By John Shumway


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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – What happened to Dakota James?

It’s a mystery that has haunted family and friends of the 23-year-old Duquesne University graduate student for two years.

“There are days you have to learn to put a smiling face on because I have other people in my life and I have to be braver,” Dakota’s mother Pam James said. “Dakota would want me to be brave.

Photo Credit: Pamela James/Facebook

“He wouldn’t want me to be a victim. He’d say ‘Pam it’s time to stop that. Let’s figure this out.’ And that’s all I’m trying to do is figure this out.

“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.”

But Dakota James didn’t make it to that weekend.

On Jan. 25, 2017, he left friends after a night out on Liberty Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh and headed for home on the North Side.

The last known picture of him alive was taken from a surveillance camera in the Cultural District, as he walked through Katz Plaza and down an alley toward Fort Duquesne Boulevard.

(Source: Pittsburgh Police)

The official theory is that Dakota crossed Fort Duquesne Boulevard and went down the steps from the Clemente Bridge to urinate along the Allegheny River.

WATCH: Part 2 —

“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.

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.”

Pam and her husband, Jeff James, temporarily moved from their home in Frederick, Maryland, to Pittsburgh to spearhead searches and plead with authorities to do more.

Five days after Dakota was last seen, police accepted their missing persons report.

(Photo Credit: Julie Grant/KDKA)

It was during those first few days of the search that the James family learned from one of Dakota’s friends that something like this had happened to him before.

“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.

(Photo Credit: Tim Lawson/KDKA)

Gannon leads a group of investigators looking into a series of mysterious deaths of young men across the country who have disappeared and were later found in a body of water. They’ve dubbed them the work of the “Smiley Face Killers,” since smiley face graffiti is found either near where the bodies went into the water or where they are found.

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Dakota James’ Body Found In River

Dakota’s body was found in the Ohio River near the Interstate 79 bridge over Neville Island, 40 days after he disappeared.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

The Allegheny County Medical Examiner ruled Dakota’s death an accidental drowning.

But when forensic pathologist Doctor Cyril Wecht reviewed the autopsy findings, at the request of Detective Gannon and the James family, he raised some red flags about whether it was indeed an accident.

“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.

WATCH: TIMELINE OF DAKOTA JAMES MYSTERY

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

As the James family worked with detectives over the past few months, Oxygen Channel cameras followed along for a new docu-series called “The Hunt For Justice.”

At the family’s request, the District Attorney gave them the autopsy report complete with pictures, and they quickly focused on one in particular.

In that photo Gannon says, “They were looking at the back of the neck, and there is ligature marks on the back furrow of the neck.”

“You have to take it as tangible scientific evidence of ligature around the neck,” Wecht said.

However, what is seen in the picture is not mentioned in the autopsy report.

Photo: Pittsburgh Police

Gannon says, “This was clearly evidence of some type of ligature device.”

But 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.”

And there was blood pooled in fingers on both of Dakota’s hands, which Wecht says could result from trying to pull a ligature away from the neck.

(Photo Credit: Ian Smith/KDKA)

The investigators and the James family then went back to the D.A.

Pam says, “He believed we had something that could be looked into.”

But the D.A. says after he sent one of his homicide detectives to the Medical Examiner’s office, they concluded there were no ligature marks.

So what are the marks on Dakota’s neck?

Zappala says it was 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.”

Another complicating factor in all of this?

When the James family reached out to Wecht to help in the case, he told them he believed he could use the Medical Examiner’s autopsy report to reach his own conclusions. So the James family had Dakota cremated, which means there is now no possibility of re-examining his body.

“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.

(Photo Credit: Tim Lawson/KDKA)

As for the ‘Smiley Face Killers’ theory, the D.A., Wecht and Pam James all doubt there are serial killers at work. But Wecht and Pam James do think foul play is involved.

“I lean toward copycat,” Wecht said.

“I don’t know that I want to give it that name,” Pam James said. “Could it be a cult, an initiation thing? It’s something. It’s something very evil is what it is.”

Gannon says there are still enough unanswered questions in Dakota’s case for police to take a second look.

“There is no reason that the police wouldn’t reopen this case to see if something happened,” Gannon said. “Forget about the smiley faces and the other graffiti that we found at the scene, it just doesn’t make sense.”

Pam James says her family won’t give up until they know exactly what happened to Dakota.

“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.”