Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt For Justice examines possible serial murders in Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt For Justice examines possible serial murders in Pittsburgh

The new Oxygen series debuts with a look at the mysterious death of Dakota James.

click to enlarge Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt For Justice examines possible serial murders in Pittsburgh
Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt For Justice
True crime fans in Pittsburgh have followed the recent case of Dakota James, a young Duquesne University student whose body was found in the Ohio River weeks after he disappeared during a night out with friends. Now, two years later, a new Oxygen series revisits his death.

Despite being ruled as an accidental drowning, a number of people, including James’ parents, suspect foul play, citing multiple inconsistencies and strange details. The premiere of Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt For Justice (airing Jan. 19) goes a step further by positing that James could have been a victim of a group of serial killers behind the deaths of hundreds of men dating back to 1997. Besides a number of similarities – the men were college-aged, were either top students or athletes, and were found in bodies of water – the most chilling connection is the appearance of smiley face graffiti left near each crime scene.

The debut episode tackles the James case with criminologist, D. Lee 'Doc' Gilbertson, and three retired NYPD police detectives, Anthony Duarte, Mike “Mikey” Donovan, and Kevin Gannon, who originally came up with the Smiley Face theory.

“These kids are not just falling into the river and drowning,” says Gannon, who believes Pittsburgh could be the killers’ new hunting grounds due to the additional death of Paul Kochu in 2014. Like James, Kochu, an intensive care nurse at Allegheny General Hospital, also attended Duquesne and was found in the Ohio River three months after he went missing.

Along with Dakota’s aggrieved but determined mother, Pam, the group heads to Pittsburgh on a fact-finding mission to collect the evidence needed to reopen the case and reclassify it as a homicide. Beginning in May 2018 (a detail provided over a picturesque establishing shot of the city), they arrive with plenty of questions and few answers. Did James really die from falling off the Roberto Clemente Bridge, as originally reported? If so, how did he end up 10 miles downriver with no significant injuries, showing signs of only moderate decomposition?

Helping to answer these questions is a bevy of experts, including famed local forensic pathologist, Cyril Wecht, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette journalist Michael Fuoco, who reported on the James and Kochu cases and discusses them in length on his podcast, Three Rivers, Two Mysteries. Especially haunting are the interviews with the Swift Water Rescue Group that fished James’ body out of the river two miles down from the Emsworth Back Channel Dam, and with a private eye hired by his parents.

Whether we like it or not, the true crime genre demands a certain amount of drama to keep viewers riveted – in this case, the tension comes from the group’s will-they-or-won’t-they quest to gain access to the autopsy photos and police reports that would prove crucial to their investigation. Adding to the vibe are stagey meetings in various Pittsburgh locations (shout-out to Mullin's Diner, Delanie's Coffee, P-Town Bar, and Mallorca), as well as some more stylized, cinematic shots, including one of Donovan standing in an alleyway, his imposing physique cloaked in noir shadow as he makes a phone call.

But while the show indulges in a bit of spectacle, it treats its subject with sensitivity and respect, which elevates it beyond gross exploitation. When the detectives broach the topic of James being gay, it’s treated only as a facet of his personality, as opposed to a possible reason for his death. In the past, true crime specials would have latched onto that detail, as gay men, as well as other members of the LGTBQ community, were dismissed as having “high-risk” lifestyles by authorities, their cases not prioritized.

Being that Oxygen proudly declares itself as a “multiplatform crime destination brand for women,” it’s encouraging to see programming that focuses on obtaining justice for the victims and their families as opposed to wallowing in gruesome details. Whether or not local viewers find the premiere’s conclusion satisfactory, it at least makes a case for watching future episodes that cover other possible Smiley Face cases unrelated to Pittsburgh.

Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt For Justice airs at 7 p.m. on Sat., Jan. 19 on Oxygen.