Dakota James – went missing in Pittsburgh – January 2017

Dakota James went missing on Wednesday January 25, 2017 – he was last seen leaving his friends after a night out on Liberty Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh.  He was headed for his home on the North Side.  

This is the last known photo of Dakota alive.  He was seen in the Cultural District, as he walked through Katz Plaza and down an alley toward Fort Duquesne Boulevard.

His mother Pam has said:

“I knew he had plans for the weekend the last time I talked to him. He was upbeat, getting ready to start his new set of college classes, just gotten a raise, just gotten a bonus.”

It is thought that Dakota crossed Fort Duquesne Boulevard after leaving his friends, and went down the steps from the Clemente Bridge to urinate along the Allegheny River.

Dakota’s case has been covered in a special on Oxygen called Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt For Justice and this info comes from that: 

“James was walking back to his apartment after a night out drinking with friends and co-workers. He never made it home. The last known sighting of the Duquesne University graduate student was caught on a surveillance camera in the downtown area,” reports Oxygen. “The footage captured James entering a dark alley, and that was the last time he was seen alive.”

“The evidence indicates he may have fallen into the water, and that time of year, with the water temperature, you only have a couple minutes before you go into shock and that’s that,” says Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala.

Dakota’s family attempted to report him missing the following day when they could not get in touch with him and when he did not show up for work.   Police did not accept their missing person report for five days. 

When Pam James got the call that her son was missing, she says she immediately knew something was wrong.

“I thought Dakota was in trouble,’ she said. “I never would believe that he would walk across to the river and go down to pee and fall in. I just knew that something had happened. I honestly believe Dakota was picked up when he came out of the alley.”

Police finally began searching and the family also hired a PI. Pam and her husband Jeff moved to Pittsburgh to run the search for Dakota.  

During the searches, Pam learned something from Dakota’s friends.  

“He possibly was drugged and someone tried to abduct him six weeks before,” said Pam.

Retired New York City Police detective Kevin Gannon thinks Dakota was drugged again the night he disappeared.

“I believe he was drugged like all our other victims, abducted off the street, held for a period of time before they killed him and then placed him in the water,” Gannon said.

Forty days after he disappeared, Dakota’s body was found in the Ohio River on March 6, 2017.

Investigators believe Dakota’s body travelled through a dam for over 10 miles before it was discovered.  The Allegheny County Medical Examiner ruled Dakota’s death an accidental drowning.

Dakota was an athlete and swim team captain and his family do not believe he could have drowned. They told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2017 that Dakota was not an inexperienced drinker, and there is no way he would have been so intoxicated that he accidentally fell into the river.

Info from the Oxygen special says:

“James’ body, however, had almost no visible damage, which was highly suspicious because it had traveled through heavily trafficked river. A smiley face was found spray painted on an underpass near where James’ body was discovered.”

“[It] doesn’t make any sense to me — never has…” Pamela told Oxygen. “Once we learned that the case was closed, it was very disappointing. I don’t feel that they ever wanted to look further into the possibility that there could be foul play. I knew 100 percent in my heart that someone did something to Dakota.”

Dakota’s autopsy report was examined in the Oxygen special and Dr Cyril Wecht (remember him from Aunt Diane?) was brought in to assist.

The hosts of the Oxygen special, Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte and their team were then able to review the official police reports along with Dakota’s autopsy and recovery photographs. In one of the photographs of Dakota’s neck, Gannon noticed “suspicious marks,” which had not been noted anywhere in the written autopsy report.

Gannon and Dr. Gilbertson brought the documents to consulting forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht to see if he could discern what caused the injuries on Dakota’s neck. Dr. Wecht concluded the marks were “strongly suggestive of and entirely consistent with a ligature having been applied around the neck. This death may have been due to ligature strangulation.” Dr. Wetch also noted a “distinct difference in the coloration of the fingernail beds of the fourth and fifth fingers on both the right and left hands,” which “certainly would be consistent with someone reaching up and trying to release the pressure from a ligature that is being applied around their neck.”

Wecht says, “There was no internal damage to the neck structure as reported in the autopsy report. So I’m not able to say that he was strangled to death but there was something around the neck.”

“There was very little decomposition internally and externally. It does not look like a body that has been in the river for seven weeks,” Wecht said.

Pam James also points out there were no scratch marks on Dakota’s face or hands.

Gannon added, “There is no way a body could travel 10 miles through a dam, 40 days and be that pristine. It’s impossible. I’ve seen hundreds of these cases and I’m telling you it doesn’t make sense.”

The detectives and Wecht contend that Dakota’s body went into the river beyond the violent waters of the Emsworth Dam on the back channel of the river.

“There’s nothing at all on the body to suggest he had gone through a dam,” said Wecht.

“His body wasn’t swollen. He couldn’t have been in the water for 40 days,” said Pam.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala believes that the marks we just spoke about would have been dried blood that washed off during the autopsy.

“There are two pictures,” Zappala.said. “One where blood came out of the nose and mouth and pooled around the neck. There was a second set of pictures where the neck is clean and there’s no ligature marks, and that’s what the Medical Examiner is telling me too.”

Pam James refuses to believe that.

“You tell me if he was in the river for 40 days, how doesn’t that wash off? He comes out of the river and has ligature marks and you take him to the Medical Examiner’s office and they wash off? Dried blood doesn’t stay on you when you’re in the water for 40 days,” she said. “And why does he have pooling in the fingers? I don’t believe that. I absolutely don’t believe that.”

Dakota’s family had him cremated, so there is no way to conduct another investigation into his death.

“And now I regret all that,” said Pam. “I trusted the system. And now I have to live with the regret of that.”

Officially at the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office, Zappala says, “It’s a homicide. So it’s an open file, but it’s not being treated as a criminal homicide.”

In other words, there is no active 

investigation unless new evidence is found.

Meanwhile, at the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office, Dakota’s death remains listed as an accidental drowning.

“At the very least, it should have been, and should be today, listed as undetermined,” Wecht said.

The most recent article I can find on Dakota’s death is from January 2021.  

“We know someone took Dakota’s life and yes we will continue to fight to find answers,” Pamela James, Dakota’s mother posted on Facebook.

“It’s never going to bring my son back, I know that,’ she said. “But I don’t want my son’s name going down in history as that drunk kid who walked down the alley and walked across that river and drowned, because he didn’t do it.”

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