Smiley Face Serial Killer No Longer At Large?

June 11, 2008

Bwahahaha...hunhCNN’s Anderson Cooper laid out the case in hushed, grim tones in a story that even hit CNN.com’s “front page”: college-aged men all around the country have been drowning under mysterious circumstances since 1997. And as two retired NYPD detectives started to put the pieces together, they realized that “creepy” smiley faces have been found nearby at many of the scenes. And before long, the profile emerged: serial killer with a distinctive signature; preying on young, intoxicated men; and he’d been killing for more than a decade. It was enough to send chills down the spine of many readers.

Over at Skepchick, however, blogger Elyse has a different take: the hype just doesn’t pan out and the whole smiley conspiracy appears baseless. A case of impassioned officers trying too hard to make sense of too many tragedies at once, and improperly judging the statistical likelihood of several linked events.

And Elyse makes a darn good case too: one almost certainly similar to the reasons many local police departments have had for rejecting the “smiley face killer” connection. Her main points are as follows:

  • A conservative estimate of around ten thousand or so men have drowned between 1997 and today
  • Smiley faces are one of the most common pieces of graffiti found anywhere
  • Waterside areas are one of the most common places to find graffiti
  • The smiley faces identified at the various crime scenes share very little in common that could be regarded as a distinct signature-style: no distinctive shape, color, facial features, or design
  • Only 12 of the supposedly 40 linked cases, scattered all over several states, had faces anywhere nearby

Put all that together and you have something that isn’t even an eerie coincidence: it’s pretty much a mathematical inevitably that some feature, in fact, some piece of vaguely similar waterside graffiti would connect some drowning cases, especially if you could look at any case from 1997 to the present, pretty much anywhere in the country. If this is really all the investigators have to tie the cases together, it’s no wonder at all that the FBI isn’t impressed.

Their additional claim that each case has “mysterious” elements doesn’t help matters. While it’s statistically common that some young men in the U.S. will drown, it’s not at all a common or normal event in someone’s everyday life: some set of out-of-the-ordinary factors are likely to play into how each drowning happened, and in the cases where young men just vanished, and may have gone into the water alone with no witnesses, there will of course always be many unanswered questions about the circumstances.

Maybe there is a serial killer out there, or a cabal of them (an even more unlikely scenario that the investigators nevertheless seem to favor). But if so, they’ve managed to commit their crimes in a way that looks almost completely identical to what we’d expect to find if none of the cases (whether they were individually murders, suicides, or accidents) had anything to do with each other.


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