The story of the ‘Smiley Face’ murders goes all the way back to the late 1990’s. It involves dozens of mysterious deaths which share common traits including bodies found in water and smiley face graffiti left nearby.

I remember reading something about this years ago which questioned whether this was the work of a serial killer but ultimately dismissed that idea as a conspiracy theory.

Now, a team of retired detectives who have been investigating these deaths for years are advancing a theory which is far more disturbing. They believe that these deaths are the work of a gang of serial killers, operating in cells in major American cities.

Nicole Weisensee Egan of the Daily Beast has written a fascinating report on this:

Is a Serial-Killer Gang Murdering Young Men Across the U.S.?

On the evening of Dec. 15, 2016, Dakota James called his friend Shelley in a panic.

He was cold, disoriented, and scared out of his mind, wandering the streets of downtown Pittsburgh, trying to find someone—anyone—who would help him.

“I don’t know where I am,” he told her, sobbing. “I’m so cold. Please help me. I’m lost.”

Shelley didn’t hesitate.

“I’m thinking, ‘Did he get mugged? Did he get beat up? Was he in a car accident?’” she told The Daily Beast this week. “I was so scared. I said, ‘Where are you?’ I’m coming.’”

“Pittsburgh’s North Side,” he told her.

She quickly hopped into her car to go get him, then remembered she could use her cellphone to figure out where he was because he’d enabled location services with her when she gave him a ride to the airport months ago…

The next day, he thanked her for picking him up, but brushed the whole thing off, saying he had a bad hangover. And she might have, too, if he hadn’t vanished five weeks later, after a similar night out with some of the same co-workers.

Was it just an odd coincidence? Or was James being stalked in the weeks before he died? If she hadn’t shown up at the hotel, would he have vanished that December night, instead?

“I didn’t think about any of this until after he went missing,” she said. “What happened that night?”

On March 6, 2017, 40 days after Dakota James disappeared, a woman walking her dog saw his body floating in the Ohio River, about 10 miles from where he was last seen in downtown Pittsburgh—at 11:49 p.m. that January night—and about 30 feet from the shore.

This is the passage which ties the death of Dakota James to the theory being advanced by these detectives. It’s like something straight out of a horror movie:

His death was ruled an accidental drowning by the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office. But a team of retired detectives and a gang expert believe he’s one of about 100 victims of the Smiley-Face Killers, an alleged organized gang of serial killers that communicates on the dark web, with cells in dozens of cities across the United States. An additional 250 cases might be connected, but they can’t prove it, they say.

James fits the profile of the other suspected victims: smart, athletic, popular, college-age white men who went out drinking and never came home, they say. More recently, some alleged victims have been openly gay, like Dakota. Like him, weeks later, their bodies were discovered in lakes or rivers with smiley-face or other graffiti specifically connected to the group spray-painted nearby. So far they’ve connected about 70 deaths with similar graffiti nearby. About 30 of the men, including Dakota James, had the date-rape drug GHB in their system, according to the autopsy reports.

If you’re interested in true crime stories, I recommend reading the whole thing. It’s a long story, but worth the time.

These detectives believe the victims are taken somewhere and kept alive for a matter of days before being killed, after which they are disposed of in a body of water.

The Oxygen network is doing a series on this which premiered this weekend. This short video provides some background on the investigation:

The idea of an active serial killer is frightening enough on its own. The concept of a serial killer gang operating in cells, and coordinating their activities across multiple cities is the stuff of nightmares.

Featured image via YouTube.