Since early March, Ken Waks, a TikTok creator with 1 million followers, had been pursuing an investigation into a potential serial killer working in various cities in the U.S. The Chicago-based marketer has claimed that someone — or even a group of people — has been targeting men walking home from a bar or club at night and dumping them in rivers across the country.
However, Waks soon became an object of scrutiny himself, with other TikTok users now referring to his case as a “Kentroversy.”
Like many true crime sensations, his series garnered a lot of support and millions of views. But many viewers started to get suspicious when in late April Waks posted videos claiming that a private investigator had showed up to his house and recruited him into a team looking into the “Smiley Face Killers.”
The Smiley Face Killer case is a true crime theory alleging one or more killers murdered and dumped dozens of men into rivers; the investigation on this case was spearheaded by former New York 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 pause,” Meredith Lynch, a pop culture TikToker with 227,000 followers said of Waks' videos.
Lynch and others online then began expressing public skepticism toward Waks after they noticed he mentioned Foresyte, a social calendar startup where he worked as chief marketing officer, in two videos about his amateur detective pursuits. Critics called his motivations into question, sparking a debate on creator ethics.
Enthusiasts online have argued that true crime content can draw attention to unreported cases and help investigators. However, critics of so-called TikTok sleuthing have grown weary of the genre because they argue creators may inhibit investigations, exacerbate families’ pain and capitalize on other people’s traumas.
Waks told NBC News in an email statement that he started his series because he wanted to raise awareness about a potential public safety issue in Chicago. He said he was approached on two occasions by an individual trying to lure him into a car while he was walking home from a bar. NBC News reviewed the police report Waks filed 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 attempt to bring awareness to these crimes.”
NBC News reviewed emails sent by a spokesperson for Waks that appear to show communication between him, private detective Jordan Scherer and Gannon discussing his research.
The stories just started to get so big that I had to pause.
— Meredith Lynch, a pop culture TikToker
Scherer, owner of R.A. Private Investigation and Security, confirmed in a phone interview that he connected with Waks to see if his research could be useful. He clarified that his team was not working in partnership with Waks, who is an unlicensed citizen.
“Him and his team are offering us research and data points that may provide assistance that may be helpful in our investigations to these ongoing suspicious deaths,” Scherer said.
After seeing a now-deleted post from the CEO of Foresyte, 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 Foresyte into his recent viral content, which included videos about his investigation.
On Saturday, a Foresyte spokesperson said Waks and Foresyte have made the “amicable decision to part ways.”
The statement came days after the spokesperson had said Waks’ “work and involvement in that case is entirely his own and our company is not involved in any capacity.”
“We have never actively monitored or dictated employee’s personal social media accounts, and while we were initially excited by the potential increase in visibility and even celebrated it on LinkedIn, we have since learned the fuller details of the situation and have ensured moving forward that employees understand the importance of maintaining a clear separation between our company and personal matters in any public forum,” a Foresyte spokesperson said in an email statement last week.
Justin Burnett, a TikToker with 15,000 followers, said Waks “made an example of himself” but believes the incident is “something that people can learn from.”
“This is a person who’s influencing 1.1 million people and his followers, his reach is ginormous,” Burnett said. Waks’ follower count has since fallen back to 1 million amid the fallout from his investigation.
Burnett, a military police veteran with investigation experience, was initially optimistic about Waks’ series on TikTok. However, after Waks declared that he had “cracked the case,” Burnett felt like some of his claims weren’t adding up and warned against content creators “gaining clout off of people’s misfortunes.”
“When you do things like this, you actively impede the logistics of police,” he said. “They’re gonna get people who get hysterical, tip lines get flooded and it’s so hard to sift through that information.”
Burnett also said that videos like Waks’ can be insensitive to grieving families who are still looking for answers about their deceased loved ones. Burnett said creators need to ask themselves: “Is what I’m doing causing harm?”
Burnett, Lynch and other critics have argued that Waks’ videos are harmful to the families of the deceased men included in his investigation. Jane Polhill, whose son Jay died in 2010 in Chicago, attests to this.
Since her son’s body was found in the Calumet River in Chicago 13 years ago, Polhill has been searching for answers about his death. She stumbled upon Waks’ series while scrolling on TikTok one day, and she thought Waks could help her.
“My husband said … don’t get your hopes up,” Polhill said in a phone interview. “You know, because when you get your hopes up, it just seems like in our experience, you’re gonna be disappointed.”
Still, Polhill emailed Waks information about her son, and she said she noticed that he added Jay’s name into his public database. However, she said her emails were left unanswered. Desperate for potential information about her son’s death, she said she paid for a 15-minute Zoom meeting with Waks, which was offered via a link in his bio for $30.
When he didn’t show, Polhill said she felt duped, angry and embarrassed.
A spokesperson for Waks said he “missed this appointment because of a defunct calendar and contacted the mother to apologize.” The link to buy time on Waks’ calendar appears to be taken down.
“He was absolutely willing and wanted to meet with her,” a representative for Waks said.
Polhill confirmed that Waks apologized and that she received a refund. However, she said she didn’t believe Waks’ investigation was “truthful or sincere.” She added that she hopes that other parents didn’t try to get Waks’ help.
Polhill said she believes a more ethical way to approach true crime is to loop in the affected families from the start.
“I think communication between the creator and the families is a must,” she said. “Because some families are going to say yes and some families are gonna say no, and that needs to be respected.”
After receiving backlash online, Waks made a TikTok on Thursday announcing that he would stop his investigation.
“My reporting on this topic has since turned into a contentious subject and I now realize that it’s not my place at all to continue chasing this story despite my own personal connection to it with those two attempts on me,” he said in the video.
Waks continued by saying he “bit off a lot” with the investigation and got “lost in the sauce” with his pursuits. He also apologized to the families impacted by his series and for incorporating his startup into his content.
In an email statement, Waks said he was handing over his information to the authorities.
“As it relates to the case, I’ve been in contact with the Chicago Police Department about my discoveries throughout this process,” he said, “and am working closely with a team of private investigators to hand over all the data and work I’ve done over the past two months so that they can use their time and resources to give this case the attention it deserves.”
CORRECTION (May 8, 2023, 6:55 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the company where Waks worked as chief marketing officer. It is Foresyte, not Forsyte.