Today the Daily Beast published a story titled “Is a Serial-Killer Gang Murdering Young Men Across the U.S.?” Boldly defying Betteridge’s Law, the report—written by crime reporter Nicole Weisensee Egan, who covered the Bill Cosby trial for the Beast—suggests that the answer to the question posed in the headline may well be yes. Focusing on three retired NYPD officers who are doggedly tracking down leads on a case that the failing FBI had long since abandoned, the story promotes the theory that a serial-killer gang based on the dark web, with “cells in dozens of cities across the United States,” that uses a smiley face to mark its handiwork has killed/drowned more than 100 young men and may have killed as many as 250 others. Naturally, the story made quite a splash!
The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz tweeted that the story was “terrifying.” Bloomberg News columnist Tara Lachapelle wrote that it “gave me chills.” Philly Inquirer writer-at-large David Gambacorta shared it and asked “a national serial killer gang?” with three wide-open-eyes emojis. NBC News reporter Ben Collins, perhaps hedging his bets slightly, wrote, “crazy story.”
I mean, it has it all: Mysterious deaths, sinister symbols, and a small but determined team hunting down conspiracy theories relating to a spate of deaths by drowning? That’s the stuff of a crime thriller. (No, really, it is literally the plot of Ill Will, a novel by Dan Chaon that was published in 2017). Despite the fact that the smiley-face-murder-gang theory has already been thoroughly picked over by a number of other news organizations, and was also debunked by the Center for Homicide Research, though, the report still breathlessly recounts the particulars of the case, marveling at how the three stern-looking investigators have dedicated decades to solving the mystery and developing highly specific sorts of expertise. (“The level of sophistication of the group is a lot greater than we’d imagined,” one says. “Now we know they communicate with each other on the dark web. We know there’s surveillance and counter-surveillance.”) By the way, these three have a new TV show about the case that airs tomorrow—total coincidence.
On one level this story is wonderful, if just because of how comically seriously it treats the investigators’ insane claims. Take criminal justice professor Lee Gilbertson’s ominous description of how the gang uses “the dark web”:
“They’re constantly recruiting,” he added. “Years ago, we were on their dark-web webpage but it was asking us to turn on a video camera so they could see who was about to type in the password and there’s no way we were doing that. And we didn’t even have the password. We’d just been given their URL, so went to it because we were told that’s how they communicate.”
Or retired New York policeman Kevin Gannon discoursing about how there is a lot of graffiti, which plays a key role in his theory. Gannon and his colleagues argue that what connects these deaths is the the bodies were found within miles of bridges or other structures that had smiley faces graffitied on them. As for the bodies that weren’t found near smiley face graffiti, the investigators have discovered 12 additional graffiti symbols that connect various crime scenes. It’s all very rigorous:
“Our critics say there is lots of smiley-face graffiti around,” Gannon said. “I’ve been on hundreds of bridges. There aren’t as many as you think. But we only include it if the other symbols specific to this group are present, too.” And, Gilbertson added, sometimes just the other symbols are there and no smiley face.
While the story does note that the former detectives’ theories don’t have the “support of any of law enforcement or the medical examiners,” that skepticism is basically used as device to set up fawning over the team’s relentlessness and determination. For example, after a paragraph laying out how everyone from the FBI to local police refutes the theory comes this:
None of that deters Gannon. He has mortgaged his home and maxed out his credit cards trying to solve these cases. The only thing that stopped him, and it was only for 18 months, was a bout with cancer in 2004.
I asked Daily Beast editor-in-chief Noah Shachtman for comment on how the story was pitched and who accepted it, if it’s a plug for the investigators’ TV show, and whether the reporter tried to verify the retired detectives’ theories about the deaths, which rely on pieces of evidence that wouldn’t be out of place in a forum post about the existence of Slender Man. He declined to comment. I also emailed several questions and a request for comment to Egan. She forwarded my questions to Daily Beast executive editor Katie Baker and Daily Beast editor Tracy Connor. Baker said, “We think the story speaks for itself.”