A gregarious young college kid stumbles out of a Wisconsin bar in the early morning hours. It’s January. He’s separated from his friends. The area’s not well lit, but fueled with boozy confidence he figures he can find his way home. Off he bobs and weaves, in the opposite direction of the dorms. A short while later, though no one hears it, there’s a crack of ice and a confused shout. Then nothing.
The young man disappears. In the spring, his body is pulled from the river.
This scenario, classified as accidental drowning, has repeated itself across the country, most commonly in the Midwest, for years. But in 2008, two retired New York police detectives advanced the theory that alcohol wasn’t the culprit after all.
A shadowy network of killers, dubbed the smiley face gang, was at work.
The theory was that, for unexplained reasons, the smiley face killers targeted popular, athletic college-age men. The gang abducted their victims as they left bars and drowned them in nearby bodies of water, then left “smiley face” graffiti as a calling card.
I was reminded of the smiley face killers when I came across a article about the recent cold snap in Eastern Europe. In the Ukraine thousands have been hospitalized and hundreds have died. Many of the cold-related deaths were alcohol related, as alcohol creates the illusion of being warm, and heavy drinkers frequently pass out before they can seek shelter.
I recalled a powerful comment made by La Crosse, Wisc. Police Chief Ed Konracki, who was addressing a town frantic about a dozen drowned college boys and the possibility of a lurking gang of killers:
“Yeah, there’s a serial killer out there. He goes by the name of alcohol.”
The fact is binge drinking is a real problem in college, particularly in La Crosse, where there’s not a lot to do and bar hopping is a way of life. The drowning victims there all had blood alcohol levels significantly above the legal limit.
Some of the riverfront area is not well lit, barriers are spotty, and at night the river is almost indistinguishable from asphalt.
The smiley face gang theory collapses quickly under scrutiny. For instance:
More young men drown while walking home drunk because they’re more likely to walk home alone than young women.
It seems like the victims are all popular, athletic types but those types are representative of the college bar clientele.
Believers in the theory cite victims’ strange, cut-off phone calls and uncharacteristic behavior.
Have you ever observed a really drunk person try and make their way home?
The smiley face symbol is very common. One private investigator that espouses the theory claims that if you mark the drowning deaths on a map of the country a smiley face shape emerges.
Just to be clear: he believes an organization of killers, so cunning they remain anonymous, not only plots the murders of conveniently drunk young men but elaborately orchestrates the locations so that they form a smiley face pattern writ large.
I have a better idea for him.
Stand outside a bar in La Crosse at closing time. Wait for a student to stumble out, separated from friends and confused. Kindly take him by the arm. Get him a cab.