September 2008 article on Smiley Face Killer, from Milwaukee magazine

Behind the Midwest Smiley Face Killers

One theory on the river drowning of Hartland’s Matt Kruziki is that the so-called “Smiley Face” killers murdered him — one of up to 40 such crimes against college-age men. Our writer probes the mystery.

Bill Kruziki, the former Waukesha County sheriff and retired U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, sits quietly at a table at Panera Bread in Pewaukee, shuffling through a green box of investigative documents. The mug shots and police reports read like a cheap crime novel, with characters that include rough-edged strippers named Diamond and Cache, a pimp in a Milwaukee Brewers cap, and a menacing-looking bouncer with a shaved head. All players in an investigation that is very personal to Kruziki: the death of his youngest son.

In March 2006, the body of Matt Kruziki, 24, was fished from the Mississippi River at a spot called Deadman’s Slough. The cause: drowning. How it happened: undetermined. All that’s certain is Matt disappeared in East Dubuque, Ill., after getting thrown out of a lowdown strip club called the River Queen. Bloodhounds traced his trail, a twisted, mystifying route that took him to the river’s edge.

“Did someone hold a gun to his head and say walk?” his father asks. “Was he pushed in, dragged in or did he fall in? All the answers aren’t here.”

Matt’s death attracted a lot of headlines, largely due to his father’s prominence and law enforcement comrades, who went to East Dubuque to help search. Also fueling the media buzz: Kruziki was the latest in a string of college-age Midwestern men to meet unexplained deaths in the depths of the Mississippi after nights in taverns. Many died in La Crosse – including Luke Homan, a star athlete from Brookfield, and Pewaukeean Jared Dion, who was Matt Kruziki’s high-school wrestling teammate.

Last spring, two retired New York cops – Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte – and university professor Lee Gilbertson upped the ante. They claimed that a gang of serial killers had murdered 40 of the college-age men in an area mostly around I-94 – including Kruziki, Homan and Dion – by drowning them in rivers and lakes. The New York cops added a lurid detail: pictures of crudely-drawn “smiley faces” they said the killers painted near the scenes of crimes.

The result was a burst of national coverage. Matt Kruziki’s photo was among those in a story on the smiley face killers in People magazine. Gannon and Duarte claimed to have a secret informant, but won’t name him, nor disclose the specific locations of all the smiley faces. They won’t return calls from Kruziki anymore or from some police working the cases. Are they just publicity hounds? The whole story has a Big Foot feeling to it.

But Bill Kruziki isn’t quite ready to dismiss it. With his thatch of gray-white hair, neatly trimmed goatee and glasses, the former sheriff is not prone to melodrama or shows of emotion, even when the deceased is his son. He’s pensive, almost passive in demeanor, but convinced there’s a mystery here that hasn’t been solved. “It needs to be investigated more thoroughly,” he says quietly, but firmly. “As a law enforcement officer, I learned a long time ago that anything is possible.”

The river deaths, Matt’s death alone, even the machinations of the New York cops – it all begins to resemble those Russian dolls. Open one doll and there’s another inside. “Every answer leads to another question,” Kruziki muses.

Now the story has gotten even more complicated. After three months of research into the case, Milwaukee Magazine has learned a gang called the “Dealers of Death” claims involvement in the deaths of some of these men. Convicted murderer Jeramy Alford, who is also a suspect in a river death that police now believe is a homicide, told the FBI last year that the gang had murdered 40 of the men. One admitted gang member: a man nicknamed “Zmiley.”

In a letter obtained by Milwaukee Magazine, the FBI said there’s no evidence the gang exists, but admits Alford discussed the gang. (Both the FBI and the New York cops talked to Alford.) Milwaukee Magazine also has discovered documents from the New Brighton, Minn., police department in which two men associated with Alford, including Zmiley, admit belonging to the Dealers of Death.

Behind every one of the mysterious deaths are grieving family members. For Bill Kruziki, the role of cop working to find justice for such families is familiar. Being the grieving family himself at the same time? Not so much. “Matt will be missed for the rest of his life,” he says. “It is a loss that never goes away.”

Last year, Kruziki’s remaining child, Christopher, committed suicide. He was 28 and had never gotten over Matt’s death. “I spent Father’s Day in the cemetery,” Kruziki volunteers at Panera, his tone cop-like and matter-of-fact. “He keeps everything inside, I think,” says Kruziki’s first wife, Debbie, the mother of Chris and Matt.

“It’s hard to see other parents at cookouts with their children,” Bill admits, but he’s still dry-eyed. “Sometimes it still seems like a dream, like they [Matt and Chris] are going to call me.”

A few weeks later, it all catches up to him when he’s told about the Dealers of Death. The details are too much to take. He’s had an emotional meltdown of sorts, he says in an e-mail, and he just can’t discuss it anymore.

“I need a break from this, it is just too overwhelming.”

Father and Sons

Bill Kruziki was raised on Milwaukee’s near North Side in a blue-collar family that was “lower middle class,” but “always paid the bills,” as he recalls. One day, a motorcycle officer spoke at Custer High School. Kruziki decided to be a police aide. At 18, he started calling police departments. “I called every one of them.” The Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department responded.

“I didn’t know where Waukesha was. I had never been across 124th Street.” In Waukesha, he graduated to correctional officer and later to captain of the drug unit. Chris was born in 1979 and Matt in 1981 to Bill and Debbie, a nurse. In 1994, Kruziki upset the incumbent Waukesha County sheriff in a bitter Republican primary. He served as sheriff for eight years. President George W. Bush nominated him as federal marshal and he served in that position from 2002 to 2007, when he retired. He still conducts federal background investigations.

The Kruziki boys attended Hartland Arrowhead High School. Matt’s time there revolved around athletics – soccer, wrestling and football. “He enjoyed socializing,” his father says. Sometimes too much. His teachers would say, “He’s a great kid, but man he talks too much,” his dad adds.

After graduation, Matt settled into an apartment on Milwaukee’s East Side and a somewhat nomadic life. He was 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, with dark blue eyes and a casual style. “A bit of a hippie,” his father would later tell police.

Matt played guitar at open mic sessions and worked at a sandwich shop. In high school, he had covered his school binder with Jimi Hendrix lyrics. “He thought he could play guitar, but, well, he really couldn’t,” his father says. He wrote songs and got a dog – Gracie, named after Grace Slick – but gave her to his mother because he couldn’t keep her in his apartment.

Matt was convicted of possessing drug paraphernalia in Waukesha County in 2002 and marijuana possession in 2003, both misdemeanors. But he began to focus his life after some environmental activists handed him literature at the Bastille Days festival.

“He was looking for a new direction,” says David Dorn, who worked with Matt on the New Voters Project, a voter registration drive in Milwaukee. “He was interested in progressive politics, helping the disadvantaged. He planned to start a nonprofit.”

“Both Matt and Chris lived in a fishbowl their whole lives,” Debbie Kruziki says, noting their father’s political profile, and Matt may have gotten his interest in public service from watching his father.

Dorn recalls their work registering voters at a rainy Fourth of July fireworks celebration. “He was the only one who stayed out. He stayed out sopping wet,” Dorn says. “He was like the mayor of Milwaukee,” Dorn says he used to joke. “He knew every single person.”

“He loved it,” Kruziki says. “He could really carry off a conversation.” Like his father, he ended up liking politics, with one difference. “He was a liberal Democrat,” says his Republican father with a smile.

“He really admired his dad,” says Dorn. “He was visibly excited when he had an opportunity to go to lunch with his dad. They were politically different, but two sides of the same coin.”

Matt worked for Citizen Action of Wisconsin and with ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). In June 2005, Philadelphia Weekly magazine featured a profile on Matt, who was then working in that town and described himself as a canvas director wearing “just an old pair of shorts and some sandals. Mostly hand-me-downs.”

The nonprofit work also took Matt to Iowa. One trip, his older-model Saturn broke down and was towed to Des Moines. Shortly before Christmas 2005, he received a letter saying he needed to get it.

Bill Kruziki couldn’t drive his son and asked Chris to take Matt. “They argued about politics. Chris blew him off,” Bill Kruziki says. Chris was a Republican and Matt had jokingly thrown his brother’s book on President Bush into the fireplace. “Chris and Matt loved each other so much. But they were different people,” Debbie says.

In light of what later happened to Matt, Chris was distraught that he didn’t drive his brother to Dubuque. “He blamed himself,” says his dad. “I blamed myself.”

Matt convinced a neighbor, Curtis Lesniewski, then 19, to drive him. Matt’s parents say he didn’t know the younger neighbor that well. Curtis has his own minor criminal record in Waukesha County for marijuana possession and petty offenses.

The trip seemed anything but dangerous compared to Matt’s work for ACORN. “He went into inner cities at night pounding on people’s doors,” his father says. “I never, ever thought something would happen to him in Dubuque.”

The Vanishing

East Dubuque, Ill., is a working-class town of 2,000 people. It sits three miles south of Wisconsin and just across the border from Dubuque, Iowa. Formerly known as “sin city” for its Prohibition-era speakeasies, some of that flavor endures on Sinsinawa Avenue, where Matt was last seen. It’s a blend of urban ghetto and rural hillbilly, as if you plopped Milwaukee’s Teutonia Avenue in the middle of the Ozarks. Abandoned lounges blot the seedy three-block strip. Prostitutes in short skirts, some from Milwaukee, as Bill Kruziki would learn, hang out with pimps under dim streetlights.

How did Matt end up here? His friend Curtis Lesniewski gave a lengthy interview to Waukesha County law enforcement, but Matt’s parents say it took a lot of coaxing. “He didn’t seem like he wanted to talk to us about any of it,” Debbie Kruziki says. Lesniewski didn’t respond to interview requests with the magazine.

This is what Lesniewski told police: Matt said he knew people in Dubuque, so they decided to stay the night rather than heading on to Des Moines. The hotel they picked, the Julien Inn (once an Al Capone hideout), was just across the Mississippi from East Dubuque.

Lesniewski had no money. Matt had $600. They headed to the Julien Inn’s bar after 9 p.m. Matt started buying drinks for patrons, including the bouncer from the River Queen across the river. “You can hitch a cab ride with me to this place, because you guys don’t know where anything is,” Curtis recalled the bouncer saying.

And so they made the trip across the river. “It almost seems like Matt was lured across the river,” Bill Kruziki says.

The River Queen is an uninviting building of smudged white brick with peeling black paint – basically a dive with a stripper’s pole. Curtis says Matt put $100 on the dance floor to get the strippers’ attention. Matt was getting $25 private lap dances, largely from a stripper named Diamond. She was 5 foot 9, almost 200 pounds, had a petty criminal record from Milwaukee, and, according to club employees, could pack a mean punch.

Bill Kruziki would later run address histories on key characters in the bar that night, and learned that several strippers, including Diamond and a woman named Cache, were from Milwaukee. Relatively transient figures, with multiple addresses and disconnected phone numbers, they have been impossible for Kruziki to track down.

An argument arose at the bar. “All of a sudden, there’s like a scuffle going on, and it’s Matt in the middle of it and like the two doormen pushing him out,” Lesniewski says. The doormen said they were calling the cops because Matt owed money for $300 worth of lap dances. Diamond would tell police Matt owed her for three dances.

The bouncer gave Lesniewski Matt’s empty wallet and flannel coat. “He [the bouncer] kind of just pushed me out of the way, told me to stay out of it, and they drug him [Matt] outside.” Matt ran back inside the bar and the doormen kicked him back out.

After this, Lesniewski says he got separated from Matt and caught a ride back to their hotel from a regular. Lesniewski told police he didn’t know where Matt was, so he waited until morning. Matt didn’t turn up, so needing to get home for Christmas, Lesniewski headed back to Wisconsin. His cell phone was dead, he had no money, and the car had only a half a tank of gas. Lesniewski ran out of gas heading toward Hartland and, ironically, called Chris Kruziki to come get him. Matt’s parents have never forgiven Lesniewski for leaving Matt behind.

Mike Meyer, who owns the River Queen, says Matt Kruziki was only in the bar for 30 minutes. Diamond and Lesniewski described Matt as very drunk. Bouncers from a bar across the street, which is also owned by Meyer, called police because they say Matt was staring at the bouncers. An officer showed up and ID’d Kruziki, but didn’t think Matt seemed drunk.

“We called the police to get him [Kruziki] to move on,” says Meyer. The officer told the coatless, walletless Matt to get a cab, and the young man walked away without a problem. The cop was the last person to see Matt alive.

Club regulars interviewed by Milwaukee Magazine seemed angry and sick of the story and unwilling to go on the record. They even used expletives to describe Matt Kruziki. “All of the publicity destroyed this little community,” says one man. But the regulars confirm that Matt Kruziki was not combative. He seemed dazed, one man said.

It was 20 degrees outside that night. Matt was legally drunk, according to the coroner, but barely (only a .09 blood alcohol level) and also had marijuana in his system (Lesniewski said Matt was smoking it on the drive down to Iowa). It would have been a freezing walk across the mile-plus-long bridge spanning the wide Mississippi to get back to his hotel in Dubuque. Matt didn’t take it.

“He went way past the bridge,” Bill Kruziki says, “a mile out of the way.” Why? It’s a central mystery in the case.

Could a serial killer have abducted Matt? “Absolutely,” says one River Queen regular. “There are three states coming together here and a major interstate.”

No way, says the bar’s owner. “The kid fell in the river,” Meyer insists.

The Mystery Deepens

Bill Kruziki married a second time in 2002, and his wife Ellen is also a skilled investigator who works for the Milwaukee office of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Their Christmas was disrupted by the news that Matt was missing. On Christmas Eve, Bill was on the phone, calling shelters and hospitals. By Christmas Day, Bill and Ellen were in East Dubuque, knocking on every door that made sense. Their investigative files testify to their thoroughness. They’re filled with neatly written lists of shelters and other places where they searched.

Bill and Ellen saturated East Dubuque with posters and media. After a week, they called in bloodhounds. “I was surprised by the route,” Bill says.

The dogs indicated Matt walked past the huge bridge, with its pedestrian path, traveled several more blocks, down a residential street, and then down another. He turned into a roadway that winds down into an isolated marina, which has a bar that is closed in the winter. His path ended in a sand pit tucked between the river and woods. It was a twisting, mile-long trek from the River Queen.

Two sets of professionally trained bloodhounds tracked Matt’s scent to the pit, says Ellen Ponall, president of Midwest Canine Emergency Response. The science of such tracking is based on the fact that skin cells are as unique as a fingerprint.

The pit sits in a river bend. In winter, the Julien Inn’s neon sign across the river in Dubuque might have shined like a beacon through the bare trees. The current carved an open channel in the middle of the otherwise frozen river, but you couldn’t see that from shore. Did Kruziki decide to make a fatal crossing?

But the pit also seems like a place you might choose to not be seen. “That path wouldn’t make sense,” says Tammy Slocum, who sells roses along Sinsinawa Avenue. “If that’s where he went, someone took him there.”

Ponall, however, speculates that Matt decided not to take the bridge because of its length. Matt was raised in the Waukesha lake country, where people walk on frozen water. “I could see him trying to cut across from the pit,” she says.

But he’d still have to wander to the pit first. Ponall says the route traced by the dogs suggests Matt was not in a car. “I can’t see a serial killer walking,” she says. “If it was foul play, wouldn’t there be more evidence?” On the other hand, during the initial searching, people weren’t really looking at it as a homicide, she adds. They were tramping around, and could have destroyed evidence.

After the bloodhounds came cadaver dogs, specially trained to find dead bodies. They got a hit in the river. But the river was too dangerous to search.

East Dubuque Police Chief Steve O’Connell believes Matt tried to walk across the river. “I know Mr. Kruziki feels he wishes he had answers,” says O’Connell. “If we could have interviewed Matt before his untimely death-walk out on the ice…” A man called police a month later and recalled seeing a hole in the ice on Christmas Eve, O’Connell says. But it was gone by the time the man called.

O’Connell dismisses the possibility of murder. “There were no signs of trauma. Do they walk out with him and cut a hole? It’s farfetched.”

But Bill Kruziki isn’t satisfied. “It wasn’t fully investigated,” he insists. He offered a $25,000 reward and called for a coroner’s inquest. An inquest was held, but Matt’s death was ruled undetermined. The characters surrounding Matt at the River Queen weren’t asked to testify.

They mostly disappeared before Bill and Ellen could find them. The Kruzikis did their own investigation, even attempting to track down one man, a suspected pimp, through his mother in Milwaukee. She eventually told them he didn’t want to talk. Compounding the frustration, the East Dubuque cops wouldn’t disclose what they’d learned from witnesses. “Witnesses disappeared,” Kruziki notes. “All of the answers aren’t here.”

The police chief says the Kruziki case is no longer active and was thoroughly investigated, but he still won’t release the reports – in case new information comes in. So, Bill Kruziki’s green box contains some of the earliest police reports only. As a cop, he can’t shut the file until he knows all the facts.

“What exactly happened in the bar?” Debbie Kruziki also wonders. “I do not believe he went to the sand pit on his own. If he went across the river, he was forced to do it. It’s a mother’s instinct.”

It was Chris Kruziki, though, who seems to have suffered most, if such things can be quantified. Chris had a good job in the mortgage industry, his father notes: “It propped him up for a year and a half. He got an apartment.”

Then he was laid off. He couldn’t make his car payments or rent and couldn’t find a job. He had never gotten over Matt’s death. On Oct. 27, 2007, Chris, then 28, lined up his unpaid bills and hung himself. “I found him,” says Debbie, blue eyes welling with tears. She wears a locket with pictures of her two dead children.

“Every day is different,” Bill Kruziki says. “Some days you just want to stay in bed. I try to do positive things.” He is building a house in Kentucky now, where no one talks about late-night river deaths or smiley faces. But the story of his son refuses to die.

Smiley Faces

The phone rings and clean-cut, silver-haired, retired New York cop Kevin “Spider” Gannon, the lead purveyor of the smiley face theory, finally picks up. He hasn’t returned previous calls from Milwaukee Magazine. He’s in a rush. “I have to go,” Gannon keeps saying, a fast-talking, Type A, Noo Yawk-accented personality. His answers are evasive.

Gannon had a decorated career with the NYPD and was a detective sergeant for 20 years, assigned to the homicide, rape and missing person squads. A picture on his Web site shows a younger, handsome Gannon bending to kiss the hand of Mother Teresa, whose protection detail he helped organize when she visited New York. Other pictures show then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani pinning medals on the chest of a uniformed, ramrod-straight Gannon.

Starting last April, Gannon was all over national TV, plying the serial killer theory he developed with Anthony Duarte, also a former NYPD detective, and Lee Gilbertson, an associate professor of criminal justice at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. The burly Duarte, with his brown goatee and mustache, fits the stereotype of a New York cop more than the dapper Gannon. Duarte still works, handling airport security for the federal government, according to his resumé.

Gannon says that in 1997, while with the NYPD, he investigated the death of Patrick McNeil, who was last seen at the Dapper Dog bar in New York City. His body was found floating near a Brooklyn pier. The Fordham University student’s death was ruled undetermined. But Gannon says he promised McNeil’s parents he would never stop investigating. When he heard about similar deaths of other young men, mostly in the Midwest, he began looking for patterns. He and Duarte contacted Gilbertson after reading about his work.

Gilbertson, a gang expert, also specializes in spatial analysis. He had assigned his criminology students to analyze the river deaths. They found curious patterns: 94 percent of the deaths occurred within 100 miles of Interstate 94. The men are generally fit, good-looking, Caucasian, in their 20s, and separated from friends after nights in bars or parties. A few vanished after leaving dorms. Most are drunk. Most turn up dead in rivers or lakes, and with no obvious trauma. Women and ugly or middle-aged men don’t seem to be falling into rivers.

News accounts show almost 70 such deaths. The New York cops and Gilbertson narrowed the list to 40 that they labeled suspicious, but won’t say how.

They did, however, add new information: They actually visited each of the scenes, searching for evidence after using weather patterns and river currents to figure out where the men went in the water.

“The smiley faces are one-thirteenth of the evidence we have,” Gannon says on the phone. “We found 13 distinct signs, symbols and markings.” He says the FBI is “not actively looking” at this evidence, but he’s trying to gather a petition to compel an investigation. But he’s maddeningly vague about the evidence he has. “I have to go,” he says again, and hangs up.

Gannon and his two confederates have formed a company called Nationwide Investigations, based in the absurdly obscure New York town of Rock Tavern. It bothers the Kruzikis that Gannon has asked for money, telling the media he mortgaged his house to continue investigating and the team was short of funds.

Gannon and Duarte have told the press they found 22 smiley faces – including one in Wisconsin, although they won’t say where. The smiley faces are rudimentary, mostly drawn in white paint. Some have three-pointed crowns. Nine have horns. A red smiley face was reportedly found in a drainage ditch in the March 2007 death of Abel Bolanos, 19, a college student found in an Iowa lake. It reads: “Evil Happy Smiley Face Man.” The detectives claim they have 12 pieces of matching evidence, including nicknames left at scenes.

“I think it validates there is some kind of connection between all of the – I call them murders,” says Debbie Kruziki. “I don’t believe in that much coincidence.”

Gannon and Duarte said they found the word “Sinsiniwa” scrawled on a rock at an East Lansing, Mich., drowning scene they won’t specify. They say it is a link to the death of Matt Kruziki, last seen on Sinsinawa Avenue.

Two young men died in East Lansing, Mich., in a similar manner: Ryan Getz was last seen leaving a party; Eric Blair disappeared after a night at the bars. Both were found in the Red Cedar River. But Getz died in 1997 and Blair in 2001, years before Kruziki set foot on Sinsinawa Avenue. They look enough like Kruziki that the three could be brothers.

“There’s something odd about most of the cases,” Kruziki says.

A more direct connection to Matt Kruziki is the case of Jared Dion, the young man from Pewaukee who died in the Mississippi River near La Crosse. Jared and Matt both attended and were wrestling teammates at Hartland Arrowhead High School. Joggers found Dion’s baseball cap perched on a post next to the river.

Four of the 40 young men who died disappeared after being in taverns with the word “brothers” in them. The next bar in Matt’s path, after he left the River Queen? My Brother’s Place. But it’s not known whether he stopped there.

Coincidences and odd facts abound with these deaths. La Crosse victim Jeff Geesey had GHB (commonly known as the date rape drug) in his body, although it also can occur naturally in the body. Nathan Kapfer’s belongings were stacked neatly near an Indian statue. And so on.

In Wisconsin, the two main clusters of deaths are in La Crosse and Eau Claire, where three young men have died in a similar manner. Two of the men were last seen leaving Eau Claire bars in fall 2002. Both turned up in Half Moon Lake. Three years later, the third man, Josh Snell, left an Eau Claire bar called Brothers and was found in the Chippewa River. Media accounts say Snell, in a cell phone call, said he was being chased. But Eau Claire Deputy Police Chief Eric Larsen says, “He said that he was in big trouble with the police department.” And there is no evidence of police contact. Two of his shirts were found on a river bank.

Josh Snell’s brother Jonathan is convinced there was foul play. “My brother was murdered,” he says. As for Gannon and Duarte, Snell says, “Some people are saying how awful these detectives are. I trust the detectives. They will be heroes.”

But local cops investigating some of the deaths see Gannon’s team as snake-oil salesmen who parachute into their jurisdictions and never return calls. “They never called us, never asked to look at reports, nothing,” says Deputy Chief Gene Deisinger, who’s investigating the Bolanos case for the Iowa State University Police.

Some cops note that smiley faces are common graffiti. The symbol is found in the acid dance house culture of the 1980s, and a blood-stained smiley is found in the Watchmen comic books. Try looking for smiley faces; you’ll start seeing them everywhere. As she talked about her sons, Debbie Kruziki noticed a card with a big smiley face taped on the wall next to her in a Hartland café.

But what are the chances they’d be found at death scenes so similar and geographically clustered? “The serial killer theory is not relevant,” a very aggravated O’Connell, the East Dubuque police chief, insists about Matt Kruziki’s death. “They’ve created publicity for themselves at the expense of people’s emotions. It’s absolutely disgusting and irresponsible,” he snaps of Gannon and Duarte.

In a PowerPoint posted on the La Crosse County medical examiner’s Web site, authorities picked apart supposed commonalities of the deaths. All Caucasian males of college age? They lived in a demographic area that is largely Caucasian, and males account for most drownings nationally. All recently graduated from college? Look at their ages; wouldn’t the chances be high? Most were physically fit? Weren’t most of us physically fit when we were between 18 and 27? All separated from friends? How could they have disappeared otherwise? Most disappeared between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. Isn’t this bar time? Most disappeared between September and April? Isn’t that when college is in session? In summary, the La Crosse medical examiner wryly attributed the deaths to a killer named Al Cohol.

But one river death – that of Chris Jenkins in Minneapolis – was reclassified as a homicide four years after being ruled an accident. The Jenkins case has made it tougher to dismiss all the other deaths as accidental. “It’s the poster boy for all of this,” Kruziki says.

Foul Play

Chris Jenkins was a Burlington, Wis., youth who attended the University of Minnesota. A star lacrosse player there, the blonde, athletic student vanished in 2002 after a night at a tavern in downtown Minneapolis on Halloween. He was kicked out of the bar, without his wallet and coat, and was last seen clad in a brown suede Indian costume he had worn for Halloween. The Wisconsin connection generated intense media coverage here.

Police initially ruled the death an accident, saying Jenkins was intoxicated. His grieving parents hired a private investigator, Chuck Loesch, because they didn’t buy that theory.

Two years ago, the Minneapolis police chief did a shocking turnaround. He announced that Jenkins was a victim of homicide and had been thrown off a bridge over the Mississippi. The police offered little further explanation, only that they had gotten information from an inmate and had found an eyewitness.

Minneapolis media soon reported that a female informant had told police a convicted murderer serving a life prison term in Minnesota – Jeramy Alford – had bragged about killing Jenkins. Alford’s sister Crystal told Minnesota television her brother was, as the TV station put it, “sly, cunning and violent.” She also said he was supposed to go trick-or-treating with her that Halloween, but didn’t show. However, Alford’s girlfriend and mother of his children told the media Alford was with her, and no charges were ever filed.

Alford had already been sentenced (in 2007) to a life term for murdering a man named Douglas Miller in New Brighton, Minn. Jeramy and his brother Luis combined to kill Miller gruesomely, using a metal bar, hammer, barbecue fork, knife and soda case. Then they dumped Miller in his car in an Iowa river.

Gannon’s team seems to have developed the smiley face theory at least in part after interviewing Alford. The team then talked to the FBI, which made an attempt to investigate, but not enough to satisfy Gannon (see “Sensenbrenner and the FBI,” page 76).

He may have a point. Milwaukee Magazine has interviewed police in Iowa and Minnesota and examined investigative documents in New Brighton, all of which paints a portrait of a gang called the Dealers of Death with links to Jeramy Alford.

The Alford brothers are from rural Iowa, near Cedar Rapids, which is 75 miles from East Dubuque. They’d also lived in the Minneapolis area, sometimes shuttling back and forth between states.

“They were a transient family who became well-known to us,” says Detective Bob Knoop of the Williamsburg, Iowa, police department. “They lived in subsidized housing and then in a trailer park. We had been watching them for illegal drug activity. Jeramy was one of those guys who couldn’t keep out of the way of the police.”

In 2005, Knoop says, Jeramy Alford was arrested for harboring runaways. Police discovered he’d branded one of them, using a hot razor to create the beginnings of a five-point star. “He told them he would take them to Minnesota and make them part of his gang,” Knoop says. Alford claimed his group was a political subdivision of a Chicago gang; another cop remembers the name as the “Dealers of Death.”

David Miller, who prosecuted Jeramy Alford for the murder of Douglas Miller, says Alford had tried to falsely blame that homicide on fellow gang members nicknamed Zmiley and Roach. As a result, the police questioned these two men.

Zmiley told police that the Dealers of Death had 300 members. “I was once a part of a little clique they had called the DOD,” the records quote Zmiley as saying. DOD stood for “Dealers of Death” and was based in Iowa, he said.

Zmiley said he was on antipsychotic medication, lived in a tent by the river, was a regular at Brothers bar in Minneapolis, and had engaged in violence in the past. He claimed Alford confessed to murdering a college student in an Indian costume. But Zmiley remembered the victim’s name as Andrew, not Chris Jenkins. However, according to David Miller, Alford once had a jail visit with a relative and spent his “precious 15 minutes” discussing a possible alibi for Halloween, the night Jenkins was killed.

“He [Alford] just said, ‘I killed this stupid looking dude and I threw him over the bridge,’ ” Zmiley told police.

Roach, who has a Minnesota criminal record, also told police he’d been a member of a gang he referred to as “DOD” and then called Dealers of Death. He said Jeramy Alford was the leader. (Zmiley told police someone else had taken over the gang after Alford was incarcerated.) Alford declined to be interviewed by Milwaukee Magazine. But when questioned by FBI agents, he claimed the DOD gang had murdered 40 young men.

Detective Gary Sykes of the New Brighton police department, who investigated the Miller homicide, is convinced the DOD gang robbed people for drug money, mostly in Minneapolis. “They hung out on the street all night and slept where they could during the day. Did Alford kill Chris Jenkins? It’s possible. Is he involved in other deaths? They are capable of almost anything, especially Jeramy. They have no compassion for human life. They were just plain weird.”

Head to the Internet, and it gets even weirder. Zmiley’s devil-worshipping Internet profile contains a flaming skull over a pentacle and reads, “I am me and there is no one like me, so back off before you get put down on the ground.” A friend writes on his site, “I also have a fascination with serial killers … the more u learn about history the better a person can learn from other peoples’ mistakes.”

Could Alford’s gang be the smiley face killers who murdered some of these young men? “I believe they were a part of it,” says Steve Jenkins, the father of Chris. “The FBI is not doing enough to confirm it.”

Local law enforcement authorities are more guarded. But like Sykes, they believe the DOD gang could be connected to the murder of young men. “It’s plausible,” says David Miller. Alford has already shown what he’s capable of. “He killed a defenseless man,” says Knoop, the Iowa cop. But Knoop adds that Alford is an untrustworthy character who “likes to brag.” He wants the FBI to take a closer look.

If Matt Kruziki was murdered, it wasn’t by Jeramy Alford, who was incarcerated on the night Matt died. Was Matt simply disoriented or plain foolish, and did he just decide to walk across the river on that cold December night?

For two years, his dad kept working to solve the mystery. “We will never settle until we get all of the answers,” Bill Kruziki told the magazine. But a few weeks later, he began to crack. “Sometimes you want to cry. To stay in bed. Ellen keeps me propped up when I’m in bad shape,” he said.

And so his wife Ellen, who was a lead investigator in a major heroin bust in Waukesha County, now handles questions from the press and does what her husband can no longer do: look into the darkness to find a glimmer of light, some reasons behind the deaths of Bill’s only two children.

For David Dorn, still a community organizer in Milwaukee, the meaning of his friend Matt Kruziki comes not from how he died, but from how he conducted his all-too-brief life. “Matt had a huge heart,” Dorn says. “His obituary is in my wallet, to motivate me in the work I do.” ◆

Sensenbrenner and the FBI

On Aug. 21, the FBI sent a letter to Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who has called for further investigation of Matt Kruziki’s death.

The letter shows that the controversial trio of investigators – Kevin Gannon, Anthony Duarte and Lee Gilbertson – gave the FBI information relating to an unnamed convicted killer, though it was likely Jeramy Alford.

“In late October/early November of 2007, the FBI agents met with the two private detectives and a professor … at the FBI’s Office in Minneapolis,” reads the letter, which has not previously been reported. “Much of their theory about serial murderers [comes] from information provided by an inmate serving a prison sentence for murder. This inmate stated he was the founder of a criminal organization called ‘Dealers of Death’ which he claims is responsible for approximately 40 murders.”

The FBI letter says its agents interviewed the inmate, which Milwaukee Magazine has learned from sources is Alford, but he refused to take a polygraph. “The FBI … did not find this inmate to be credible,” the letter says, but it’s not clear if the FBI went any further with its investigation.

In separate interviews with Milwaukee Magazine, Gannon and Gilbertson tried to downplay any connection between Alford and their theory that a gang of “smiley face” killers is murdering young men. Gannon confirmed he spoke with Alford but then said, “I have no relationship with him.”

Gilbertson also discouraged the magazine from publishing a list it obtained of suspected Dealers of Death gang members. This would be “theft of intellectual property,” Gilbertson warned. (Milwaukee Magazine declined to publish the list because its methodology is murky: In checking, we found some people on it had no criminal record, while others did. Some also had connections to Alford.)

Does the threesome intend to publish the information themselves? New Brighton, Minn., Detective Gary Sykes, who investigated the murder committed by Alford, says the trio contacted him and asked about the Dealers of Death. “In my opinion, they are trying to write a book,” Sykes says.

Gilbertson uses high-flown language to explain the trio’s intentions: “We will not speak to exact evidence or patterns since release could jeopardize future law enforcement investigations. We do believe that some of the young men … were victims of homicide. … We will not identify which ones since we do not wish to traumatize parents. … We have discovered physical forensic evidence that suggests homicide.” ◆

Jessica McBride is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and a UW-Milwaukee journalism instructor.