Since early March, Ken Waks, a TikTok creator with 1 million followers, had been investigating a possible serial killer working in multiple US cities. The Chicago-based marketer has claimed that someone, or even a group of people, has been attacking men who were walking home from a bar or club at night and dumping them into rivers across the country.
However, Waks soon came under scrutiny, 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 became suspicious when, in late April, Waks posted videos in which he claimed that a private investigator had shown up at his home and recruited him for a team investigating the «smiley face killers.”
The Smiley Face Killer case is a true crime theory alleging that one or more killers murdered and dumped dozens of men into rivers; The investigation into this case was led 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 started to get so big that I had to pause,” Meredith Lynch, a representative of pop culture. Tik Toker with 227,000 followers, she said of Waks’ videos.
Lynch and others online began expressing public skepticism toward Waks after noticing that he mentioned Forsyte, a social calendar startup where he worked as a marketing director, in two videos about his amateur sleuthing activities. Critics questioned his motivations, sparking a debate over the creator’s ethics.
Online enthusiasts have argued that true crime content can draw attention to unreported cases and help investigators. However, critics of the so-called TikTok investigation have grown weary of the genre, arguing that creators can inhibit investigations, exacerbate the grief of families and capitalize on other people’s traumas.
Waks told NBC News in an emailed statement that he started his series because he wanted to raise awareness about a potential public safety issue in Chicago. He said an individual approached him on two occasions trying to lure him into a car as he was walking home from a bar. NBC News reviewed the police report that Waks filed about 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 raise awareness about these crimes.”
NBC News reviewed emails sent by a Waks spokesperson that appear to show communication between him, private detective Jordan Scherer and Gannon discussing their investigation.
The stories started to get so big that I had to pause.
-Meredith Lynch, a pop culture TikToker
Scherer, owner of RA Private Investigation and Security, confirmed in a phone interview that he had 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.
“He and his team provide us with research and data points that can provide assistance that may be helpful in our investigations into these ongoing suspicious deaths,” Scherer said.
After seer In a now-deleted post from Forsyte’s CEO, viewers began to wonder if Waks’ series was just a marketing ploy to drive traffic to his startup. The publication praised Waks’s organic integration of Forsyte into his recent viral content, which included videos about his investigation.
On Saturday, a Forsyte spokesman 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 that case is entirely his and our company is not involved in any way.»
“We have never actively monitored or dictated employees’ 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 fullest details of the situation and have made sure keep employees going. understand the importance of maintaining a clear separation between our business and personal matters in any public forum,» a Forsyte spokesperson said in an emailed statement last week.
Justin Burnett, a TikToker with 15,000 followers, said Waks «made an example of himself» but believes the incident is «something people can learn from.»
“This is a person who is influencing 1.1 million people and his followers, his reach is huge,” Burnett said. Waks’s following has since fallen back to 1 million amid the fallout from the investigation into him.
Burnett, a military police veteran with investigative experience, was initially optimistic about Waks’ TikTok series. However, after Waks declared that he had «solved the case», Burnett felt that some of his claims did not add up and warned against content creators «gaining influence off of people’s misfortunes».
“When you do things like this, you actively impede the logistics of the police,” he said. «You’re going to have people freak out, the reporting lines are going to be flooded, and it’s very hard to leak that information.»
Burnett also said that videos like Waks’s can be insensitive to bereaved families still seeking 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 their investigation. Jane Polhill, whose son Jay died in Chicago in 2010, attests to this.
Since her son’s body was found in Chicago’s Calumet River 13 years ago, Polhill has been looking for answers about his death. She came across Waks’s series while she was browsing TikTok one day and 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 seems like, from our experience, you’re going to be disappointed.»
Still, Polhill emailed Waks with information about her son, and she said she noticed he added Jay’s name to his public database. However, she said that her emails were not answered. Desperate for potential information about the death of her son, 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 ashamed.
A Waks spokesperson said he «missed this appointment due to an outdated schedule and has contacted the mother to apologise.» The link to buy time in the Waks calendar appears to have been removed.
“He was absolutely down for it and wanted to meet with her,” a representative for Waks said.
Polhill confirmed that Waks apologized and that he received a refund. However, he said he did not believe Waks’s investigation was «true or candid.» He added that he hopes other parents haven’t tried to enlist Waks’ help.
Polhill said he believes a more ethical way to approach true crime is to involve affected families early on.
“I think that communication between the creator and the families is essential,” he said. «Because some families will say yes and others will say no, and that must be respected.»
«Since then, my reporting on this issue has become a contentious issue and I now realize that it is absolutely not my place to continue to pursue this story despite my own personal connection to those two attempts against me,» he said in the video.
Waks went on to say that he «bite a lot» with the investigation and «lost in the sauce» with his activities. He also apologized to the families affected by his series and for incorporating his startup into its content.
In an emailed statement, Waks said he was turning over his information to authorities.
“In regards to the case, I have been in contact with the Chicago Police Department about my discoveries throughout this process,” he said, “and I am working closely with a team of private investigators to turn over all data and the work I have done in the last two months so that you can use your time and resources to give this case the attention it deserves.”