Many of us look back nostalgically at our carefree childhood. Back in the day, riding bicycles in the streets and walking to the park alone were common pastimes. Sadly, in this tragic story, two teenage girls were murdered while hiking innocently near their hometown.
On the fateful date of February 13th, 2017, Abby Williams set out to meet her friend, Libby German. The thirteen-year-old and fourteen-year-old went for a walk in the woods near Deer Creek, Indiana, on the Monon High Bridge Trail. However, they never came home, and the next day their bodies were found near the bridge.
Four years have passed since the murder, and still, no one has been charged for the crime. Abigail and Liberty’s families haven’t lost hope and are still praying for justice to be served. Despite the limited resources and clues, the case’s detectives are still investigating and hope to find the murderer.
The Indiana State Police have only a blurred video, an audio clip, and two sketches of the suspected killer. However, they’ve interviewed hundreds of locals and have lists of possible suspects, witnesses, and clues. Recently there was a breakthrough that might finally help the police track down the murderer.
Abby and Libby were eighth-graders at Delphi Community Middle School. Both girls were in the school band, where Abigail played the saxophone. Abby was also on the volleyball team, and Libby played softball, soccer and was a swimmer. Abby was a fan of riding ATVs and going camping.
On the other hand, Libby liked to do arts and crafts and loved preparing for the Academic Bowl. Abby had a cat named Bongo and was an animal lover. The two girls were the best of friends and couldn’t wait to spend high school together and make memories.
The duo asked Libby’s older sister Kelsi to drop them off around 1:30 pm, near the trail on an uncharacteristically warm Monday for February in Delphi, Indiana. Kelsi nevertheless told them to take jackets. Libby’s father agreed to pick them up around 3:15 pm, but they never showed up.
Abby and Libby should have finished their hike and the photoshoot they’d planned by then. When Libby’s father tried calling his daughter’s phone, it went straight to voicemail. The family searched for the teens, and when they were nowhere to be found, they began to panic and alerted the local police.
Initially, the local police department tried to alleviate the families’ anxiety. They didn’t think that there was any reason to be concerned and were sure that the teens would show up in no time. The police suggested that they’d made a wrong turn and were trying to find their way back home.
In order to help find Libby and Abby, a search party was organized, planning to scour the trail and nearby woods. The search began that evening, and numerous local volunteers joined the teenager’s families. But the search party found no trace of the girls that night.
The search party began where the two young ladies had been dropped off, to no avail. However, after checking Libby’s social media, a photo she had uploaded of Abby on the trail came in useful. The backdrop of the picture gave the volunteers a better idea of where to search for the girls.
Nevertheless, hours passed, the sun went down, and Libby and Abby had not yet been found. The official search was called off at midnight. However, their families and friends continued searching into the night before turning in as well. The next day the truth would be uncovered.
The following morning, on Valentine’s Day, 2017, the search party set out again. The range of the search was broadened, and people began to look for Abby and Libby beyond the bridge and the abandoned railroad tracks, combing the forest below the bridge.
The search extended further, reaching Deer Creek, where a group of volunteers encountered a black Adidas sneaker, followed by a horrifying scene. The families’ hopes of finding their girls safe and sound were shattered. The bodies of Liberty and Abigail were discovered on private property a mile from where Kelsi had dropped them off the previous afternoon.
The townsfolk of Delphi, Indiana, have prided themselves on having a crime rate 42 percent below the national average. Therefore, the city was shocked when two young teens were murdered nearby. Everyone turned their attention to the tragedy and did their best to help catch the killer.
However, no information regarding the cause of the death has been released, even today. Indiana State Police Sergeant, Kim Riley, has stated that the killer may be among Delphi’s community and could still pose a threat. The murderer is most likely someone from the city and not just a murderer passing through town.
The police have kept most of the evidence in the Delphi murders undisclosed. Even today, four years later, the details exposed to the general public are minimal. Nevertheless, a few pieces of evidence were revealed publicly to help the people of Delphi direct the detectives to any suspects.
The most valuable piece of evidence was a video taken by Libby on her phone. It is widely believed that the video was filmed only minutes before the teen’s murder, although the entire context is unknown to the public. It was incredibly courageous of Libby to film her attacker under the circumstances.
The full video filmed by the heroic Libby is still private and has only been viewed by the detectives on the case. The state police have disclosed that, to their understanding, the video was filmed by Libby secretly during the suspected criminal activity that ensued.
In the video, a man appears in the background; however, only a couple of pixelated images of him have been extracted from the footage. In the short clip that was shared, the man is seen walking. The words “down the hill” can be heard in a separate audio clip, presumably spoken by him.
The detectives also found a possible witness, who helped a sketch artist create an image of the suspect. As investigators delved deeper into the horrifying case, they concluded that the girl’s killer was either a Delphi local or someone who knows the area very well.
Doug Carter, the Superintendent, shared that he has walked across Manon Bridge himself and doesn’t believe that someone who had never been there could just jump on and walk straight across. He expressed that in his opinion, it wasn’t the murderer’s first time on the bridge, which is rotten and rickety.
On February 15th, 2017, following the discovery of Abby and Libby’s bodies, the police decided to release the grainy, pixelated images to the public. Still, with no actual leads, the investigators hoped that the pictures might help someone come forward with information that would lead to a big break in the case.
Both images shared were just about the same; a white male appeared behind the girls on the bridge. He was dressed in blue jeans, a navy-colored jacket, and a grayish hoodie. The pictures were unclear; the man was blurred, zoomed in on from the background.
The police released the audio clip from the video on Libby’s phone a week after the murders, hoping that the sound of the possible killer’s voice might help where the blurred images could not. The audio clip was but a few seconds in length and was shared separately from the video.
In the recording, a man’s voice says, “Down the hill,” the voice recorded is that of the main suspect in the case. The state police have refused to share further context from the video and only explained the man was ordering the girls to walk “down the hill.”
The months went by, and Abby and Libby’s murderer still hadn’t been found, but the investigation continued. After two whole years, new information was released to the public. Indiana State Police put out an extension of the original audio clip in April 2019. In the extended version, the man was saying, “Guys. Down the hill.”
Some people believed the new audio clip was of a different voice altogether, but authorities claimed it was the same. Superintendent Carter said that it was definitely the same voice and implored the public to listen carefully and call in any information.
At the beginning of the murder investigation, the state police tried to release as little information as possible so as not to compromise the future trial. But, as time went by and the killer wasn’t apprehended, they began to reveal more, hoping that the public might aid them.
When they shared the updated audio clip, they also released the video clip from which the stills were captured. Superintendent Carter requested that while watching the video, people check if the person’s mannerisms remind them of someone they know. However, it’s been suggested that the wobbly bridge impacted his walk.
It took the state police department almost six months to share a sketch of the suspect with the public. The drawing was sketched with the help of a person who had been in the area on the day of the girl’s murder and believed that they had seen the man responsible for their deaths.
The witness had seen a white male who was about five and a half feet tall and around two hundred and twenty pounds or less. The witness remembered a man with reddish-brown hair. However, later in the case, the sketch was changed.
In April 2019, the police shared the new sketch along with the extended audio clip and the video. The illustrations are so different that it looks as if the drawing is of an entirely different man. However, police explained that the sketch was updated to showcase the suspect’s facial features better.
The man in the sketch is estimated to be between 18 and 40 years old. Superintendent Carter explained that the release of the second sketch was critical and had probably startled the murderer, who had most likely relaxed, believing that the police were going down the wrong path.
Both sketches were created with the help of two separate people who claimed to have been hiking in the area on the day the girls were killed. Why did the police wait so long to share the second drawing with the public? They admitted that the drawing shared in 2019 was sketched first of the two.
The police thought that the second drawing was probably a more accurate portrayal of the murderer and therefore released it first. However, when it didn’t lead to any suspects, they concluded that maybe the murderer was more of a combination of the two drawings.
The police shared their belief that the murderer was right under their noses and hiding in plain sight. Carter asked that the public aid the police in identifying a car they had found parked on the east crossing of County Road 300 North, by the Monon High Bridge, on the day of the murder.
Furthermore, the authorities believed that the murderer was most likely a Delphi local and that they had probably already interviewed him or his family members. The police spoke, as if directly, to the murderer on the news, saying they knew it was about power for him.
The terrible murders of Abigail and Liberty started a media storm and caught the entire country’s attention. There were many times when people believed that the mystery was close to being solved. Some suspects were even thought guilty and later proven innocent, like Daniel Nations.
Many rumors and speculations surround the case making it hard to differentiate between fact and fiction. Almost 50,000 tips have been called in and vetted by detectives. The hotline has remained open throughout the case and recently has led to a new suspect who has become a person of interest in the murder.
The new tip has led police to a man named James Chadwell II. Chadwell was arrested for a different kidnapping near Lafayette, Indiana, where he had a missing girl locked in his basement. Due to similarities between the cases, Chadwell has become the prime suspect in the Delphi murders.
The girls’ families are hopeful that justice will be served and know the police won’t rest until there’s proof of his guilt. However, when murders aren’t solved quickly, theories invented by the public start to appear. That’s what happened with the Delphi murders and other cases like the Smiley Face Killings.
In nine different U.S. states, the dead bodies of young, athletic, successful white men have been discovered, beginning in the 90s and still being found today. A pattern has risen, with forty-five cases of similar men drowned in rivers. Authorities are adamant that all the instances are unlucky accidents since all the men were drunk.
However, many individuals, among them a professor of criminal justice and two New York detectives, are sure that the deaths are connected. They believe the deaths are the work of who they call “The Smiley Face Killers.” Is the Smiley Face theory possible or ridiculous?
Twenty-four-year-old navy veteran William Hurley lived in Boston, Massachusetts, with his fiancée, Claire Lebeau. On October 8th, 2009, William went to a Boston Bruins game. At halftime, he called his fiancée, asking her to pick him up, saying that he wanted to come home.
He’d driven there but was too and needed a ride back. Claire asked where to pick him up, and William asked somebody near him and gave the address the stranger had told him to Lebeau. He also told her his phone was about to die. She drove to the spot, but he never showed.
After Clair arrived at the pickup location and couldn’t find William, she attempted to call him, but his phone went straight to voicemail, so she thought it’d died as he’d said. Claire wouldn’t find her fiancée that fateful night. His call asking to be picked up was William’s last known conversation.
Six days after going missing, his corpse was discovered in the Charles River. William’s phone was found close by, broken. The investigators ruled the death an accident due to no solid evidence proving otherwise. William had blunt-force trauma to his skull, eye, and knee and Roofies in his system.
William Hurley’s case could seem like a coincidental series of unfortunate events; however, there was an almost identical case from the past. Over ten years prior to Hurley’s death, a college student was reported missing before being found dead by a pier in Brooklyn, NY. His name was Patrick McNeill.
On February 16th, 1997, twenty-one-year-old Patrick went to a bar with friends. Later, Patrick left to go home and was seen staggering up Second Avenue. The witness also saw a van driving behind him. No one saw McNeill for a month after that, and he was reported missing.
Two months following his disappearance, Patrick’s corpse was found floating near the pier. When examined separately, these cases might seem like accidents, in which inebriated young men fell into rivers and drowned. But Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, former NYPD detectives, think these deaths were murders.
Criminal Justice professor Lee Gilbertson and the detectives are sure these cases are part of a series of murders of young, educated, white men. There are numerous deaths that follow the same pattern. Leading them to believe the deaths are the work of a serial killer or group they call “The Smiley Face Killers.”
These three theorists think the men were all abducted and killed and that they weren’t picked randomly. The theory is that the murders were committed by a person or group who are envious and resentful of their victims for being privileged, educated, athletic, white men.
These cases are nicknamed the ‘Smiley Face Killings’ because a smiley face was graffitied near every corpse found. According to the theory, these murderers follow their victims, abduct them, drug them, murder them and throw them in the river. After which, they graffiti a smiley face nearby, claiming their work.
In 2008, the detectives shared their “Smiley Face Killers” theory with the public. They claimed that they’d found more than forty other deaths that followed the same pattern aside from Hurley and McNeill. After a few years of research, they discovered approximately 335 similar cases.
In many of the deaths, there was something suspicious about the bodies’ decomposition. For example, Dakota James’s body had been declared to be decomposing for three days by forensics, but he’d been missing for over a month. Similarly, Todd Geib went missing twenty-one days before his body was found on day two of its decomposition.
Furthermore, Gannon, Duarte, and Gilbertson detected that the corpses revealed the presence of insects found on land, not water and that the bodies were barely bloated. These facts, along with the positions of the bodies and the fact that they were all floating, meaning they most likely died on land.
Another commonality between the cases is the presence of GHB or roofies in the men’s systems. Bodies usually aren’t tested for GHB, but many of the families of the dead requested the test specifically because they believed in the theory. Traces of the drug appeared in many of the victims.
This trio of criminal justice professionals maintains that the victims were abducted, killed, and thrown into the water. Aside from these obvious connections, they discovered graffitied smiley faces painted close to all the crime scenes and found traces of the date rape drug in many of the bodies.
However, all these deaths have been ruled accidental. Therefore, these detectives worked hard to try and prove the connection between the deaths and have them be overruled as possible homicides. Unfortunately, due to poor communication between investigators of the various cases and the medical examiners, the theory was hard to prove.
The police department and the forensics department rely on one another when deciding how to continue with a case. The detectives explained that when medical examiners aren’t sure of the cause of death, they wait for the police’s ruling, and if the medical examiners don’t rule the death a murder, the police won’t either.
They explained that, because the murders happened nationwide, it was impossible to get all the states to cooperate on a joint investigation. Lastly, due to sparse physical evidence pointing to homicide, these deaths weren’t regarded as high priority and are rule accidents far too quickly.
Gilbertson, Gannon, and Duarte’s theory that killers are graffitiing smiley faces to mock the authorities for failing to catch them seems plausible. Nevertheless, there’s still a possibility that the deaths are merely similar, unfortunate accidents. However, the victims’ families tend to support the theory.
The FBI doesn’t believe the Smiley Face theory, and some suggest that the families are in denial about losing their loved ones to drunken escapades. The FBI stated that there is no concrete evidence proving that the deaths are linked and no proof supporting the theory that a serial killer or group committed the murders.
While Duarte, Gannon, and Gilbertson pieced their theory together, another group of people was busy building a study proving that “The Smiley Face Killers” theory was ludicrous. Two years after the detectives shared their theory with the public, the Center for Homicide Research, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis, shared their opposing study.
The study is called Drowning the Smiley Face Murder Theory and is comprehensive and lengthy. It includes eighteen parts that attempt to prove the deaths are not linked and are not homicides. Most of the study relies on the fact that the bodies lack markings of murder.
Many people were convinced by the study from the Center for Homicide Research; the Smiley Face Killings may be just a conspiracy theory. However, the study avoids some clear hints pointing to the fact that there is something odd about each separate case of supposed drowning.
For instance, it’s suspicious that many of the bodies had roofies in their system. People who don’t believe the theory claim that the men probably took the drug willingly while partying. Others think the tests were flawed, or GHB traces are a chemical reaction the body releases during decomposition.
The opposing study proved that many of the connections and evidence in the Smile Face theory were coincidental. Perhaps the most convincing proof is the inconsistency of the smiley faces. The study details the discrepancies between where the bodies were discovered and the smiley faces graffitied.
Additionally, it was impossible to say precisely where each man had fallen into the water because they were most likely swept away by the current and washed up somewhere else. Most convincingly, there was concrete evidence that many of the smiley faces were drawn months and years before the bodies appeared nearby.
Michael Arntfield, a Canadian true-crime expert and criminologist, explained that no one could prove the smileys were painted in relation to the deaths, considering they are the most common graffiti tag not related to gangs. Arntfield claims that in every U.S. city, smiley face graffiti appears in numerous spots near bodies of water.
Furthermore, there are apparent differences in the way the smileys are painted. It seems unlikely that an organized group of murderers would be so inconsistent when marking their killings. It would be believable if the smileys looked the same, but they are entirely different from each other.
However, despite the inconsistencies, it’s undeniable that these men had similar fates. So, if it isn’t a serial killing group, what’s causing so many similar deaths? Some people think that it’s merely the age and circumstances of these men that put them at risk for excessive inebriation and drunken mishaps.
In a 2015 study by the Center for Disease Control, the leading causes of death for white men under the age of forty-four are accidents and suicide. The study also revealed that males under age thirty-four were highly prone to binge drinking. Maybe the culprit in these killings was alcohol.
In La Crosse, Wisconsin, more than eight supposed Smiley Face Killings occurred. However, La Crosse is a college town housing three colleges, among them the notorious party school UW La-Crosse. In 2010 the town’s police department released a report exhibiting that since 2006, officers had prevented approximately sixty-five people from drunk drowning.
It isn’t a secret that there is a connection between drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and causing harm to oneself. Arntfield believes that the sole reason for the deaths is the young men’s decision to walk near bodies of water while drunk and on drugs, creating a pattern.
In the police report, there were also accounts detailed by those who’d survived near-drowning accidents. Their statements varied; some told of accidents, others of dares, and unfortunately, some were attempted suicides. The Center of The Homicide Research’s study also proves that many footprint slip marks exist near Minneapolis riverbanks.
Nonetheless, this overwhelming proof didn’t deter Duarte, Gannon, and Gilbertson. The trio claim that evidence collected in individual cities can’t compare with the comprehensive, nationwide research they’ve collected. They still claim the slow decomposition rates, roofie traces, land insects, and smiley faces are enough proof to open an official investigation.
The theorists shared their research in a 2014 book called Case Studies in Drowning Forensics and a show on the website Oxygen. However, they feel that their work is not respected or taken seriously, most likely since crime experts and law enforcement officials have dismissed the theory.
However, some professionals believe in the “Smiley Face Killings” theory. Gannon has shared that many field officers and detectives agree with the idea and have helped them collect more evidence. Gannon elaborated, revealing that he has received supportive emails from detectives and police officers egging him on.
There may be tons of experts who deny the probability of the Smiley Face theory; however, there are also many who support the hypothesis. Among the believers are Joe Fisher, an officer from Boston, William Fazekas, a detective sergeant from Indiana, and many forensic examiners who appeared in the Oxygen show.
These experts have kept the theory going and continued the research. However, the idea of a murderous group of graffiti artists is also widely believed and discussed by the public. The theory’s popularity has led to articles, online forums, and television series, which keep fans updated.
Some people claim that there is a whole different reason people believe in the Smiley Face Killings, despite the evidence debunking the theory. This idea has to do with the psychological factors of human beings. Professionals have expressed that humans need closure, and the Smiley Face Killings theory gives them that.
Instead of blaming these young men’s deaths on alcoholism, partying hard and accidents, and feeling as if they could have been saved, people can shift the blame onto an outside culprit. Doing so alleviates grieving individuals’ guilt and gives conspiracy theorists something to obsess over.
In Michael Arntfield’s opinion, humans respond to tragedy intuitively instead of logically. This response could be why the Smiley Face Killings theory speaks to so many human beings; most prominently to those close to the dead young men or those who’ve experienced personal losses themselves.
Criminologist Scott Bonn explained that humans’ most prominent underlying emotion is fear that we feel the need to control. Therefore, we blame scary things on imaginary evil and feel protected by reducing the world to us against them. Having someone foreign to blame provides a false sense of security.
It is plausible that the Smiley Face Killings is just a theory on which people project their fears. This phenomenon can be explained when taking the idea of Moral Panic into account. Moral Panic is the widespread sense of irrational fear of an evil group, who intend to threaten society’s well-being.
Throughout history, there have been many social threats that caused moral panic, like the Red Scare and the Salem Witch Trials. Nowadays, technology helps spread theories that cause panic faster. Tales of Jack the Ripper were spread through tabloids, and contemporary murder theories go viral online.
Scott Bonn recalls the case of the notorious serial killer from the 1800s, explaining that because the news spread so rapidly, people feared Jack the Ripper worldwide, believing he could be in their home city. There was a theory that suggested Jack the Ripper was a group of killers collaborating.
Arntfield suggests that the same thing has occurred with the Smiley Face Killings. He thinks the whole thing is a conspiracy theory. According to Arntfield, the Smiley Face Killer and Jack the Ripper are prime instances of the media combined with overenthusiastic people turning tragedies into imaginary murderers.
Another sadder, more personal reason for blaming the Smiley Face Killers for the deaths is the grief of the dead men’s loved ones. The friends and family of the men might be having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that one drunken mistake can lead to premature death.
It’s easier to believe that the young men were targeted and killed for being athletic and privileged instead of acknowledging that they were binge drinking and doing drugs and slipped. People would rather ignore the fact that if the men hadn’t gone out drinking, they’d still be alive.
Maybe the Smiley Face Killings is just a conspiracy theory, allowing people to blame someone else for their tragedies. However, Bryanna Fox, a former FBI agent, thinks that it can alternatively be explained by cognitive dissonance. She elaborates that people don’t believe that such tragedies could occur to them.
Losing a son, a brother, or a friend is inconceivable to many and almost impossible to believe or digest. Therefore, many tend to accredit this type of accident to imaginary bogeymen that they can avoid. Thus, they convince themselves that the same thing won’t happen to them.
In the end, there remain two opposing sides to the Smiley Face theory, neither prepared to acknowledge the other. The loved ones of the young men who lost their lives still believe that something sinister is to blame. In contrast, central authorities maintain the claim that the deaths were drunken accidents.
Gilbertson, Gannon, and Duarte have continued their research and still stand with the grieving families, adamant that their theory holds up. All three experts haven’t stopped dissecting and delving deeply into these similar cases, trying to reach the truth and bring the killers to justice.
The worst part about this whole theory and the subsequent debate is that more young men with similar cases keep popping up dead nationwide. All the deaths are eerily alike but hashed off quickly as accidents and closed. Only Gilbertson Gannon Duarte and continue to investigate the cases, nevertheless.
All three of these experts have put in years of research to support the theory, working together to piece together evidence and reach the truth. They believe that they are about to have a breakthrough in the case and that when they find who is responsible, everyone will believe them.
The three theorists sound convinced of their theory and are sure that they are close to solving the cases. However, the FBI is still adamant that they are wrong and that there is no group of serial killers killing privileged white college guys. The FBI believes that the evidence proving the theory true is greatly exaggerated.
However, Gilbertson, Gannon, and Duarte have stated that if there is a chance that these deaths are murders, something must be done about it, and the murderers must be stopped. They promise not to give up until the killers are brought to justice.