Real or Imagined: 'Smiley Face' Killers Targeting Young Men

Trying to prove murderers are targeting young men, leaving doodled calling card.

March 23, 2009, 7:23 AM

March 23, 2009— -- Across the country, parents are wondering what happened in their sons' final moments. Were they drugged? Did they party too hard? Were they murdered?

As the years have passed, a growing group of families have joined forces with two determined former New York City Police Department detectives and an investigative reporter to prove that dozens of young men were murdered in what some have dubbed the "Smiley Face" mystery.

At least 50 men in 11 states have been found dead in the last 10 years, though no police department has said that the cases are connected. Their causes of death have been blamed on drunken accidents -- except one.

Chris Jenkins, a University of Minnesota student, was found dead in 2003 and was the only one whose cause of death was changed to homicide. It also became the reported connection to other suspicious drownings in 11 states in the opinions of retired NYPD detectives Anthony Duarte and Kevin Gannon.

"It is almost a perfect crime," Duarte said.

Perfect, he said, because the water washes away physical evidence and there never seemed to be any witnesses. Most of the men were last seen by friends leaving a bar or a college party.

"They can't be a coincidence or coincidences," Duarte said.

In city after city, the two detectives claim they found a smiley face painted somewhere at the crime scene, what they believe to be a sick signature claiming responsibility. And it looks to be the work of more than one person because there have been strikingly similar deaths and smiley faces in numerous cities and states, some in a relatively short time span, they assert.

Bill Szostak's son Josh went missing in December 2007. He was last seen with college buddies at an Albany, N.Y., bar. His body was later found in the Hudson River.

When police ruled Josh's death an accident, Szostak, a retired fire investigator, went to work. When looking for a personal item near the spot authorities believe Josh went into the water, he found it -- a smiley face.

"It definitely screams homicide," Szostak told "Good Morning America." "Not an accidental death."

Murder or Too Much Partying?

Szostak said he saw surveillance tapes of his son that night inside the bar in Albany and insists it contains evidence that his son was drugged and murdered.

In the bar, Josh appears to be lucid and relatively sober. But outside the bar, a few minutes later, he is staggering and bending down unable to remove his sweat shirt.

Szostak is now working with investigative reporter Kristi Piehl and they are connecting the dots with dozens of other parents who believe their sons are also victims.

Their goal is a federal investigation and a fresh look at the cases. Though the FBI declined to comment, local police departments maintain that the deaths were accidental and that they are not connected.

But Piehl insisted that if the police would work together, they would see the similarities.

"I think the local police have done a fair job," she told "Good Morning America." "But they're not looking for the link."

Szostak, who said his son could speak fluent Swahili, Arabic and Russian, said he understands that budgets are tight for municipal police departments and that it's easy to write off the deaths of young men who were found in the water after a night of drinking.

"I think that's where these boys are falling through the loops," he said.

Piehl, who said the connected deaths may number as high as 80, said they will keep investigating even though these cases have already been deemed closed.

"We believe we're onto something," she said. "We're going to keep fighting."