Is There a Killer on the River?

retired Milwaukee detective investigates ‘Smiley Face’ theory

Max Martinson

Steven Spingola
Steven Spingola

There’s a lot of strange stuff that happens in rivers. River monsters move silently through the current, herons and eagles keep watch as giant catfish swallow the arms of people who dare to use their fingers as bait, and some people even dare to think that there may be a serial killer prowling the rivers of the Midwest.

Over a few decades, around two dozen young men have gone missing and turned up in rivers in the Upper Midwest – including in Eau Claire.

Over a few decades, around two dozen young men have gone missing and turned up in rivers in the Upper Midwest – including in Eau Claire. All of the cases fit a similar mold, and many think that the similarities are no coincidence. There have been reports of smiley faces painted near areas that the bodies are suspected to have entered the river, and these claims have given rise to a name: “The Smiley Face Killer.” A few of the deaths in question happened simultaneously in different cities. Therefore, it would be impossible for one individual to be responsible. This has lead some to suspect that there is a network of killers, all conspiring to prey on young, white, college-aged males in cities like Eau Claire and La Crosse. Almost unanimously, though, qualified professionals who have seen evidence deny claims of a connection between the cases, saying that signs of foul play are absent in all but a few cases. Still, there is support and interest given to the Smiley Face Killer theory.

Steven Spingola, a graduate of the FBI’s National Academy and a retired Milwaukee Police Department Detective, worked for 18 years investigating murders and suspicious deaths. Known as “the sleuth with the proof,” Spingola has a reputation for excellence, and is known for investigating cases on Oxygen Channel’s Cold Justice as well as for penning several true crime books. Most recently he has dedicated his talents to expose the Smiley Face Killer case in his new book, Staggered Paths: Strange Deaths in the Badger State.

The book goes into detail about each case that has been attributed to the alleged Smiley Face Killer. Testimony, evidence, and comprehensive accounts of each case provide an interesting read, and allow you to get the facts needed to decide for yourself whether or not a serial killer at work. While a couple of cases do show evidence of foul play, Spingola concludes that these incidents are entirely unrelated.

“In all of these matters, deaths could have been avoided if friends kept tabs on each other, even in the suspected homicides,” Spingola said. He believes that the real killer is our culture of excessive drinking. “Friends also need to be frank with their friends. If a person has a drinking problem, encourage them to get help.”

Spingola will be speaking about his new book at 7pm Friday, Sept. 15, at the Volume One Gallery in The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire. Learn more about him at