Could Elgin man's death be work of 'Smiley Face' killer?

  • Brian Welzien

    Brian Welzien

  • Brian Welzien

    Brian Welzien

Published: 5/7/2008 4:11 PM | Updated: 5/7/2008 8:16 PM

Stephany Welzien knows her only child is dead.

What the Elgin woman doesn't know is what happened to her son before he died.

Brian Welzien, a 21-year-old finance major at Northern Illinois University, was last seen by friends outside a Chicago hotel in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2000, sick after drinking too much.

The former soccer player's body washed up on a Lake Michigan beach in Gary, Ind., about 2½ months later.

The manner in which he drowned was undetermined and authorities speculated he somehow wandered into the icy water.

Brian's mother disagrees.

"In my heart, I know he didn't get into the water himself. Somebody else was responsible," she said last week.

Welzien and others may soon have answers if a theory of two retired New York police detectives holds true.

A larger scheme?

Detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, part of a four-man team called Nationwide Investigations, have investigated the disappearances of more than 40 other young men in the Great Lakes region.

They all share something with Brian.

A "Good Morning America" report last week said all 40 were young, athletic college men who vanished while out drinking with friends and whose bodies were found in a lake or river. They said the men's death could be the work of a serial killer or network of killers who leave a spray-painted smiley face as a calling card.

The investigators determined that Chris Jenkins, a 21-year-old student at the University of Minnesota who disappeared on Halloween 2002, was abducted and tortured in a cargo van before being dumped in the Mississippi River, the St. Paul, Minn.-based KSTP-TV reported recently.

Jenkins' death was reclassified as a homicide and police are conducting a murder investigation.

The rest of the deaths have been ruled accidental or undetermined.

Gannon, who initially began looking into a 1997 drowning in Manhattan, and Duarte investigated the sites where they believe each man went into the water because it could contain crime scene clues.

At each site -- in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa and Ohio -- they found a smiley face spray-painted nearby.

They believe a network of killers may exist because the disappearances -- and smiley faces -- were in several states during the same time frame, they told KSTP, an ABC affiliate.

Gannon also told KSTP he believes two Illinois deaths are connected to the "smiley face" killer: Brian Welzien and Glenn Leadley.

Leadley, 23, was last seen Feb. 8, 2003, at a friend's apartment party on Chicago's Gold Coast.

He left to catch a cab after he got sick; his frozen body was found on the lakeshore two weeks later.

As for Welzien's case, Chicago police aren't talking about whether a smiley face was found; his mother says police have not told her that, either, or even contacted her.

Jeff Wells, chief deputy at the Lake County, Ind., coroner's office, said there were no signs of internal or external trauma or broken bones on Brian's body.

His blood-alcohol concentration was 0.08 percent, which is the legal threshold for drunken driving in Illinois. There were no drugs in his system, Wells said.

The cause of death was asphyxia due to drowning, but the manner was "undetermined," meaning the office could revisit the case if new evidence arose.

Wells said his office has not been contacted by any authorities since 2000.

Gannon did not return e-mails and phone messages left last week and this week.

A Nationwide Investigations spokesman, Adam Carlson, would neither confirm nor deny that the detectives suspect Brian Welzien was a victim of the "smiley face" serial killer.

Carlson said no names of the deceased will be included or excluded from any type of list and that Gannon's comments may have been taken out of context by the TV station.

But in a videotaped interview with KSTP Gannon clearly lists Brian Welzien among the men he believes may have died at the hands of the "smiley face" killer.

When contacted by Stephany Welzien, Carlson also refused to confirm or deny any "smiley face" connection with Brian. Welzien said Gannon has not responded to her calls.

The serial killer theory seems to have struck a chord with some.

Gary Peterson, who serves as an investigator for both a private firm and the Minnesota regional medical examiner's office, hopes to talk with Gannon.

Peterson said for the last seven years he's been gathering data on these deaths -- which all occurred with men 18 to 24, on the weekend, and just after a social event, such as a private party or night at a bar.

"It's gotten past the point of saying it's just drunken college kids who fell off the end of the dock," he said. "I would love to know how this act (of abduction) is being accomplished. I do not buy the excuse of law enforcement: 'They're college students. College students drink and some wander off.'"

Authorities skeptical

Minneapolis police and national authorities have not bought into the "smiley face" theory.

Richard Koklo, an FBI supervisory agent in Washington, said the agency has investigated information Gannon has pulled together.

"To date, we have not developed any evidence to support links between these tragic deaths or any evidence substantiating the theory that these deaths are the work of a serial killer or killers," Koklo said in a statement.

Minneapolis police said the investigation into Jenkins' death remains open.

"We can neither confirm nor endorse the 'Smiley Face Murders' theory currently being publicized," part of a department statement read.

A Chicago Police Department spokeswoman said officials there have not received any new information about Welzien's case.

Sgt. Antoinette Urisitti said the department has no plans to reopen the case.

Urisitti also would not answer questions about whether Chicago police determined where Welzien entered Lake Michigan and if authorities found a smiley face there -- even though the case is officially closed.

Stephany Welzien said Chicago police investigators never told her if any type of smiley face was found.

Mixed news

For Stephany Welzien, the new information is a blessing and curse.

She said part of her wants whoever is responsible for Brian's death held accountable.

"He's already gone," she said. "It can't help him, but it can at least stop the killing."

But another part of her is fearful of learning what happened to her son, who would have turned 30 this month, before he met his fate in the lake's icy waters.

"They didn't just kill Brian; they killed me, too," Welzien said. "It's just devastating. I haven't forgotten it for a single second."