Social Navigation

TikTok ‘investigator’ faces fallout after claiming to solve serial killer case


Since early March, Ken Waks, a TikTok creator with 1 million followers, had been investigating a potential serial killer working in different cities across the United States. claimed that someone – or even a group of people – were targeting men who were coming home from a bar or club at night and dumping them in rivers across the country.

However, Waks quickly became an object of scrutiny himself, with other TikTok users now calling his case “Kentroversy”.

Like many true crime sensations, his series has garnered a lot of support and millions of views. But many viewers grew suspicious when, in late April, Waks released videos claiming a private detective had shown up at his house and recruited him into a team to investigate the ‘Smiley Face Killers’. .

The Smiley Face Killer case is a true theory of crime alleging that one or more killers murdered and threw dozens of men into rivers; the investigation of this case was led by former New York City Police Department Detective Kevin Gannon. (A “Smiley Face Killers” docuseries was released on Oxygen, which is owned by NBC Universal.)

“The stories just started to get so big that I had to take a break,” Meredith Lynch, a pop culture TikToker with 227,000 followers, said of Waks’ videos.

Lynch and others online then began expressing public skepticism of Waks after noticing that he had mentioned Forsyte, a social calendar startup where he worked as chief marketing officer, in two videos about his marketing activities. amateur detective. Critics have questioned his motives, sparking a debate over the ethics of creators.

Online enthusiasts have argued that genuine criminal content can draw attention to unreported cases and help investigators. However, critics of TikTok’s so-called research have grown weary of the genre because they argue creators can inhibit investigations, exacerbate families’ pain, and capitalize on the traumas of others.

Waks told NBC News in an email that he started his series because he wanted to raise awareness of a potential public safety issue in Chicago. He said he was approached twice by an individual who tried to lure him into a car as he was walking home from a bar. NBC News reviewed the police report filed by Waks regarding the incidents.

“I quickly learned that this was happening to many others in the Chicago area and beyond,” he said. “I began diligently collecting information and sharing it online, as well as with law enforcement, private investigators and other authorities in an effort to raise awareness of these crimes.”

NBC News has reviewed emails sent by a spokesperson for Waks that appear to show communication between him, private investigator Jordan Scherer and Gannon discussing his research.

The stories just started getting so big that I had to take a break.

-Meredith Lynch, a pop culture TikToker

Scherer, owner of RA Private Investigation and Security, confirmed in a phone interview that he connected with Waks to see if his research could be helpful. He clarified that his team was not working in partnership with Waks, who is an unlicensed citizen.

“He and his team offer us research and data points that can provide assistance that can be helpful in our ongoing investigations into these suspicious deaths,” Scherer said.

After seeing a now-deleted post from Forsyte’s CEO, viewers began to wonder if Waks’ series was just a marketing ploy to direct traffic to his startup. The post praised Waks’ organic integration of Forsyte into his recent viral content, which included videos about his investigation.

On Saturday, a Forsyte spokesperson said Waks and Forsyte had made the “amicable decision to part ways.”

The statement came days after the spokesperson said that “Waks’ work and involvement in this matter belongs entirely to him and our company is not involved in any capacity.”

“We have never actively monitored or dictated employees’ personal social media accounts, and while we were initially excited about the potential increase in visibility and even celebrated it on LinkedIn, we have since learned full details of the situation and we have made sure moving forward that employees understand the importance of maintaining a clear separation between our business and personal matters in any public forum,” a spokesperson for Forsyte in an email statement last week.

Justin Burnett, a TikToker with 15,000 followers, said Waks “made an example of himself” but thinks the incident is “something people can learn from.”

“He’s a person who influences 1.1 million people and his followers, his reach is gigantic,” Burnett said. Waks’ follower count has since dropped to 1 million amid the fallout from his investigation.

Burnett, a military police veteran with investigative experience, was initially upbeat about Waks’ series on TikTok. However, after Waks said he had “solved the matter”, Burnett felt that some of his claims didn’t add up and warned against content creators “appropriating people’s misfortunes “.

“When you do things like that, you’re actively hampering police logistics,” he said. “They’re going to have people going hysterical, the whistleblower lines are flooding and it’s so hard to sift through this information.”

Burnett also said videos like Waks’s can be insensitive to grieving families still searching for answers about their deceased loved ones. Burnett said creators need to ask themselves, “Does what I’m doing cause harm?”

Burnett, Lynch and other critics have argued that Waks’ videos are harmful to the families of deceased men included in his investigation. Jane Polhill, whose son Jay died in 2010 in Chicago, testifies to this.

Since her son’s body was found in Chicago’s Calumet River 13 years ago, Polhill has been searching for answers about his death. One day, she came across Waks’ series while scrolling through TikTok, and she thought Waks might help her.

“My husband said… don’t kid yourself,” Polhill said in a phone interview. “You know, because when you’re hopeful, it seems from our experience, you’re going to be disappointed.”

Still, Polhill sent Waks information about her son, and she said she noticed he added Jay’s name to his public database. However, she said her emails went unanswered. Desperate for potential information about his son’s death, she said she paid for a 15-minute Zoom meeting with Waks, which was offered via a link in her bio for $30.

When he didn’t show up, Polhill said she felt cheated, angry and embarrassed.

A spokesperson for Waks said he “missed this appointment due to an outdated schedule and contacted the mother to apologize.” The link to buy time on the Waks calendar seems to be removed.

“He was absolutely willing and wanted to meet her,” a rep for Waks said.

Polhill confirmed Waks apologized and received a refund. However, she said she did not believe Waks’ investigation was “truthful or sincere”. She added that she hopes other parents haven’t tried to get Waks to help.

Polhill said she believes a more ethical way to approach true crime is to lock down affected families early on.

“I think the communication between the creator and the families is essential,” she said. “Because some families are going to say yes and some families are going to say no, and that has to be respected.”

After receiving backlash online, Waks made a TikTok Thursday announcing that it would stop its investigation.

“My reporting on this subject has since become a controversial subject and I now realize that it is not at all my place to continue to pursue this story despite my personal connection to these two attempts against me,” he said. he stated in the video.

Waks went on to say that he “got a lot” with the investigation and “got lost in the sauce” with his lawsuits. He also apologized to the families affected by his series and for embedding his startup into its content.

In an emailed statement, Waks said he was passing his information to authorities.

“As far as the case is concerned, I have been in contact with the Chicago Police Department about my findings throughout this process,” he said, “and am working closely with a team of private investigators to pass along all the data and work I’ve done over the past two months so they can use their time and resources to give this case the attention it deserves.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.