Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt for Justice (2019–…): Season 1, Episode 1 - Dakota James - full transcript

A team of retired detectives investigate the mysterious 2017 drowning death of a graduate student in Pittsburgh and explore whether the case is connected to the Smiley Face Killer theory they've been investigating for the past decade.

- Since 1997, hundreds
of college-aged men

have gone missing.


They are later found drowned
in a body of water.

Their deaths are classified
as accidental or undetermined.

Case closed.

This is happening in growing
clusters across the country

with eerily similar

Almost all of the victims
are top students and athletes

who disappeared after
a night out with friends.

And the deaths keep happening.

We discovered
a chilling connection.

Near where most of the bodies
are recovered,

smiley faces.

We believe these deaths
may all be connected.

The work of an organized group
of serial killers.

We believe the victims
are drugged,

killed on land,

and eventually dumped
in the water.

With the help of preeminent
crime and forensic experts

from all over the nation,
our goal is to uncover

new evidence to reopen
these closed cases

and compel the authorities
to investigate them

as homicides.

Only then can we prove
that these deaths are linked.

We're retired NYPD detectives
from the Bronx.

We have devoted the last 12
years to collecting evidence.

We've dedicated our lives

to the families
desperate for answers

and the victims
who deserve justice.

- They say they have
the evidence linking

the drowning deaths
of dozens of young men

to psychopaths on
a nationwide hunt for victims.

Kevin Gannon is one
of those ex-officers.

- I'm Kevin Gannon, retired
NYPD detective sergeant.

I ran the Bronx Homicide
night watch division,

and after 20 years of the NYPD,
I'm probably most known now

for the Smiley Face
Killer theory.

- The so-called Smiley Face
Murders involve the deaths

of dozens of men.
But are they really homicides?

- My goal in this whole
investigation is to prove

that these killings from
all these different cities

are linked together.

People are being murdered.

Somebody has to do
something about it.

- Gannon and fellow retired
detective Anthony Duarte

say they have even more
evidence tonight

that proves these men
were murdered.

- I'm a relentless

And I'm not gonna stop till
I bring these cases forward

and then determine whether
or not they're connected

to the Smiley Face Killers.

We believe the city
of Pittsburgh

may be one
of the newest cells

of Smiley Face Killer

On the night
of January 25th, 2017,

23-year-old Dakota James was
out drinking with friends

in downtown Pittsburgh.

At 11:49 p.m.,
surveillance cameras

captured his last known

His body allegedly traveled
ten miles downriver

and then through a dam.

Yet the autopsy report states,

"There's no evidence
of recent physical trauma."

Was Dakota James' death
an accident

as classified by local

Or was it really a homicide?

You know the food
has got to be good.

- That's right.

- It's a real greasy spoon.
It's a big winner.

- Exactly.
- We love these places.

- After you, sir.
- Okay.

- Doctor.
- Thank you.

- What we have here is
a new case, Dakota James.

This thing could be
a homicide,

and otherwise
we wouldn't be here.

I wouldn't even have dragged
you guys out for this

unless I thought there was
something going on.

- I have prepared some stuff
for you guys

to get us, uh, ready for it.

My name is Lee Gilbertson.
I'm a professor.

I teach criminal justice.

I love puzzles
and problems to solve.

But, um, mostly it's the
injustice that these families

are experiencing
really pisses me off.

- What do you think?

You think that he's
one of ours, Dakota?

I'm Mike Donovan.
I'm a retired NYPD detective.

When Kevin asked me to come
on board with the Smiley Face

Killers investigation,
I knew it was an uphill battle,

only because law enforcement
never investigated these cases

as criminal cases.

That's what makes this really,
really difficult.

- Well, I like the fact
that it's possible

that Homicide has
not looked at this case.

I'm Anthony Duarte, a retired
detective from the Bronx.

I'm devoting my retirement

to working on
the Smiley Face cases.

These kids are not just falling
in rivers and drowning.

I believe there's a lot more
sinister activity going on.

- Dakota James' family
read online

about the Smiley Face murders,
contacted me.

He fits the pattern.

Highly intelligent kid,

out drinking
with his friends at night.

Gets separated.

Winds up in the Ohio River
40 days later drowned.

After visiting bars
on Liberty Avenue,

Dakota's last known location
was an alleyway

outside of Katz Plaza.

Presumably he was headed home
to the other side

of the Allegheny River.

The prevailing theory is that
Dakota fell into the Allegheny

near the Roberto
Clemente Bridge.

His body was then recovered
40 days later

ten miles downriver,

after the Allegheny turns
into the Ohio.

In the autopsy report that
the family sent me,

there's very little injuries
to the body,

and he supposedly traveled
ten miles over a dam,

which he should have incurred
some type of injuries,

even post-mortem.

- You know what the dam
is made out of?

Is it concrete?

- It looks like
it's a combination

of concrete and steel,
but it doesn't look like

it's one of those typical dams
that you just pass over.

This one looks like you have
to physically pass through it.

- Through.

In my experience,
a body that was in the water

for 40 days traveling
in a major river

plus over a dam would have
incurred substantial injuries,

and he didn't have that

according to
the autopsy report.

That makes the case
ultimately suspicious.

From the autopsy report,

there's very little
decomposition on the body

- He's in how long?
- 40 days.

- 40 days.
- 40 days.

- He's also green at one point.

So green we know is usually
around 24 hours.

So that doesn't fit somebody
who's missing for 40 days.

This is why I need to see
the autopsy photos

or the recovery photos,
and right now, you know,

the police
and the medical examiner

haven't made those available
to the family.

The autopsy report is
the basic foundation for me

to put a case together.

In Dakota's case,
at this point all we have

is the written autopsy report,

and the autopsy report states
only moderate decomposition.

After 40 days in the water,
Dakota's body should have had

extensive decomposition.

It was unusual that
the police did not release

any police reports or
any recovery or autopsy photos,

especially since
they classified it

as an accidental drowning.

- I'm assuming Pittsburgh
has a homicide squad.

The way it sounds to me is
this probably wasn't handled

by the homicide squad.

- Well, this
probably was handled

by the missing persons squad.

- Because the body
is found in water,

there's the presumption
that it's a drowning

and it's accidental

and it never rises
past missing persons,

never gets to homicide.

- So it wouldn't get
kicked up to homicide.

- So it wouldn't get kicked up.

- So maybe that's
what happened.

- So it's closed.
- So it is closed.

- I'm kinda curious
as to why we don't have

the police reports
and why they closed it.

- If you have a missing persons
case and the body's recovered,

the case is closed because we
know where the person is now.

Unfortunately deceased.

Any other similar cases here?

- We have two other cases.

Paul Kochu in 2015
and Jimmy Slack in 2011.

So over the past 12 years,
our investigation,

we've identified multiple
clusters in different cities

throughout the United States.

Pittsburgh is a new cluster
because we've had multiple

victims that have wound up
deceased in bodies of water,

and we believe not only were
these victims murdered,

but we believe they're
connected to, uh,

the Smiley Face Killers.

If we can prove that
the forensics doesn't line up

for what the medical examiner
and police think,

at that point we can get
this case reclassified.

And that's what the family
wants--a true investigation.

'Cause they believe
their son was murdered.

They wanna know
what truly happened.

That's what we wanna
provide for them.

- You know, the worst
thing for a family

is to be brought back
to that very day.

- Right.

I hate this part of it,
you know?

But what are you gonna do?

- I would like to find out
from you really,

what kind of person
was Dakota?

- He was smart, outgoing.

Very friendly.

He had a great
group of friends.

Still friends today.

He was very athletic.

He played soccer.

Was a swim team captain.

He was attending
Duquesne University.

- Duquesne?
- To get his--his Masters.

- He was a great person.

For me the saddest thing is

Dakota was 100% potential.

You know?

He never got to live one day
of using his education

and using his desire towards
what he really wanted to do.

You know,
unfulfilled potential,

and that to me
is the saddest thing.

- What about the police?

What was the scenario
that they think transpired?

- He walked across the bridge
and walked down the steps

to pee and he fell
in the river.

It doesn't make any sense
to me, never has.

- The story you got is not
what you think happened?

- I don't think we
really got a story.

I mean, I think that what
we got was a--you know,

the best that the--the police
and the authorities

could come up with was,
you know, was,

"Maybe this happened,
maybe that happened."

- 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% in my heart

that someone did something
to Dakota.

I have no doubt in my mind
that someone did this

and that one day
we'll find answers.

- There is no reason for them
to go missing and end up dead,

which is interesting because of
the Smiley Face Killer theory.

- His condition out of
the 12 that you recovered--

- Oh, he was in the best shape
of all of them.

- You have found
a suspicious transaction...

- Yeah.

- 48 hours
after he went missing?

- I know you can't
talk about

other cases
you're involved in,

but, um, is--is
our case very unique

than some of the others
you're looking at?

- Well, I don't know if
you know the basic pattern.

Obviously young males,
all, um, highly intelligent

like your son,
you know, drinking.

Separated from their friends.

You know, winding up
in bodies of water, drowned.

There's not a lot
of decomposition on the body.

There's a lack of injuries,
especially if he's coming

over, you know, a dam.

- I do believe there's
something going on.

I believe that these young men
are being targeted.

Does it have a name behind it
like the Smiley Face Killer?

I don't know that there's
a name for it,

but I do believe that
something is going on.

- Can you give us that whole
time element of what transpired

that first evening,
you know,

that evening
when he went missing?

- Dakota and a friend went
to the 941 Saloon.

The next bar they went
to was Images.

941 and Images are gay bars.
- Okay.

Was he open about
his lifestyle?

- Yes.

- You guys obviously seem
very comfortable with his--

his sexuality being open.
- Oh, absolutely.

- Openly gay and...

- We were--We were
fine with it.


- In terms of really coming out
and talking to us

about him being gay,
I was concerned.

Um, you know, my first thought
was, "Someone will hurt you."

- Now, did he have a computer?
- Yes.

- They were never really able
to retrieve anything

off the computer,
nothing they mentioned or-

- Nothing they mentioned.
They gave it back to us.

- Would you mind if...
- Can we?

- We brought our forensic guy?

- Take a look at it?

And see what we could
retrieve off it?

- Through this process
the police weren't calling me

and letting me know that they
were even trying

to do anything.

- You weren't even--you never
even identified Dakota,

is that correct?
- That's correct.

- We identified him
by his foot.

- By his foot?
- Yeah.

- 'Cause he had a tattoo
on his ankle bone.

- They would not
let us see him.

They wouldn't show us
a picture of his face.

- Nothing.

- Just--yeah, just his ankle.

- The detective had to come
and--and take us

to the medical
examiner's office, and--

To identify him, and...

I look back at it now
and I know that I was numb.

Because if
I had been stronger,

I would have made
better demands.

I would have made sure
that I went to see him

one more time.

And I didn't get
that opportunity.

I mean, I hate to ask
these questions,

but what would be the color

but what would be the color
of his skin?

- If he was really
in there the whole time

and that decomposed, he would--

and that decomposed, he would--
he would have been black.

- Okay, his foot was not black.
His foot was still white.

I have learned since that day
that I had a right as a mother,

as a parent, that I had
the right to see his body.

Not seeing Dakota
one more time, yes,

is my biggest regret.

And I've said that many times
over this last year.

- Anthony and I met
with the parents.

They don't believe Dakota
was another--

just another tragic accident.

They believe that something
more sinister happened

to their son.

The only thing
we really have right now

is the written autopsy report.

And we have two main red flags,

which is the lack of injuries
and the moderate decomposition.

- We need to take that
written autopsy report

to an independent forensic
pathologist to get

an interpretation
of what is written.

- And then we need the autopsy
photos and the recovery photos

to tell us if they match

what the written
autopsy report states,

'cause sometimes
it doesn't match.

- I'm reaching out to a, uh,
computer forensics guy.

Hopefully we can get some new
information that could help us

in this case that the police
haven't already removed

from the computer.
- We gotta hit the pavement.

I already got Mike out there
right now canvassing the area

where Dakota was last seen
drinking that night.

- He'll be able to get the vibe
of the neighborhood, right?

- Right. The most important
thing for us is to see

if we can get
enough information

to substantiate whether or not

this was an accident
or a homicide.

That's always been our goal.

- Hey, how are you?
- Hi.

How are you then,
Mr. Gannon?

- Good to see you.
- Hey, hey.

- Dr. Cyril Wecht
is one of the leading

forensic pathologists in the
country, if not the world.

Dr. Wecht was the previous
Allegheny County

medical examiner.

We're hoping that his expert
forensic analysis

will help to bolster
our evidence

that we bring forward
to the authorities.

Did you get a chance
to look at the paperwork

that we sent you?
- Yes.

- What disturbs us obviously,
the lack of decomposition,

the amount of decomposition
for the amount of time

that he was in the water,
and the fact that

there's very little injuries
to the body.

- There, um, was some blackish
green discoloration.

- Right.

- You must keep in mind
the temperature of the river

and the environmental

- Right.
- Very, very cold.

Bodies can be preserved
rather well, uh,

in cold temperature.
- Of course.

- Is there a way I could rule
out the fact that the body

could have been in the water
for six weeks?

I don't think so because of
the environmental temperature.

- So even though I believe
the lack of decomposition

on Dakota's body does
have some significance,

Dr. Wecht won't support
that theory

because of the cold water.

But Dakota's
lack of injuries,

after being in the
Allegheny River for 40 days,

that's the avenue where
we really have to pursue.

- Keep in mind that these are
rivers which are not pristine.

These are rivers with, uh,
floating debris and so on.

And, um, we have nothing
of an artifactual nature there

from floating debris.

So that raises some questions.

Also I wish that, um,
we had photos,

and it's regrettable that they
have not been made available.

- Just because the authorities
have the photos does not mean

they know how to assess them
and know what they're actually

looking at because drowning
cases are so difficult.

So if we get the photos,
our next move

after reviewing them would be
to go back to Dr. Wecht

and see what he thinks then.

- The other day we dropped off
the computer and, uh,

asked you to do
an assessment on it.

Can you tell me what
have you found out?

- Actually discovered
one suspicious, uh,

email activity.

Okay, very awkward is that
Friday, 27,

in the very late night, 11:05,

one account they have
some kind of purchase.

And the receipt actually
come from PayPal.

- So are you saying
this is--this one here

is a new purchase?

- This is actually
a new purchase.

Don't you think that's kinda
really a coincidence?

Or is something very strange?

- He's already missing...
- Yeah, yeah.

- Solid day and a half.

- So what you're telling me
is that you have found

a suspicious transaction...
- Yeah.

- On January 27th,
almost 48 hours

after he went missing?

- I just cannot find a way
to explain that,

why this thing has happened.

- This just makes me think
that he was either still alive

or someone still had him
on January 27th,

two days after
he went missing.

I feel like I just came into
town and just got here

and I couldn't get
to him fast enough.

And that is painful.

That is truly painful today.

- All right, listen.

I just came from speaking
to the computer expert

that we got to do a forensic
exam on Dakota's computer.

- From Dakota's PayPal account
there was a charge

two days after he went missing
on the 27th.

You believe that?

- No, no, no.

Could he have been alive
two days later?

- This case reminds me
of all the other cases.

This case reminds me
of Brian Welzien,

77 days missing,
only has three days

of decomposition.

Tommy Booth,
missing for 14 days,

only has less than 24 hours
of decomposition.

And they're still
in full rigor.

We believe that these victims
are abducted and held

for a period of time
before they're murdered

and disposed of
in bodies of water,

and Dakota fits
that pattern right now.

- Hey, how you doing?
- Good, how are you?

- Good, good.

You have Tito's?
- I do.

- Can I have a Tito's
and tonic, please?

Dakota James is a young man
who frequented the bars

in the gay community,
so I can talk to guys

in the bars where he was at
and people that maybe know him

and find out what kind
of kid he was,

who he hung out with.

That looks great.

You got a minute?
- Yeah, absolutely.

- All right.

I'm here to look into
the investigation of the death

of a young man, Dakota James.
- Yeah, I knew Dakota.

- How well did you know him?

- Like, not very well.

We weren't, like,
friends or anything,

but I waited on him several
times when he was in.

- Anything out of
the ordinary about him?

Like that's, you know--
- No.

- Like, let me be
honest with you.

You know, there's a lot
of circumstances involved

around his drowning.
- Oh, I totally hear you there.

I don't think he drowned,

- Can you tell me
why you think that?

- I don't see how somebody
that's got that much

of a good track record
going for them--

a great reputation,
no sign of drug addiction--

and all of a sudden they just
fall off a bridge and drown,

and that's--

Like, it's just more likely
that you would fall

going down the steps
to get to the river

than fall into the river,

and it doesn't make
any sense to me.

He was a champion swimmer
in high school, they said,

and so the whole case
seemed like a mystery

to a lot of people
and we don't know--

- Was there any
investigators here

from the police department?
- I've never met any.

- Anybody--was any buzz
talking about in the bar

or anything else?

- He seemed like
he was popular.

And so, I mean,
yeah, it was talked about.

It was very well covered
in the press,

but I think there was
something more at play there

and similarities to past
incidents in this city.

- Like what?

Like what?

- Like the guy who was found
four--three, four years prior.

Like, I think it's Kochu,
was his name.

But, I mean, there's just too
many questions about it.

- I actually spoke
to the bartender,

a guy named Miley,
actually a nice guy.

He knew Dakota.
Felt it was very suspicious.

And he felt Dakota
was actually murdered.

He also brought up another kid,
Paul Kochu.

Same kind of thing,
and he feels that was--

- I'll reach out to him

and I'll get an
appointment with him.

- Talk to you later.

- I met the James family first.
- First.

Were you aware of the Kochu
case prior to that?

- Yes, absolutely.

It's obviously a club
you don't wanna belong to.

- Right.

- Um, but, you know,
they need to be heard,

and, uh, they didn't feel the
Pittsburgh police heard them,

and that's one of the reasons
we did our--our story.

- Mike Fuoco was
the criminal beat writer

for the "Pittsburgh

In Mike's podcast,
"Three Rivers, Two Mysteries,"

he spoke about Dakota James
and Paul Kochu

and how eerily they were
very similar cases.

He knew something wasn't right.

- Paul Kochu lived
on the south side.

And when Dakota James
went missing,

the south side
was rampant with saying,

"This is the same thing.

There's something
going on in this city."

And then when Dakota's
body was found,

everybody said, "You know,
we--we need to look at this

"because there's
a phenomenon happening here

that we don't know about."

It's so unusual,
the similarities

of their lives,
of their disappearances

and their deaths--
one was 22,

one was 23.

Both of them had come
to Pittsburgh

to attend Duquesne University.

They were, uh, ambitious,


No reason for them to go
missing and end up dead.

Which is interesting because of
the Smiley Face Killer theory.

- What do you
think about that?

- I think that it is beyond
statistical variation

that over a hundred young men
go out drinking with friends,

and end up dead

in a body of water nearby.

I mean, the theory that,
you know,

people are going out
and getting drunk

and falling into the river
is absurd.

Uh, if that were the case,
on any weekend

from a Steeler game,
there would be

2,000 or 3,000 people
in the river.

- What is your feeling?

Because you were as close
to the family

and as close to
the information as anybody.

- Their grief was, uh, twofold.

Um, one was that, you know,

obviously they lost
their child.

The other was the way
they say they were treated

by Pittsburgh detectives.

They didn't come out
and say this,

but their attitude was,
"Your son was drunk.

He fell in the river.
Get over it."

Because they do not know
where he went into the water.

So, you know, if you don't know
how an accident occurred,

it--it seems a little
ridiculous to me

that you would rule it
an accident.

Whether or not there
is a serial killer

or serial killers,
I can't say.

All I can say is that
I think that it deserves

to be looked at.

It's a horrible,
traumatic event,

to lose a child.

But it's so much more so
to lose a child

and not know what
happened to them.

And we don't know
what happened to him.

- The prevailing theory
is that Dakota James

went to
the Roberto Clemente Bridge

and then went
into the river from there.

So we really need to go
and investigate the areas

where Dakota was the night
when he went missing.

- So are you gonna help us--

I know you did
the investigation.

We spoke a little on the phone.

- Dakota James' parents
hired a private investigator,

Larry Forletta.

They hired him to aid
in the search

and give a different
perspective of someone

from the outside of law
enforcement looking in.

- I've actually covered
this whole area.

I wanted to try to, for myself,
trace his footprints

and, uh, see where it ended up.

- Dakota's last known steps
were captured

by video surveillance.

That video was only viewed
by Pam and Jeff James,

along with their private

The police have only released

a single photo
of Dakota James.

So he walked this way.
- Yep.

- And we know he's stopping
somewhere around here.

- He's going right here.

And he's not really looking,
but he's looking at his phone,

and he's heading to this gate.

- This is the actual beginning
of the alleyway.

- Right.
- This is Scott Place.

- Okay.

- This is the last known
direction where he was walking.

- Okay.

- What I recall,
I think he was picked up

coming through this area.

- And that takes him to the end
of the alleyway, then?

- Well, one would surmise

that he was going
in this direction

because he lives on
the north side of Pittsburgh.

- Right.

- We do not see him
where he goes from here.

- So this was his
last known location.

Now he comes out
of the alley.

We don't know if he went
right or left, but he's--

- Well, that bridge
at the time was closed.

So no pedestrian traffic
could go over that bridge.

That's the 7th Street Bridge.

- Okay.
- Okay?

For him to go home,
it would have made sense

for him to go over
to the 6th Street Bridge--

or the Clemente Bridge--
which walks over

to the north side,
where he lived.

In my view,
if he was heading home

and heading that direction,
he would have went left

and then right across
the bridge.

The $50 million question is,
how did he get in the water?

- So this is the $50 million
question, you said.

What happened after
he left the alley?

- Yes, yes.
This is the big question.

You know, this is
a main thoroughfare,

but at nighttime there's not
that much traffic down here.

- Now, what about
this camera here?

This camera pick him up?

- Well, this camera
did not pick him up.

Don't know if it was
working or not.

But no other camera actually
picked him up.

- Where did the police
conduct their search?

- It would have been
underneath the bridge.

- If the police are searching
by the Roberto Clemente Bridge,

then they had to believe that
there was a possibility

that Dakota entered
the water there.

- Those cameras,
they cover this traffic

on this 10th Street Bypass.

- So obviously he
didn't cross here.

- On the other side,
if he would have crossed

the other side of the bridge,
as I understand it,

he would have been picked up
on those cameras

on the other side
of this bridge.

- Oh, so they wouldn't have
even caught him walking

underneath these?
- No.

- There's cameras at both ends
of the Roberto Clemente Bridge

and there's cameras
along the bridge.

None of those cameras caught
Dakota James walking anywhere

near that bridge that evening.

So this could be
one of the theories,

one of the--you know,
he possibly came down here?

- Yeah, it's a theory only.

- The prevailing theory is that
Dakota went down the staircase

made of cement and metal
and then fell into the river.

- The police department
and the divers,

they were doing
the water search,

um, with a cadaver dog
on a boat.

They sort of alerted
in this general area.

- Right.

- And then they had the divers.
They had sonar here.

And nothing came up positive.
They didn't find anything here.

- Cadaver dogs scent
dead human skin cells.

Just because the cadaver dog
hit at the base

of the Roberto Clemente Bridge
does not necessarily mean

that Dakota James was there.

- There's no evidence
to support him walking down

them steps and going
into the water.

And there's no evidence of him
falling off of the bridge

and going into the water.
- Right.

If he jumped off of here,
fell off of here,

he's gonna have some
serious injuries.

- This is a broken bone bridge.
- Yeah.

The bottom line
is the mystery started

at the end of that alley.
- Right.

- The thing that got me was
walking down the staircase.

There was absolutely
zero evidence

of him coming that way.

- The theory that he went in
at the bridge to me

is just a theory.

- Oh, I agree with you 100%.

- So if he didn't go into
the water by the stairs,

then where did he go into it?

- He went into the water
after the dam,

closer to where
he was recovered.

- There's no concrete evidence
that Dakota James

went into the river
at the bridge.

Even if he went into
the river anywhere

within that first nine miles,
he would have had

to go over the dam,
so the next question is:

could the autopsy report
be inaccurate?

We won't be able to tell that
without the photographs.

So the next step
in the investigation

for us is to speak
to the recovery people.

They'll be able to tell us
firsthand what condition

Dakota James was in.

- So, where did he end up,
would you say roughly?

- Um, below Interstate 79.

A lady walking her dog
saw him floating by, um,

8:40 in the morning.

- Okay, based on
the conditions that day,

from the dam to the ultimate
recovery site,

how long do you think
it would take to travel?

- We estimated he was about
30 minutes to where we--

we had our hands on him.
- Wow.

- The conditions were
considered swift water

conditions due to the fact
of the current in the water

was moving fairly quickly.

- Is this river dredged at all?

- This river
has never been dredged

in the 30, 40 years passed,
not--not at all.

- So there could be a lot
of debris in there?

- Debris, ropes
from tugs, cars.

- Tugs, everything?
Cars, everything.

So, there's a lot--there's a
lot--a lot of junk down there.

- Correct.

- If the Ohio River's
never been dredged,

my opinion is that with
all the junk and debris

and sunken barges and boats
and whatever else is in there,

is that Dakota's body would
have been damaged.

- We'll take you out there and
show you what it looks like.

- All right, let's go look.
- Let's go.

- Take a look at that,
uh, piece of, uh,

log tree coming down.

You'll notice that
the discoloration on the top.

That means it was debarked.

So coming through
that dam up there,

it was either held up
at the chamber and it rotated,

or when it came through
it literally--

the power of the water
debarks it.

- If Dakota went
through the dam,

it'd be very difficult for him
to wind up not damaged.

- It looks like almost
a boat ramp right there.

- That's correct.

- Could someone drive
a vehicle right there, or...

- Yeah, well, the--
they have safety boats

in their facility,
and that's where they

launch them for when
the tugs come in here,

you know,
to dredge the barges.

- How accessible is that area
to the public?

To the river from--is it--

- Um, it's right
on Neville Island.

It's right on Grand Avenue.

- But it's accessible
after hours

or is it fenced off
to anybody?

- Yeah, a lot
of people fish there.

- Oh, so people can come
and go as they please?

- Yeah.
- Any time, really.

- They sneak in, basically.

- This is good information
for us because it confirms

that there are other locations
below the dam

where Dakota's body could have
been dumped into the river.

- Yes, approximately
around this area.

- How was the body
when you approached it?

- As we approached the body
from the lower side,

he was face up at the time.

I was pretty close to him
when we were tying him off

and his facial features were--
looked like what we saw

on TV for the last month.

It looked just like
the picture of him walking

through Market Square.
I mean, that's what

the three of us saw
when we spun around

on the low side of him.

- That's the picture
you had referenced?

- The picture I had
in my mind at the time.

- Okay.

Based on your professional
opinion, guys,

does this look like
a body that went in

by the Roberto
Clemente Bridge,

through the dam,
and end up down here

in the condition
that he was in?

- I--I think the condition
is prevalent to a body

that didn't travel very far.

- How 'bout you, you
think that was possible?

- I don't think so.

- How many bodies
have you recovered?

From--From this--
From this area?

- Oh, a dozen or more.

- A dozen or more?
- Yeah.

- How did Dakota's body compare
to the other bodies that you--

that you had recovered?

His condition out of
the 12 that you recovered?

- Oh, he was in
the best shape of all of them.

- Oh, the day that
they found Dakota,

I actually was on the computer
watching it happen.

There was already a TV report
reporting that a body

had been found and you could
see them pulling his body out,

and I just--I just knew
that it was him.

- That day I was, uh,
working on my laptop and, uh,

my cell phone rang.

And it was the detective.

And he said,
"We think we found him."

- I was numb.

Relieved that they found him.

But pretty numb.

- Even though I had little
hope of seeing him again,

that was still--that last drop
of hope goes away.

Oh, it just rips
your heart out.

- The water recovery guys
reinforced our belief

that Dakota did not go in
by the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

However, that opens up
another question.

Where did he go in?

- Under the Highway 79 bridge.

This is the first bridge
upstream from where

Dakota James' body was found.

And we've got clear access
right here to the river.

A person can drive in here,
drive right down there,

put the body in, and then--
then it's found down there.

In the other cases
that we've looked at before,

if you go upstream from
where the body is recovered

from the water,
somewhere within eyesight

of that location is where
you're going to find

the smiley face that's
associated with these killers.

- That doesn't surprise me.

- And we'll get a GPS
so we can find it.

North, 40 degrees,

30 minutes, 31 seconds.

West, minus 80 degrees,

eight minutes, ten seconds.

Yeah, this is
the first bridge upstream

from where he was recovered.

That's typical for what
we've seen in the past

in the hundred and some other
cases that we've been to

and it'd be a perfect place
for a body dump.

I've seen it in
Minneapolis, Lansing,

Ames, Iowa, St. Cloud--
my hometown.

And all you gotta do is go
to the first manmade structure

upstream and that's where
you're gonna find

the significant graffiti along
with the smiley face.

So that smiley,
access to the water,

close proximity
to body recovery,

I think that's related.

- The recovery guy said it's
impossible for Dakota to be

in that good a condition

after going
supposedly ten miles.

- Especially ten miles
downstream through the dam.

- We know we believe that
he obviously didn't go in

at the base of this bridge
over here.

That he was probably put in
in an alternate spot

somewhere downriver
below the dam.

- Well, the river
recovery guys,

when we brought up
the alternate spot where

he could have been entered
into the water,

acknowledged that
big abandoned plant there.

There's a lot of access
right to the river

from that whole plant.

- Is that by Neville Island
or whatever it is, or...

- That would have been
on the south side

in the left-hand channel,
or the back channel.

- Okay.

- And it's pretty much
sitting empty now,

and you could even drive
up there and...

- Really?
- Do whatever you want.

- So you could drive
a car right up,

take a young man out of the--
out of the vehicle, and just--

- Walk him down the ramp and--

- Walk him down
and slide him in?

- What this shows, though,
is when you talk about

the Smiley Face Killer theory,
this--this lines up

with everything we said
all the way back in 2008.

We haven't seen
the photos of him,

but obviously from everybody
that--that's seen the body

and recovered the body,
he fits our pattern of being

held for a period of time,

put in the--in the water
in a different location

where the authorities
can't find any clues.

Though I think we've started
to put the pieces together,

at this time I don't
think we have enough

to go forward to the police.

What we need is one concrete
piece of evidence

to prove that Dakota did not
come off that bridge,

did not travel ten miles,
and go over that dam.

Right now we need to learn
more about this dam.

Was the dam open?
Was the dam closed?

But we definitely
need more proof.

- Now, do those gates
open like this,

or do they--
do they go up and down?

- Well, they go up and down.

There's a concrete portion on
the dam that the gate sits on,

and it, uh, lifts up and it
passes water under the gate

but over the concrete dam.

- So when they got
the gates open,

what would happen to a body
if it came through there?

- The damage would come from
a couple ways.

One is actually
hitting the sides,

or hit the bottom of the gate,
and there'd be more

of a crushing action.

But if it is away
from any of the sides,

it could be
relatively unscathed

and just blow right through.

- Were the gates open
or closed during that, uh,

last day that Dakota
was recovered?

- I'd have to check
the records.

I just know that there's always
some gates that are open.

But the more that
the gates are open,

the greater the likelihood
that you can pass through

with less damage.

- I wanna file a Freedom
of Information Act

letter of request to get that
lock master record.

I gotta get my hands on that
dam master's report

so that we can find out whether
or not those gates

were even open,
because depending

on how wide they are
will tell us

if a body can pass
through there,

and if it can,
is it gonna sustain damage?

- So looking
at the data here,

what would you say
was the estimated opening

for those six gates
on the back channel

on the day he was recovered?

- According to this,
the total opening

of all 14 gates
was 25 1/2 feet.

See that?
- Okay.

- So, a few of them were
probably open one foot

and the rest were
two and a half.

- So, for him to actually go
through the back channel,

he would have had to have
passed through about

a one-foot opening?

- If he were to have gone
through the dam,

uh, it's quite plausible that
he would have been beat up

like crazy because the openings
would have been small.

- The lock records indicate
that the gates were not open

wide enough for Dakota to pass
through them without getting

any type of damage
on his body.

Regardless of whether
the gates were open

one foot or two
and a half feet,

either way, it is
statistically improbable

that a human body could make
it through that dam

without some damage.

So that tells us he did not go
through that dam on March 6th.

- But you need to look
at not only, um,

that day and hour.

You have to look at perhaps
the week prior to that

because I know on March 1st,
for example, yeah,

they had number one gate open.
See, look at here.

Seven and a half feet.

Number one, two,
three, four, five--

all six were open
seven and a half feet.

My, um, opinion is,
is that when it was seven

and a half feet,
he went through.

- If he went through on March
1st when the dam was as open

as it seems it could have been
during that period of time,

wouldn't he have been
spotted much sooner?

I mean, I can't imagine
that it would take five days

to go half a mile.

- It's been my experience

that when you talk
about drowning victims,

they're, the vast majority
of the time, hung up.

Okay, they're stuck
on something.

If he's not stuck on anything,
yes, he will move.

There's no question about it.
- He wasn't, he wasn't.

- Well, you know, I mean,
I--I can't speak

for, um, you know,
those that were, you know,

observing, you know,
the body.

- But even with the gates
completely open,

to the maximum,
is it possible

or even plausible that
he could make it through there?

I mean, he had no injuries.

The, uh, folks who
recovered him,

they said he looked like
the same person

in the missing persons picture.

- What is he,
maybe six foot tall?

You have an opening that's
seven and a half foot wide,

that's like 30 yards wide.

Could he float through that dam
and not touch any of the sides?

I say yes.

- What Werner is saying is that
it's possible that Dakota James

went through the dam
on a day before March 6th.

So he has selected March 1st
because the dam was open

seven feet at that time.

But that is impossible,
because according

to the testimony of the water
recovery personnel,

the speed at which Dakota's
body was moving,

it would have only taken him
30 minutes to go from the dam

to where he was spotted
and then recovered.

Which means had he
gone through earlier,

he'd have been
miles downriver.

- Well, with this new
information from Doc,

I made an appointment
with the police.

They're willing
to meet with us.

So what do we--what do we
have to give them?

- I got the statement
of the river recovery guys.

That's compelling information
that they don't have.

I also got the mysterious
PayPal transaction

on his computer
after he went missing.

- You and Mike,
maybe you should take

a shot at the police, you know,
we got nothing to lose,

Go and tell them what we have.

See if you can get
the police reports

and the autopsy
and recovery photos.

- If we get a good
dialogue from them,

I think we can make it happen.
- Yeah.

Share the evidence.

We're gonna give
them something.

Maybe they give us
something in return.

I think we have enough
information right now

to crack this case open,
but those police reports

and those autopsy
and recovery photos

are key to us being able to put
this whole thing together

and give them a package where
they can't do anything else

but reclassify it and change
it to a homicide.

- We're going in to speak with
the detective that had

the missing persons case
to share information

that we had found.

I wanna do the right thing
by the family

and by the deceased.

I feel we have a moral
obligation to bring this

information to law enforcement
so they can look into this

and launch hopefully
a criminal investigation.

- I can only assume that
it's pumped up in the papers,

which is why we got shot down
ultimately for the interview.

- Yeah.

- In the 12 years since we've
been working on these cases

and developing the
Smiley Face Killer theory,

we've met head-on resistance
from the law enforcement

community in general.

They automatically have
the mindset of,

"We don't want a serial killer
in our midst."

It's a massive theory
for law enforcement

to wrap their head around
because nobody wants that

in their jurisdiction.

- We were supposed to have
an interview today

with the detective
who had the case.

We were all set up and they
squashed the whole thing.

They cancelled our interview.

You know,
I could make assumptions.

But the bottom line
is we were not able

to get any information.

You know, we weren't gonna go
to make any accusations

or anything.

It was strictly a fact
finding mission for us.

We don't wanna beat up
the police.

We want to assist them.
- Correct.

- So--
- Yeah.

I'm looking for an answer
for Dakota.

- Right, right.
- Good, bad, indifferent.

Whatever it is.
You know?

And--and, yes, we need the
police--police's help to--

to fix this.

- So you've never
heard from any--

- Let's pause for a second.

- Well, let--let Pam read it,
then we'll read it,

'cause we have to speak it out.
She can read it.

- "Upon investigation,
the city's open records office

"was able to locate
the record enclosed herein.

"It relates to a criminal

"The city is prohibited
from forwarding

this information to you."

So what does that mean?
It's an active case?

- That, we don't know.

- We were told that
his case was closed.

- Well, and most likely
it would be.

If the case is labeled

from the medical examiner...
- Correct.

- That means for the police,
it's a done deal.

This makes no sense to me.

The letter from the police
department stipulates that

it's a criminal investigation.

But if it's a criminal

then it should be open
and active,

and it should be classified
as a homicide.

If it's classified
as accidental,

at which point then you should
release the photos

and all the police reports
to the public because

it was--it's an
accidental death.

We need clarification
from the police

or the District Attorney
on what kind

of an investigation is this?

- So where do we go from here?

- I'd really like to try
to figure out what the hell

this letter means with this
criminal investigation.

- Right.
- So I think the next step,

have Pam call
the District Attorney,

see if she can get a meeting,

and find out what does this
criminal investigation mean.

Are the actively pursuing it?

Or is it just, you know...
- A brush off.

- Yep, exactly.
- Yeah.

- I told the DA I was
investigating Dakota's case

with you to prove
that it should be changed

to a homicide.

I said we wanted
the autopsy pictures,

we wanted the police report,

any medical examiner report
that there was,

'cause there's obviously
more reports than just

the official autopsy.

I wanted to know why they
labeled it accidental.

Uh, I wanted to find out
why there was a letter that

says it was still an open
criminal investigation.

- Right.

- I told him that the lock
master and the water recovery

person were willing
to go on the record.

So he has agreed--next week
I'll be in Pittsburgh--

that he's gonna hand
the whole file over to me.

- With the photos?
- Yes, with everything.

I can't guarantee what he--
he will give me.

All I know is he said
he's got it

and he'll hand
it over to me,

including those pictures.

And it's up to me to decide
on whether I wanted

to look at them or have
someone else look at them.

- The fact that the district
attorney is considering

handing over the files to us
is not just extraordinary

but this could be, like,
the thing that could really

help us solve Dakota's case.

We're not trying to stick
the Smiley Face Murder

investigation down
the police's throat.

We don't even know
if it's connected.

We just want to know,
was he murdered,

or was this a tragic accident?

If he was murdered
and they missed it,

then obviously we want to bring
information forward to them

to help them take
a second look.

Maybe he'll take a meeting,

especially once we see
those photographs.

I want those photographs.

- I'll be with him on Tuesday.

- In an amazing turn
of events,

the District Attorney gave Pam

not only the police reports
but more importantly

the autopsy photos
and the recovery photos.

And the fact that we were able
to get that is crucial

for this whole investigation.

As I was reviewing the photos,
I noticed one photo where there

was some suspicious marks
around Dakota's neck.

These marks that I noticed
were not mentioned anywhere

in the written autopsy report.

So I need to bring these photos
to Dr. Wecht to see what he

believes could have caused
those injuries.

There's an injury on the neck
where you can see

the medical examiner
is looking

where he's grabbing
the back of the scalp.

Here, that one right there.

- As I recall,
it's not referred to

in the autopsy report.
Is that correct?

- No, it's not referred to.
- Uh, yeah, not--yeah.

This is, um, a,
um--an interesting

and relevant observation.

This picture here...
- Right.

- Uh, is more significant
because this shows

a diffuse epidermal

uh, across the entire back
of the neck extending

toward the right side.

This one is--
is quite significant.

- What do you think, uh,
caused those injuries?

- Um, they are strongly
suggestive of,

and entirely consistent with,
uh, a ligature having been

applied around the neck.

This death may have been due
to ligature strangulation.

Uh, I do not hesitate for one
moment to be highly critical

of the neck evaluation.

- I got two photos here,
why don't you look at it.

It looks like both right
and left hand here.

- I notice a distinct
difference, uh,

in the coloration
of the fingernail beds

of the fourth and fifth fingers
on both the right

and left hands,
and they certainly would be

consistent with someone
reaching up and trying

to release the pressure
from a ligature

that is being applied
around their neck.

- This is the crucial piece
of evidence

that we've been looking for.

Dr. Wecht's analysis should be
enough evidence right now

for the District Attorney
to bring this forward

to the medical examiner
to reclassify Dakota's case.

- I 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.

- Is there anything
specifically, um,

that you wanna ask
Dr. Wecht or myself

about what we've
been discussing?

- I guess after you've
read all of the information

that I provided,
have you seen anything

about what happened
to Dakota?

- Yes.

Based upon the photographs,
I find evidence that

is certainly strongly
suggestive of

and completely consistent
with ligature strangulation.

The hemorrhagic abrasion--
which is, you know,

the kind of a diffused
scratch mark that encircles

the base of the neck.

We also see some little bit
of hemorrhage beneath

the fingernails of
the fourth and fifth fingers

of both hands which would
be consistent, um,

with someone attempting to put
their fingers in beneath

a ligature that
is being applied.

This is something that
is quite significant.

- The medical examiner could
have done a better job, uh,

investigating the area
of the hemorrhages

in the neck,
but at this point in time,

it's futile to be
worried about it.

All we know now most
importantly is Dakota James

did not accidentally drown.

Without those photographs,

the report wasn't
conclusive enough.

- Well, the report
makes no mention...

- Right.
- Of the--

Of the injuries
we have just described.

- With that being said,
do you feel 100%

that I can get his death
certificate changed

to homicide?

- Do I believe it would be
proper and appropriate

for the medical examiner to
change the death certificate?

The answer is yes, 100%.

Do I feel that it will be done?

I can't make
the District Attorney

or the medical examiner
do something.

- So you proved basically
that you were right,

that your son didn't just
wander off from the bar

and then fall into
the river and drown.

- Sure, it's a great thing.
- Some stupid drunk kid.

- I know.

- You had asked me--I tried
to pick out photos that

you could look at.

I don't know what
you wanna see.

I just got one or two
pictures of Dakota.

I don't know if you want
to see that at all.

That's totally up to you.

- Eventually if it
goes any further,

obviously we're gonna see
those pictures anyways

because we're gonna have
to use them as evidence.

- Right.
- And I know that.

- Yes.
- And I can handle that.

You know, I know I did
what I had to do for my child.

And if it means looking
at those pictures,

I'm gonna do that.

- Without the photographs,
we would not know about

these things in as much as they
are not mentioned at all--

at all in the autopsy report.

We have some definitive
findings that have

to be pursued
and fully explored.

- Ideally we always want
the autopsy photos

because a picture's worth
a thousand words.

And that will tell us whether
or not the written

autopsy report is as consistent
as the photos.

The photos help us and help me
to provide the families

an accurate assessment of what
happened to their loved one.

- Obviously I'm--
I'm shocked, um, hurt,

and mad.

- I'm more disappointed
in the medical examiner

that they missed some
significant pieces of--

of evidence related to Dakota.

There was mistakes made here.

We can change it.
They can fix it.

And then tell the police
department, you know,

"This should be handled,
you know,

like a homicide."
- Right.

- The good news is when
we speak to the DA tomorrow,

the prosecutor,
we have some really good facts

about Dakota's case.
There's human intervention.

So he didn't do that
falling into the water.

You know,
whether it's one person,

two people,
or a single person,

or a gang,
or it's connected to those,

that's insignificant
at this point.

We believe it's connected
to the Smiley Face Killers,

but it doesn't matter.

The main thing was
somebody murdered him,

and they have to reinvestigate.

- It's all I've ever wanted.
- I know.

- I've said it all along.
Dakota and I are a lot alike.

When we know we're
right about something,

we're gonna fight to the end
to get the answer,

and he's standing here
beside me right now

and walking this path with me
'cause he knows

that we're going
to get the truth.

- Are you nervous?
- Very nervous.

- It's scary 'cause you--
you've been through an--

uh, so much already.

And your expectation is?

- My expectation is that
he changes it to homicide

and he announces it
to Pittsburgh.

What's disturbing is
it's been almost two years

and if we hadn't
done this fight,

then nobody would know.

This is not going to change
what happened to Dakota.

- Right.

- But it's gonna be a positive
that came out of his story.

And I will do anything to--
to continue that.

- You ready?
- Yep, I'm ready.

- Let's go to work.

- Hey, tough guy.
- Hi, Pam.

- Hey.
- So, you met with the DA.

What happened?

- Well, first off,
there was two other

gentlemen present.
- Really?

- One of them was an FBI.
- Right.

- FBI?

- The other one
was a secret service.

- Secret service.
- Agent.

- That's great.

- Kevin allowed them
to see the pictures

and explain certain things.

- We showed them the picture
with the, uh,

circular ligature that went
around from the left side

to the right.
- Mm-hmm.

- Well, and he also, uh,
showed the--the fingers--

the pooling of the blood
in the fingers.

- That was my next question.
- So, he--

he wanted to know, okay,
what would--

what would make that happen?

But the guys across the table,

they were already putting
their fingers there.

Like, they already knew
what he was gonna say

before he said it.

And they said they could--
you would know that he was

trying to pull
whatever it was off.

- Wow.
- He knew that--that--

- The DA knew?

- The DA knew.
- What about the--

- I think he knows.

Oh, I think the other
two knew as well.

- Wow.

- He specifically said,
"I want you to know

"I'm not going
to the police for them

"to do this investigation.
I'm doing--

I'm using my homicide

- It's a phenomenal step
in the right direction,

and it's vindication for you.
- Absolutely.

- You've carried the torch
all the way and--

- We've carried the torch.

I'm not--It's not me for--
to take that full credit.

- No, no, no.
- It's everybody.

- No, but you did.
- It's everybody to take that.

- You did.
- Yeah, without you--

- Without you, we're not
even here talking to you.

- No, no, we're not here.

- We're a conduit to move this
forward to you, for you,

and Dakota.
That's all we are.

- You know, I know
grief doesn't go away.

But we're--we've almost been
put in this waiting game

to allow us to grieve
the right way.

And now that we know
it's a homicide,

it's almost like today
I'm starting to grieve.

- The District Attorney's
office now states

that they can't do anything
and move forward with

Dakota James' case without
the medical examiner

concurring with our assessment,

and at this point in time,
he does not.

- So tell me,
bring me up to date.

You have not heard
from anybody and...

- No.

- The only response that I got
was the medical examiner

would not meet with us.

- Would not meet with you?
- Correct.

We told him we had
more questions to ask

and more evidence
to give to him

and we wanted to talk about it.

And I got a response that he's
unwilling to speak with us.

We're here today to share
our story and hope that

the medical examiner will open
his door and allow us

to come in and provide him with
the information that we have.

As so many remember,

we're the parents
of Dakota James.

This press conference
is partly due to you,

the wonderful city
of Pittsburgh.

You deserve to hear what our
investigative team found

after their tireless hours
of reviewing and doing

a more detailed investigation
into Dakota's case.

- There is no question about
there being, uh, markings

consistent with some kind
of a ligature.

They are clearly
discernible and not, uh,

something that
requires a stretch

of the visual imagination.

- Thank you to everyone
who came out today,

and mostly to our family
and our friends who've been

through this with us
and still continue

to support us further.

- We want to, uh, have a talk
with the medical examiner,

and that's just--just--
it has to be priority one.

It seems like he has his
opinion and we have ours.

So maybe we should get together
and talk about it,

and sharing packets
of paper and pictures

is maybe not gonna
get us there.

- There is no forensic
scientific evidence

that I am aware of
that this was an accident.

- Hopefully we'll be able to
meet with the medical examiner.

His file's in a box now

where it should be
on someone else's desk

because it's undetermined,
so someone can look

at the information
that we have.

I need the police department
to open his case

and allow them to do their job.

We've done a lot of footwork
for them already.

They need to do the rest,
and they need to find out

who did this to him.

- Late this afternoon,
we did hear

from the medical examiner.

Dakota's parents are
singling him out specifically.

Dr. Williams has met with
Dakota's parents before,

and he tells us this evening
that he is willing to consider

any information they have.

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