- The bodies of four young men were found in a two-month period in Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas.
- Fears of a serial killer on the loose have been fueled by claims spread by "citizen detectives" on social media.
- The police say there is no evidence of foul play, but some family members and experts have told Newsweek they are skeptical of the official narrative.
Jason John's family had waited for eight agonizing days after his disappearance before hearing the terrible news.
The 30-year-old's body had been found by police in Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas.
John was found on February 13, but over the following weeks there were further tragic discoveries. On March 5, the body of 40-year-old Clifton Axtell was found in the lake, followed by that of 33-year-old Jonathan Honey on April 1, and that of 30-year-old John Christopher Hays-Clark on April 15.
It meant four young men's bodies had been found in Lady Bird Lake in a two-month period, sparking fears of a serial killer on the loose.
Police have offered reassurances, repeatedly saying that they found no signs of trauma of the victims and ruling out the serial killer theory. However, the suggestion that each incident is a suicide or accidental drowning has not been received well by all.
John's mother, Elsie, is among those who are skeptical of the official narrative. She has told Newsweek that he didn't swim or go near the water, and suggested he may have been drugged on a night out in nearby Rainey Street, a bustling area known for its bars and restaurants.
Rumors around the deaths have also been fueled by a very modern phenomenon: citizen sleuths. As in the case of Bryan Kohberger, who is accused of killing four University of Idaho students, social media groups on sites such as Facebook and Reddit have been delving into the details of each case, trying to find connections between them or unearth evidence the police may have missed. They say they are simply trying to establish the truth; critics say they are hampering investigations or spreading misinformation.
It has left a community on edge as it grapples with claims, counterclaims and the horrific possibility—however unlikely—that there may be a serial killer in its midst.
A Mother's Doubts
Despite attempts by the police at reassurance, some family members of the victims maintain there is more to the situation than is currently known.
Jason John's mother, Elsie, said that while she did not know if a serial killer was involved, she does not believe her son committed suicide and has doubts about the official version of the circumstances around his death.
Jason John was last seen leaving Rainey Street after a night out with friends on February 5, walking toward a trail around Lady Bird Lake that locals say is notoriously dark. She and others have been campaigning for better safety measures on the trail.
"On the death certificate it said accidental drowning and I am having a difficult time believing that because Jason doesn't swim and he doesn't go near the water, I know that for sure," she told Newsweek.
"So for him to go near the water either someone had to push him in, or somebody would have had to get him and throw him in there."
She also suggested that it is possible her son could have been targeted by unknown individuals. She said that if he had been drugged at the bar he was seen at before his body was discovered, he would have been an easy target.
She said her suspicions were raised after the family looked at his watch, which measured his heart rate. She said during the evening her son's heart rate dropped significantly after being level for some time, which may have pointed to something untoward being done to him.
"I won't believe that it was just an accidental drowning, I believe somebody did something to my son, but as far as an answer regarding a serial killer? I don't know anything about a serial killer," she said.
Rise of the Citizen Sleuths
As all the victims at Lady Bird Lake were young men, some observers have drawn comparisons to a series of deaths in the Chicago area that gave rise to the Smile Face Killer theory. This posits that the victims were drugged and abducted from bars before being killed, with graffiti depicting a smiley face allegedly being found near the locations of the bodies.
Many theories about the deaths at Lady Bird Lake originate in groups online. Among them is a Facebook group called the Lady Bird Lake Serial Killer/ Rainey Street Killer, which has amassed over 85,000 members, including criminal experts.
One of them is Kevin Gannon, a retired New York City detective. He said that it was not surprising that the deaths had sparked a number of theories, saying it was easy for police and medical examiners to make mistakes in such investigations.
"The reason why most police cannot conclusively say there is no evidence of foul play is because most police know very little about drownings," he told Newsweek.
"Drowning is an exclusionary diagnosis. In fact, most medical examiners (ME) know very little about drowning deaths also and only look for really obvious signs of trauma or assault.
"Minus that, the ME will hear from the police that in most of these cases the victims were out drinking, got separated from their friends and went missing only to be found in a body of water.
"After testing the blood for alcohol content and finding the level of intoxication is over .08 ml, and in most cases double that level (.16 ml), with very little injuries, the ME will conclude that these deaths were tragic accidents fueled by alcohol."
Speaking more specifically about the arguments against the deaths being drownings, Gannon said: "Most of the bodies' lungs' weight are under 1,000gms., which is inconsistent with a normal drowning.
"They do not recognize the amount of decomposition on the body, along with lack of skin slippage which is inconsistent with the amount of time the victim was missing, another sign that makes these deaths very suspicious.
"In some cases, even bodies with serious injuries which could only have occurred by human intervention were attributed to a fall before drowning."
Gannon reiterated that while there was no indication the Austin police department has poorly conducted its investigation, police and medical examiners' honest mistakes can result in authorities overlooking all possibilities.
Lauren Pettit, one of the Facebook group's admins, told Newsweek that it has several private investigators and retired detectives who weigh in. She said it had strict rules on membership, and the group encourages people to notify the police if they see or hear anything that may be pertinent to ongoing investigations.
Police Dismiss Serial Killer Fears
Following the death of Honey, the Austin Police Department acknowledged the rumors of a serial killer, but dismissed them.
In a statement issued on April 3, the department said it was investigating each of the deaths and that at the time there was "no evidence in any of these cases to support allegations of foul play."
"While each incident has occurred at the lake, the circumstances, exact locations, and demographics surrounding these cases vary," the statement said.
"Our investigators approach every case with an open mind and objectively examine all available evidence."
The police declined to comment and referred Newsweek to their April 3 statement.
Last week, Chief Joseph Chacon also addressed the rumors.
"Nothing has come to light that would indicate that there is a serial killer in Austin," he told Fox 7 Austin.
"I realize that there is a rampant rumor about a potential serial killer here in Austin, we have found no evidence of that.
"It is tragic, it is a horrible circumstance that we have these. Some of them are accidental, unfortunately, some of them are also suicide."
He added: "When we can, and it is appropriate, to draw conclusions that some of them could be related, believe me, we would be passing that information on to the public very promptly."
Why Police Ruled Out Foul Play
Huseyin Cinoglu, associate professor of criminal justice at the Department of Social Sciences at Texas A&M International University, said it was understandable that the police did not suggest the deaths were anything but accidents or suicides.
"There are various reasons why police agencies may hastily assert that there is no evidence of foul play," he told Newsweek.
"First and foremost, to not harm the investigations, law enforcement authorities are often reticent to publish material that could raise public concern and cause public alarm. This is especially true in situations involving allegations of serial murder, which can cause widespread dread and hysteria.
"Second, the police may hesitate to reveal crucial information that would hurt an ongoing investigation. Because of that particular reason, they may choose to remain silent or share information with the public devoid of leading information.
"Third, a lack of sufficient evidence, such as conclusive patterns indicating the occurrence of a serial killing, perpetrator motives or opportunities, physical evidence, signs of struggle, weapons, witnesses, or suspects, may lead law enforcement agencies to conclude that no serial killing has been committed.
"The finding of several bodies in Lady Bird Lake raises significant concerns and necessitates an extensive investigation."
Cinoglu said there were several reasons that people were more inclined to believe rumors of a serial killer in Austin rather than the official statements from the authorities.
"It is due to so many reasons. Fact-checking is not a common practice, especially regarding to highly sensitive and sensational events. It is easier for humans to believe an incident's accuracy if it is charged with emotions," he said.
"Also, social media algorithms have a role in it, as they are designed to amplify and spread messages on demand (again sensational messages).
"Fear and outrage are the emotions that are highly used as triggers. And serial killers have that capacity to inflict fear and outrage. Therefore, any social media posts, including allegations of a serial killer in town, get disproportionately more attention than the statements from the police.
"It has already become a scientific cliché that we humans tend to believe rumors that don't do anything other than confirm our existing biases. And we tend to share those rumors more on social media."
He said that people's distrust in the police can also play a role in the belief that they have made mistakes in the investigation or are misleading the public.
Lake Safety Fears
The rumors of a serial killer have also helped reignite the debate surrounding the safety of the area around the lake. Some see this as a benefit of the continued focus on the deaths, whatever the truth of the circumstances around them.
Nisha Parakadavil, a family friend of Jason John, has joined John's mother in vigorously campaigning for more safety measures, including camera surveillance and better lighting.
"What I have been fighting for from the beginning, from the moment we found Jason in the water, was a call for cameras, a call for lights," Parakadavil told Newsweek.
"What [City of Austin] Council Member Zo Qadri has been advocating for now as a new resolution, is having EMS (Emergency Medical Service personnel) patrol the area up until 3 or 4 A.M.
"I think just having manpower out in the area, whether it be on Rainey Street, the entrance to the trail or along the trail, I think there just needs to be more authority or more people protecting the residents at those hours."
She said that the Austin Police Department is aware that it is already understaffed so maintaining this level of service could prove to be difficult.
She added that the necessary safety measures should have been implemented years ago—something family members of Martin Gutierrez, who was found dead in the lake in 2018, have also been pushing for.
Parakadavil said she did not believe there was enough evidence to either confirm or refute the existence of a serial killer. John's family and friends said they are still waiting for the toxicology report, which can take 3 months, but in the meantime will to continue to campaign for greater safety measures to help to prevent future tragedies.