Dakota James, drowning victim? So says a coroner, but others suggest the 23-year-old Duquesne University student was murdered by the "Smiley Face Killers"—an alleged group said to be eliminating young men across the country, CBS Pittsburgh reports. Officially, James parted with friends after an evening out in downtown Pittsburgh on the night of Jan. 25, 2017, and walked down to the river to urinate. "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's district attorney. But James' mother, Pam James, isn't buying it, and an unofficial group of investigators has taken issue with the coroner's report.
Retired New York City Police detective Kevin Gannon leads the team that's crying foul—over details like the lack of decomposition or scratch marks on James after 40 days in water, and seeming ligature marks around his neck. Gannon suggests James was drugged, abducted, held for a time, killed, and placed in the water. That would echo the deaths of roughly 40 young, white, US males found dead across 11 states, in some cases near graffiti of a smiley face wearing a crown, per the Philadelphia Inquirer. The theory dates back to a 2008 New York Daily News article in which Gannon dismisses reports that these young men got drunk and drowned. "I got emotionally involved with the family," he says of the first victim, a New York state student who died in 1997. "I felt for them and their son." Gannon is featured in an Oxygen docu-series on the subject. (Read more serial killer stories.)