This week's big true crime story is highly speculative: could a nationwide gang of psychopathic serial killers, linked by a "signature" of smiley face graffiti, be responsible for the deaths of up to 40 young, college-age men assumed to have died from drowning? That's what retired NYPD investigators Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, working in concert with Prof. D. Lee Gilbertson of St. Cloud State University, believe, though they've now run out of money to continue their investigation further, according to news reports.
Steve Huff is skeptical, as am I, for the same reason: it sounds way too pat to be real and more like a thriller narrative. But we also agree on why the story, however far-fetched, has a hint of plausibility:
One thing that made earlier theories of bands of killers using similar methods seem untenable was the lack of easy, fast communication. Were they burning up the phone lines, chatting about the next kill? Were they passing coded messages through classified ads? Possibly, but common sense really said no.
That's one element in favor of the theory of the Smiley Face Gang -- communication:
If this theoretical gang of killers exists and they began working in 1997, they had a still-new tool to work with: the Internet. People had been dialing into online bulletin boards since the 1980s by 1997, and the message board format was already hopping. Kansas serial killer John Robinson started seeking victims online in 1993, and he did it with chat rooms and message board posts.
Robinson could draw victims into his web from California and Indiana, and do it in relative anonymity.
The Web's capacity for instant communication across great distances (chat rooms, forums) would permit the formation of a gang of killers. That doesn't mean it has happened, yet.
However this story turns - my vote is for a mix of murders and accidents and perhaps some distant communication or copycat behavior - I expect to see some variant of the suggested plot in fictional format around 2010 or so.