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Chicago Serial Killer: Real or Sham?
when a string of “accidental” drownings in chicago started to seem suspicious, a tiktoker took it upon himself to investigate; millions tuned in to see if the vigilante influencer could crack the case
A young man in Chicago leaves a bar late at night, alone, and vanishes. His family files a missing person report, plasters his face on telephone poles all over town, and prays for good news — all in vain. Before long they get the call they feared the most: their son’s lifeless body has washed up on the shore of the Chicago River.
No signs of blunt force trauma, nothing to suggest foul play. He was last seen at the bar, and no one had any reason to expect his disappearance. The police have no leads, and soon his death is ruled an accidental drowning. His last moments are shrouded in mystery, and his loved ones are left to grieve a premature passing they can’t begin to understand.
Eventually, perhaps, they begin to accept his death as a freak accident. Then they see another flier, for another young man, who also left a bar alone and vanished — and whose lifeless body soon washed up just downstream of where their son was found. No blunt force trauma, no leads. Suddenly their son’s accidental drowning starts to feel like an “accidental” drowning.
Then it happens again. And again. And again. All young men, all vanished after a night of drinking, all surfaced in a Chicago waterway, and all lacking signs of foul play — save for the eerie similarities between the disappearances.
This pattern has played out more than a dozen times in Chicago over the last two years. By late 2022, after a 25-year-old PhD candidate at Northwestern University went missing, the public started to take notice, but local media and law enforcement kept any outside-the-box ideas about what was happening to themselves. That is, until Barstool Sports stepped into the void and said what many may have already been thinking: “There Is A Possible Serial Killer Terrorizing Chicago.” Barstool’s article describes the pattern of disappearances, notes the demographic similarities between the deceased, and raises the question: are all these guys really just falling into the water and drowning, or are they possibly victims of a serial killer who’s figured out a foolproof way to kill without a trace?
Barstool took it one step further, connecting the drownings to the “Smiley Faced Killer” theory, developed by ex-New York cop Kevin Gannon and a forensics professor, according to which:
…groups of killers, sprinkled strategically throughout the nation, murder hundreds of people, mostly men… the killers drug the victim with GHB, a date rape drug, at a location like a bar… then discreetly abduct the victim, hold them for a period, kill them and finally dump the body in water.
Here, with the Barstool Sports piece, grieving and frightened Chicagoans finally had some solid ground to stand on amid a sea of uncertainty — a story to help them make sense of the previously inexplicable string of drownings. But, if the story helped relieve some doubt, it certainly didn’t ease any minds. Now every young man in Chicago was a potential victim — even if most of them didn’t know it yet. Barstool’s speculation wouldn’t pervade the public consciousness for a few more months, when, in March 2023, a prominent TikTok influencer named Ken Waks started sounding the alarm to an audience of millions.
On March 9, Waks posted a video claiming he’d been approached twice in the previous six weeks while walking alone at night. Both times, a car pulled up alongside him and offered him an unsolicited ride home, and both times he declined the offer. He urged his fellow Chicagoans to do the same. Two days later, he clarified why in a video referencing the Barstool article.
Set to eerie music, the video opened with a clip of the Barstool author saying “all the men go missing after leaving bars'' — and then Waks cut in, asserting: “I know how they’re going missing.” Further, he said, “I know how they’re all connected and why they’re all the same age range and demographic… And I know what we can do about it.”
His theory: young men are disappearing when they’re offered an unsolicited ride late at night — precisely as he was — and they accept the offer. They’re all young men because the killers know women aren’t as likely to hop in a stranger’s car. Once they’re in the car, the driver offers them, say, a bottle of water. Being drunk, they again accept the offer. But the water is spiked with GHB, so the target soon passes out, and the killers are free to do with him as they please.
Next, Waks issued a call for “would-be victims” — people who had refused ride offers — to come forward: “the more people we have, the quicker this will get changed.” And he upped the stakes: people aren’t just dying in Chicago, but in Austin, Houston, Boston, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and other major cities all over the country. The police weren’t doing anything about it, and the media wasn’t covering it. The upshot? Help me crack this case, or more young men will die.
Within days, he claimed to have heard from between 20 and 30 people who’d been offered rides by random unmarked cars. When he went to the police with this information, they dismissed him. Frustrated, Waks continued to tell his followers that if they were approached on the street by a strange car, they may have nearly been the victim of an “organized crime ring” — and they needed to share their story with him ASAP, to help prevent any further disappearances. Wak’s message was spreading, and people started posting videos describing experiences they thought might be encounters with the killers. This man, for instance, claimed he was leaving a Morissey concert in 2021 when a dark SUV approached him, and the driver offered him a ride — price negotiable, they could “figure it out later” — complete with free water and beer. Thankfully he declined and rode his Heelys home, but looking back, he was convinced he had very nearly been abducted by the serial killer he was suddenly hearing so much about on TikTok.
By now, nearly every video Waks posted to TikTok about the case was getting over a million views. It was only a matter of time until someone came to him with a story that went beyond being offered a ride on the street. A woman direct-messaged him, claiming her husband had been drugged after a night of drinking with family and friends in downtown Chicago. He left the bar around 10:00 pm and got into a black SUV believing it was his Uber. The last thing he remembered was interacting with the driver, a small black female who was “very friendly.” Next thing he knew, he awoke seven hours later in a field next to the river.
For Waks, this felt like a huge breakthrough. What was once merely his theory about the drownings — that they were in fact murders, initiated by way of unsolicited ride offer — now seemed like reality. Here was a survivor — someone who’d been picked up off the street, exactly as Ken suspected was happening, and drugged in accordance with the Smiley Face Killers’ modus operandi, but who somehow lived to tell the tale, waking up near the same body of water into which other victims had allegedly been dumped.
For the next several weeks, Waks would post video after video about his DIY investigation. He was mapping recent drownings and pickup attempts in Chicago based on police reports and stories from witnesses who reached out to him. If the police weren’t going to stop the slaughter, and the media wasn’t going to report on it, then Ken Waks and his followers were going to get justice for the victims themselves. Top comments were often along the lines of:
“I live in Chicago and the media is NOT covering this”
“Ken is doing more than our own government”
“damn, everyone please keep watching and supporting this guy is amazing”
“you’re doing SO much for your community, thank you, please don’t stop”
Even the casual observers — those who were tuned in more for entertainment than to see justice served — were in awe. They would lay down at night, scroll on TikTok to decompress a bit after a long day, and there in the palm of their hand was a random dude who was… maybe legitimately going to take down a group of serial killers that had long evaded law enforcement? Was @ken on TikTok seriously about to crack the elusive Smiley Face Killer case wide open?
It sure seemed that way to many, and this was before Waks announced he'd been contacted by a private investigation firm, which he claimed wanted to collaborate with him. According to Waks, a detective who'd been looking into the Smiley Face Killings for years visited his home to ask about the full extent of the information he'd compiled. The PI was impressed, and they wound up speaking for over two hours. Waks told his viewers that his information, some of which he couldn't release publicly, was so useful to the PI that they agreed to team up on the spot. Moving forward, Waks would be helping the team with data collection and analysis, building more sophisticated versions of the incident maps he'd already been working on.
No one was quite sure what to make of all this — an influencer summoning a flood of witness testimonies, mapping disappearances and attempted abductions, teaming up with a real-life private investigator, all in lieu of a serious response from the media or police — but everyone was on the edge of their seats. It was fascinating to see a motley crew of strangers on the internet banding together to solve a string of heinous crimes. And, for Chicagoans in particular, it was exhilarating to think that any time you stepped outside, you might spot something suspicious, tag Ken Waks in a TikTok describing what you witnessed, and in so doing, give him the final puzzle piece he needed to stop the bleeding.
At the end of April, with millions of followers eagerly awaiting his next update, Waks posted a video claiming the FBI had, several years back, tried to recruit him as a special agent. This was odd, because he was not at the time, nor had he ever been, a cop or anything remotely resembling one. He had worked for Yelp, Google, and Walmart, and in 2022, he co-founded a tech startup called Foresyte, which is building an app to facilitate social event coordination (more on that to come). In sum: not the kind of background one would expect to pique the FBI’s interest. But here Waks was, on your TikTok feed, not merely claiming the FBI recruited him, but actually providing receipts. His face floated over a screenshot of his email inbox, where, sure enough, there were a few messages related to a position at the FBI. But the messages were all sent from a “do not reply” email address, and several of his followers were quick to pipe up, saying they, too, received those emails… after they started applying to open positions in the FBI… as an automated reminder to finish their application.
After this video, the vibe around Waks changed. His viewers began to wonder: if Waks was willing to dramatically and self-servingly stretch the truth in this video, then had he ever done so before? Suddenly, his entire narrative was suspect, and many — myself included — started to rewatch his prior videos with a more critical eye.
Over the next few days, a flood of inconsistencies came to light. For instance, at the very heart of Wak’s theory from day one was the idea that a killer or group of killers were exclusively targeting young men who were walking alone in the dark after a night of drinking. But after his third or fourth video, young women started leaving comments on his videos saying they’d been approached by random unmarked cars at night, just as Waks had. One of those young women even specified she was approached while standing with a group of friends. To both of these women, Waks responded affirmatively, thanking them for coming forward — and, in one case, explicitly saying of the class targeted by the killers, “it’s not just men.” But wait… hadn’t he originally told us the killers were targeting lone drunk young men, not merely as a matter of preference, but of practical necessity — because women would be more hesitant to get in a stranger’s car alone?
And weren’t the killers supposed to be targeting young men? The Smiley Face Killer theory posits 19- to 23-year-old white men as the demographic sweet spot. But Waks’ list of relevant drownings included men as old as 53, and from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Two other central components of the theory are entirely, or very nearly, absent from Wak’s series of videos. Not once does he mention smiley face graffiti or any other relevant symbol in the vicinity of the Chicago bodies or their locations of disappearance. His theory of killing also hinges on the use of GHB to drug victims. In his own telling, only one of the Chicago tox reports came back positive for GHB. So we have over a dozen bodies, only some of which meet the most basic demographic criteria, only one of which seems to have been drugged, and seemingly none of which have any known connection to the alleged mark of the killer.
What about those unsolicited ride offers? The reason the police dismissed Waks when he took his anecdotal evidence to them was simple: they thought he and his 20 to 30 “would-be victims” had been approached by “gypsy cabs,” or people trying to make a living by operating unlicensed, unmarked cabs, offering rides to pedestrians, and charging them under the table — which is an incredibly common practice citywide.
But what about the bodies themselves? Even if there’s very little to suggest connections or foul play, isn’t it still bizarre for so many young-ish men to be washing up dead in Chicago’s waterways? Answer: not really, no. Every year for the past seven years, 50-70 people have drowned in Chicago. Most of those drownings are ruled accidental, a slightly smaller fraction are ruled “undetermined,” fewer yet are ruled suicides, and the rest — a vanishingly small number — are ruled homicides. So, even if the demographic breakdown of the drowned bodies was proportional to the population at large, a dozen or so young-ish men would be nothing out of the ordinary. But, according to the CDC, nearly 80% of accidental drownings nationwide are males. That’s because men are more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior, such as binge drinking and then stumbling out onto the shores of the icy Chicago River to take a piss.
Okay, okay, but Waks has a survivor, right? What about that dude who woke up in a field next to the river? If the killers got him into a car and drugged him, why would they have driven him all the way to the river’s edge just to drop him in a field? When I posed these questions to Waks, he told me the man weighed 300 pounds, and that’s why the killers couldn’t get his unconscious body into the water. The reader is left to judge the merits of this logic.
So, where exactly are we? A normal amount of young-ish men have turned up dead in Chicago waterways over the last year and a half. Many of them had been drinking and were last seen alone leaving a bar or party, but only one of them tested positive for GHB. The deceased do not adhere unwaveringly to the proposed profile of the Smiley Face Killers, and we have no information about smiley faces near the bodies or sites of disappearance. Independently, we know that a bunch of people — men and women — have been receiving unsolicited ride offers from random unmarked cars on the street, which is commonplace in Chicago. Also: a large man woke up in a field seven hours after he tried to Uber home from a bar.
This, roughly, is the frame I adopted after Waks’ FBI recruitment gaffe sent me poring back over his videos. I was ready to dismiss him as a crackpot — and worse. We’ve noted that Waks co-founded a tech startup called Foresyte. In a video he posted on March 31, Waks provided two updates: one on the map of Chicago cases he’d been creating, and another on the Forsyte app. He spent most of the video talking about the string of drownings he was trying to prove were murders. Then he plugged his company’s app and bragged about receiving an “exceeds expectations” on his annual corporate review. At the time, this felt… in poor taste, perhaps, but most people were so captivated by the serial killing story, they apparently didn’t think much of it. Few questions were raised in the comments section. But then he posted another video plugging Foresyte. And another. He told his viewers his company was actively soliciting seed funding, and he encouraged his audience to chip in. The longer he rode the wave of virality from his investigation into the Chicago deaths, the more aggressively he promoted his startup.
After the FBI recruitment video, people could no longer overlook the obvious conflict of interest here. Waks’ followers started to turn on him, and suddenly the top comments on his videos were overwhelmingly negative. They called him deluded and a liar, speculated he was in the midst of a manic episode, ridiculed him as a LARPer, joked about how maybe he was the killer and the investigation was an elaborate cover up. Dozens of attack videos started cropping up, trying to debunk his theory of the killings or argue his promotion of Foresyte was unethical. By May 2, the backlash grew so intense that Waks felt obliged to post an apology video addressing his promotion of Foresyte — and to step away from the investigation altogether, saying “it’s not my place to continue chasing this story… I care so much about this case, I really do, but I realized that I can’t report on it while balancing this other pursuit.”
So… that’s it, right? We’re done with Ken? Whether in delusion or self-interest, he fabricated a story about a serial killer and then used the attention it garnered him to promote his app. People caught onto what he was doing, realized his story didn’t check out, called him out, and then he simply walked away from the investigation he supposedly cared so much about? Odd, given his enthusiastic declarations about serving justice for the victims. We were foolish to ever take him seriously; now, all that’s left to do is move on and be a bit more skeptical next time a TikTok tech bro starts telling us a serial killer is terrorizing a city.
Such was my internal monologue. Then I made a phone call.
Quite a bit of the backlash against Waks was focused on his story about the visit from the private investigator. In that video, Waks held up a business card with the Eye of Horus on it. One of the top comments says “as soon as you showed the card with some mysterious Egyptian symbol on it you lost all credibility of this being real.” Another questions why a professional PI would want his help. Some people said their “BS detectors” were going off and that Waks was “giving strong liar energy.” In short: TikTok had completely turned on him.
Except the business card with the Egyptian symbol that robbed Waks of all his remaining credibility? It’s real. And the private investigator who definitely didn’t come knocking on Waks’ door, and who couldn’t possibly want Waks’ help? He did, and he does. The card belongs to Jordan Scherer of R.A. Private Investigation and Security, Inc. The firm is based in Chicago, and has been looking into the Smiley Face Killer theory for years; Scherer is even acquainted with retired cop Kevin Gannon, the theory’s originator. It turns out these PI pros take the string of drownings in Chicago very seriously, and they’re looking for all the information they can get.
Granted, Waks did stretch the truth a bit. I spoke with Scherer on the phone, and he was adamant that he and Waks are not “a team.” For ethical and legal reasons, he said, an untrained, unlicensed civilian cannot be a formal member of a professional investigation. There is no official partnership between Waks and Scherer’s firm. That said, Scherer described Waks as having helpful skill sets that have enabled him to compile useful information, which the firm is happy to utilize in their investigation.
So, while the backlash against Waks was understandable, it arguably went too far. People started accusing him of lying even when he was telling the truth. More importantly, when Waks undermined his credibility, people took it as a license to disbelieve everything he’d ever said about the string of drownings in Chicago. One commenter captured this sentiment succinctly: “this is gonna be the next kony 2012.”
For anyone who needs a refresher: Kony 2012 was a video posted to YouTube by the nonprofit Invisible Children. In the course of thirty minutes, viewers learned that Kony “was an elusive Ugandan warlord and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army and he was terrorizing northern Uganda, capturing girls, turning them into sex slaves, and turning boys into child soldiers.” Somehow, every 12-year-old with a Facebook account from sea to shining sea had soon seen this video, been rattled by its graphic images of Kony’s mutilated victims, and been moved by the nonprofit’s call to action. We were to Make Him Famous by sharing the video far and wide, tagging prominent celebrities in posts to try to win their support, and buying $30 action kits stocked with Kony 2012 merch, the proceeds of which would support the victims in Uganda. Everyone heeded the call, even Oprah, who donated $2 million to Invisible Children.
Just one little catch: “by the time the Kony video came out, the Lord’s Resistance Army and Kony hadn’t been active in Uganda since 2006, and… they hadn’t mounted a large-scale attack anywhere since 2010.” Oh, and Invisible Children only sent a third of the money it raised to Uganda. Within weeks of uploading the video, the nonprofit’s founder was caught roaming the streets of San Diego vandalizing cars in the nude. As Suzy Weiss put it for The Free Press: “Kony 2012 helped establish what’s become a very 21st-century phenomenon: It started as a righteous cause and then, almost overnight, became a dumpster-fire tabloid fixation. We couldn’t rip those dumb red bracelets off fast enough.”
The Ken Waks-serial killer affair follows the Kony 2012 blueprint almost to a T — with one major difference. Once people subjected Invisible Children’s video to the proper scrutiny, the jig was up. There’s no coming back from “Kony hadn’t been active in Uganda since 2006.” The story we were told was demonstrably false, and it was told to us by an obviously unwell man. After we saw the light, we could rip off our “dumb red bracelets” and move on with our lives.
Not so for the Smiley Face Killer theory. Joseph Kony was a known quantity; the Smiley Face Killers are not. Nobody actually knows if they exist. They’re a proposed explanation for a mysterious string of eerily similar drownings all over the country. And the guy who proposed the theory is not a manic philanthropist who used a scary story for personal gain and then stripped buck naked in the street. Ken Waks will now forever be associated with this theory, and he admittedly seems a bit manic, but he was for the most part only giving voice to the work of a well-respected cop and a forensics professor who helped develop the theory. That cop has been working these cases for more than two decades, largely pro bono, seemingly for the sole reason that he’s hellbent on stopping a network of killers he’s sure exists. Unlike Kony 2012, which framed a mostly dormant warlord as a grave and ongoing threat, the drownings that Waks is concerned about have been happening steadily for decades, and every few weeks, another case that roughly fits the pattern seems to surface.
In other words, we cannot as yet definitely disprove the story Waks has spun. There really could be a killer (or killers) on the loose in Chicago and/or other cities across the country. They really might be abducting people by offering them rides on the street, drugging them, and dumping their bodies into waterways. A few weeks ago, a million-odd TikTok users were convinced of this story. Now, almost no one is. But nothing of substance has changed between then and now. Ken Waks lost his credibility, but the drownings he sounded the alarm about? Those are still just as real as they were when we still took him at his word. The evidence for and against the Smiley Face Killer theory? Hasn’t changed a bit.
When we ripped off our Kony 2012 bracelets, we had good reason to do so. But the people doing the equivalent today for the Smiley Face Killer crusade don’t. We believed Ken Waks when the vibe was right, and when the vibe shifted, we turned on him.has argued for that Kony 2012 never ended, and she’s right, but the information ecosystem has changed in important ways. Back in 2012, launching a moral crusade took a lot more effort. A nonprofit had to churn out a high production value 30-minute video about a compelling catastrophe they could make seem very, very real. Eleven years later, all Ken Waks had to do was talk into his smartphone, make vague connections between ride offers and a string of drownings and the unproven Smiley Face Killer theory, and drop a dozen pins on a digital map.
In 2023, short-form video content rules the internet. TikToks are fast-paced, shallow, and disposal by design. Creators give us enough detail to pique our interest, but not so much as to bore us. At first it was fun to cheer Ken Waks on. Then he made a fool of himself, and it was more fun to dunk on him. The fact that he was talking about real, flesh-and-blood bodies that washed up on the shores of rivers and lakes? That was always besides the point. Ken Waks is just a guy, on a screen, making me feel something. If he makes me feel good, I’ll believe what he says. If not, I won’t.
So, is the Chicago serial killer real, or a sham? Wrong question. You should be asking: does Ken Waks “seem to genuinely care,” or is he “giving strong liar energy?”
It’s all just vibes, bro.
— Nick Russo
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