Family of Dakota James announce new evidence, TV documentary
The parents of Dakota James – the Duquesne University student who disappeared and was later found dead in the Ohio River – believe their hired investigators have evidence suggesting their son’s death was not accidental.
The independent investigation comes as part of a television documentary series led by a team of retired New York City police detectives. The family, who lives in Maryland, and investigators also consulted with former county medical examiner and now private pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht.
Dakota James disappeared from Downtown Pittsburgh on Jan. 25, 2017, after a night out with coworkers. Security cameras picked up some of his movements after he parted ways with friends, showing him walking through Katz Plaza in the Cultural District onto Scott Place. He was heading toward Fort Duquesne Boulevard, and no cameras showed him after that.
Investigators have always theorized he was heading toward his home on the North Side.
His body was found March 6 in the Ohio River near Neville Island. The Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that Dakota James drowned in what they determined to be an accident.
His family has never accepted that explanation.
“Our son Dakota did not get drunk, cross four lanes up a highway, a cement barrier, walk down approximately 30 steps to urinate to then accidentally fall in the river,” his mother, Pamela James said during a news conference Thursday in Pittsburgh. “To us, this is a homicide.”
The independent investigators filming the TV series agreed.
“We have uncovered significant physical and forensic evidence that leads us to believe this case was not an accident,” said retired Sgt. Kevin Gannon. That includes, he said, what they believe is a ligature mark on Dakota James’ neck.
Investigators declined to answer questions regarding the television series, though it appeared filming was happening during the press conference.
Gannon and fellow retired NYPD detective Anthony Duarte are the purveyors of the “smiley face murder” theory, which suggests that a number of men found dead in bodies of water in the Midwest were not victims of accidental drowning but rather one or more people targeting young, white, college-aged men, according to an interview the men did with ABC News.
The “smiley face” portion of the theory comes from smiley face graffiti found at a number of scenes.
Gannon said Thursday that he wants only to prove that Dakota James was killed before he begins trying to connect his death to any others.
Wecht said he examined autopsy photos and discovered clear marks on Dakota James’ neck that “would be consistent with some kind of ligature.
“They are clearly discernible and not something that requires a stretch of the visual imagination,” he said.
Wecht theorized in what he called “pure conjecture” that the medical examiner “did a favor for both sides, as he perceived it” – that is, did not rule the death a suicide so as not to upset the family and did not rule it as undetermined so police would not have to keep the investigation open.
It is not clear who performed the autopsy on Dakota James, including whether it was Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams.
Amie Downs, who handles communications for county agencies, said the medical examiner’s office made its ruling based on the evidence at hand and no new evidence has been offered, “including any physical evidence that the James’ family has indicated they have.”
She said Williams has previously met with the family and is willing to review and consider any evidence they have that could have a bearing on the cause or manner of death.
Pamela James said she and the investigators reached out to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala earlier this year to present their evidence. The family alleged that Zappala agreed the case should be looked at further and said he would reach out to the medical examiner’s office. They said that after months of silence, Zappala said in an email earlier this week that he could not assist them.
Mike Manko, a spokesman for Zappala, said in a statement that the Distinct Attorney did tell Pamela James he would do what he could to help her in her own investigation.
“It has become clear to us that based on the evidence in the original file and the conversations with Pam, there is nothing more that our office can do at this point to assist her, and that has been communicated to her,” Manko said.
Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.