UPDATE: The sad news came over the weekend that Shane Montgomery’s body had been found in the Schuylkill river.
ORIGINAL: “Saw your post check this out,” the email was headed, so of course I clicked — and found a link, and then this:
i’ve been following this for about 7 years now with the smiley face killers there is plenty on the internet but this is a start there was kid booth who was found in ridley and another Guevera who was found in a Wachtung NJ lake with the same MO
I used to work for the Trentonian I believe there to be some kind of religious connection and or a native american one as well with the name sinsinawa used often
And there I went, down the rabbit hole.
The post my emailer referred to was a short piece I’d written on the disappearance of Shane Montgomery, the West Chester University student who on Thanksgiving Eve vanished off the streets of Manayunk following an evening of drinking at Kildare’s Irish Pub. My interest in the case was personal — I have kids Shane’s age, and they’d been out drinking on Thanksgiving Eve — and professional: What journalist isn’t intrigued by a disappearance like that?
I’d never heard of the “Smiley Face Killers,” though. The link the emailer sent led to a website, Nationwideinvestigations.us, established by two former New York cops who’d gotten lots of press over the years, including from names like Geraldo Rivera and Anderson Cooper, in regard to a theory they’d developed linking a number of disappearances of young men across the country and declaring them murders. There are intriguing similarities in the more than 40 deaths: The young men were popular and athletic, and had been out drinking at the time they disappeared. And graffiti depicting smiley faces had reportedly been found near where their purported killers dumped their victims into bodies of water.
The FBI, several police departments and the Center for Homicide Research have all refuted the notion that the cases are related, and that they were murders. (In fact, the police department in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where eight of the deaths took place, pointed out that males make up 90 percent of all drowning victims ages 18 to 24.) But this is the age of the Internet, and so the theories have only become more complex and convoluted over time, spreading to include deaths in 25 cities and 11 states. There are flashes of intriguing details: religious medals removed by the killers from bodies; torture and multiple body repositionings; that scrawled, enigmatic Native American word “sinsiniwa” … And there’s a Smiley Face Killers Facebook page.
There’s no doubt there are odd coincidences among the “Smiley Face Killers” narratives. Take this account of a 2012 disappearance:
Nick Wilcox, 24, was celebrating this New Year’s Eve with his girlfriend Kelly McGonagil and about a dozen other friends at the Irish Rec Room in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Sometime between one and two in the morning of January 1, 2013, the young man ran afoul of the river pub’s security team, was physically ejected by them, and then vanished without a trace.
It’s not so unlike what reportedly happened to Shane, is it?
Locally, two cases have previously been mentioned as candidates for inclusion in the Smiley Face canon. One is the death of Tommy Booth, who vanished from Bootleggers nightclub in Woodlyn in 2008. Video from that night showed him entering with friends; neither the tapes nor his friends saw him leave. According to an ABC news report on the case, “Tommy was a healthy, robust young man and hadn’t had enough to drink to become disoriented.” After hearing about the work of the New York detectives, the local police detective on the case, Scott Willoughby, had his men reexamine the area of the creek behind Bootleggers where Tommy’s body was found. They located a crowned smiley face spray-painted onto a wall of the bar’s party deck.
In the second case, the body of 26-year-old Antonio Guevara was found in Watchung Lake in New Jersey in January 2013, several weeks after he vanished from the restaurant where he worked. His sneakers and wallet were found beside the lake.
If you believe the Internets, the Smiley Face Killers have even made their way overseas, committing their dastardly deeds in Ireland, England, Spain and France.
If you tiptoe through that rabbit hole with me, you’ll come upon amazing theories — the Smiley Face Killers are agents for Charles Manson? — as well as more mundane ones: The killer (singular) is a technician for HVAC company Trane. There are also repeated rebuttals of the theory — one criminal profiler told the Milwaukee City Pages the “smiley face” is so common a symbol that “if you look in an area five miles square, I bet you could find a smiley face.”
Then again. Kildare’s is an Irish pub. Was Montgomery wearing religious medals? His bar tab was only $17, so how drunk could he have been? And why did the FBI show up as swiftly as it did?
The search for Shane continues, and no one has given up hope that he’ll still be found. The Smiley Face Killer theory is just that — a theory — and how you feel about it will depend on how susceptible you are to could-be-tinfoil-hat stuff. Lots of people, as the time and effort devoted to this theory online prove, are susceptible as hell, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when explaining a series of drownings of young men who’d been drinking requires drawing in agents for Charles Manson, it might be time to remember what Ptolemy declared 2,000 years ago, “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomenon by the simplest hypothesis imaginable.”
If you have information about Shane Montgomery, contact Karen or Kevin Montgomery at 215-920-5269 or Kevin Verbrugghe at 267-304-0864. More information and photos at the Help Find Shane Montgomery Facebook page.
Follow @SandyHingston on Twitter.