On March 15, an article appeared in the Boston Globe that began: “State Police on Tuesday pulled the body of a 22-year-old Central Massachusetts man from the Charles River, ending a desperate search by family members and officials after he went missing last month while celebrating his birthday at a bar in Boston.”
The name of the young man was Zachary Marr. He was a student at Mount Wachusett Community College. As soon as I saw this, I wondered if perhaps his death signaled a return of the fabled Smiley Face Killers gang. I described the conflicting theories about the group in my not-yet-published book “The Saga of Smiley” in a chapter called “The Smiley Face Murders, the Happy Face Killer and O. J. Simpson.” (Last month I posted about O. J.’s “suicide letter’ which he signed with a Smiley Face symbol.)
Here’s the section I wrote about the Smiley Face Killers:
As much as he may embody the phrase “don’t worry, be happy,” Smiley has sometimes been used as a symbol of the dark underside of society, appearing as an anti-hero in music, movies, even comics. And when it comes to Smiley, life has imitated art, as the happy face has been co-opted by some evil criminals who are all too real.
Smiley’s most famous link with crime is his role as an identifying mark left near the spots where the corpses of more than 40 college-aged men were fished out of freezing rivers or lakes during the decade of 1997-2007. Inevitably, the unknown instigators of these deaths were referred to in the press and by investigators as the Smiley Face Killers (SFK for short).
In 1997, when 21-year-old Fordham University student Patrick McNeill wandered off from a night of bar-hopping in New York City and was found floating in the Hudson River three weeks later, his death was ruled a suicide, but his parents refused to believe it.
Five years after that, in a similar tragedy, University of Minnesota student Chris Jenkins, also 21, was found dead, encased in the ice of the Mississippi River four months after he vanished from a Halloween Party. His death, too, was ruled an accidental drowning; yet another college student who had too much to drink and then fell into a body of water.
But two retired New York police detectives, who had been investigating a large number of drowned college-age men for years, considered Jenkins’ body the missing piece in a puzzle that connected at least 40 victims, who, they believed, were victims of a gang. The young men were all found dead in winter in a body of water after a night of drinking.
Retired detectives Anthony Duarte and Kevin Gannon were on the track of what could be the biggest serial killing in U.S. history, which they attributed to a gang they called the Smiley Face Killers. In many of these cases, Smiley graffiti was found painted on a wall, tree or sidewalk near the point where each man was believed to have entered the water.
Duarte and Gannon claimed that the Smiley Face Gang had struck in at least 25 cities in 11 states in the U.S. since about 1997. Virtually all of the 40 victims were athletic white college males; all were last seen leaving a party or bar with alcohol in their systems, then found dead in rivers or streams. Many attended colleges along the Interstate 94 corridor in the Midwest—in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa–and in 22 cases, a Smiley graffiti was scrawled nearby. Each death had been ruled accidental by police.
Jenkins’ corpse convinced the detectives that his death was not accidental, because, when his frozen body was dredged from the Mississippi, his hands were folded across his chest in an odd pose that they said was inconsistent with an accidental drowning.
The parents of each of the 40 victims were convinced their sons had not died accidentally. The press played up the story and detectives Gannon and Duarte appeared on television to discuss their theory. “We believe they [the killers] were specifically leaving a clue for us or anyone who was paying attention to these drownings,” Detective Gannon told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He added that these were almost perfect crimes because the water washed away physical evidence.
In life, as on Law and Order, serial killers often like to leave a calling card, and criminologists told ABCNEWS.com that the sadistic Smiley is an example of the kind of signature typically left by psychopathic killers who derive sexual arousal from their killings and are so proud of their murders that they’ll do anything they can to get credit for them.
But Smiley aside, not everyone was convinced there was a pattern here. Police forces investigating the deaths disputed the “Smiley Face Gang” theory that the deaths were linked. Criminal profiler Pat Brown scoffed that the Smiley faces found near the water were nothing more than coincidences. “It’s not an unusual symbol,” she said to a reporter for a Minneapolis paper. “If you look in an area five miles square, I bet you could find a smiley face.”
On April 29, 2008, the F.B.I. issued a statement “regarding Midwest river deaths” which said in part: The FBI has reviewed the information about the victims provided by two retired police detectives, who have dubbed these incidents the “Smiley Face Murders,” … we have not developed any evidence to support links between these tragic deaths or any evidence substantiating the theory that these deaths are the work of a serial killer or killers. The vast majority of these instances appear to be alcohol-related drownings.
Their word may be law, but in this case, the FBI’s statement was not the final pronouncement on the Smiley Murders. On June 21, 2008, ABC News reported that Bill Szostak, whose son was found in the Hudson River, had written a petition aimed at getting elected leaders to call on the FBI to investigate not only his son's death, but also 43 similar cases in nine states; college men whose deaths had been ruled accidental drownings. He got 900 signatures on his petition the first day.
The FBI has not reopened their investigation, but parents of possible “Smiley Face” victims still maintain a number of web sites that post information about the nearly 100 young men who have died in similar circumstances. These sites include a Facebook page called “the Smiley Face Killers,” which on April 24, 2013, posted an article from the Daily Mail saying that, “Police found the body of Brown student Sunil Tripathi, falsely accused of being the Boston Marathon bomber, in the Providence River in Boston.”
And just last week, a statement posted on the Smiley Face Killers Facebook page read:March 15th, 2016, the body of Zach Marr, age 22, was pulled from the Charles River in Boston Massachusetts. Zach went missing on February 13th, 2016, and the circumstances are all too familiar. Zach was "Last Seen leaving the Bell in Hand Tavern, where he was hanging out with friends and family" only to disappear into the night without warning. One month later, his lifeless body is pulled from the river. We see the pattern time and time again, young male, out with friends, dead in water. Marr was a student at Mount Wachusett Community College, and Zach deserved a lot more out of a life that was cut short by the Smiley Face Killers. RIP Zach Marr.