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TikTok creator says he wanted to help a serial killer investigation. How did it turn into an ad for his startup?

For the last two months, Ken Waks, a TikTok creator with over 1 million followers, has captivated his audience and infiltrated For You Pages with his personal investigation into what he thinks is a potential serial killer operating in the U.S.

The saga has recently concluded with Waks apologizing and saying it is no longer his place to continue chasing the story.

Waks, who is based in Chicago, started his TikTok account sometime in December 2020 and slowly grew an audience after posting mostly explainer videos relevant to tech and business enthusiasts. But on March 9, his content started to change after he shared a video warning Chicago residents against accepting rides from strangers.

“If you are walking home alone by yourself at night in Chicago and a car rolls up and rolls down the window and someone inside the car — unmarked car, beater of a car — asks if you if you need a ride, do not get in that car,” Waks said. “This has now happened to me twice in the last six weeks that I can think of.”

Waks further claimed that the first time was sometime around 3:30 a.m. when he was walking home from a bar and a woman drove up to him and asked if he needed a ride. He said he started filming the TikTok because it had allegedly just happened to him again in the River North neighborhood of the city.

“People are being kidnapped, people are going missing,” he alleged.

What Waks is referencing is at least four reported drownings of young men in the Chicago area that have occurred since December. An NBC 5 report from March 28 said that there was increased speculation that the drownings were somehow related and connected to other reports of unsolicited taxi offers throughout the city.

Found in bodies of water days after being reported missing were 21-year-old Krzysztof Szubert, 25-year-old Peter Salvino, 23-year-old Anthony Rucker and 24-year-old Joel Orduno.

“At this time, there is no evidence suggesting there is a connection between these drowning deaths,” a spokesperson for the Chicago Police Department told NBC 5.

The Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP) also told the outlet that it had received 12 complaints of “fake taxis” from Jan. 1, 2022, to March 27, 2023.

In his second video, Waks replies to a Barstool Chicago TikTok video showing a Barstool Sports article from December headlined: “There Is A Possible Serial Killer Terrorizing Chicago, But Nobody At City Hall, Or In The Media Wants To Talk About It.”

The article, as with most Barstool articles, is written informally and in first person by a Chicago resident who includes news coverage but also has jokes about Mayor Lori Lightfoot; the author also opines that the deaths would “be a tragedy” if it was only one drowning, but because “serial killing and Chicago go hand in hand” ultimately speculates it could be something bigger.

“I know how they’re going missing, I know how they’re all connected,” Waks alleged in response. “I know why the cops in the media are not doing anything or covering it and I know what we can do about it.”

In another video, Waks claims that the reason why the media hasn’t covered it is that “they did not have enough to actually run a story and connect all of the dots.”

“All of the reporters I’ve been in contact with think this is a real story,” he alleged, naming some publications that had allegedly reached out to him but not the names of the reporters. “Even if all the cases aren’t connected — all these people who have gone missing — this is still a major security problem not just in Chicago apparently.”

According to HypeAuditor, Waks’s follower growth has increased by 48% in the last month. In an Instagram post, Waks announced he hit 1 million TikTok followers on April 24. He posted 22 videos over the course of two months that addressed his theory that there was a serial killer pursuing young men leaving bars at night; most of the videos racked up millions of views.

“I will not stop until the police and the news acknowledge what is really going on and that we have a major public safety problem in Chicago, in Illinois, and in America,” he captioned one video. “We can fix this problem.”

In late April, Waks posted a video claiming that a private investigator had found him and showed up at his house to recruit him for his team.

“Somebody just knocked on my door and it’s 8:30 at night on Sunday,” he claimed in his video. “They’re like, ‘Hey, my name’s X and I’m a private investigator looking into the Smiley Face group.'”

The group was allegedly looking into the “Smiley Face Killers,” a theory started nearly 20 years ago by three retired New York Police Department detectives and a sociology professor who were tracking suspicious drowning deaths of young men in the U.S. The foursome claimed that there was an organized group of serial killers who would find victims at bars and then dump their bodies in water nearby.

“Smiley Face” came from the team noticing graffiti of a smiley face that appeared near some of the locations where the team suspected the bodies had been left. The paint color, size and style of the faces varied at each place and the faces were not left by every victim.

In 2008, the FBI formally stated that the agency had found no connections between the drowning cases. In 2010, the Center for Homicide Research published a 12-page report that debunked the theory that there was a group of Smiley Face killers targeting young men.

“Something’s going on,” Waks continued in his video. “And it looks like we’re moving fast.”

Three days later, on April 26, Waks claimed that at 3 a.m. he’d cracked the case.

“I was able to crack it last night because of you, because of everyone who reached out with information for me,” he said.

Waks alleged that the private investigator who showed up at his house was sent by Kevin Gannon, one of the retired detectives credited with starting the Smiley Face Killers theory.

“Last night, he asked me to join their team, and I have accepted,” Waks claimed. “Now me and the four people that I have working for me on this have joined forces with them.”

Waks thanking internet strangers for reaching out to him with information suggests he was crowdsourcing the investigation. The expression refers to when someone uses the internet to leverage online networks and an audience to gather as much information as possible. As amateur interest in true crime skyrockets, terms like “armchair expert” or “internet sleuths” have cropped up to describe an online crowdsourcer.

Crowdsourcing, especially when it comes to crime, has blossomed recently as the public continues to criticize and distrust government employees and police. Now, according to one Texas Law Review essay, more civilians feel like they need to “shoulder greater responsibility in maintaining public safety.”

The problem with crowdsourced investigations, especially when they’re run by someone who is not a professional investigator, is that it can be incredibly hard to fact-check and verify. Communication is more often than not a function of anonymous or faceless internet interactions. False leads and misinformation can stem from civilians like Waks not fully knowing or understanding what the police know about certain cases.

This can create a “smart mob,” which is a group that uses technology to spread information to one another for the sake of a single cause — in this case, solving a crime. Smart mobs can, as the Texas Law Review essay puts it, “contaminate an investigation.”

In 2013, following the Boston Marathon bombing, Redditors came together to try to find the perpetrator after photos of two male suspects started circulating on cable news. A user came across a Brown University student’s photo on a Facebook page and speculation spiraled out of control. The Facebook page was created by the student’s family after he was reported missing, and they had to take it down because strangers were accusing him of being the Boston Marathon bomber. Hours later, journalists and the hacker collective Anonymous started tweeting out the student’s name to millions of people. The student, his family and the world would come to learn, wasn’t one of the bombers and was found dead.

When Waks claimed that the investigation into the Smiley Face Killers had been “officially reopened” after a private investigator came to his house, viewers started to sour.

Commenters questioned why he’d started out the video declaring the case had been solved when the rest of the video showed him talking about his newfound alleged partnership with detective Gannon and the new resources he allegedly had access to.

“I’m confused,” one user commented. “You started with ‘you cracked the case’ then ended with ‘were working on it’.”

“the way this is presented i always feel like im being scammed,” another commenter surmised.

NBC News reviewed emails from a spokesperson for Waks that appeared to show communication between him, private detective Jordan Scherer and detective Gannon discussing Waks’s research. Scherer, who owns a private investigation and security firm, confirmed to NBC News that he did reach out to Waks, but clarified that his team was not in a partnership with Waks. It was not confirmed whether Scherer really did show up to Waks’s house or not.

In a video Waks posted on April 29, he discussed how overwhelmed he was working on some projects — one of which being the investigation. But he also mentioned the app Foresyte, of which he said he was a co-founder and chief marketing officer and which was apparently “growing like crazy.”

This was the second time Waks had mentioned Foresyte in a video since starting his investigation. The first time was a full TikTok video, posted in mid-April between two TikToks dedicated to the Chicago cases, in which Waks described his app in response to a commenter who had specifically asked about it.

Then viewers found a since-deleted LinkedIn post by the CEO of Foresyte, Stephen Eddy. Creator Meredith Lynch, who does pop culture deep dives on her TikTok account, managed to get a screenshot of the post before it was taken down and shared it to her followers.

“Foresyte shattered records yesterday, posting an all-time high of 343 installs,” Eddy wrote. “What has caused this sudden viral surge? Well, with CMO Ken Waks, having an influential 830K follower TikTok reach (+100K gained in just the last 30 days) Foresyte’s potential for explosive growth on the platform has never been a secret.”

The post goes on to say that Waks “plans to” start adding a reference to Foresyte at the end of every other TikTok video.

“Ken and Stephen … have created a marketing strategy where they are profiting off going viral by talking about people’s absolute tragedies,” Lynch accused.

On May 2, Waks uploaded his final video apologizing to viewers. The comments have been turned off.

“As many of you know, this investigation has become my all-consuming passion over about the last month, which started as my honest effort to bring more awareness to a serious public safety matter,” he said. “I now realize it’s not my place at all to continue chasing this story.”

Waks apologized to the families affected and added that any information he or his team had gathered had been handed over to authorities.

“I acknowledge that it was insensitive to reference my startup,” he continued. “I made a mistake.”

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