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Could a national gang of killers that leaves smiley-face calling cards be getting away with murdering dozens of male college students by making all the deaths look like accidents?
That’s what two retired New York police detectives think, after spending their own money to link as many as 40 drowning deaths of otherwise healthy young men, many of them athletes.
“This is a nationwide organization that revels in killing young men," Prof. D. Lee Gilbertson of St. Cloud State University said in a report filed Tuesday for TODAY by NBC’s Lee Cowan.
“We are talking about specifically targeting a small, narrow group of individuals for murder," said Kevin Gannon, who is now asking the FBI to step into the investigation he and Anthony Duarte began when both were working for the N.Y. Police Department.
It began with the 1997 death of Patrick McNeill, a young man whose body was found in the Hudson River after he had gone missing after a night on the town. McNeill had been drinking and the death was ruled a suicide. His parents refused to believe that, and Gannon, then a detective sergeant, told McNeill’s parents he would never give up on the case.
Gannon’s been good to his word, mortgaging his own house to keep the investigation alive. Working with fellow retired detective Anthony Duarte and looking into nearly 90 separate cases, he’s concluded that McNeill’s death is linked to at least 40 others that have occurred in 11 different states.
Most of what the detectives are calling murders occurred in the Midwest during the winter months. Almost all involved popular athletes with good grades. Most had been drinking before they disappeared and their bodies subsequently found in near-frozen bodies of water.
The link they think they’ve found is a smiley-face symbol drawn near where many of the drowning victims’ bodies have been discovered.
“This is what we saw,” Gannon said. “They're happy, as most serial killers are, and very content with their work and what they're doing and the fact that they're thwarting police."
“Local police departments are skeptical,” Cowan reported, “saying the team didn't produce any new evidence, just a theory, pointing out smiley faces — as well as other graffiti the investigators are using to link the deaths — are all pretty common.”
But parents of victims are lining up behind Gannon and Duarte. Among them is Bill Kruziki, himself a policeman, whose son, Matthew, disappeared on Christmas Eve in 2005 after a night of drinking in East Dubuque, Ill. His body was found three months later in the Mississippi River. He had drowned, but the coroner never determined whether it was an accident, suicide or murder.
"There is an instance in every one of them that doesn't make sense, something unexplainable, they vanished from this earth,” Kruziki told NBC News.
Another death thought to fit the pattern is that of Adam Falcon, a student at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., who drowned in 2004.
"We do want to know truthfully what happened to our son," said his mother, Carla Falcon.
Families want answersOne of the deaths in the group Gannon and Duarte are investigating has been ruled a homicide. The victim was Chris Jenkins and the year was 2002. Like the others, Jenkins’ case was originally thought to be an accidental drowning, but police in Minneapolis, where the death occurred, later concluded that Jenkins had been abducted in a van and tortured before being drowned in the Mississippi River.
Despite the passage of six years, the pain never goes away, according to his mother, Jan Jenkins, who said, "Closure is a funny word; we cry every day."
Gannon and Duarte have exhausted their personal funds. They recently held a news conference in New York to appeal for money to continue the investigation and to get federal investigators involved. They’ve had a hard time convincing others in law enforcement that there is anything to investigate in what most see as unrelated accidental deaths.
As Cowan reported for NBC: “The idea of some sinister national gang out killing young college men is a hard theory to sell. But to the parents who have lost a son, a far-fetched reason is better than no reason at all.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.