Somewhere along a narrow street flanked by skyscrapers on the edge of downtown Austin, hidden among a swirling crowd of tech bros, bachelorettes in pink cowboy hats, and pulsing dance music, a nefarious assassin has allegedly been hard at work in recent months. Some obsessives on message boards believe that this individual is a lone wolf who carefully studies his victims before approaching them at a bar and drugging them at just the right moment. Others are convinced “he” is actually a she, the seductive point person for a larger team that has for years, perhaps decades, been targeting the kind of healthy, handsome young men in their twenties and thirties that you’d expect to find milling around bustling nightlife areas in cities across America. 

Whether the killer is a single individual or part of a team, true believers maintain that, somehow, in recent years, they’ve successfully managed to lure numerous young men away from the popular nightlife district in Austin known as Rainey Street and into the murky waters of Lady Bird Lake, where their bodies are later recovered by police and mistaken for accidental drownings or suicides. This much is true: since last summer, nine bodies have been pulled from the 416-acre lake, which runs for miles through downtown Austin. But amateur investigators, who have begun circulating spreadsheets with links to online news stories going back to 2008, argue the true number of suspicious deaths over the last fifteen years or so is actually closer to twenty. The serial killer theory offers a convenient narrative, with the kind of dramatic details you’d expect to find in a Hollywood horror flick or a schlocky true crime TV show. There’s only one problem: despite a growing number of fervent believers, this narrative, and much of the speculation it’s predicated upon, is utterly baseless. 

Austinites face plenty of threats at the moment, from a spike in traffic fatalities to a severe housing crisis that rivals any in the nation. A serial killer (or killers) slaying young men on Rainey Street, as tragic as those deaths certainly are, isn’t one of them, experts are certain. The rampant speculation has ignored that many of the bodies haven’t been found near Rainey Street at all, and for those that have, there’s a more likely explanation: the strip of popular bars, which are home to heavy drinking much of the week, lies a few hundred feet—or about a minute’s walk, maybe—from a series of darkened paths and steep inclines that overlook Lady Bird Lake. Drunken missteps don’t make for as exciting a social media frenzy, however.

Though far less enthralling, the likely truth is still plenty demoralizing: The only individuals actually preying upon the public are the trend-conscious content creators who seem happy to capitalize on the fears and frustrations that inevitably accompany deaths of relatively young, healthy individuals, especially when those deaths appear preventable. Earlier this month, deftly hooked readers by pretending to pose an innocent question: “Is a serial killer stalking men in Austin, Texas?” Without highlighting a shred of original evidence or credible speculation explaining why the victims’ deaths might be considered suspicious, the article cited only the large numbers of people discussing the alleged killer on, you guessed it, Facebook. Last week Fox News followed with a misleading headline that appeared as if it were lifted from a poster advertising the latest edition of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre: “Bodies stack up in Texas city.” On Saturday, the Daily Mail followed suit with a provocative headline and story that repeatedly misidentified locations—including on a map—where several bodies were found. 

On social media the discussion has devolved further. On YouTube, online investigators with links to Cashapp in their profiles have been keen to post videos of themselves wandering downtown Austin and brainstorming about the killer’s motives out loud. On a channel dedicated to true crime tarot card readings, one YouTuber concluded that the men were targeted by a small, older, possibly gay male killer. Others have speculated that the deaths are the work of La Llorona, “The Weeping Woman,” a vengeful Mexican spirit who is said to drag unsuspecting people (usually children) into bodies of water. 

On TikTok, influencers presenting themselves as crime experts have generated engagement by posturing as advocates for victims’ families. “There’s so much going on here and the worst part is, it’s accelerating,” Ken Waks, who has more than a million followers on the platform, explained in a recent viral video. Waks said he’s turned down offers to work for the FBI because his impact on ongoing murder investigations around the country is too great to abandon. He also claims that the deaths in Austin are the work of a group with a ringleader whom he’s already identified. “I can’t tell you everything that I know,” he conveniently added. The post, which has received nearly two hundred thousand likes, has been picked up and recirculated by other news outlets. 

Many of the claims spreading online supporting the serial killer theory simply aren’t true. One of the main arguments for the theory centers on the assertion that there are clear parallels among the alleged victims. Amateur investigators frequently claim the deceased men were similar-looking, around the same age and build, and all had brown hair. But none of these claims have any basis. The alleged victims are not all white men, nor did they look particularly similar, despite having various shades of brown and black hair. They’re around the same age, but also directly representative of the larger cohort that ends up drinking on Rainey Street each weekend. Despite the theories, there’s been no evidence presented that suggests the men were all gay or lured to Lady Bird Lake using a popular singles app like Grindr. Amateur investigators have also noted that the deaths seemed to abate during the pandemic, which they consider possible evidence that the killer was on lockdown. Conveniently, they ignore the fact that bars were also on lockdown during the same period, limiting the number of inebriated young individuals wandering near the water. 

This year only two of those found dead—Jason John and Jonathan Honey—were seen in the crowded nightlife district before going missing. (Based on his remains, John’s family members have said they don’t believe he was attacked, whereas Honey’s case remains under investigation). A third deceased individual, 25-year-old Martin Gutierrez, went missing from Rainey Street in 2018, more than four years before the latest incidents. A fourth man recently found dead in the lake, 30-year-old Christopher Hays-Clark, was discovered near Longhorn Dam with no signs of foul play, nearly two miles from Rainey Street, according to police. And another man, 40-year-old Cliff Axtell, whose body was found in early March, was last seen at Stubb’s Barbecue in downtown Austin. Other bodies have been pulled from various parts of the 416-acre lake, too. 

The most compelling reason to believe there’s no serial killer stalking Rainey Street is the police themselves, who have never wavered from their bottom line: the drownings in Lady Bird Lake show no signs of foul play, and investigators believe several deaths were accidental and several were suicides. Successfully killing that many people by drowning without signs of physical distress is almost unimaginable. To accept the idea that a serial killer is on the prowl in downtown Austin, you must first accept the notion that local police, and the Travis County medical examiner, are engaged in a massive criminal coverup. 

“While police do withhold information about serial killers and later get criticized for it, Austin police are fairly reliable about not covering up that kind of information,” explained Kate Winkler Dawson, a University of Texas journalism professor, true crime author, and the host of “Buried Bones,” a podcast in which Dawson and retired investigator Paul Holes dissect historical murder mysteries for a dedicated community of true crime fans. “If APD did believe these deaths were connected, investigators would be looking for clues and they would be panicked. If you look at the Austin bomber case a few years ago, while they did withhold some critical information, they mostly tried to get as much information to the public as soon as possible, and you’re not seeing the same posture with these cases.”

“I could be wrong, but I just don’t think there’s a lot of there there,” Dawson added. 

Nevertheless, for weeks now, Dawson’s listeners have been begging her to investigate the Lady Bird Lake deaths. Even if her investigations weren’t anchored in the distant past, Dawson said she’d be reluctant to feed into a serial-killer narrative that has swept across social media. In recent years, the rise of true crime buffs—their appetites whetted by an endless feast of docuseries and podcasts—have hampered police investigations more than they’ve helped them. For every YouTuber that spots a missing vehicle and then posts their findings online, as happened in the high-profile Gabby Petito case two days after the Long Island native went missing, there are countless other examples of social media detectives attacking victims with online harassment or falsely labeling someone a murderer. In their rush to solve a crime, Dawson points out, true crime fans have been known to overwhelm investigators with unrelated tips or turn on them entirely for not following up on those tips. 

The tips right now have run so rampant that even the admins of the 83,000-person Facebook page dedicated to uncovering the so-called “Rainey Street Ripper” have been reported to police. At least one of them, a stay-at-home mother dedicated to advocating on behalf of the victims’ families, doesn’t even live in Austin. 

“This is a perfect storm of people wanting a mystery and something to dig into at a time when we have a certain level of mistrust with law enforcement and a simultaneous post-pandemic desire for connection,” Dawson said. “When someone on YouTube or Facebook shares your point of view about something as important as victims of crimes, you automatically feel a connection, the same way two diehard sports fans rooting for the same team do.”

Until recently, of course, Austin hasn’t had a professional sports team. For the past decade, and especially since the pandemic, the city’s growth has turned what was once a tight-knit community into the kind of crowded, anonymous place that one could imagine a serial killer targeting. If there’s one upside to the outpouring of interest in the alleged Rainey Street Ripper, it’s that so many Austinites still care about the safety of our community and the well-being of their fellow residents, even those who are just passing through town. Unfortunately, it’s taken an imaginary killer, and a handful of tragic deaths, to bring it to the surface.