The parents of Chris Jenkins were always certain that he had been murdered. But authorities initially concluded that Jenkins, 21, who was pulled out of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis after he went missing during a night of drinking in 2002, had probably been the victim of an accidental drowning. Police now agree that his death was a homicide, but his family is convinced that the whole truth is far more sinister: They firmly believe that Chris, a student at the University of Minnesota, was slain by a gang of serial killers operating in the Midwest and Northeast. "He was murdered, and his body was dragged and put into another spot in the river," says Chris's mother, Jan, "as if he was a piece of trash."

Now the Jenkins family is pinning its hopes for a break in the case on two retired NYPD cops, Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte. Teaming up with criminology professor Lee Gilbertson, Gannon and Duarte began investigating what they saw as a pattern of suspicious deaths in which young men, frequently popular college students, went out drinking and ended up in rivers or lakes, victims of a supposed gang who left spray-painted smiley faces at the scene as their macabre signature. In all, they found at least 40 cases, spanning 25 cities in 9 states, many of them in Wisconsin and Minnesota, that fit the pattern, dating back as far as 11 years. (Except for the Jenkins case, none have been classified as homicides.) If a band of serial killers sounds farfetched, Gannon and Duarte—whom one former NYPD source calls "solid and level-headed"—say they have amassed enough evidence to prove at least several cases. They also claim to have an informant close to the gang and that they know of a motive, which they have declined to disclose. "It appears that in some cases they are going online and are specifically targeting these individuals," says Gannon of the gang, "the way a real serial-type killer would, who hunts his victims and takes real pride in what he does."

Some local police officials have been politely skeptical of the two. "I thought they were credible people and credible investigators," says Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan, who met with the pair and says that their information "does not conflict" with anything in his department's files on the Jenkins case. But they offered nothing new, he adds, that would stand up in court. Other officials are more blunt in their dismissal. "I never want to close the door on anyone with evidence, says Police Chief Jerry Matysik of Eau Claire, Wis., where Gannon and Duarte cite a cluster of three victims. "Unfortunately when we asked them for specifics, I heard theory or conjecture, not evidence."

Gannon, 53, first got on the trail when, as a detective in New York, he investigated the 1997 drowning of Patrick McNeill, 20, who was found in the water near Brooklyn. The death was ruled accidental, but Gannon was convinced that the currents could not have brought McNeill from Manhattan to that spot without injury. He promised McNeill's parents he would get to the bottom of the case. Then in 2002, after his retirement from the NYPD, Gannon saw a CNN report about a spate of similar drownings in Minnesota that roused his suspicions. "It's just preposterous," he says, "to think that all these young men came out of bars and walked into the water."

Along with his ex-partner Duarte, 50, Gilbertson and Adam Carlson of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, who had also noticed a pattern of suspicious drowning deaths, Gannon began probing those and other incidents. Traveling at their own expense to the different cities, they found that while most of the 40 victims had been drinking, some had not. They also came across similar graffiti at all 40 locations where they believed the young men had been put in the water. More than a dozen sites had similar looking smiley faces, while others had variations of 12 distinctive sets of symbols. But as Gannon stresses, there is more to their case than graffiti. They point out, for instance, that Joshua Snell, 22, a college student who drowned in Eau Claire in June 2005, talked to a friend on the night of his disappearance, saying that he was scared and being pursued by people he didn't know. Joshua's brother Jon says the police shrugged off the call. "They think he got hot and wanted to go for a swim," says Jon. Reluctant to take issue with Snell's grieving family, Eau Claire Police Chief Matysik says the call was fully investigated and that "the family may interpret it as diabolical, but he'd been drinking; he might have been disoriented."

In fact, the idea of a serial killer has been bandied about the region for several years. In La Crosse, Wis., where Gannon and Duarte have identified eight young men who drowned in local rivers since 1997, officials have periodically confronted public fears that a predator was at large. In an effort to allay concerns, officials brought in the FBI to conduct more tests and to review the available information on the cases. After all that, the bureau came up with the same result as the local cops: The men—most of whom had high levels of alcohol in their bodies—were victims of accidents, not foul play.

Though some parents of victims cited by Gannon and Duarte—who now say they need money to continue their investigation—reject the serial-killer theory, others are hoping that a fresh look at the cases will yield results. "I guess this is the only hope we have to find out who did it and why," says Cindy Herr, of Sheboygan, Wis., whose son Nathan, 21, was found drowned on the shore of Lake Michigan five years ago. "That's the big thing: to answer the why."

  • Contributors:
  • Nicole Weisensee Egan/New York City,
  • Kathy Ehrich Dowd/New York City,
  • Margaret Nelson/Minneapolis,
  • Myndi Milliken/Toledo,
  • Jeff Truesdell/St. Louis.