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
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-
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.