BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Pam James is not giving up after the mysterious death of her son while attending college in Pittsburgh.
“We would not leave that town until we had Dakota,” she told WJZ Investigator Mike Hellgren. The James family even moved temporarily from their Frederick home to Pennsylvania. “I’m still fighting for answers for Dakota.”
Her nightmare began after her 23-year-old son’s disappearance on January 25th, 2017 after leaving friends on Liberty Avenue.
A surveillance camera captured what are believed to be the final images of Dakota James alive. Authorities believe he climbed down some steps on the Roberto Clemente Bridge to relieve himself and fell into the Allegheny River.
His body was found 40 days later, and the medical examiner ruled the death an accidental drowning, but his mother says that theory doesn’t hold water.
“They will never convince me he was on that bridge and fell in,” she said.
That final surveillance image shows him communicating with someone on his phone. James says it was through an app, and she has never been able to trace who was on the other end.
She also notes the bridge was across a concrete barrier and a major roadway and would have taken extensive effort to access—and says her son traveled through and alley and could have easily urinated there.
She says one of the main surveillance cameras on the bridge was filled with water and inoperable —and no one actually saw her son on the bridge.
The James family also hired renowned forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht who obtained autopsy photographs that show marks across Dakota’s neck and pooling blood on his fingertips. They’re evidence he may have been strangled and used his hands to protect his neck as an attacker used some sort of ligature.
Wecht said he does not believe the death should have been labeled accidental.
He told CBS Pittsburgh the body also did not appear to have been in the water for 40 days—during which it traveled through a raging dam. “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.
The prosecutor told CBS Pittsburgh the marks are simply dried blood that washed off during the autopsy.
Another veteran investigator looking into the case believes there is something more sinister at play: a serial killer or killers.
Retired New York City Police detective Kevin Gannon developed a theory that the drowning deaths of dozens of young men since the 1990s are linked to the Smiley Face Killers, so called because of smiley faces left near the scenes where the bodies either disappeared or were found.
“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.
The theory is a controversial one.
Pam James is not certain a serial killer claimed her son’s life, but she does believe he was murdered.
“What I do know is, there’s something evil out there and it’s taking our young men away from us,“ James said. “He could be anybody’s child. People need to know the truth.”
She told WJZ her son’s friend also informed her about a disturbing incident where someone tried to abduct Dakota about six weeks before his death.
“Dakota was very afraid. We have the text messages to prove that it did happen.“
The case has gained renewed interest because of documentary series on the Oxygen Network.
James told WJZ she has gotten new tips since her son’s story aired.
“The truth is—if you want to get something done—you’re going to have to fight for the answers,” she said. “I believe we’ll find them. That’s the only thing that keeps me going is my faith.”
Pam James said she still feels her son’s spirit. “I know he’s sitting behind me right now. He’s telling me, ‘I don’t want you to grieve. I want you to be better than that. Don’t let this consume your life. Don’t let it make you a hard person.’”
She said the medical examiner has agreed to meet with her and her husband to discuss the autopsy photos and more, but the details are still being worked out.
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