Thursday, May 29, 2008

Smiley Faced Killings - Is FBI Incompetent?

You've seen the following plot dozens of times on television. The police decide a death is an accident or suicide and someone like Jim Rockford, Harry Orwell or maybe Jessica Fletcher has to convince the police the death was a murder.

Today two real live Harry Orwells, retired NYPD detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, are attempting to convince law enforcement officers in many jurisdictions that a series of drownings are murders rather than accidents or suicides. Like the cops on PI shows the police in most of these cases have taken the easy way out and written the cases off so they don't have to risk investigating crimes that might be very difficult to solve. The Federal Bureau Investigation isn't interested if local police don't think there is a problem.

The investigation began with the death of college student Patrick McNeill, who drowned in New York City in 1997. Gannon made a promise to McNeill's parents that he would never give up on his case. They have already convinced Minnesota authorities that the death of University of Missesota student Christopher Jenkins was a homicide instead of an accident.

They believe 40 or more college men have been murdered many by drowning them in rivers, even in winter. In the best tradition of "CSI" they have examined data on river currents to determine where each body likely entered the water. Subsequent examinations of the area around the points of entry has revealed various different smiley faced graffiti.

I saw an 60's or 70's era movie about urban terrorism years ago. The only thing I remember about the movie is the quote: "Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is enemy action."

The number of drowning deaths of men with similar characteristics with the associated smiley face indicates the work of a serial killer or killers. The fact that nine were students at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse is particularly suspicious.

The idea of murdering people by drowning them isn't new. Characters in old gangster movies often talked about this method of eliminating someone, although the victim was often first fitted with "cement overshoes" so the body wouldn't be found. In murder mysteries victims might be drowned in bathtubs, swimming pools, rivers or the ocean.

Drowning provides certain advantages to murderers. There is no murder weapon for the police to find and link the murderer to the crime. The water may wash off any DNA or fiber evidence.

Getting the victim into the water can present a problem when the victim isn't cooperative, especially if the victim starts yelling. The possibility of being seen also increases the risk of being caught. The first problem can be reduced if the victim is drunk which is one of the similarities of the victims in the smiley face murders. Putting the victim in the water at night, expecially during cold weather would also reduce risk. Night fishing isn't as common in cold weather as it is in warm weather so there would be less chance of someone seeing the crime.

The fact that people sometimes drown accidentally or commit suicide by drowning benefits murderers, particularly if law enforcement officers don't want to bother with cases that are difficult to solve. A drowning death might reasonably be classified as an accident if the person was known to be swimming at the time, was at a party along a river bank or perhaps drowned near his or her residence particularly if impaired by alcohol or medication.

However, a drowning should be considered suspicious if the police cannot place the person in the vicinity of the place where he or she entered the water or there is anything suspicious about the condition of the body, such as the placement of the arms in some cases studied by Gannon and Duarte. If the person had been drinking before the death, the police need to determine if the person was physically able to get to the point where the body entered the water particularly if the drowning didn't occur near the route the person would take to get home.

If the victims were predominately black instead of predominately white, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson would be screaming for an investigation. If the victims were female, the news media would be speculating about another Ted Bundy.

So, why is the FBI refusing to investigate the case? Don't the feds think white males can be the victims of crimes?

What if the 40 deaths had involved some symptoms that might indicate a disease? For example, what if all of those who had died had reported muscle aches followed by a rash and then an extremely high fever. The Center of Disease Control and the World Health Organization would both be investigating to determine if there was a common cause for the deaths. The CDC would want to know if those who died had had physical contact or perhaps contact with the same individual or individuals. Perhaps they all could have consumed the same food product before becoming sick. Health officials would rather investigate something that doesn't turn out to be a crisis than risk having an epidemic develop because they didn't take the situation seriously enough. AIDS was discovered because doctors became suspicious after noticing the increasing appearance of previously rare disorders.

Shouldn't the FBI be just as diligent in investigating a possible criminal epidemic? The FBI is supposed to be the nation's premier law enforcement agency. Local law enforcement agencies are often underfunded and understaffed. They may not have the type of facilities and personnel seen on CSI. They may be prone to concentrate on obvious crimes instead of attempting to deal with situations that might or might not involve crimes. Local departments are unlikely to recognize serial crimes that occur in many different jurisdictions.

Gannon and Duarte believe more than one killer might be involved because in some cases deaths occurred in more than one state on the same day. Who could be the killer or killers? The fact the victims were men could indicate female killers, perhaps women wanting to emulate Aileen Wuornos who admitted to killing 7 men. A woman could lure a man by promising sex or pretending to need help with her car. A satanic cult is an obvious possibility. The fact the victims tended to be successful in sports, academics and/or popular could indicate the killers are young males with similar attitudes of the Columbine High School killers. Members of an informal group might link to each other on the Internet and help each other plan the attacks.

Perhaps I'm expecting too much from the FBI. After all today's FBI isn't the FBI of Ephrem Zimbalist's Inspector Lewis Erskine.

Today's FBI is the organization whose leaders didn't think the number of Saudis learning to fly airliners in 2001 was worth investigating. Today's FBI couldn't figure out that a man who wanted to learn how to fly airliners, but not land them, might be planning to hijack an airliner and crash it into something. The FBI initially believed the DC sniper was a lone white male instead of the two black males they eventually caught.

If the FBI refuses to investigate and the Smiley Face deaths turn out to be murders rather than a bizarre coincidence, Congress needs to consider replacing the FBI with a real law enforcement agency that is capable of protecting us from criminals and terrorists.

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