During the premiere of Oxygen's six-part series "Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt for Justice," investigators made a major breakthrough in the case of Dakota James. The “smart, outgoing” 23-year-old graduate student went missing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after a night out drinking with friends in late January 2017. Forty days after he vanished, Dakota's body was found floating in the Ohio River, and his parents, Jeff and Pamela James, were able to identify him through a photograph of his ankle, which bore a distinct tattoo.
Police theorized James had fallen into the river while crossing a bridge near the city center, and his death was ruled an accidental drowning, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That story, however, never sat right with Jeff and Pamela.
"[It] doesn't make any sense to me, never has...” Pamela told “The Hunt for Justice” hosts and former New York Police Department detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte. “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."
Gannon and Duarte agreed. Along with retired NYPD detective Michael Donovan and professor of criminal justice Dr. Lee Gilbertson, they believe Dakota could be a potential victim of the Smiley Face Killers, an alleged group of serial killers that targets and murders college-aged men before dumping their remains into nearby waterways and leaving smiley face graffiti near the death sites. The team believes the serial killers are highly sophisticated and communicate with each other on the dark web.
In an effort to have local law enforcement reopen Dakota's case, "The Hunt for Justice” investigative team pushed police to release a copy of his autopsy report, which had never before been seen by his family. Though the Allegheny County police department initially refused to dispense Dakota's files, District Attorney Stephen Zappala ultimately agreed to meet with Pamela to discuss her son's case and hand over the documents.
In addition to the official police reports, Dakota's case file contained his autopsy and recovery photographs. As Gannon reviewed the photographs, he noticed there were "suspicious marks" around Dakota's neck, which were not mentioned anywhere in the written autopsy report. Gannon and Dr. Gilbertson brought the files to consulting forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht to see if he could determine what caused the markings.
Dr. Wecht concluded the injuries 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 noticed 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."
He told Gannon and Dr. Gilbertson he would "definitely change the manner of death to undetermined or even possible homicide, and I would leave the cause of death also as undetermined because drowning is obviously not the same as ligature strangulation. This is a case that needs to be reopened and reinvestigated." At this time, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office has not agreed to reevaluate the case, but it has stated it is open to reviewing additional evidence related to Dakota's death.
“The biggest [piece of evidence] that needs explanation is the ligature marks that’s on his neck that we have found from the photos,” said Pamela in an interview with Oxygen.com. “We have a lot of questions about that.”
To learn more about other potential Smiley Face murder cases, watch "Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt for Justice" on Oxygen Saturdays at 7/6c.
[Photo: Courtesy of Pamela James]
Crime Time is your destination for true crime stories from around the world, breaking crime news, and information about Oxygen's original true crime shows and documentaries. Sign up for Oxygen Insider for all the best true crime content.