Humans seemed to be wired to think, “Well, what happens next?” That question can apply to things like graduating high school, moving, and, of course, the inevitable occurrences of life. The ability to “move on” is easier said than done.
The family of Dakota James was faced with that question four years ago after his death in 2017.
James, who attended Duquesne University, was out with some friends in downtown Pittsburgh when he headed to his home in the North Side. A security camera last saw him in the Cultural District, and after that, his whereabouts are widely unknown. It’s speculated that he used the steps on the Clemente Bridge to urinate in the river, leading to him falling into the river and drowning.
Pam James, Dakota’s mother, believes something more sinister was at play. From being told by one of Dakota’s friends that he was almost kidnapped weeks beforehand, to a retired NYC police officer suspecting this may have possibly been the alleged Smiley Face killer, Mrs. James knew this wasn’t an accident.
“I don’t know that I want to give it that name,” Mrs. James said in an interview with KDKA Pittsburgh, referring to the possibility of it being a serial killer or a copycat killer. “Could it be a cult, an initiation thing? It’s something. It’s something very evil is what it is.”
The Allegheny County Medical Examiner in 2017 ruled James’ death as an accidental drowning, despite some clues that renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht pointed out: Dakota’s body didn’t appear as if he was left in the river for forty days; there was some sort of ligature mark on his neck; and there was no showing that his body passed through a dam, which was previously suggested.
While the weight of this was no doubt hard to deal with, Mrs. James is using this to help others prepare and know what to do in the unfortunate event of a loved one going missing. She helped create the Dakota James Foundation.
“Due to the unwillingness to help and the red tape we had to go through to get help, [and] the lack of support from the local government while Dakota was missing…[it] was so disheartening that after he was found, we formed the foundation so that we could help others not have to go through what we went through,” Mrs. James told The SIREN in an interview.
“So we will help families of missing persons or try to bridge a communication between the police department and the family,” she explained. “We have checklists now that we have created to help people when people are missing, or a checklist to be proactive before something does happen.”
A project the foundation works towards is having more public officers and security cameras in place in the event that one of them could be the last witness in a missing persons case, which Mrs. James said would’ve “provided some information that would’ve been helpful” to them “if a camera had been located” the night Dakota went missing.
Another project the foundation was working on at the time of the interview was providing security lights to families and neighborhoods that need proper lighting to lower the chances of being kidnapped without a witness, and they’re working on extending the camera project to Maryland, Dakota’s home state.
The foundation also holds safety fairs, one of which was held at Duquesne University; however, due to COVID-19, safety fairs had to be held off until further notice. Nonetheless, the Dakota James Foundation continues their work through their security light and camera projects and even a fingerprinting project where families will already have a missing person’s fingerprints in hopes of making the search easier (the foundation doesn’t document the fingerprints as the family is responsible for keeping them).
They also can provide resources if you find yourself in a situation where you’re being kidnapped by providing tips on how to escape from a trunk and turning off the option for apps to track your location in the event that one is following you through that medium.
“We really want to do projects where we can go in and talk to students before they go off to college,” said Mrs. James. “Talk to parents before a student goes off to college so we can prepare them with things we learned along the way.”
As for the Dakota’s case, Mrs. James said, “We are continuing to fight, to overturn the decision of the Medical Examiner of Allegheny County and fight to have the police investigate Dakota’s case properly and find who is/are responsible for the murder of Dakota.”
“We’re going to continue what we can to help people stay safe in the future,” said Mrs. James. “That’s what the foundation is basically about, helping people be safe ahead of time…we just want to make sure our communities are still safe. Whether that’s putting up lighting or providing cameras, we’re doing whatever we need to just make sure everyone is safe.”
To find out more or support the Dakota James Foundation, visit their website.