For years, criminologists and victims' families have wondered for years if the deaths are connected or if such a link is merely an urban legend. Federal authorities are said to be considering a nationwide investigation.
Numerous college age men have drowned in the past several years and the I-Team looked into whether it was coincidence or connection.
Although mysterious, there was never anything solid to report.
After a Northwestern student was found dead in Wilmette Harbor in 2012, we reopened the I-Team file.
It was September 22, 2012.
Northwestern sophomore Harsha Maddula partied with friends. Just after midnight he headed home alone. Then he went missing.
Five days later, he was found floating in Wilmette Harbor.
Read the Evanston Police Department Reports on Harsha Maddula's disappearance and death:
Part 1 of Harsha Maddula police report
Part 2 of Harsha Maddula police report
Part 3 of Harsha Maddula police report
There have been hundreds of similar cases across the country: college age men disappearing, usually after late night socializing, then turning up dead in a body of water.
Elgin native Brian Welzien was one of them.
"I totally, 100-percent feel he was murdered," his mother Stephany Welzien said.
Brian Welzien celebrated New Year's Eve 2000 in Chicago. When the Northern Illinois University student and his friends called it a night, he became sick just outside their Gold Coast hotel.
His friends went to their rooms but Brian Welzien never did.
"He's right outside the hotel door, what happened?" Stephany Welzien said.
His body was found 2 ½ months later, washed up on a beach in Gary, Indiana.
Though his caused of death was ruled a "drowning" by the Lake County Indiana coroner, the manner of death was "undetermined."
"The police department just says it's case closed," Stephany Welzien said. "I had a couple detectives who were willing to work on the case but no they can't because they would get in trouble. So officially from police, absolutely nothing."
Former federal drug enforcement agent Jerry Snyder is the founder of a non-for-profit victim-search group called "Find Me" composed of active and retired law enforcement officials and consultants.
Together they've studied more than 200 of these drowning cases across the country.
"It was time after time, Caucasian male, 18 to 26 years old, good looking, athletic, very intelligent," Snyder said. "Every one of these kids were ending up in a river, pond, lake or stream and that just really caught our attention."
There have been 20 known cases in Illinois, including Maddula and Brian Welzein.
"Look at all the names here and we think we've only scratched the surface that's what's really scary to me," Snyder said.
Snyder is disappointed in the lack of interest by local police.
"They are surmising the kid drown because he was drunk so there is no investigation," he said.
Another team investigating the deaths consists of two retired New York City police detectives and a nationally acclaimed criminologist from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.
They conducted a private investigation of more than 300 suspicious deaths. Professor Lee Gilbertson said they have found striking similarities and possible connections.
"If we could really get into more depth and look at more autopsy reports there might be as many as 100 murders linked," Gilbertson said.
As the death toll has spiked, websites have created an urban legend of what's known as "the smiley face murders."
It's based on the theory that victims were killed by someone who left a smiley face or other graffiti at crime scenes.
The I-Team found smiley face graffiti on a tree directly across from where Maddula was found floating in Wilmette Harbor.
"Even though 50-percent of these cases are likely accidents or suicides we truly believe we have at least 50-percent being homicides," Snyder said. "When we are talking numbers, there are 194 bodies, if half of those are homicides we have a problem here."
Snyder gathered grieving family members on the East Coast in November 2012.
"They all believe that their sons were murdered," Snyder said.
For the first time, they met with federal agents who have agreed to look into the cases.
"The reason that is significant is because federal authorities can go anywhere jurisdictionally in the country," Snyder said.
There are other suspicious local deaths including Glen Leadley, 23, who washed up near Fullerton Avenue and Jay Polhill, 20, who was found in the Calumet River. Polhill's death was first ruled a drowning but later changed to homicide.
"I think that justice has been delayed. But it won't be denied. And I guess that's what keeps me going. Won't do Brian any good. The killings need to stop. Something needs to be done," Stephany Welzien said.
One thing that could be done but is not done is to test drowning victims for knockout drugs.
Some investigators said that they think victims were rendered helpless either by injection or a spiked drink but that medical examiners and coroners don't routinely test for those drugs.
Even if some of these deaths are murders, there is a big question that remains: what is the motive?
Contact info for Former DEA Agent, Gerry Snyder of Find Me, Inc.: www.findme2.com
Contact info for St. Cloud Criminologist Prof. Lee Gilbertson: email@example.com and 320-308-5771
Statement from Evanston, Illinois police concerning Harsha Maddula investigation:
"The Evanston Police Department investigating the death of Harsha Maddula, Age 18 and a Northwestern University student have concluded the investigation based on witness interviews, the post mortem examination and reviewing the information obtained throughout the course of this investigation by detectives, Northwestern University Police and Wilmette Police.
Witnesses who either were in the company of Maddula or observed Maddula at some point on September 22nd, 2012 at an off-campus party made statements that Maddula had consumed alcoholic beverages and smoked marijuana. Maddula was last seen at a party in the 2000 block of Ridge Ave. in Evanston sometime just after midnight. Maddula's phone records and statement from a witness indicated that a cell phone conversation took place in which Maddula indicated he was at his dormitory on the NU Campus at approximately 12:35 am. This was not the case and cell phone tracking records indicated that Maddula walked from the 2000 block of Ridge Ave. to the Wilmette Harbor between approximately 12:15am and 1:07am at which time the cell phone signal stopped.
Police, Fire personnel and other agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard searched the Wilmette Harbor area for Maddula on September 25th and 26th without positive results.
Maddula's body was recovered from the Wilmette Harbor on Thursday September 27th, 2012 in the evening hours after being seen by fisherman. Wilmette Police were still searching the area at the time Maddula's body was discovered.
A post mortem examination of Maddula the following day indicated that Maddula died from drowning. Toxicology results were not available until recently which indicated that Maddula's blood alcohol content was 1 ½ times the legal limit. Additionally, a urinalysis of Maddula was also consistent with this finding.
Maddula's belongings were not missing from his person or dormitory. Police investigators examined his lap top computer along with personal belongings and no indication of Maddula wanting to harm himself was evident. Maddula suffered a bruise on his head which based on the post mortem examination was consistent with falling into the harbor and possibly rubbing against a wall, pier support or boat. There was no sign of any blunt force or trauma to Maddula that would indicate a wrongful death. Maddula's pants zipper was also down when his body was discovered, possibly indicating that he was attempting to urinate at the water's edge.
Evanston police interviewed several witnesses close to Maddula in which a voice stress analyzer was used to detect deception. No deceptive indictors were present based on this exam during the interviews.
Police did recover Maddula's iPhone which was on his person when his body was recovered in the harbor. As of this date, there has been no ability to recover data from the phone which was submerged for five days. This option is still being explored but not probable based on the water damage to the phone.
The Cook County medical examiner's final manner of death is classified as undetermined. Police believe that the investigation has shown that Maddula's death appears to be accidental with alcohol consumption being a contributing factor. This is based on the whole investigation which includes the scene examination, cell phone records, witness interviews and toxicology results.
To address the photograph of a smiley face you sent our police department on 10/08/13 near Wilmette Harbor on a tree, detectives concluded based on an interview with a Wilmette Park District employee, that the tree had been painted since the summer. It should be also noted that 12 trees were painted with smiley faces in Wilmette during a week of in May of 2012 with similar characteristics.
The death of any person is a tragic event and under the circumstances presented with Harsha Maddula's untimely death is no exception. The Evanston Police Department extends condolences to the family, friends and university students affected by Harsha's death.
If some other factual information specific to this investigation is developed, the Evanston Police Department will evaluate and investigate the information in an attempt to ascertain a more specific manner of death."
Community Strategies/Media Relations
Field Operations Division
The I-Team pointed out two inconsistencies between the above statement and the police report that we obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
1. Regarding the polygraph tests: according to the police report, one of the subjects answered a question concerning whether he/she participated in Maddula's disappearance and showed "enough stress to be scored as being deceptive."
Response from EPD:
"There was not a polygraph performed. You must be referring to the voice stress analyzer exam that was performed. There are a lot of factors that go into this test, however the overall interpretation of this subject you are referring to is not deceptive by the examiner. The subject was highly stressed before the interview which the examiner felt interfered with the exam and as a result a third chart was run which showed no indicators of deception. Hopefully that clarifies that test."
2. The police report states that Wilmette did not have any graffiti issues or damage to property in the harbor as is stated in your latest release.
Response from EPD:
"In regards to the police report, there was no initial graffiti issues or damage based on inquiries with Wilmette Police for the harbor specifically. This was for police reports filed with Wilmette police. Your specific photo was addressed on the day you sent it and a witness was located who works at the harbor indicating that the graffiti was old. Further inquiry also revealed the tree graffiti in the 1700 block of Highland from May of 2012."
Community Strategies/Media Relations
Field Operations Division