were asked to identify him by his ankle, they say, which has a distinguishing tattoo--they finally received autopsy photos in August 2018, a whopping 17 months after their son's body was recovered. And that's when they discovered what appeared to be ligature marks around his neck, indicative of strangulation, as surmised by famed forensic pathologist and former Allegheny County medical examiner Cyril Wecht, whose review of the autopsy report and photos at the James' request is captured in the series.

The group's look into Dakota's case also turned up a mysterious charge on his PayPal account for $11.99 for a transaction that occurred two days after he disappeared. 

And yet, according to Dakota's mother, her request that Allegheny County Medical Examiner Karl Williams meet with her and Cyril has continued to go ignored."Dr. Williams has met with the family in the past," his spokesperson, Amie Downs, told The Daily Beast via email. "He has directly, as well as through intermediaries, indicated that he will be happy to review any additional information that the family wishes to provide—up to and including the determinations made by Dr. Wecht. To date, that information has not been provided."

While answers remain elusive for the James family and all the other families that Kevin and his team have encountered, there's still hope. After all, the retired detective hasn't mortgaged his home, maxed out his credit card, faced an accusation of sexual assault that prosecutors declined to pursue while investigating one case and a bout of cancer in 2004 that sidelined him for 18 months to give up on Dakota or any of the other cases he believes are still awaiting justice.

He "is amazing," Patrick's mother Jackie McNeill, now 73, told The Daily Beast of the detective who made her a promise 22 years ago. "On the anniversaries he'll call and say, ‘I'm thinking about you.' I consider him a good friend."

And though it's been over two decades since her boy was taken from her, she's not giving up either. "I want to know what happened to Patrick," she said. "I need to know what happened to Patrick and I want to know who's responsible. It's hard living every day not knowing."

Here's hoping she and the rest of the families find the solace their looking for.

Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt for Justice premieres Saturday, Jan. 19 at 7 p.m. on Oxygen.

(E! and Oxygen are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)