Paul Kochu and Dakota James didn’t know each other but there was symmetry in their lives...and, tragically, in their mysterious disappearances and deaths in Pittsburgh’s trademark rivers. How did young men with bright futures come to share such similar fates? The troubling enigmas continue to haunt their families, friends and the Pittsburgh community.


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A handmade missing person flier on Walnut Street in Shadyside seeks information on the whereabouts of Paul Kochu, four days after he disappeared from the South Side on Dec. 16, 2014. (Bill Wade/Post-Gazette)

A week after Paul, 23, went missing, his friends and coworkers at Allegheny General Hospital gather for a candlelight prayer vigil in AGH’s Magovern Exhibit Area on the North Side. Paul was an ICU nurse at AGH. (Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette)

With tears in his eyes, Paul’s dad Jack Kochu of Chester County reaches out to friends and volunteers who helped search the South Side for his missing son. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

Shannon Coulter of Baldwin comforts her close friend Paul’s dad Jack as Paul’s mom Ellen looks on during a South Side search for the missing ICU nurse. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

People sing “Amazing Grace” during a candlelight vigil for missing Duquesne University grad student Dakota James at Katz Plaza in downtown Pittsburgh. Dakota went missing about three weeks earlier, A surveillance camera caught him cutting through the plaza, presumably on his way home to the North Side. It was the last time Dakota was seen alive. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

A distraught Jeff James, Dakota’s dad, holds a board displaying photos of his son during a vigil at Katz Plaza in downtown Pittsburgh. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, forensic pathologist, in his office in Uptown office: “These cases are atypical cases of accidental or suicidal drowning.” (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Dr. Paul J. Friday, chief of clinical psychology at UPMC Shadyside: “...Not being able to give an answer how and why, that continues this stress response, potentially forever.” (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Chapter 1 Transcript

Support for "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" comes from W.K. Lieberman Company, LLC.

A Podcast by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Copyright 2017, PG Publishing Co.

Chapter 1 -- “Gone Missing”

FUOCO: They went missing.

Two young men mysteriously disappeared on winter nights in Pittsburgh within 25 months of each other.

This is where we begin a sad and strange tale that haunts their families, friends and even strangers. And one that reveals how police reacted to these missing person cases.

The first to disappear was Paul Kochu. He went missing in the early morning hours of Dec. 16, 2014. The other young man, Dakota James, vanished late on the night of Jan. 25, 2017.

Months later their bodies were found in the Ohio River. They had drowned.

How did this happen? Were these accidents? Suicides? Or were they homicides, as their families contend?

And if they were murdered, could they be possible victims of the Smiley Face Killer?

The theory, which the FBI doesn’t buy but is the subject of rampant internet speculation, was developed by two retired New York City detectives and a criminologist. They contend the serial killer or killers may be responsible for the drownings of scores of missing young white men from the Northeast to the Midwest over the last two decades. The investigators have added the names of Paul and Dakota to the list of possible victims.

That nickname -- Smiley Face Killer -- came about because spray-painted smiley faces were found at some of the sites near the water where the victims drowned.

Interestingly, there are numerous smiley faces on the Pittsburgh bridge that Dakota would have taken the night he disappeared. There is virtually no other graffiti on that bridge.

Pittsburgh police said there is no evidence to suggest that a serial killer was involved in the deaths of Paul and Dakota. In fact, they have concluded there was no foul play.

Regardless, the similarities in the lives and disappearances of Paul and Dakota are eerie and intriguing.

Paul was 22, Dakota was 23.

Paul came from eastern Pennsylvania, Dakota was from Maryland.

Both came to Pittsburgh to attend Duquesne University.

Paul, a recent Duquesne grad, was an ICU nurse at a large Pittsburgh hospital -- coincidentally in Dakota’s North Side neighborhood.

Paul’s mom, Ellen, told me about her son.

Paul was one of the most kind, outgoing, gregarious people. He was our youngest child, tons of friends. I distinctly remember when he was in fifth grade a boy had dropped his spaghetti plate on the floor and Paul went up and helped him. He was willing to help anyone. He loved his friends, he was smart, witty, kind, very kind, and a really nice person.

Dakota was a graduate student at Duquesne. He planned to go to law school.

Like Paul, Dakota was an achiever. His mother, Pam James, said that was his hallmark.

PAM JAMES: We actually found his bucket list. We know he wanted to travel the country. I keep getting his emails about his GMAT. He was supposed to be taking the test to go to law school. So, he had plans.

FUOCO: Neither young man suffered from drug addiction, mental illness, a medical condition or suicidal ideation that might help explain their disappearances. To all who knew them, they appeared to have happy, secure, focused lives. Each disappeared only a few days before a long-planned visit with their close-knit families.

Cyril Wecht, the internationally renowned forensic pathologist who has been hired by the James family, said foul play is possible in both cases. Dr. Wecht, who was involved in the the John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley, and JonBenet Ramsey cases among many others, said more extensive investigations of the deaths are warranted.

CYRIL WECHT: These cases are atypical cases of accidental or suicidal drowning. That doesn’t mean they can’t be but I’m just saying they are not typical kinds of cases.

FUOCO: Like other possible Smiley Face victims, each went missing after a night drinking with friends. Paul had been watching a Monday Night Football game with his roommates in a bar near their South Side apartment. Dakota had been bar hopping with co-workers, first on the South Side and then Downtown.

Another similarity: Both Paul and Dakota lived along one of Pittsburgh’s three major rivers. Authorities believe that for some unknown reason, each entered the frigid waters of the river near their home and drowned.

The current carried their bodies into the Ohio River, where they were later recovered the following March -- Paul in 2015, Dakota in 2017.

Their paths never crossed in life. But in their disappearances and their deaths, Paul and Dakota are inextricably linked in mystery and tragedy.


“After spending the last six years studying to be a nurse, he finally achieved his goal and then went missing under mysterious circumstances.”

It’s very difficult when there are very few answers and thousands of questions.

We also have Paul Kochu. He currently still is in Charleston, W.Va. He has been positively identified as our missing person victim from Dec. 16, of 2014.

It’s been nearly two weeks since 23-year-old Dakota James vanished. He was last seen a week ago Wednesday after enjoying a night out with friends.

No one knows what the outcome will be but someone out there knows where my son is.

We know Koty’s out there, and he’s cold and he’s hurting, and someone just needs to step up and let us know.

Did he go out and have a few drinks? Absolutely. The child was 23 years old. We understand that. But we know he did not leave this Pittsburgh area on his own accord.

The cause and manner of death are undetermined at this time and will remain so pending toxicology. So, still so many people wanted to know how Dakota James ended up in a river, especially his beloved family.

We’re not going to give up until we really know what happened to Dakota.

In both of these cases, the circumstances were unusual. You got a real legitimate mystery.

FUOCO: This is THREE RIVERS, TWO MYSTERIES, a serialized podcast by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

I’m Michael A. Fuoco, an enterprise reporter for the Post-Gazette.

For eight months, I’ve been looking at Paul and Dakota’s cases. I also looked at the strange and similar case of Jimmy Slack, a 25-year-old barge worker from a Pittsburgh suburb. Almost exactly three years before Paul went missing, Jimmy did the same on Dec. 6, 2011.

He had attended a rock concert at Stage AE on Pittsburgh’s North Shore along the Allegheny River. At the concert, he became separated from his friend. Later, in the early morning hours of Dec. 7, he called another friend and said he was partying but didn’t know where he was. The friend said he sounded extremely intoxicated.

About seven weeks later, his body was found floating in the Ohio, not far from Stage AE. He had drowned. The manner of death was ruled undetermined.

Jimmy’s family declined to participate in this podcast because talking about his death would be too painful. Respecting those wishes, we will focus solely on Paul and Dakota’s cases.

As a former police reporter, I was curious about the strange disappearances. I knew that Pittsburghers rarely vanish and end up in the city’s rivers, particularly in the winter. In fact, there were only six victims of accidental or undetermined drownings in the 10 winters between 2006 and 2016.

And I was struck by the numerous similarities in their cases.

In this five-part podcast, we’ll look at what we know -- and, more to the point, what remains unknown.

How and why they go missing? What might have happened to them?

How did Pittsburgh police approach these missing person cases?

We’ll also examine how families, friends and even strangers react to a mysterious disappearance and an unexplained death.

The medical examiner in West Virginia, where Paul’s body was recovered, ruled the cause of death -- the physical reason he died -- was drowning.

Furthermore, he ruled the manner of death -- specifically, the way in which he died -- as “undetermined.” That means he could not find enough evidence to rule the manner of death a suicide, an accident or a homicide, the only three possibilities.

Dakota’s cause of death was drowning, according to the medical examiner in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located. The manner of death was ruled accidental.

Despite those rulings, the Kochu and James families feel strongly their loved one died from foul play. But Pittsburgh police said there is no evidence to support those theories.

Still, in neither case can authorities explain where and how Paul and Dakota entered the rivers’ chilling waters. Their families contend that if Pittsburgh police had more fully investigated the cases from the start, clues and evidence might have been found to help unlock the mysteries.

Here’s Dakota’s dad, Jeff James:

We’re very similar families. Our boys were both young, both were Duquesne students, we both lived out of town from our sons. They are also like us that they had a less than a positive experience with the Pittsburgh police and they don’t necessarily believe what the Pittsburgh police are telling them. I think we are very much in the same place.

FUOCO: For their part, Pittsburgh detectives said every viable and available lead was pursued professionally and vigorously. They note that, unfortunately, some mysteries just don’t lend themselves to the resolution of every unknown.

In spite of the disagreements, there is one thing everyone can agree on -- the loss of two promising young men is tragic.

The unnatural death of any young person is a tragedy, of course. But when the circumstances of the deaths are unknown, as they are for Paul and Dakota, the pain of such loss grows exponentially.

FUOCO: Let’s try an experiment. Think of someone you love — a child, a spouse, a partner, a sibling, a friend. See them smiling and laughing, enjoying life. Remember the joyful times you experienced together. Think of the sad times you helped each other through.

Recall the routine of your lives. The phone calls. The emails and texts. The visits. The outings. Remember the last time you saw them, the last time you spoke.

Now try to imagine you can’t reach them. More time passes. Still no word from them. You begin to get concerned because this isn’t like them.

And then it gets worse -- they didn’t show for work. Now you panic. Where could they be? Are they in trouble? Are they hurt? Are can’t even bring yourself to think of the worst possible scenario.

You search everywhere, you call everyone. You turn to the police for help.

The uncertainty is debilitating. The fear is paralyzing. It’s as if you’re living in an Escher illustration.

And then your worst fears are realized. Your loved one has been found dead.

It’s frightening to even think about, isn’t it? But for Paul and Dakota’s families, this was no exercise, this was the reality they lived, the one they still struggle with daily.

Like a pebble dropped in a pond, the waves of a disappearance and unexplained death ripple outward. Mystery, confusion and trauma engulf family, friends, coworkers, neighbors.

And as long as the mysteries remain unsolved, the tragedies remain unresolved.

FUOCO: To examine the many questions surrounding the disappearances of Paul and Dakota, you need to know about Pittsburgh’s three major rivers -- the Monongahela, the Allegheny and the Ohio. They are omnipresent in the lives of Pittsburghers.

The Monongahela River -- locals just call it “The Mon”-- flows 128 miles north to Pittsburgh from Fairmont, W. Va. It is one of the few major rivers in the world that flows north.

The Allegheny runs nearly twice as long -- from Potter County, in north central Pennsylvania, into New York and back south to Pittsburgh.

Over the eons, the two rivers carved out a large triangular tract of land that became Pittsburgh’s Downtown neighborhood.

At “The Point,” the tip of the city’s so-called “Golden Triangle,” the two rivers meet and form the Ohio River. Wide and long, it flows 981 miles to Illinois -- where it becomes the largest tributary to the Mississippi.

The confluence of the rivers at The Point, marked by an impressive fountain that can shoot water 15 stories high, is the iconic image people the world over have of Pittsburgh.

The rivers once transformed the Pittsburgh region into the world leader in steel production. Today, nearly all of the mills are gone but their former sites along the rivers now house parks, high-tech startups and entertainment complexes.

Pittsburgh has become a Rust Belt success story with an “eds and meds” economy, vibrant arts organizations, professional sport teams, and a burgeoning restaurant and social scene.

That dynamic mix helped attract Paul and Dakota to Pittsburgh to attend Duquesne University during different years.

Paul lived on the city’s South Side near the left bank of the Mon. Dakota lived on the North Side, on the right bank of the Allegheny.

Each had to cross a river to get to Duquesne University, which is located in the Golden Triangle. And to get to work, each had to cross both the Mon and the Allegheny.

Authorities believe each entered the frigid waters of the river near their home, causing their deaths. The current pulled their bodies downriver and into the Ohio, from which they were recovered.

Pittsburgh’s three rivers are wonders of nature — powerful, beautiful, mysterious. As it does with most Pittsburghers, the rivers and its bridges -- second only to Venice in number -- captivated the young men.

Seeing them, crossing them, appreciating them, became a routine yet central part of their lives. And in the end, tragically, Pittsburgh’s three rivers were central to their deaths.

PAUL FRIDAY: “What is love? Well, it’s dependent, vulnerable and intimate. When that is torn from us, we are psychologically in pain”

That’s Dr. Paul J. Friday, chief of clinical psychology at UPMC Shadyside, a large Pittsburgh hospital. He’s talking about the psychological effects the disappearances of Paul and Dakota would have on those who loved them

PAUL FRIDAY: When something like this happens, when you lose a child, when basically they are riding the crest of their life -- they’re in school, their future’s good, they’re well loved, the world’s their apple, they got it -- and then to do 180 degrees and they’re gone, but you don’t know where. That’s the lack of closure.

Dr. Friday said the brain struggles to solve the riddle. The amygdala, the part of the brain involved in the experiencing of emotions, continually asks ‘What happened? Where is he?’ Is he OK?’

PAUL FRIDAY: This non-verbal soul of the brain sends up to the parietal lobe, the upper cerebral cortex, a question and because nobody knows, the answer from the adult is ‘I do not have that information.’

And so the very creative part, will come up with a different scenario every day, but the same answer comes back from it’s the same answer every day, ‘I do not have that information.’

Not knowing where? Or why? Or how? Simply unbearable. But when someone’s missing, at least there is some hope — until there isn’t.

In most tragedies, deaths are mourned and even as the circumstances are decried, they are understood. But the discoveries of Paul and Dakota’s bodies in the Ohio River provided no solutions to the mysteries.

The pain of not knowing what led to their deaths grew rampantly. That’s because what Dr. Friday calls ‘the adult’ in the brain couldn’t answer the question “What happened?”

PAUL FRIDAY: “What happens normally when they’re quote found dead there is the beginning of that closure. But if we don’t know how or why, the adult questions, how did this happen, why did this happen — that’s a different form of a lack of closure.

Finding the body is a closure, it’s in the ground, we can go and put flowers and pray. But not being able to give an answer how and why, that continues this stress response, potentially forever.

Simply put, those who have experienced tragedy likely ask the metaphysical question, “Why?” But the family and friends of Paul and Dakota and others who mysteriously go missing and are found dead have their grief compounded by the haunting question, “How?”

And that one-two punch can easily stall the process of closure, said the Rev. Larry Homitsky. The pastor of a North Side church, he provided counseling to the James family during the search for Dakota and afterward. He also presided at a Pittsburgh memorial service for Dakota.

REV. LARRY HOMITSKY: That ‘how’ question sometimes stops people from finding resolution and a conclusion to this tragedy, so it kind of leaves the wounds more open if you would, for some, than it would be otherwise.

George Kochu, Paul’s older brother, said not knowing just how he came to die is worse than knowing it was a car crash, a drug overdose or some other way in which young people pass away unexpectedly.

Obviously, the result would be the same -- Paul is gone. But dealing with that sad reality would be grounded in an indisputable fact. Without that knowledge, the mind wanders from scenario to scenario, each as difficult to process than the next.

GEORGE KOCHU: I’m not trying to say our case is worse off than anyone else has lost a loved one but we don’t have any type of closure, we don’t have any idea how the events unfolded. While it’s still difficult for people died in a car accident -- someone this past week killed in road rage act of violence -- not that it makes any more sense for them to cope, but it’s just different in our case because we had somebody very close to us and never really worried about. I never thought he was in trouble. So now he’s off and disappeared for 100 days and then they find him dead in another state. When your mind starts to wander and you start to think about all the bad things that could have happened, it’s a little frustrating.

On the next episode, we’ll look at Paul’s life and the trauma his family has suffered. We’ll look at the strange circumstances of his disappearance after a night of drinking and watching Monday Night Football with his roommates.

Why was there a physical fight in their apartment? Why did he leave in the middle of the night, never to be seen alive again?



Ashley Murray produced this podcast. Virginia Linn is the editor.

Rebecca Droke is the photographer/videographer. Artist Daniel Marsula designed the logo. Ben Howard and Sam Underwood are the web page designers.

This podcast was produced in the studios of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Downtown Pittsburgh.

For photos, videos and more of “Three Rivers, Two Mysteries,” visit our website: Listen to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Until next time, I’m Michael A. Fuoco.

Support for "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" comes from W.K. Lieberman Company, LLC.


Ellen and Jack Kochu pose in the family room of their home in Bucktown, Chester County, where they display photos, awards and trophies earned by their three children, including their youngest child Paul. An ICU nurse at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, the 22-year-old went missing from the South Side of Pittsburgh in December 2014. His body was found in the Ohio River in Wheeling Island, W.Va. in March 2015. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Paul’s friends and coworkers gather for a candlelight prayer vigil at AGH’s Magovern Exhibit Area a week after Paul disappeared. (Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette)

Photos of Paul at various stages of his all-too-short life adorn the family room of the Kochu home in eastern Pennsylvania. The room is full of warmth and hope and pride. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Paul’s mom Ellen Kochu pauses a moment outside her home in Bucktown. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Memorabilia and photos, including a photo of Paul's sister Jess, right, are displayed on a table in the Kochu home. The family room is filled with trophies and innumerable baseballs, too many photographs to count, awards and ribbons and other achievements of the three Kochu children. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Jack Kochu lets out the family dog, Fowler, as he walks past a wall filled with portraits and memorabilia of Paul and his two siblings. Fowler was named after Paul’s favorite golfer, Rickie Fowler. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Retired FBI supervisory special agent Larry Likar, an attorney, professor and chair of LaRoche College’s Department of Justice, Law and Security: “Just looking at the video, he definitely was not doing well, he was in some type of physical distress.”

Hanging in the Kochu home is one of the last family portraits with Paul, top left, taken before Christmas 2011. Pictured along with Paul and parents Jack and Ellen are siblings Jess and George. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Chapter 2 Transcript

Support for "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" comes from W.K. Lieberman Company, LLC.

A Podcast by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Copyright 2017, PG Publishing Co.

Chapter 2 -- “The Best Laugh”

FUOCO: It was 2003 and Paul Kochu was a fifth-grade student in Mrs. Bean’s class in a school in southeastern Pennsylvania. He was voted as having the best laugh among his classmates.

Paul received a certificate attesting to what everyone already knew -- he was a happy, cheerful, kind child...a good friend, a good student, a good kid.

Paul’s parents saved the Best Laugh certificate along with other mementos of his life.

Sadly and unexpectedly, that life ended at only age 22. Paul, who had just become an ICU nurse in Pittsburgh, mysteriously disappeared one cold winter night in December 2014. His body was recovered in March 2015 in the Ohio River in Wheeling, W.Va. He had drowned.

Authorities surmise that for some unknown reason he went into the 38-degree waters of the Monongahela River not far from his apartment.

Then, authorities believe, his body floated into the Ohio, and traveled some 85 miles downriver until it was recovered. More than three months had passed.

For the funeral home visitation, Paul’s family laminated that Best Laugh certificate from fifth grade and placed it with his casket along with photos.

At the funeral service, his teacher, Mrs. Bean, joined 300 others to mourn the mysterious end of a well lived life...and the silencing of the best laugh.

Jack and Ellen Kochu walking on Carson Street, retracing the steps their son Paul took Monday night before he vanished.

Paul was last seen early Tuesday in his South Side apartment. His roommates say they left to get something to eat around 2 a.m. and when they came home, Paul was gone.

It was hard searching today, and I really wanted to give up cause it’s been getting very hard. But I just thought of my brother, and I know if he and I were reversed, that Paul would go and go and go.

Sadly, the Kochus have recently had to endure the passing of their youngest child Paul. The O and J Roberts Community shares in their sadness and grieves with them. Paul, along with his brother George before, was a member of O and J’s varsity baseball team.

FUOCO: This is “Three Rivers, Two Mysteries,” a podcast by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I’m Michael A. Fuoco, an enterprise reporter at the Post-Gazette.

In this five-chapter podcast, we are examining the strange circumstances of Paul’s case.

And we’re doing the same with Dakota James, another Pittsburgh transplant whose life, disappearance and drowning two years later are eerily similar to Paul’s.

Also, we’ll explore the two-decade-old phenomenon of young white males from the Northeast to the Midwest disappearing and drowning. They had been drinking with friends...just like Paul and Dakota. One theory claims a serial killer -- or killers -- is to blame.

In this chapter, we look at the effect of Paul’s life and his death.

Ask anyone about Paul, and they’ll talk about his smile, his laugh, his caring demeanor. Steve Piskai, a friend and baseball teammate from middle and high school, is among them:

He was definitely a friendly person, had a great smile. Definitely someone you could trust, he would be there for you. He would do anything you would like. He basically was just a good friend to laugh with, usually down to hang out with you. I think he got a lot of pleasure from just being around other people and doing what made them happy.

Definitely a good teammate on baseball field, a very good athlete, a good leader to younger players and when I look back at other leaders it wasn’t necessary like some scary presence, like you know if you screw up you thought this leader would come down on you. It was more like he was a good friend …and you kinda wanted to work hard to impress him and gain his admiration since he was such a hard worker.

FUOCO: Paul Raymond Kochu was born on May 29, 1992. A “textbook birth,” his mother, Ellen, says during an interview in the family’s comfortable home near Pottstown, Pa. And, she lovingly recalls, Paul was “one of the happiest, most pleasant babies.”

“Happy and ornery,” his father, Jack, adds with a laugh. He reaches over to a table to his left and grabs a photograph of Paul and George, Paul’s older brother by three years. Jack smiles at the image of his two boys covered in mud.

“When it would rain here, Paul would go belly first through the rain and mud,” he says, chuckling. He pauses. His face grows somber and he puts the photo back on the table with others of Paul, George and their oldest child, daughter Jess.

The living room is full of warmth and hope and pride. There are trophies and innumerable baseballs, too many photographs to count, awards and ribbons and other achievements.

Jack, a pharmacist, and Ellen, who worked as a township clerk until they were beset by tragedy, are warm and welcoming. But their grief is as unmistakable as it is understandable. They alternate between smiles and tears at their memories of Paul.

The couple raised their kids in this house in Bucktown, a rural village of 2,600 in South Coventry Township.

Paul was a good student and a good baseball player, a left fielder. And when he was 16, he began to think that he wanted to be a nurse.

His parents feel this stems from his compassion for his brother, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when Paul was 7. Also, Paul dated a girl in high school whose sister was very, very ill and Paul became close to her. And, Ellen added, Paul has three aunts -- her sisters -- who are nurses.

As with everyone who knew Paul, George struggles to reconcile the kind touch of his brother’s life with the cruel void of his death. I spoke with him by phone but the recording is not of high quality.

GEORGE KOCHU: Paul was a good kid. You would never have thought something like this would happen to him. He was always very selfless, always very concerned with others and how they were doing. It’s hard to describe how I knew him because I knew him . He was just special. I don’t know how to describe it. He was outstanding, he worked hard to get everything he got...I can’t put into words how our relationship was and how I feel about him.

FUOCO: It was a Monday night -- Dec. 15, 2014, to be precise -- and Paul and his roommates were ready for some Monday Night Football. The matchup was between two teams with losing records, New Orleans and Chicago, but that didn’t matter. They just wanted to have a few drinks, a few laughs, and watch some football in a bar on the South Side.

Once a steel mill town hard by the Monongahela River, the South Side has been transformed into an entertainment and residential mecca for young people. Numerous bars and trendy restaurants line the main drag. Paul and his three roommates lived right off of it.

All of them had recently graduated from the nursing program at Duquesne University. The Catholic school is located across the Mon, one of Pittsburgh’s three defining rivers.

Paul was excited because he was nearing the end of his 90-day probationary period as an ICU nurse at Allegheny General Hospital.

Adding to his upbeat mood were plans to soon travel across state to visit his family for the holidays. He would have to return to Pittsburgh to work on Christmas and New Year’s Day. But he didn’t mind -- he loved his work and he was just happy he could spend some time with his close-knit family.

Paul and two of his roommates walked the short distance from their apartment to The Library bar on East Carson Street, the South Side’s entertainment area. There they met two others. After some drinks, they all walked along East Carson a few blocks to Smokin’ Joe’s Saloon, a popular South Side fixture with flat screen TVs and 60 beers on tap.

After some time drinking at Smokin’ Joe’s, Paul told the group he was drunk and heading home. He left before the game ended with the Saints defeating the Bears, 31-15.

The roommates told police Paul texted them, saying he had cut his hand and needed their help. They went to the apartment.

Pittsburgh police Detective Jeff Abraham, the lead investigator in Paul’s case, picks up the story as told by the roommates:

Once they’re at the house, trying to give him aid, he became combative in his drunken state, he got into one of the roommates’ face. The roommate while sweeping up the glass kind of shouldered him. And Mr. Kochu fell over. Now it’s kind of unclear if he hit the wall or another object hit the wall. There was a dent in the wall that was captured by processing the scene. Mr. Kochu became upset, started to cry, they made up but then Mr. Kochu went back to his combative state again, which led the two roommates to leave the house and get something to eat in the North Hills.

FUOCO: That seems strange to Ellen:

ELLEN KOCHU: He never got angry at anything, or upset. Everything rolled off his back. He was a good boy.

FUOCO: Detective Abraham said the roommates are captured on surveillance video at the McDonald’s drive-through on McKnight Road in the North Hills about 2:20 a.m. Later, another camera near their apartment shows them returning shortly after 2:30 a.m. They told police they didn’t see Paul but thought he went to bed. Only the next day did they realize he was gone along with his wallet, cell phone and keys. His white Volvo was still parked on the street.

The three roommates either declined to be interviewed for this podcast or did not return repeated phone calls seeking their input.

After Paul wasn’t seen all day Tuesday, one of the roommates contacted Paul’s brother George and told him.

Ellen and Jack were mystified...and worried.

ELLEN KOCHU: I called 911 and was transferred to Pittsburgh police — I want to know where did my son go? Wednesday morning I spoke with Detective Abraham. He was very curt, very nasty. I have no respect for him at all. He said he just got the missing person report and he had a conference all day, so let’s just wait and see if it shows up at work on Thursday morning.

FUOCO: Detective Abraham said that in many missing person cases, adults feel a need to get away and voluntarily go missing without telling anyone. Those cases are usually resolved within days when the missing person returns or is located.

DETECTIVE ABRAHAM: That was one of the things we were optimistic, that hopefully he would just show up for work and he was just blowing some steam off.

FUOCO: But Ellen didn’t share that optimism because Paul had never done anything like that before.

ELLEN KOCHU: He never, never, never acted erratic. He didn’t like the cold, he hated the cold, didn’t like swimming. He came home crying when he was in grade school saying he got in the lowest swimming class. No. I was very worried because he never acted like that. I’ve spoken with teachers, close friends, his baseball teammates and he never acted erratic.

FUOCO: Jack and Ellen contacted their daughter Jess in Los Angeles. The phone call was frightening and surreal.

JESS KOCHU: I had gone with my friend at the time, I was actually at the DMV and about two hours prior, I had tried to call Paul because I missed him, and I had talked to him about a week prior and texted him a couple days before but … I called him and it went right to voicemail. And I was kind of alarmed because I think in all my experience with Paul his phone never went to voicemail because he was a true millennial. … but we were just getting finished up at the DMV and I got a text from my dad saying ‘Have you heard from Paul today?’ …. That’s when my phone rang and this would’ve been Tuesday and my dad said nobody had heard from him all day and that he was missing.

FUOCO: Your reaction?

JESS KOCHU: My mom told me, and she seemed very distressed and so I couldn’t really understand what she was saying, so I could a little bit lovingly agitated with her, so I ‘Mom, I can’t understand what you’re saying, can you put on Dad?’ and that’s when my dad got on and said he was missing. I was hoping she was so agitated and confused and that it was nothing to be alarmed about, and when my dad got on and confirmed that yes nobody had heard from him and he was missing, I was absolutely flabbergasted. I don't remember if my heart jumped into my throat as they say because I was still in a shock mode, but i remember being in disbelief.

FUOCO: And I’m guessing at that point, you’re hoping there’s a logical explanation?

JESS KOCHU: Precisely. And I spent the whole rest of the night thinking the same thing. Woke up the next morning crying and went to work and I remember saying to my boss at work ‘Oh, my God, my brother’s missing,’ and she was like ‘Oh my gosh I’m so sorry. How old is he?” and I said “He’s 22.” and she said “Oh it’s fine. He’ll be fine, he’ll come back. This is just what 22-year-olds do.” And I had a ticket to pay at the police department, and I asked … even though I was very distraught, I kept thinking everybody’s saying it will be OK, so I assume it will be OK.

FUOCO: But it wasn’t OK. Paul didn’t show up for work on Thursday. Jack and Ellen got in their car and headed for Pittsburgh, 4½ hours away. Jess got on a jet in Los Angeles. It was, she says, the worst plane ride of her life.

JESS KOCHU: So I get to Pittsburgh, and I finally make it through … it was so long, and there was nobody to talk to about what was going on, I was crying and just hoping I’d get off the plane and there’d be a message that all is well. … there was no message at all … I get to Pittsburgh and my dad picks me up and my dad's face just looked so broken and sad … and this is the worst part, and I can still hear my mom’s cries but we walked out to the car where my mom was waiting … I was showing people in the airport pictures of Paul on my phone, and I’m like, ‘Am I in a movie? What the hell is going on that I’m showing people in the airport pictures of my brother?’ And then I get out to the car and give my mom a hug. It’s dark at this point in Pittsburgh. We’re driving and my mom is just screaming and cry ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ I can still hear it today, and it’s the sound of true fear and … the grim reality of this could very well turn out to be very, very bad.

FUOCO: What followed over the next three months was a dizzying blur. Missing person fliers with Paul’s photo and information were handed out and posted on poles. There were increasingly frustrating meetings with Pittsburgh missing person detectives.

Police, but mostly family, friends and volunteers, searched land and water. Sometimes, tracking dogs were used. And even psychics were consulted.

There were candlelight vigils at Duquesne, Paul’s hospital and on the South Side.

The vigils and searches included not only those who knew Paul but even strangers moved by the family’s trauma. As they first searched for clues, the reality set in for Jess.

JESS KOCHU: That’s the weird thing because your heart pounds, I remember the first night my dad and I were there. We did like a little mini search. I remember going around and looking around the South Side and opening up the lids of dumpsters and you’re thinking to yourself ‘Why am I looking in here for your brother?’ I remember that first night thinking ‘Oh, God.’ I didn’t want to see him in there. Even times … you want to find something .. at that point it’s hard because unless you're trying to look in homeless shelters where people are living, you’re just randomly looking around the Pittsburgh city side and countryside, you’re not necessarily looking for someone who’s living and that’s the very disturbing part.

FUOCO: Two weeks after Paul went missing, a surveillance video from a private residence surfaced. The 42-second black-and-white video shows a man believed to be Paul. He’s walking past the South Side Giant Eagle supermarket about a block from his apartment on the same street.

His gait appears to be off, he’s hunched over and there is something white wrapped around his hand. He holds it with his other hand close to his body. His mother said the way he was walking looked like he had other injuries.

Retired FBI supervisory special agent Larry Likar -- an attorney, professor and chair of LaRoche College’s Department of Justice, Law and Security -- studied the video numerous times.

LARRY LIKAR: It’s obvious he was in trouble during that video. His gait, the way he was crouched over, the fact there obviously had been an altercation previously, and the idea what did that result in, could that have been a contributing factor to an accident, could weaken somebody to make them disoriented where they would actually fall into the water? That’s obviously a possibility.

Just looking at the video, he definitely was not doing well, he was in some type of physical distress. The idea he had been thrown into the plaster, there’s a very good chance, I believe, if he hit his head sufficiently hard, that could have caused really erratic behavior on his part to the point it would be possible, I think, for somebody in those circumstances to stumble right into the river or fall off an embankment. That can happen. I think the fact he was obviously, I can’t prove it, he seems to have been injured and I’m assuming the police really did look at that, and I would say even possibly to polygraphing the individuals with him prior to his leaving that apartment.

FUOCO: Detective Abraham said police did polygraph the roommates and the tests indicated they were being truthful. He said the roommates told police they believe it was either Paul’s elbow, shoulder or an object that caused the hole in the wall but not his head. And, he said, the autopsy did not show a traumatic brain injury.

Detective Abraham declined to speculate about what the video shows.

DETECTIVE ABRAHAM: I can’t theorize as to what’s going on with him. We have a video of him walking down the street. That’s it. We’re in a facts-based business and we capture him on video walking down the street. I don’t take anything else from that other than he’s holding his hand.

FUOCO: The time shown on the tape was 2:47 a.m. -- shortly after a different surveillance camera shows the roommates returning to the apartment.

Those timestamps lead Paul’s parents to believe he was home when the roommates returned. They feel something happened to him in the apartment shortly before he is seen on the tape and not earlier as the roommates told police.

But Detective Abraham said the roommates were consistent in their statements that the altercation occurred before they went to McDonald’s.

Walking west, Paul would have had a circuitous route to get to the Mon River. He would have had to head west for two blocks, north for about three more and then east for about four more blocks. That would have gotten him near a boat launch at South Side Riverfront Park.

To the west, the nearest bridge was 10 blocks away but there’s no straight shot to it either.

In the end, Paul body was found March 19, 2015, floating face down in the Ohio river near the north end of Wheeling Island in West Virginia. The body was completely naked but for a black watch with a rubber band on the left wrist. Initially, the body was identified only as John Doe No. 1127.

Coincidentally, the next day, a boat crew found the body of another missing Pittsburgher, Andre Gray, floating in the Ohio. His body was found near Steubenville, Ohio, about 25 miles upriver from where Paul’s body was discovered.

Andre, a 34-year-old hairdresser and well-known LGBT activist, had been missing for five months. Unlike in Paul’s case, there was evidence Andre had been murdered. He had been shot in the head in his apartment and his body was dumped in the river. Subsequently, his killer and an accomplice in disposing of the body were both convicted and are now serving prison sentences.

As for the Kochus, Ellen, learned that a body had been found near Wheeling from a report on a website that Jess set up for tips about Paul’s disappearance.

After calling Wheeling police and learning they hadn’t IDed the body, Ellen didn’t wait for Pittsburgh police to act. Instead, she contacted the family’s dental insurance company and asked them to send Paul’s dental records to the West Virginia Medical Examiner.

A week later, the family’s worst fears were realized. The body recovered from the river was positively identified as Paul.

The family hoped an autopsy would help solve the mystery of what had happened. Again, their hopes were dashed.

In his report, the medical examiner wrote that Paul “is presumed to have died from freshwater drowning.” However, he said that since the circumstances leading up to Paul being in the water were unknown, the manner of death was undetermined.

Instead of solving the mystery, the autopsy deepened it.

The report noted there was a small superficial cut -- about ⅜ of an inch -- on the palm of Paul’s right hand. That would correspond to the story that he cut his hand on a glass in the apartment.

But more significantly, the autopsy found three fractured ribs on Paul’s left-side and one of them was displaced. Additionally, Paul had a 1-inch wound on his scalp.

The medical examiner said that because Paul’s body had been in the water for three months, he couldn’t say whether those injuries happened while Paul was alive -- such as during the physical altercation in the apartment -- or after he drowned.

The medical examiner provided no explanation for the absence of all of Paul’s winter clothing.

Wheeling Police Sgt. Greg McKenzie told producer Ashley Murray in a telephone interview that it was possible Paul’s clothes were pulled off by the water.

SGT. MCKENZIE: We talked with Pittsburgh about it but it was almost three full months he had been in the water, the water was rapid. The ME told us it was not unreasonable for the way the water was flowing, and I believe he had to pass through 7 or 8 locks and dams. They said it was not unreasonable for the water to pull the clothing off the body. There were no signs of trauma to the body that would indicate anything like that at the first initial sighting.

MURRAY: OK so there was no investigation of foul play in West Virginia?

SGT. MCKENZIE: We didn’t believe there was. Had there been I said we sent it to ME’s office, they were unable to determine the cause of death due to the body being in the water for three months, but every bit of information we had...we were in constant contact with Pittsburgh authorities, Detective Harris was the lead and he worked hand in hand with Pittsburgh authorities. Every bit of information we had we shared with them so we just went from there.

It is believed the body went into the water in Pittsburgh and it just ended up here. It don’t believe it went anywhere else other than going in the water in Pittsburgh and surfacing in Wheeling.

It’s extremely rare. This is the only time that it’s ever happened that I know of that a body is missing in the Pittsburgh area and makes it this far. Like I said, like 7 or 8 locks and dams this body had to go through, but water was high they opened the dams a couple of times, so obviously it’s possible.

FUOCO: But Cyril Wecht, the internationally acclaimed forensic pathologist, disputes that all of Paul’s winter clothing could have been pulled off in the water. Dr. Wecht is known worldwide for his involvement in the investigation of the John and Robert Kennedy assassinations and the Elvis Presley, O.J. Simpson, and JonBenet Ramsey cases, among others.

He is a Pittsburgh resident and a former Allegheny County coroner. Dr. Wecht is not involved in Paul’s case but has been retained by the family of Dakota James to review the findings in his autopsy.

I asked him about the absence of any clothing on Paul’s body.

WECHT: No, I cannot think of a way in which all the articles of clothing expected and probably known in that case by friends and family what he was wearing or would likely been wearing. No, I do not believe that all of the clothing would be detached from the body in three months.

FUOCO: Pittsburgh Police Cmdr. Victor Joseph, who heads the major crimes unit, said detectives won’t theorize in Paul’s case, or any other case for that matter, about what might have occurred.

CMDR. JOSEPH: It’s been ruled undetermined, not homicide at this point, not a suicide at this point, not accidental at this point. Undetermined. So it’s a suspicious death that we investigated it that way from the beginning once the body was recovered and even prior to that. So, it’s there, it’s not closed. If other evidence is developed, if more information is found that leads one way or the other then that information will be presented as well. If there’s a determination that things should change, it would be up to that medical examiner.

FUOCO: Paul’s parents, Jack and Ellen, feel their son was murdered by an unknown person. They point to the strangeness of his disappearance and the absence of clothing, the broken ribs and lacerated scalp, which may have occurred in the apartment, would have made him vulnerable, his parents believe.

In no uncertain terms, they discount the possibility of an accident. For what reason, they ask, would Paul walk all of those blocks in the cold and dark to even get near the banks of the Mon?

His blood-alcohol content was .15 -- nearly double the legal limit for intoxication. But they note, and pathologists agree, that decomposition makes that number increase slightly, so it might have been a little lower when Paul died.

Whatever his level of intoxication, it doesn’t explain an accident, they feel and Paul’s friend Steve Piskai agreed:

PISKAI: I know things happen, especially when alcohol is involved. But I don’t see him as the kind of person drinking to excess where he could walk or fall in the river. I would never think he would be the kind to commit suicide.

FUOCO: The possibility of a suicide likewise is discounted by Jack and Ellen.

JACK KOCHU: He had a lot to do, he had a lot to look forward to. He just bought a bed, he was going to buy a car at the end of the month, he had a date with a girl a couple days later, he was planning on coming home for Christmas, worried about being able to afford Christmas presents for everybody — absolutely not!

FUOCO: And, Paul’s brother, George, likewise can’t wrap his head around Paul committing suicide.

GEORGE KOCHU: I’m just confused because there was never a definitive answer as to why what happened happened. If you had known Paul you’d never had thought he’d go out and do this to himself. He just got his job, his life was just starting. It’s hard to think he would have done this on his own without any sort of accident, maybe, foul play, maybe.

FUOCO: As for, Jess, well, she’s unsure what to think.

JESS KOCHU: The problem with Paul’s death is that any scenario that one makes up, and to me there’s only a certain many that even work, but none of them make sense. There’s none where you can really say, ‘Yes, I can see that happening.’ No. 1, I don’t accept that he would have wanted to put himself into the river because of some sort of suicidal pain. It was not there. And I’ve been saying all along even if it was, there’s better ways, and more comfortable ways to go about ending one’s life than ‘I’ll just jump in the freezing cold river.’ He would have never done that. … The accident angle makes no sense to me because I don’t know what business he would have had walking along the river, and from what I remember in Pittsburgh is there's a fence along the river where he lived…and the final angle is somebody killed him and put his body in the river but I’m like, ‘Who the heck would want to kill him? It makes no sense!’ He’s just a person walking around at night and that’s the weird part. He was out at night, which is something that he never did but to me it doesn’t make sense that anyone would see someone on the street would become homicidal because they say 85 percent of those who are killed know the person who killed them.

FUOCO: So, where does that leave Paul’s family? Grief-stricken, confused, and frustrated. There just are no answers to their questions. What happened to Paul -- and why?

JACK KOCHU: He wasn’t an irresponsible man. He was not a drug user or an alcoholic, he was not mean spirited. He would do anything for anybody. If he couldn’t, he’d feel very badly about it. He was a remarkable young man. (crying).

FUOCO: If you could find out what happened to Paul, would that provide some salve for you?

ELLEN KOCHU: Yes, it would definitely help.

FUOCO: Not knowing is worse than knowing, right?

JACK KOCHU: Especially with all contradicting statements and inaccurate statements. So to have some modicum of truth, to have something found out, yeah, he tripped and there wasn’t a guard rail, or somebody did knock him into a car and threw him in the river, whatever happened.

Because every day new scenario comes into my head about what could have happened and that’s a lot of damn days since he went missing.

ELLEN KOCHU: No one wants to hear that their child was hit by car, or died from an overdose. Or whatever. Just not knowing isn’t helping anything because just this ongoing mystery and really just feeling helpless and that they didn’t care really hurts.

On the next episode of “THREE RIVERS, TWO MYSTERIES” we’ll look at the life of Dakota James...and the strange circumstances of his disappearance and death -- all so similar to Paul’s.


Ashley Murray produced this podcast. Virginia Linn is the editor.

Rebecca Droke is the photographer/videographer. Artist Daniel Marsula designed the logo. Ben Howard and Sam Underwood are the web page designers.

This podcast was produced in the studios of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Downtown Pittsburgh.

For photos, videos and more of “Three Rivers, Two Mysteries,” visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website at Listen to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Until next time, I’m Michael A. Fuoco.

Support for "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" comes from W.K. Lieberman Company, LLC.


Debbie Dohmlo of Robinson noticed something floating in the waters of the Ohio River near her home on the morning of March 6, 2017. On closer inspection, she discovered it was a body--that of missing Duquesne University graduate student Dakota James. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Various photos of Dakota James sit out on a table during his funeral service March 25, 2017, at the Stauffer Funeral Home in Frederick, Md. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Jeff James and his wife, Pam (at right), from Frederick, Md., surrounded by family members, speak at a North Shore press conference, thanking the people of Pittsburgh for their support, sympathy and generosity during their search for their missing son, Dakota. His body was discovered the preceding day in the Ohio River in Robinson. (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette)

At a press conference, Pittsburgh Assistant Police Chief Lavonnie Bickerstaff announces the discovery of Dakota’s body in the Ohio River near Neville Island. (Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette)

Wearing a Duquesne University shirt and a Pittsburgh Pirates hat, Dakota takes a selfie with his family. The photo was taken in the summer of 2016 at a Pirates game at PNC Park. About a half a year later, it was used on his missing posters. Also pictured are Dakota’s parents Jeff and Pam (left and right) and his paternal grandfather, Donald James (rear).

In honor of Dakota’s love for his alma mater West Virginia University, mourners at his funeral in Frederick, Md., stand and sing John Denver’s "Country Roads." (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Dakota’s godfather Mark Hays of Harrisburg kisses Dakota’s mother Pam during a memorial service March 18 at Calvary United Methodist Church on the North Side, Dakota’s neighborhood. Dakota’s father, Jeff, is at right. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

The urn for Dakota’s cremains is surrounded by flowers during a short service March 25, 2017, at Resthaven Memorial Gardens in Frederick, Md. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Family and friends reach out to touch a “spirit dove” after a memorial service for Dakota at Calvary United Methodist Church on the North Side,. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Pam James releases a dove as her husband Jeff James, son Shayne and grandson Elias look on following a service for Dakota in Frederick, Md. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

In this still from a surveillance video in Katz Plaza in the Cultural District in Pittsburgh’s downtown, Dakota is shown looking at his smart phone. Presumably, he was walking toward the Roberto Clemente Bridge on his way to his North Side apartment. It was the last known sighting of Dakota before he disappeared and subsequently drowned.

Dr. Karl Williams, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner, in a 2015 file photo: “In the absence of any sign of an assault, in the absence any history of somebody pushing him, in the absence of something else happening, it’s an accident.”

Chapter 3 Transcript

"Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" comes from W.K. Lieberman Company, LLC.

THREE RIVERS, TWO MYSTERIES A Podcast by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Copyright 2017, PG Publishing Co.

Chapter 3 -- “An Old Soul”

FUOCO: Previously on “Three Rivers, Two Mysteries”-- MONTAGE OF SOUND BYTES

FUOCO: Chapter 3

Dakota James was focused like a laser. He wanted to make something of himself. That’s why the 23-year-old was in the MBA program at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. And he had plans to attend law school after graduation.

But while Dakota was a serious student, he knew how to have fun, too. He appreciated the humor in life, the joy of a laugh. He possessed a dry, sharp wit--a friend said he spoke “fluent sarcasm.”

Dakota was an active participant in life. He was a high school athlete in his home state of Maryland. In Pittsburgh, where he lived since 2015, he loved to run and bike, to experience its trendy restaurants and taverns, to socialize with friends.

But what he loved most was spending time with his extended and exuberant family -- his parents, an older brother, a sister-in-law and nephew, grandparents, and too many aunts, uncles and cousins to count.

It was Jan. 25, 2017, and Dakota was enjoying a midweek happy hour with co-workers. He also was looking forward to the weekend when his big family would gather in Deep Creek Lake, Md.

When that night’s socializing ended, he walked through Downtown alone. He likely was headed to his North Shore home across the Allegheny River, not far from where it meets the Monongahela and forms the Ohio. He entered a dark alley...and disappeared.

Nearly six weeks later, his body was found floating in the Ohio in a Pittsburgh suburb. He had drowned.

The circumstances of an eerily similar mystery two years earlier and involving a Duquesne University graduate echoed loudly.


FUOCO: This is “Three Rivers, Two Mysteries,” a podcast by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I’m Michael A. Fuoco, an enterprise reporter at the Post-Gazette.

In this five-chapter podcast, we are examining the unexplained circumstances of Dakota’s case. It is strangely similar to that of Paul Kochu, a 22-year-old Duquesne graduate whose disappearance and drowning two years earlier we covered in the last chapter.

In future episodes, we’ll look at what Pittsburgh police did and didn’t do in both cases.

And we’ll explore the two-decade-old phenomenon of young white males from the Northeast to the Midwest disappearing and drowning. They had been drinking with friends -- just like Paul and Dakota had done. One theory claims a serial killer -- or killers -- is to blame.

However Dakota came to drown, his family feels, it was a murder.

This is his story.

Dakota Leo James was born June 21, 1993, in Jefferson, Md., about an hour west of Baltimore. He had an older brother, Shayne.

His parents, Jeff and Pam James, said Dakota was initially very quiet and didn’t speak much. They learned he had ear problems that later were fixed by surgery.

I spoke with them in their cozy apartment in Frederick, Md., where they have lived for a little more than a year.

Jeff, who works as a fuel price analyst and Pam, who works for Jefferson County, are friendly, kind and accommodating, even as their eyes are clouded by grief.

They were watching their grandson, Elias, Shayne’s son, as they discussed Dakota growing up as a very happy child.

JEFF JAMES: He loved to play in the sandbox for hours, all day, a dirty kid. He did not mind getting dirty.

PAM JAMES: When he played in the sandbox all of his cars were lined up.

JEFF JAMES: He kept all of his toys very organized. Never had to tell him to clean his room or to put anything away.

FUOCO: Dakota lived an organized, planned life. It was a quality everyone knew and respected. Everything had a place, everything was planned and documented. That led to him being a good student, to living a focused life, his parents said.

Dakota attended Brunswick High School in a rural area of Frederick County, where everyone knew him as Koty.

Amid farms and rolling foothills, he specialized in computer education and accounting and was a member of the swim team for four years.

Every year, the family would travel to a cabin in Silver Lake, N.H. Dakota loved being with his family amid the beauty of the area.

When Dakota was about 18, he told his parents he was gay. His parents were fine with that and Dakota was happily surprised at their reaction.

PAM JAMES: We weren’t concerned about him being gay. We were concerned about the safety of him being gay. He was such a non-confrontational person that we were always afraid he would get hurt.

FUOCO: After graduating from high school, Dakota attended West Virginia University. He loved the academic and social environment. He bonded with classmates and professors alike.

He was a millennial with two earrings, a Harry Potter tattoo and a chinstrap beard. Nevertheless, his mother Pam described him as “an old soul.” Relatives and friends remark at how kind he was with older generations.

He graduated with a bachelor of science degree in economics in 2015.

And then it was off to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Sixteen months later, he was gone.

On the morning of Jan. 25, 2017, Dakota called his mother Pam. They discussed his W-2 form for taxes, his application for school funding, the upcoming trip that weekend to Deep Creek Lake, his classes, and his job in logistics for a Pittsburgh trucking company.

PAM JAMES: He talked about how he had gotten a bonus for the first time in his life and he was so excited about getting the bonus, getting a raise, everything just seemed to be going well for him that day. He was just really happy. He talked about when he came to the lake...he had class Thursday and Friday, so he would make sure all of that was done before he came to the lake.

FUOCO: Later that day, Dakota and some of his office co-workers went to happy hour at 5 p.m. They went to Bar Louie in Station Square on Pittsburgh’s energetic South Side.

At about 7:30 p.m., Dakota and a new female co-worker, who had only been at the company for a week, decided to bar hop. They boarded the Pittsburgh trolley, known as the “T”, for a short ride across the Monongahela River into Downtown.

They went to the Diamond Market restaurant in Market Square, tabbing out there at 9:27 p.m. Then it was on to the 941 Saloon, a gay bar on Liberty Avenue where they stayed for an hour. And then they went to Images, also a gay bar just a couple doors down Liberty.

Dakota and his co-worker were videotaped about 11:30 p.m. by a surveillance camera. They were walking toward the Wood Street T station. The co-worker requested an Uber for a ride home.

Presumably, Dakota then set off for his North Shore apartment across the Allegheny River from Downtown. A still from a surveillance video shows him walking in Katz Plaza in the city’s Cultural District. It was 11:46 p.m.

He appears to be walking upright as he looks at his cell phone. He heads toward an alley, the most direct route to the Roberto Clemente Bridge, the span that would take him across the river to his home.

That was the last time he was seen alive. Another video camera in the alley that would have shown which way he turned wasn’t working. Ironically, it was filled with water.

Detectives said video surveillance on the North Shore does not show Dakota coming over any of the bridges.

Dakota had vanished. He didn’t show for work the next day, a Thursday. A co-worker went to his apartment that night but he wasn’t there. The next day, a Friday, his employer called the apartment manager. When she couldn’t find Dakota she called his mother, Pam about 9:15 a.m.

PAM JAMES: I knew something was wrong. That was not like him not to be in contact with somebody.

FUOCO: Pam immediately called her husband, Jeff, who was on his way to work. “Koty’s missing,” she explained. He sped home.

The couple was already packed to go to their vacation spot that night. Pam called Jeff’s sister, Mandy, who was going with them. She immediately went to the James’ apartment with her pitbull mix, Ava. When Jeff got there, they all set off for Pittsburgh.

Pam wasted no time during the three-hour car ride. She pulled out his cell phone bill and closely examined it.

PAM JAMES: I started sending out text messages to all of the telephone numbers that had repeated themselves so you knew he had been in contact with this person a lot. Text messages. “My name is Pam James, I’m Dakota’s mother. Dakota is missing. Have you heard from him? When was last time you heard from him? Please contact me with anything.”

FUOCO: In Pittsburgh, police told Dakota’s parents they’d have to wait until the next day, Saturday, to file a report. Unable to sit still while Dakota was missing, they began to search or him themselves.

PAM JAMES: We began to look for him ourselves.

JEFF JAMES: We walked the route he would have walked home. We knew they had been at Station Square and knew from there which way he would have walked. We went into the bars, tried to talk to people, to see if they had seen anything or heard anything. We were sort of the beginning of the investigation.

FUOCO: In fact, over the next six weeks, they began to feel they and not Pittsburgh missing person detectives were the lead investigators in the search for Dakota.

Detectives did not prioritize Dakota’s case, Jeff and Pam said. But Detective Krista Hoebel, the lead investigator, begged to differ. She said all detectives worked tirelessly on the case and she, quote, “didn’t come up for air” until Dakota’s body was found.

As an example of the frustrations they encountered, Pam and Jeff said they made detectives aware that the 941 Saloon had interior surveillance of the night Dakota and his friend were there. Maybe there was useful information on it, Pam and Jeff thought.

But by the time detectives followed up, the videotape had already been recorded over.

Detective Hoebel said that interior surveillance wasn’t really needed for investigative purposes.

DETECTIVE HOEBEL: We felt very confident in the witness accounts that we obtained from the bartenders and the female he had been with of his behaviors. We had a very detailed account from them what he had done and how he had been acting. And then they left 941 and they went to Images. They were there for a short time. We interviewed bartenders and the DJ who was at that bar. And then they leave and we get them on surveillance. So we felt very confident in the statements of his actions that would have been caught on camera.

FUOCO: His actions but not anybody else in the bar, right?

DETECTIVE HOEBEL: We had no indication that he had been followed or anybody had had any confrontation minus some verbal issue that he had with bartenders.

FUOCO: When you talk about his actions, was he…

DETECTIVE HOEBEL: He was intoxicated, yes.

FUOCO: To what degree? What was he doing that indicated how intoxicated he was?

DETECTIVE HOEBEL: We interviewed the bartender and DJ...he was asked to leave both establishments based on his behavior.

FUOCO: Additionally, Pam and Jeff felt they were treated with disrespect and disinterest, even as they were traumatized by Dakota’s unexplained disappearance. Again, Detective Hoebel strongly denies the assertion.

In the next chapter, we’ll examine more fully how the Jameses and the Kochus feel Pittsburgh police treated them and how detectives say they dealt with the families.

Over the weeks, 50 relatives and friends came from Maryland to Pittsburgh to help out.

They searched. They showed Dakota’s picture to pedestrians. They plastered poles, the T stations and buildings with missing person fliers. Later, a $10,000 reward was offered.

It seemed there was nowhere you could walk in Pittsburgh without seeing a Dakota James missing person flier.

Newspaper, television and radio extensively covered the disapperance. And Pam in particular was extremely active on social media about Dakota’s disappearance. In fact, she generated so much interest that her Facebook account exploded to the maximum of 5,000 friends.

The effort paid off. It was a rare Pittsburgher who didn’t know that a Duquesne student by the name of Dakota James was missing. And many made the connection to the similarity to the 2014 disappearance of Paul Kochu. His parents, who knew full well what Pam and Jeff were going through, called and offered their support.

Pittsburgh also opened its arms to the family A hotel provided free lodging. Restaurants served them free meals and supplies.

Candlelight vigils were held Downtown and at Duquesne University. Dozens upon dozens of volunteers, most of them strangers, participated in numerous searches. Businesses donated pizzas, drinks, handwarmers and cakes.

Pittsburgh’s trademark big heart was in full force. Dakota’s family was grateful beyond measure.

PAM JAMES: They stepped up when no one else would.

JEFF JAMES: They’ve been everything the police have not been...

PAM JAMES: And not just Pittsburgh, Ohio, Maryland, strangers...people we don’t even know. His story just struck people and they felt the need to come and help.

FUOCO: Among the volunteers were Cindy White, who lives in a Pittsburgh suburb, and Jill Battiste, who lives in a neighboring county. Strangers to each other and to the James family, Cindy, who’s 62, and Jill, who’s 40, said they had never before volunteered for a missing person search. But Dakota’s disappearance touched them in a special way, they said.

I met them in a noisy restaurant. Here’s Jill:

JILL BATTISTE: I saw his picture on the news and then I saw his dad, I knew I had to help.

FUOCO: The pair participated in numerous searches, which were physically and emotionally intense.

JILL BATTISTE: You don’t’re looking for articles of clothing...and then later on it hits you you might actually be looking for a body.

CINDY WHITE: It was very, very emotional.

JILL BATTISTE: You want an answer but you don’t want to find a body or anyone’s body.

FUOCO: But as time went on, hope faded for a rescue. A recovery began to seem more likely. Here’s Dakota’s dad Jeff:

JEFF JAMES: Not that I wanted to give up, not that I wanted to admit anything that he was gone, I also had to figure out whether it would it be better to find him dead than to not find him at all? I thought it would be for me.

FUOCO: Despite the vigils, despite the prayers, despite the air, land and water searches by police and volunteers, that dreaded phone call came, dashing any faint hopes.

On March 6, Dakota’s body was found floating in the Ohio, about 10 miles downriver from the confluence of the Allegheny and the Mon. He had been missing 40 days. Unlike Paul Kochu’s nude body, Dakota’s was completely clothed and had his ID on him.

The discovery confirmed everyone’s worst fears, Jeff said. The question of where Dakota was had been answered. But what remained was the troubling question of how he came to be there.

JEFF JAMES: I think someone knows what happened to him, just like I think someone probably knows what happened to Paul and Jimmy Slack.

I kind of thought the worst right away. That was always my fear for him.

FUOCO: Why’s that?

JEFF JAMES: Being gay, being in a strange town. He was just so trusting, he wasn’t necessarily the kind of guy who would walk down the street and look over his shoulder. I think he just had faith that everything was going to be OK. But it wasn’t.

FUOCO: The mystery of how Dakota died remained. But as the questions hung heavy, the focus now was on memorials to be held, tears to be shed, good-byes to be said.

Cindy White, the stranger who became a searcher and family friend, was shaken. She was unsettled by the fact that for the second time in two years, a missing young man was found dead in the river.

CINDY WHITE: We prayed and prayed and prayed for this child. Because he’s become Pittsburgh’s child, you know that.

FUOCO: At a press conference where the family vowed to solve the mystery of Dakota’s death, Jeff offered gratitude to the people of his son’s adopted city.

JEFF JAMES: Thank you to the people of Pittsburgh for all of your support. It didn’t end the way we wanted to but we’re happy we can take Dakota home and say a proper goodbye to him.

FUOCO: Twelve days after Dakota’s body was recovered, his mom Pam went on Facebook. It was March 18, the morning of a memorial for Dakota in Pittsburgh.

She wrote: “I keep asking myself why why why do I have to do this today? This just can't be true. Why won't someone just wake me to tell me that I've just been dreaming!! My heart is simply just breaking.”

She ended with “Dakota I love you so hard!”

The post got 6,500 likes.

Later that day, inside Calvary United Methodist Church in the North Side neighborhood where Dakota had lived, sunlight streamed through Tiffany stained-glass windows. An acoustic version of “Hallelujah” played along with a slideshow of photos of Dakota from birth through young adulthood. He was smiling in all of the pictures.

During the service, he was remembered as intelligent, loving, independent, sarcastic and organized with an infectious spirit. A childhood friend said he lived every day as if it were his last.

Several hundred relatives, friends, classmates and strangers alternately smiled and dabbed their eyes.

The Rev. Larry Homitsky, the pastor who had counseled the James family, acknowledged that temporal and spiritual questions remained. He said he could not answer "Why?" but could speak to the enduring values of diversity, learning and friendship in our lives.

And Pittsburgh, he said, had given that to Dakota’s family.

Six days later, on the eve of Dakota’s funeral, his family held what they called a “Celebration of Life” in Frederick, Md., at the Francis Scott Key American Legion Post. The family wanted the evening to be casual.

Teardrop lights hung over the crowd. After paying respects to the family, about 200 former high school classmates, family friends, and Frederick residents sat at long tables. They sipped beer and ate food from a buffet. Another 100 or so had to stand. A rumble of conversation was continuous.

Icing on a large sheet cake read “Dakota I love you so hard” -- the phrase from Pam’s Facebook post. That phrase and the name Dakota Leo James were also printed on green rubber bracelets that people placed on their wrists.

A slideshow of Dakota’s life played on a large screen. More photos were on a table along with and his 2015 West Virginia University diploma.

If you didn’t know any better, you might have thought it was a graduation party, albeit one tinged with sadness.

A tearful Jeff addressed the crowd:

JEFF JAMES: On behalf of my family, my wife and my son, I want to thank you for coming out tonight. It’s incredible how many people are here and the support we’ve been given for this time. It’s a difficult time but with all of the love in this room, I think we’re going to make it. If you can take a look at the program you’ll see we have a few scheduled speakers tonight and then we’ll have the time for anyone else who wants to come up and say a few words. So again, I want to thank everyone for all the help they’ve given us for the last two months.

People took the microphone to talk about the good times they shared with Dakota. They said he was smiling always and was everyone’s friend -- especially if you were 60 years old or older.

The next day a service was held in a nearby funeral home chapel. Again, it was standing-room only. In honor of Dakota’s love for WVU, everyone stood and sang John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

CONGREGATION SINGING: County roads, take me home, to the place I belong, West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home, take me home, country roads.

FUOCO: State and local police then escorted an incredibly long line of cars to Resthaven Memorial Gardens. At the cemetery, Dakota’s 7-month-old nephew, Elias, held and stared at the green rubber bracelet that memorialized his uncle.

As the sun disappeared behind an overcast sky, a harmonica played “Amazing Grace”. Mourners passed by the box containing Dakota’s cremated remains and said farewell with a touch or a kiss.

Two months to the day after Dakota’s funeral, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office ruled that he had died of an accidental drowning.

Dakota’s blood alcohol content was .214--slightly more than 2 ½ times the legal limit.

Pam and Jeff, who believe their son was the victim of foul play, were stunned with the accidental ruling. Dakota’s blood-alcohol level didn’t explain why he might have gone to the river bank and fallen in, they said.

JEFF JAMES: I’ve got no problem with you telling me he was intoxicated. I know he was out drinking. But I am telling you, he was 23 years old, this wasn’t his first drink, you know, unfortunately it might have been his last. He wasn’t the kind of kid who went out and got drunk once and decided ‘I’m going to go swimming.’ He wasn’t that kid. He had been to a bar before.

PAM JAMES: Well, and even when we saw the Katz Plaza video we see him walking -- texting and walking at the same time.

JEFF JAMES: He stumbles at one point...he’s texting...and he stops, he’s texting and stumbles a little bit and leans up against a building and starts again. That’s as bad as it gets. He’s not wobbling, he’s not falling down, he’s not puking. I’ve walked home like that a bazillion times.

FUOCO: The gap between that last sighting of Dakota in Katz Plaza and his body being found looms large. Police can’t say for sure where--or, really, even if--Dakota entered the Monongahela River. Detective Hoebel conceded he as easy could have gotten in a car just past the alley as he could have fallen into the river.

Questions abound. Why would Dakota have gone to the river’s edge? To urinate? His parents said he wouldn’t have gone out of his way to do so. Indeed, if Dakota was so drunk that he fell into the 41-degree water, how did he navigate all of those stairs to get down to the river in the first place?

PAM JAMES: It’s not that close for you to fall into the river. I truly believe (it was a) hate crime. Someone did something against him because of who he was. They hurt him, someone murdered him, that’s my opinion.

Pittsburgh Police Cmdr. Victor Joseph, who heads the Major Crimes Unit, said detectives won’t speculate about what might have occurred because they don’t deal in theories. Instead, he said, they deal in facts supported by evidence. And that’s what they provided to the medical examiner’s office.

CMDR. JOSEPH: We conveyed our evidence to the ME. The ME makes the ultimate decision of cause and manner of death. We did not have any evidence that would have led us to believe there was foul play at hand, that there was suicide at hand, we didn't have any evidence to that. So we presented the facts and evidence to the medical examiner They have investigators who do some investigation as well and based on the totality of the circumstances, everything, the ME makes their decision. OUT 13:37

FUOCO: Dr. Karl Williams, the county medical examiner, said his office made that ruling because there was no evidence of a homicide or a suicide. However, he conceded that if someone had pushed Dakota into the water, there likely would be no marks to indicate such an assault happened.

I spoke with him in his office:

DR. WILLIAMS: We’re not going to call it a homicide without evidence. So all I’m saying we always act on the best evidence we have at the time. So in the absence of any sign of an assault, in the absence any history of somebody pushing him, in the absence of something else happening, it’s an accident.

FUOCO: But just to be clear, we don’t know where he entered water, how he entered the water, whether he fell off a bridge, was walking along the riverbank, whether he tripped over a log, we don’t know that.

DR. WILLIAMS: I don’t know it as we sit here.

FUOCO: Still, he said he was more confident in ruling the manner as accidental as opposed to undetermined.

DR. WILLIAMS: Yes, I’m confident we made the right decision in that case.

FUOCO: Is it possible another forensic pathologist might have have ruled undetermined?

DR. WILLIAMS: Yes, absolutely. It’s possibleit could have been ruled, I suppose, a suicide or a homicide. Those would be outliers. I think the vast of medical examiners, forensic pathologists are going to rule it just as we did here, and based on the same kind of analytic process about looking at the case.

FUOCO: The ruling surprised Cyril Wecht, the internationally acclaimed forensic pathologist. He’s known for involvement in high profile cases such as the Kennedy assassination, the JonBenet Ramsey killing and Elvis Presley’s death. Dr. Wecht is a Pittsburgher and a former Allegheny County coroner. The James family hired him as a consultant.

DR. WECHT: This is a case that definitely should have been checked off as “undetermined,” allowing for and requiring then the police to continue the investigation to see what more they could have come up with. To rule this as accidental in the absence of any physical circumstances, any environmental conditions, any basis at all involving other people, factors and circumstances, to rule this an accident is definitely premature and wrong. They should have left this as undetermined. If they wanted to revisit at a later time after police had exhausted every line of possible line of inquiry, that would have been their decision. But to have ruled this accidental when they did is premature and I feel wrong and not fair and right for the family.

How does it fit in with an accidental scenario? Are you going down to daydream, to moonlight, to meet an Indian princess coming across the river from the other side as one of the song portrays? I’m being a little silly to make a point. But what kind of scenario? Come up with a scenario. Give me a scenario that has even a modicum of plausibility. Give me a scenario. I don’t mean you I’m just saying but out there for the police and medical examiner. Give me a scenario.

Dr. Williams, the medical examiner, noted that a ruling on the manner of death can always be changed.

DR. WILLIAMS: Coroner’s and medical examiners can always revisit the case and change the cause and manner of death, for that matter.

FUOCO: Are you at all considering changing the ruling in the James case to undetermined from accidental?

DR. WILLIAMS: Not without being presented with new evidence of some sort.

On the next episode of “THREE RIVERS, TWO MYSTERIES” we’ll look at the theory of the Smiley Face Serial Killer and how Pittsburgh police handled Dakota and Paul’s cases.



Ashley Murray produces this podcast. Virginia Linn is the editor.

Rebecca Droke is the photographer/videographer. Daniel Marsula designed the logo. Ben Howard and Sam Underwood are the Web page designers.

This podcast was produced in the studios of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Downtown Pittsburgh.

For photos, videos and more, visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website at Listen to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Until next time, I’m Michael A. Fuoco.

Support for "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" comes from W.K. Lieberman Company, LLC.


A jogger passes one of numerous smiley faces along the Roberto Clemente Bridge (also known as the Sixth Street Bridge) over the Allegheny River. This is the bridge Dakota James presumably would have walked across on his way home the night of Jan. 25, 2017. Surveillance video on the North Side show he didn’t walk across any span over the Allegheny that night, police say. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

There are a dozen or so smiley faces on panels along pedestrian walkways on the Roberto Clemente Bridge. Under the Smiley Face Killer theory, serial killers have targeted about 100 young while males from the Northeast to the Midwest for two decades. The name Smiley Face Killer was created by a journalist after he was told there were smiley faces and other graffiti near some of the bodies of water where the victims died. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. in his office: “The whole system has failed somebody when Mr. and Mrs. James come to you and say, ‘You know what, this has been a horrible experience, obviously we lost our child but we weren’t treated properly.’ We’ve all failed, the criminal justice system has failed.” (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

Pittsburgh Police Cmdr. Victor Joseph on the possibility of Paul and Dakota’s deaths being linked to the Smiley Face Killer theory: “We don’t base things on internet speculation, theories. We focus on the evidence. That’s what our detectives do, they follow the evidence, they investigate the case thoroughly….We do not have any evidence that any such thing exists in Pittsburgh.” (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

Retired NYPD Detective Kevin Gannon, one of the originators of the Smiley Face Killer theory: “The James case, with everything we’ve looked at, would probably be more likely to fall into our investigation than the Kochu case. The Kochu case may be a homicide but may not be related to us. We really don’t really know.”

Lee Gilbertson, a professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, who helped develop the theory: “These cells who go out and drown these kids, they try intentionally to leave no signs of foul play….They want it to look like a nighttime drowning so police will walk away from the case and not investigate it."

Chapter 4 Transcript

Support for "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" comes from W.K. Lieberman Company, LLC.

A Podcast by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Copyright 2017, PG Publishing Co.

Chapter 4 -- “The Investigations and the Smiley Face Killer”

Previously on “Three Rivers, Two Mysteries”:


FUOCO: Chapter 4

Missing person cases are unlike anything else that police investigate. In homicides, burglaries and other crimes, police know what happened even if they don’t know who’s to blame. But in missing person cases, the question isn’t whodunit? Instead, it’s where are they?

Did they voluntarily go missing, just to get away? Or was foul play involved? Might the person have committed suicide? Or did an accident cause their incapacitation or death?

Usually, when the person is located alive, as often happens, those questions are moot. Sometimes, sadly, there is evidence of a homicide or a suicide. And then there are the baffling cases of Paul Kochu and Dakota James. Their bodies were found floating in the Ohio River -- Paul in March 2015 and Dakota in March 2017. The discoveries only compounded the mysteries of why they went missing.

This is “Three Rivers, Two Mysteries,” a podcast by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I’m Michael A. Fuoco, an enterprise reporter at the Post-Gazette.

In this five-chapter podcast, we are examining the unexplained disappearances and deaths of Paul and Dakota. Paul was a 22-year-old Duquesne University graduate and an ICU nurse. Dakota was a 23-year-old Duquesne grad student.

In this chapter, we’ll examine how both families feel police responded to the cases and how they feel they were treated by Pittsburgh detectives. And we’ll look at conjecture that the cases could be the work of a serial killer -- such as the co-called Smiley Face Killer. The theory holds that the Smiley Face Killer or killers has targeted young white males from the Northeast to the Midwest for two decades.

In hindsight, neither family contends detectives could have saved the lives of their sons. But if police had been more responsive, they feel, more clues may have been found. And, if so, that might have eliminated the painful question that haunts them daily -- What happened?

And, both families add, if detectives had been more sympathetic and empathetic, it would have provided them some measure of comfort during the worst period of their lives.

The Kochus said that from their first encounter with Pittsburgh police, they had a bad feeling about them. And subsequent involvement only confirmed those fears.

JACK KOCHU: There’s nothing the police can do that’s going to make our lives like they were three years ago, when we getting ready to go up to Paul’s graduation. Nothing that they can do. But what they didn’t do, Mike, is what bothers this family and shakes us to the very core — they didn’t do anything. Ellen was at the forefront of everything from calling 911 that night to getting dental records on the day they wanted to identify Paul. They did nothing but treat us with basically what I would describe as contempt. They seemed like we were irritating them. And we would call frequently, sometimes several times a day, sometimes several times a week -- that we had absolutely no business talking to them, questioning them or suggesting to them because they were the goddamn police.

FUOCO: Jess Kochu, Paul’s sister who lives in Los Angeles, got to Pittsburgh a few days after Paul went missing and met with Detective Jeff Abraham, the lead investigator. By then, she already was upset that, in her mind, more had not been done.

JESS KOCHU: But I appreciated what he had to say and appreciated his compassion. But as time went on I did not like how when we would call and ask questions and be treated like an inconvenience. I did not like being treated unkindly, and I did not like being treated as an inconvenience. And it got to the point where you’d feel nervous. For me, I’d feel nervous just to call and ask a question because I was so sensitive from Paul’s disappearance anyway and I didn’t want to have shade and attitude thrown at me when I was asking what was going on. I didn’t like the non-returned phone calls. I didn’t like the non-returned emails. I didn’t like that they simply didn’t, like, they simply didn’t seem to care and didn't seem to treat it like a priority. And I feel like the best thing they could have done, if they felt in their deep heart of hearts they didn’t give a crap -- excuse my language -- they could have at least pretended that they did for people who are grieving and in pain. And that brings me to the insensitivity of the department. I remember when they told us Paul had been positively identified, there was even a sarcastic remark that was thrown in the midst of that. It was just like, you people are kind of heartless and I don’t respect you. We’re taught to respect the police and trust the police. It’s just not cool, which is the bottom line. It’s just not kind, and it’s not right.

FUOCO: Adding insult to injury, the Kochus said, was the mispronunciation of their last name by an assistant chief at a press conference to announce the recovery and positive identification of Paul’s body.


FUOCO: During an interview for this podcast in police headquarters, Detective Abraham apologized to the Kochus when told how they felt they had been treated.

DETECTIVE ABRAHAM: I talked to them on a daily basis. They expressed frustrations with me. With missing persons it’s tough because there’s a lot of unknowns until you find the person either alive or in this situation deceased. The uncertainty in any walk of life can eat at you. You have theories and what ifs running through your head. There was a lot of frustration, on my side, too, because I was frustrated because we we weren’t getting anywhere for this and I was trying to get a resolution for the family. So, I do apologize if they do feel that way.

I don’t try to come off as insensitive or anything like that. I would say that I fielded their phone calls on a daily basis when I was working on this case, I’ve since moved on to another office. But I fielded phone calls every day. They always had suggestions that I would run past my bosses, my chain of command, and a lot of their suggestions we ended up doing as far as search and rescue teams, they requested we’d go back in the water and do sonar again. We did all of that stuff for them.

FUOCO: Detective Abraham is now assigned to the Violent Crime Unit, which handles homicides, robberies and group violence intervention. I asked him if he understood why the Kochus feel the way they do.

FUOCO: I’m guessing in your field of work you deal with people who are in trauma…

DETECTIVE ABRAHAM: I deal with people’s worst nightmares every day, so this is nothing new.

FUOCO: So because of that you have an understanding of why they might…

DETECTIVE ABRAHAM: Lash out. Yeah. Absolutely. I don’t take it personally. The department doesn’t take it personally. We go to great lengths to make sure people are as comfortable as they can be with us. The office I work in now, we deal with death every day. So, that is something that we take very serious because without the family’s help, without the family’s backing in our investigations then we’re kind of at a loss. They’re sometimes our link to the community, too, so for us to gain evidence for us to gather evidence. That is something that I apologize about it if they do feel that way.

FUOCO: The James family had similar frustrations with Pittsburgh detectives who investigated Dakota’s disappearance.

JEFF JAMES: For me, I was willing to stay out of their way and give them a chance to do their job. I honestly don’t think they ever did. I wanted to let them do what they do. They know how to do this, they do it for a living. Maybe they’re doing things we don’t know about. I don’t know. Let’s try to stay out of their hair for a little while. It didn’t take long to find out they really weren’t as aggressive as you’d like them to be. So they weren’t as aggressive. They probably never could be if it was your child.

As far as I can tell, from nearly day one , the way Pittsburgh police go about these issues is to wait for you to show up in the river. I think the amount of detective work and research they did in this was very elementary. We came up with a lot of the ideas -- we were pushing them. I think if they would have called us more often, we always felt like we were tracking them down. Then it got to a point where they hardly ever return your phone calls.

I mean, they could have spent the day drinking and watching Penguins game if they would have just called me and said ‘Mr. James, we really didn’t get very far today but we’re still working on it.’ I didn’t even get that. Lie to me. I really got the impression they weren’t doing anything but that’s what they left me with. I don’t want to bad mouth them but I got to be honest, that’s the impression they gave me. One, they weren't working that hard and two they were disorganized and all over the place. The structure, something’s just wrong there.

FUOCO: Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Victor Joseph, who heads the Major Crimes Section, said missing person detectives conduct themselves professionally and put their hearts into their work.

CMDR. JOSEPH: Generally speaking, you can’t imagine the tragedy the family is going through so their perspective of what is going on is going to be affected by this great tragedy. I can assure you that our detectives do everything -- they communicate with the family, they use every investigative resource. How the families may feel about what's going on I think it’s greatly influenced by the tragedy they’re overcome with and that’s perfectly fine. We try to communicate with them and give everything we can to them.

I have two sons myself. It’s a tragedy what happened to these young men and their families. I can’t say that I would feel any different than they do if I was put in their situation. I couldn’t imagine dealing with what they’re dealing with. They loved their sons, tragedies happened. It’s not something they can see with their eyes and know exactly to the finest point what happened, so I can absolutely see how they would want those answers but, you know, sometimes, you know, we don’t have all the answers.

FUOCO: In preparation for an interview, producer Ashley Murray and I conveyed the families’ feelings to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. He expressed concern and said he would look into both cases.

When we arrived for the interview, he presented us with a letter he had sent to the Pittsburgh police chief, the county police superintendent and the county Chiefs of Police Association president.

In the letter, he requested that departments make victim advocacy services available to the families of missing people. They’re already used in other types of cases such as homicides.

He wrote: “Obviously, not knowing the whereabouts of a loved one is a very traumatic event for people who care about that person, especially their families.”

He further wrote that the nonprofit Center for Victims had agreed to his request to provide advocates in missing person cases.

The letter continued, quote: “That being said, I thank you if you already involve the center in these matters, or, if you haven’t, I ask that you please implement protocols which involve a victim’s advocate at the outset of your agency’s involvement.”

Less than a month later, the victim’s center presented their plan for missing person cases to the Chiefs of Police Association. Association members then voted unanimously to, quote, “endorse and support the use of a victim’s advocate for families on cases that involve missing persons.” Departments represented in the association include city and county police, the county sheriff, the FBI, Secret Service, U.S. Attorney and suburban police.

District Attorney Zappala said he wrote the letter because he was troubled by the families’ perception that they were being mistreated by investigators.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY ZAPPALA: I think quite frankly the only opinion that counts would be their opinion about how they’re being treated. If you want to talk to police on a regular basis, the police have to make themselves available.

The whole system has failed somebody when Mr. and Mrs. James come to you and say ‘You know what, this has been a horrible experience, obviously we lost our child but we weren’t treated properly.’ We’ve all failed, the criminal justice system has failed. So, we do have the assets out there, we just have to make sure they’re being utilized properly and timely. Knock on wood, my wife and I have four children. They’re there, they’re there for us. To lose one of those children -- I mean, I don’t want to put myself in the position of the Jameses or the Kochus but I know that it hurts a great deal. Like I said, we just have to do a better job in making sure they are supported, emotionally and otherwise.

FUOCO: On the question of how detectives handled the investigations, District Attorney Zappala said his review of the cases found nothing that raised red flags for him.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY ZAPPALA: The fact that they felt they weren’t treated well, I feel extremely badly about that because, like I said before, we do have plenty of assets and some wonderful people who want to augment investigators’ work. On the other hand, I’d like them to know that having reviewed certainly Paul’s file and Dakota’s file -- and I hate to refer to them as files, they’re human beings -- from what I’ve seen it was a professional investigation, professionally undertaken. There’s nothing I could have added or my guys could have added to the work that they did. But like I also said, the only persons whose opinions count in this case are the families so we’re going to try to do a better job. I can’t go back in time but we can help people in the future.

FUOCO: When Dakota went missing and his body was discovered, Pittsburghers began asking each other, “What the heck is going on?” Citing the many similarities with Paul’s disappearance and death, many expressed fears that a serial killer was to blame.

Speculation was rampant on the internet.

Headlines on the National Crime Beat News website blared: “Coverup for Active Serial Killer in Western Pennsylvania” and “Grindr app being used as hunting ground by Pittsburgh Serial Killer.”

Discussions of the possibility of a serial killer -- many pro but some con -- flooded Reddit and other social news aggregation and discussion websites.

One person wrote: The reality is, several young men (not all gay), have disappeared in Pittsburgh after a night of drinking, and their bodies found in one of the rivers, in the past few years. Yet Pittsburgh Police refuse to make mention of a serial killer. The post received 71 likes.

Another person posted: I've noticed a lot of that, too, and I'm in Canada! Very, very odd.

One post read: I have said since Paul Kochu, another young male and grad from Duquesne and transplant from outside of Pittsburgh went missing that this has to be a serial killer.

Another reader responded, “You’re thinking of the Smiley Face killers. He does fit the other victims profiles.”

Indeed, Paul and Dakota do fit the profile of suspected victims of the so-called Smiley Face Killer or killers.

The theory was developed by two retired New York City detectives who went public in 2008 with their three-year investigation. They claimed a group of killers had targeted young white males from the Midwest to the Northeast in winter months since about 1997.

At the time, the theory linked the deaths of about 45 potential victims from New York to Minnesota. Retired NYPD Detective Kevin Gannon said that number has more than doubled, spreading across 27 states. Detective Gannon, one of the originators of the theory, is now a private investigator.

Just as in Paul and Dakota’s cases, the victims were well educated, achievers, athletic and popular.

And there’s another similarity, Detective Gannon said.:

DETECTIVE GANNON: Most of the young men were drinking in bars with friends near a body of water. Through our investigation we were able to prove a lot of them, most of them, were not drowning cases at all. The victims had been murdered on land and just dumped into the water.

FUOCO: Under the theory, victims are rendered helpless by the date-rape drug GHB being slipped into their drinks. Also, some were held for a time and dumped into the water, according to Detective Gannon.

He said the name Smiley Face Killer was created by a journalist after he told the writer there were smiley faces and other graffiti near some of the bodies of water where victims died. Because some of the deaths occurred on the same days in distant cities, the theory is that well structured cells of serial killers are targeting the young men.

To be sure, there are skeptics who dismiss the theory as preposterous. And, they note that the theory’s namesake smiley faces are symbols so ubiquitous they can be found anywhere.

The theory gained so much publicity and notoriety that the FBI issued a national press release in 2008.

The press release said: “To date, we have not developed any evidence to support links between these tragic deaths or any evidence substantiating the theory that these deaths are the work of a serial killer or killers. The vast majority of these instances appear to be alcohol-related drownings.”

Still, some experts like acclaimed forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht say they cannot dismiss the theory outright. That’s because the pattern is too specific and statistically impossible to be coincidence.

Dr. Wecht, who has worked with Detective Gannon and has been hired as a consultant by the James family, had this to say:

DR. WECHT: There are cases interestingly of young adult white males just found in the explanation as to how they would have gotten into the water. Remember, Mike, water is a very stimulating thing, in the wintertime you’re freezing your ass off. So, unless you’re really, really out of it, and say somehow fall in, you’re not able to swim a couple feet, a couple yards and swim back to shore? And I’m talking about cases where there were not huge levels of drugs such as to explain an individual’s inability to act properly and appropriately.

Lee Gilbertson, a criminologist and professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, initially dismissed the theory as an urban legend. But after giving his grad students an assignment to map homicides, Dr. Gilbertson became so convinced in its validity that he joined the investigators. I interviewed him and Detective Gannon together.

FUOCO: Professor Gilbertson, I think I read somewhere that you did a statistical study to see the likelihood of this occurring as a coincidence, or am I misstating that?

DR. GILBERTSON: No, that’s actually correct. That was one of the first things when I started looking at it that informed me this wasn’t random. When you talk about randomness within a population, there should be a large what we call standard deviation, so not everybody should look alike. But when you looked at these individual, physically their height, their weight, stuff like that, there weren’t any tall skinny people, or short fat people, or short skinny people, or vice versa. They were all right in the middle.

FUOCO: Both men investigated Paul and Dakota’s cases. During a visit to Pittsburgh after Dakota’s body was found, Detective Gannon and Dr. Gilbertson discovered smiley faces on the Roberto Clemente Bridge. That’s the bridge Dakota presumably was heading for on the night he disappeared.

A dozen or so smiley faces are on the bridge panels along pedestrian walkways on either side of the span. It’s unclear when those smiley faces were placed there. Allegheny County said all graffiti had been removed on that bridge in November 2016. That’s only two months before Dakota went missing. However, it should be noted that smiley faces appear on other bridges in the city.

Detective Gannon said that while they are looking at both Dakota and Paul’s cases, it appears that Dakota’s is a better fit for their theory.

DETECTIVE GANNON: The James case, with everything we’ve looked at, would probably be more likely to fall into our investigation than the Kochu case. The Kochu case may be a homicide but may not be related to us. We really don’t really know. I know if I was police I would be speaking to the roommates a little bit more about what actually transpired that evening.

DR. GILBERTSON: Kevin hit on that, too. The differences between the two cases is with Kochu the fact he has so many injuries and the medical examiner describes opening the body bag and the body was naked. It doesn’t show up that way. If the body was found clothed it’s going to show up clothed. So he must have been found naked. That doesn’t fit with our group. Our group, these cells who go out and drown these kids, they try intentionally to leave no signs of foul play, they leave the clothes on the victim, they leave the wallet on the victim and the jewelry and stuff like that. They want it to look like a nighttime drowning so police will walk away from the case and not investigate it.

FUOCO: They said Pittsburgh detectives should continue to investigate the cases.

DR. GILBERTSON: Go out and re-interview everyone at least three more times, each person. Check every tissue sample again for all the alcohols and GHB, See if they changed.

DETECTIVE GANNON: Doc’s right, interviewing is the No. 1 thing. As we always say, and Dr. Wecht always says this, you should treat every case as a homicide and work backward so you don’t lose the information. If you treat it as accidental, then you realize “Oh, shoot, this might be a homicide,” you already lost the time all the physical forensic evidence you need. Some of that may have been lost already.

FUOCO: As for the possibility of the Smiley Face Killer being involved in Pittsburgh cases, Police Cmdr. Joseph offered this.

CMDR. JOSEPH: Wherever the investigation takes us, where the evidence takes us, that’s where we’re going. We don’t base things on internet speculation, theories. We focus on the evidence. That’s what our detectives do, they follow the evidence, they investigate the case thoroughly. We do not have any evidence that any such thing exists in Pittsburgh.

FUOCO: And District Attorney Zappala agreed.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY ZAPPALA: I was concerned, if that’s out there, what’s the evidence in support of that. There didn’t seem to be any.

FUOCO: Still, Dakota’s dad Jeff isn’t so sure:

JEFF JAMES: Yes, I absolutely think Koty could have been a victim of that as well as some of the other missing men in Pittsburgh. The thing with the smiley face, that whole concept to me, when I think about that and the general concept, I think, OK I can poke a lot of holes in it, but what really kind of brings it more to the surface and more of a reality or a possibility to me, is when you think of it in terms of Pittsburgh. When you think of the other kids that have gone missing, and think about the time of year when it happened and the time of day it happened and the circumstances where it happened, there’s too much there to just believe that those are three or four random things that happened. When things start happening at the same time and in the same way, that’s a pattern, that’s a pattern. Sure, it’s possible they are all random acts, random accidents, but I think also they should be looked into as a whole and maybe that the smiley face thing is the thing that links them all together.

On the next episode of “THREE RIVERS, TWO MYSTERIES” we’ll look at where Paul and Dakota’s families are in their grief. And we’ll talk about the legacies they want to leave for their lost sons.



Ashley Murray produces this podcast. Virginia Linn is the editor.

Rebecca Droke is the photographer/videographer. Daniel Marsula designed the logo. Ben Howard and Sam Underwood are the web page designers.

This podcast was produced in the studios of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Downtown Pittsburgh.

For photos, videos and more visit Listen to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Until next time, I’m Michael A. Fuoco.

Support for "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" comes from W.K. Lieberman Company, LLC.


Ken Haselrig, left, releases a "spirit dove" in memory of Dakota James as family and friends watch three other doves take flight after a memorial service March 18 at Calvary United Methodist Church on the North Side. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Sharon Sero holds up a T-shirt to check the size at a benefit for the family of Dakota James hosted by Tequila Cowboy and Y108/Star 100.7 in March at Tequila Cowboy, North Shore. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Jack Kochu walks past a wall in the basement of the family home in Bucktown, Chester County, that years ago was spray painted with inspirational messages by his sons George and the late Paul. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Ellen Kochu pauses at the kitchen table in the family home as she waits for dinner to be ready. Ellen had been a township clerk but her grief over Paul’s disappearance and death made it impossible for her to return to work. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Michael Florczykv, a family friend, comforts Jeff James (right) during the wake for Jeff’s son Dakota March 25 in Adamstown, Md., not far from the family’s home in Frederick. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Paul’s gravesite at a cemetery in Pottstown, not far from the family home in Bucktown, Chester County. As they often do, the Kochus plan to visit the grave on Dec. 16, the third anniversary of Paul’s mysterious disappearance from Pittsburgh’s South Side. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Chapter 5 Transcript

Support for "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" comes from W.K. Lieberman Company, LLC.

A Podcast by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Copyright 2017, PG Publishing Co.

Chapter 5 -- “Looking Back, Looking Forward”

Previously on “Three Rivers, Two Mysteries”:


FUOCO: Chapter 5

Waves of grief and confusion are unrelenting. They wash over those still mystified by the disappearances and deaths of Paul Kochu and Dakota James. The drownings of the young men were tragedy enough. As time passes, the unknown circumstances of how that occurred has only intensified the sorrow.

On Dec. 16 in Eastern Pennsylvania, Ellen and Jack Kochu, Paul’s mom and dad, will painfully mark the third anniversary of his strange disappearance from Pittsburgh’s South Side.

Shortly thereafter, on Jan. 25, Pam and Jeff James, Dakota’s mom and dad, will struggle in Frederick, Md., through the first anniversary of their son’s equally unusual disappearance from Downtown Pittsburgh.

I spoke with Ellen and Jack in their home near Pottstown about Paul, the youngest of their three children:

FUOCO: I’m guessing that a day does not go by that you do not think of your son.


JACK KOCHU: Sometimes barely an hour, Mike.

ELLEN KOCHU: We keep a candle burning, we’ve burned these memorial candles for years in the house. And I’ve got his favorite little book sitting on the fireplace, his very first book, “Barney’s Farm Animals.” Jessie and George couldn’t stand Barney but Paul loved him, the purple dinosaur or whatever he was. And his picture that I put in the senior yearbook, where it’s a snowstorm and he’s got his leg up in the air. He was just so…

JACK KOCHU: He was full of life.

ELLEN KOCHU: It just makes no sense, how something could go so wrong. Because I talked to him and he was fine. I don’t understand how something can go so wrong. That’s how we basically handle all of that.

FUOCO: Pam James said that as she mourns the loss of Dakota, the youngest of the couple’s two sons, she also misses something else.

PAM JAMES: Not being who we were. We’re just not the same people anymore. And that’s very hard. We don’t know who we are anymore right now. We’re trying to piece all of that back together. That's the hardest part for me.

FUOCO: As the sorrowful anniversaries approach, the two families look back at unimaginable loss magnified by mystery and confusion. But they also gaze ahead, filled with appreciation for the support they’ve received and with hope that the legacies they’re creating for Paul and Dakota will honor them for years to come.

This is “Three Rivers, Two Mysteries,” a podcast by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I’m Michael A. Fuoco, an enterprise reporter at the Post-Gazette.

For four chapters we’ve profiled the lives of Paul and Dakota, who both moved to Pittsburgh for college. Paul, 22, had recently graduated from Duquesne University and was a new ICU nurse in a hospital in his adopted home. Dakota, who was 23, was a graduate student at Duquesne with plans to attend law school.

We examined their eerily similar cases. Both had been drinking with friends the night they disappeared -- Paul in the early morning hours of Dec. 16, 2014, and Dakota, late on the night of Jan. 25, 2017.

Detectives believe each young man ended up in the river nearest their home -- Paul in the Monongahela and Dakota in the Allegheny. Authorities cannot say where or how this happened but they don’t suspect foul play. On the other hand, both families feel their sons were murdered.

The current carried Paul and Dakota’s bodies into the Ohio River, where they were recovered the following March -- Paul in 2015, Dakota in 2017.

In this final chapter, the families reveal the unbearable weight of their grief as the anniversaries of the unexplained disappearances approach.

Despite the maxim, it seems there are some wounds that time is simply powerless to heal.

Famed psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler Ross was one of the world's foremost authorities on the psychology of dying. One month before her own death, she and co-author David Kessler finished writing their second book together, “On Grief and Grieving.”

The book, published in 2005, introduced the now widely embraced stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. They form a framework to understand and live with loss. But the authors noted these stages do not provide a linear timeline -- not everyone goes through all of them or even in a prescribed order.

Paul’s sister, Jess, who has been in therapy since her college years, can attest to that. Depression overpowered her in November 2015, one month shy of the first anniversary of her brother’s disappearance. If it hadn’t been for medical intervention, her parents would have suffered the devastating loss of a second child in less than a year.

JESS KOCHU: I sank to some very, very, very, very, very low lows when everything happened with Paul and in the like year after when I think when I was the most down and out. I really didn’t know if I’d ever be able to kind of come back out. Because I would still go to work with a smile on my face but would come home in immense pain.

Part of my lowest lows was that I tried to hurt myself and I ended up in treatment for that because I was so sad about Paul. I think what has gotten me through is the realization that there are two choices at this point. It’s either continue to walk through life and do the best I can or die. And I don’t feel like I want to die and I don’t feel that would be honoring Paul. So I guess it’s exploring the other side and realizing that’s not my path has kind of forced me to put one foot in front of the other and keep going.

FUOCO: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about what you just said about trying to hurt yourself.9

JESS KOCHU: Yes, one night I purposely took a lot of pills and ended up in the hospital. And then I was OK.

FUOCO: And the trigger for that was Paul’s disappearance and death?

JESS KOCHU: Yes, the pain of it and on that particular night for whatever reason I wasn’t willing to work through it and I wasn’t able to feel it anymore because it hurt too much.

FUOCO: She is thankful that she didn’t harm herself. And she was quick to offer advice to anyone who might find themselves in as dark a place as she was in two years ago.

JESS KOCHU: No matter what you’re facing in your life you can come back from it, no matter what lows you hit there is a way out. Don’t try to hurt yourself. And if you do and make it through, get help.

FUOCO: Jess has been buffeted by other stages of grief, as well.

JESS KOCHU: I feel like I definitely have gone through some bargaining. In the back of my mind I was always thinking about bargaining, always thinking about, well, what if I ever had the opportunity to give up my life for Paul to come back or what if I can sell my soul to Satan for Paul to come back. Those ideas definitely pop into my head even though they’re completely unrealistic. There’s definitely anger, there’s certainly been some acceptance.

FUOCO: Even still, she said, and her parents agree, Paul’s loss has affected the family dynamic.

JESS KOCHU: You know, I feel deeply for anyone who lost a member of their family. But my family, it will never be the same. There’s been a lot of tension, there’s been a lot of love, we certainly rallied around each other and supported each other, but there’s been a lot of tension and a lot of, some fighting. For me, it’s weird to me because sometimes I wonder are people talking to me but they wish Paul was still alive and they were talking to Paul. Because there’s certainly been some times, as much as I love every single member of my family, that I’m talking to one of them and I’m like, ‘Oh, gosh, I wish I was talking to Paul.’ It’s a weird feeling, it’s a feeling you feel guilty, because you have these three beautiful people in front of you but you’re thinking about the one who’s not there. It’s been hard for me to get to the point where I’m still seeing that Paul’s not there but I’m really still seeing the love the beauty and gift that is my mother, my father and my brother George.

FUOCO: Her parents have likewise struggled through grief’s stages, seeking the salve of therapy and the solace of their faith. Here are Jack and Ellen:

ELLEN KOCHU: We were going for awhile up to a place close by called The Sanctuary, she’s a therapist and grief person. We had some very good days, it’s not like we don’t think about it every day, but we had very good days but there are just some days Jack’s either crying or I’m crying or Jess is crying. George doesn’t like to talk about it. And that’s how he handles it. He is very distraught. Everybody, we just can’t believe this happened. Yes, depression is there.

JACK KOCHU: Depression and anger. I think we’re past the denial part, we’re past the acceptance part but there’s still depression and anger. Unfortunately, a lot of times it’s directed at other family members, the immediate family or aunts or uncles. It doesn’t happen every day, doesn’t happen every month but it’s there. It’s not going away.

In the beginning, for maybe the first several months of the first year, Ellen and I would pray very much for an answer, for some kind of sign or some kind of explanation. After the first year, I kind of gave up but Ellen continued to pray for a sign or for an answer.

ELLEN KOCHU: We had been going to church, we’re Byzantine Catholic. And we don’t go any more. But I pray every single night. I believe in prayer but I believe in having faith more. That something -- it may not be tomorrow, it may not be next week -- but I believe that something, something will happen, and some answer will come up. I pray to the Holy Spirit every night, and I say ‘We’re willing to accept any answer you want to give us’ ...I don’t know where he would have fallen, I don’t understand the whole thing because we just don’t know what happened. But in any event, I told him that I’m willing to accept anything he wants to tell us.

FUOCO: As for Jess, she also would like to know how her brother ended up in the river, whatever the reason. But she doesn’t know if that would bring her complete closure.

JESS KOCHU: Do I feel like I would be closer to it if I knew what happened to Paul? Absolutely. But now I’m wondering is there ever any such thing or is that wound just never closed and you can only get it kind of closed depending upon how much information you have or how much work you’ve done to work through it. But would I still absolutely want to know what happened,? Yes, if it’s possible. It’s not really in my hands. I know my mom still prays for that and from time to time I do pray for that as well.

FUOCO: In the months since Dakota disappeared, Pam and Jeff James have been in a whirlwind. In addition to dealing with the loss of their son, they’ve started a foundation in Dakota’s memory and they’ve moved to a new place in Frederick, Md. All of that has consumed their time and their thoughts. Still, the realization of their tragic loss is never far beneath the surface of it all.

Here’s Jeff:

JEFF JAMES: I know this is going to sound silly but there’s so much to do when you lose someone. There’s so much paperwork and insurance and phone calls. I don’t regret it, but we started this foundation on top of that. It’s amazing how much work it is to do. You think maybe when someone goes away, that’s it, but it hasn’t been. It’s been a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but I’m just surprised at how much work there is to do. That’s one thing that sticks out to me. We got a lot going on in our lives, moving and things like that. We’re constantly going through Dakota’s things. So, the past is never very far behind us at all.

PAM JAMES: Our therapist tells us there’s 10 levels of grief, so we probably, me personally I probably haven’t hit half of them. I think I’m still in a loop of denial on those things.

JEFF JAMES: You know one of the first things Rev. Larry told us from the church in Pittsburgh is that you’re going to go through all of these stages and you’re going through them at your own pace, and you're going through stages and then you’re going to go backwards. You’re not going through stages, Pam and I, at the same time. We’ll be at in different stages at different times. And that’s just been 100 percent true. There’s days when I’m fine, you know, Dakota’s gone and I can deal with it and I got to move on, I got to go to work. And that same day Pam can be a total wreck, and I just kind of look at her and I don't get it. But then there’s days that are completely the total opposite.

I don’t know where I’m at right now. I’m not done, I know that. I’m not through it. Like I said, yesterday was a tough day for some reason. It doesn’t take much to knock you back a couple stages. We see people and hear from people all the time who tell us stories about Dakota or send us pictures or things they remember about him. So any minute something can set you back. It’s not a progressive line. You go back and forth.

FUOCO: Jeff said that just as the Kochus want to know what happened with Paul, his family wants the same regarding Dakota.

Pam said they are continuing to look for answers, which is why they hired renowned forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht. The answers they seek, she said, are not only to clear up the mystery of what happened to their son but to prevent something similar from happening to someone else’s child.

PAM JAMES: We definitely want to know what happened and that’s why we hired Dr. Wecht. I know in my heart that someone hurt Dakota. And I am hoping Dr. Wecht is going to be able to change the opinion of the city there so that they understand that something did happen to him.

FUOCO: In the midst of their sorrow, Pam and Jeff are comforted by the support from Pittsburghers, many of them strangers.

JEFF JAMES: The whole time period was unreal. You lose your son and he’s gone and you’re kind of like, you’ve almost mentally checked out, you’re having trouble comprehending anything. All the help that we got was the same way. I just couldn’t get my arms around, my mind around all the people who came to our side, physically came to us. Family, friends, like I said my co-workers, Pam’s co-workers, the people of Pittsburgh who we didn’t even know. For a while there, I think Pam and I were probably two of the most recognizable people in Pittsburgh, people stopped us on the street, they stopped us in restaurants. Just unbelieveable. Unbelievable.

The world is a bad place, it can be a rough and tumble place and there’s a lot of bad out there, but there is a lot of good in Pittsburgh. For as much as we lost the people just were great. I just can’t say enough about them.

FUOCO: Ellen and Jack Kochu said they had the same experience.

ELLEN KOCHU: Oh, the people in Pittsburgh were some of the nicest people we ever came across. So kind. We were searching down by the river and a woman came out of this townhouse and said she was making cookies at 3 o’clock if we wanted to have some cookies. Everybody was so nice.

There was a bunch of men that hang out at the Giant Eagle. They said they all knew Paul. And if they needed a dollar, if Paul had $5, he’d give them $5. They all were all so kind and had nothing but nice things to say about him.

JACK KOCHU: They even went out of their way for us on several occasions. One I can think of is the night before we left to come home, Ellen, Jessica and I. We were walking up and down Carson Street with flyers and talking to people to see if anybody had seen Paul or knew anything or had heard anything. I don’t know if it was 10 or 10:30 at night and we went into a restaurant and they were closed but they recognized us so they opened the kitchen back up for us and we had a very nice meal. Just going out of their way for us while we were there. I don’t know there is a nicer bunch of people in that neighborhood in Pittsburgh than anywhere else. They were all very kind.

ELLEN KOCHU: We can’t say enough about the people of Pittsburgh. For being such a huge town, people were just so generous. And they didn’t even know us, you know. That’s probably a bright light in all of this, is that people really reached out and helped us.

FUOCO: Support for the Kochus didn’t end there. In August 2016, they established a GoFundMe page titled “What Happened to Paul Kochu?” They set a goal of $5,000 to pay for a forensic pathologist to review Paul’s autopsy results, just as the James family is doing with Dr. Wecht.

The goal was exceeded with more than 100 donors. The James family was among the donors, even as they were searching for Dakota.

Pam wrote on the site.: “Keep searching for answers! From Dakota James' family.”

The Kochus were touched to the core by the act of kindness from a family that, like them, had been rocked by sorrow and mystery.

Emotional support for both families also came from their hometowns. For the Kochus, it included the Owen J. Roberts School District, where Paul and his siblings attended school. The family has established a college scholarship in Paul’s name for a senior planning a career in nursing. The money comes from a bowling fundraiser.

JACK KOCHU: The whole school district has really rallied behind us for the past 2½ years. And in turn we give back to the school district as well in the form of a scholarship in Paul’s name for the last couple of years. We intend to do that as long as we can.

ELLEN KOCHU: This year we were fortunate enough to give $2,500 to a future nursing student. There was a young woman going to Bloomsburg. And some of the things she wrote -- we made them write an essay, 100 words, nothing elaborate -- some of the things she said reminded us so much of Paul. We feel good about that and we’re hoping that our fundraiser keeps growing and that we can do more each year to give back.

FUOCO: On June 21, on what would have been Dakota’s 24th birthday, Pam and Jeff James held a press conference in Pittsburgh to announce a foundation in their son’s name. The goal is to promote more camera surveillance in the city, better police procedures and improved support for the families of missing people.

The Rev. Larry Homitsky of Calvary United Methodist Church was also there. He had provided spiritual support for the James family and worked with them in developing the foundation.

At the press conference, he noted “Out of the depths of grief sometimes can come the seeds of compassion and commitment.”

The foundation has raised more than $27,000 but the couple hopes to raise more to fund the installation of as many surveillance cameras as possible, especially on the bridges. And Pam said there are plans to meet with Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. who shares their interest in increased surveillance.

PAM JAMES: You know we started the foundation on behalf of Dakota hoping that we can help any other family not go through what we went through. The foundation is to make people aware of their surroundings beforehand, to help families of anyone who goes missing, and also to help the community to build communication bridges between the police departments and the people themselves because something needs to change there, and of course raising money to help put up cameras. We would like cameras on bridges.

FUOCO: Jeff added that had there been more surveillance cameras on the night Dakota went missing, there likely would be no mystery of what happened to him.

JEFF JAMES: It seems like the only logical thing is that someone or something impacted his way home. That’s our whole thing about the cameras, if there were cameras on the bridges and more cameras on the streets we would know this. If something happened to him, or if it was an accident or he was assaulted in some way we would have those answers. It’s just going to be a mystery forever.

FUOCO: As they move forward with the foundation, Pam and Jeff look for other positives amid their grief. Pam, for example, said she has formed lifelong friendships with those who showed the family compassion and support, people she never knew before. And Jeff said he now views life through a different prism.

JEFF JAMES: I think Pam and I are closer as a result of this. At least for me I just don’t go through life any more the way I used to. I really try to really soak it in and appreciate it, even the bad times. I appreciate my family more. I appreciate the people I work with. They’ve just been phenomenal, my company and my co-workers. You just kind of take stock how fortunate you are, how lucky you are. We lost a lot but you know we also have a lot. We have a lot of good stuff going for us. I don’t know that I realized that nine months ago as much as I do today. I think that’s good. I hate to have to pay the price to learn that lesson. Somehow, someway we are lucky.

FUOCO: Likewise, in his sorrow, George Kochu, Paul’s brother, shares a similar belief.

GEORGE KOCHU: I guess me and my family are all in different places as far as where we are in grieving and coping. I’m not saying anybody is better off than anyone else. I just have a different appreciation waking up every morning and having the opportunity to make a difference. I’m very grateful for that because Paul when he woke up that morning he never knew that would be his last time and that he’d never have another opportunity to take care of another patient, or speak with his friends, or speak to his family. He never knew that. I sort of have a newfound appreciation for little things and just being grateful for what I do have rather than what I don’t because it can be taken from you without any sort of anticipation.

I never really had an opportunity to, I guess, really to tell him how proud I was of him but I never thought he’d be gone in a blink of an eye. I guess I tried to just be the older brother that he’d be proud of and somebody he could look up to. Now in his passing and with him being gone I just try to still carry on that way of life, if he was still here to be somebody he could be proud of, I guess.

FUOCO: The sad anniversaries approach. The unexplained disappearances haunt the heartbroken families. Jess Kochu spoke about her family’s loss but it also reflects what the James family is experiencing.

JESS KOCHU: It’s always a difficult day because there are so many emotions. I feel uncomfortable just waking up, I feel uncomfortable looking into the eyes of my mom, dad and my brother and seeing their pain and thinking about my pain and thinking back to, you know, what if something had gone differently. So it’s just never a good day especially because we all grew up -- we didn’t always have a lot of money, but my mom and dad always made sure we had the most marvelous Christmases, so Christmas was always for all three of us kids was really such an enjoyable time and now it’s just so sad.

I’m not sure if we’ll do anything specific, but we’ll just do what we always do on that day, which is just to think of Paul and support each other, love each other, love Paul and Paul’s dead, wherever he is, if he still has some understanding of his life that was on this earth that he knows how much everyone still loves him, and what an absolute -- as much as everyone has been forced to quote unquote keep going -- what an absolute hole has been left now that he is dead and not here.

FUOCO: And so, just as Pittsburgh’s three rivers flow on, so, too, do the heartbreaking mysteries of how two young men with similar lives and similar promise came to share a similar fate.

Ashley Murray produces this podcast. Virginia Linn is the editor.

Rebecca Droke is the photographer/videographer. Daniel Marsula designed the logo. Ben Howard and Sam Underwood are the Web page designers.

This podcast was produced in the studios of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Downtown Pittsburgh.

For photos, videos and more, visit the Listen to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

I’m Michael A. Fuoco.

Support for "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" comes from W.K. Lieberman Company, LLC.


Editor Virginia Linn (far left), producer Ashley Murray and host Michael A. Fuoco discuss the "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" podcast at the live event. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Host Michael A. Fuoco (far right) responds to a question from live event moderator Andrew Conte as editor Virginia Linn and producer Ashley Murray look on. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Forensic pathologist Cyril H. Wecht (far right) explains his view of the Paul Kochu and Dakota James cases at the "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" live discussion. Also on the panel of experts are clinical psychologist Paul Friday (far left) and retired FBI supervisory special agent Lawrence Likar. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Lawrence Likar (center), retired FBI supervisory special agent, discusses the cases during the "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" live event as clinical psychologist Paul Friday (far left) and forensic pathologist Cyril H. Wecht listen. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

The third panel of the live event, the families of Dakota James and Paul Kochu -- Jeff and Pam James, and Ellen, Jess and Jack Kochu, from left to right -- discuss the agony, uncertainty and confusion of having a loved one go missing during the "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" live discussion on Dec 7, 2017. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Jess Kochu, center, an actress in Los Angeles, conveys to a live audience the immense grief she continues to feel three years after her brother Paul Kochu, 22, an ICU nurse, went missing from the South Side in December 2014. His body was found in March 2015 in the Ohio River in Wheeling, W.Va. She is seated between her parents, Ellen and Jack Kochu of Bucktown, near Pottstown, Pa. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Jeff James of Frederick, Md., wipes away tears as his wife, Pam, discusses the loss of their son, Dakota, 23. His body was found in early March 2017 in the Ohio River about 10 miles downriver from the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela. Dakota’s last known sighting was captured by a surveillance camera in late January 2017 as he walked through Katz Plaza in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Jeff James’s voice cracks and he sheds a tear as he and his wife, Pam, discuss the unfilled promise of their son Dakota, a Duquesne University graduate student, during the "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" live discussion. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Jeff and Pam James, left, and Ellen, Jess, and Jack Kochu share a lighter moment during the "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" live discussion on Dec 7, 2017 at Point Park University’s George Roland White Theater, Downtown. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Jeff James talks about his grief at the disappearance and drowning death of son, Dakota, as Jeff’s wife and Dakota’s mother, Pam, looks on. Understanding all too well such a loss is the family of Paul Kochu -- his mother Ellen, center, sister Jess and father Jack. Paul had a similarly baffling and tragic disappearance and death by drowning two years before Dakota. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Ellen and Jack Kochu have a quiet moment in the green room before appearing on stage before a live audience to discuss the baffling disappearance and drowning of their son Paul. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Jeff James gives his wife, Pam, a comforting smile before appearing on stage to talk about the mystery of their son Dakota’s disappearance and drowning. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Jeff James kisses his wife, Pam, in the green room before their appearance before a live audience to discuss the tragic loss of their son Dakota. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Psychologist Paul Friday, live event moderator Andrew Conte, and college professor and retired FBI supervisory special agent Lawrence Likar, share a moment before the "Three Rivers, Two Mysteries" live discussion on Dec 7, 2017. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)


Tuesday, Oct. 24 Chapter 1: ”Gone Missing” a preview of the podcast.
Tuesday, Oct. 31 Chapter 2: ”The Best Laugh” Paul’s story.
Tuesday, Nov. 7 Chapter 3: ”An Old Soul” Dakota’s story.
Tuesday, Nov. 14 Chapter 4: ”The Investigations and The Smiley Face Killer” why both families feel investigators did not treat them well. And a look at whether these deaths were serial murders.
Tuesday, Nov. 21 Chapter 5: ”Looking Back, Looking Forward” the final installment, looking at where the families are in their grief and the legacies they hope to leave for their lost sons.
Tuesday, Dec. 12 Bonus Chapter 6 (Live Event): ”The Journalists” How the podcast came together.
Tuesday, Dec. 19 Bonus Chapter 7 (Live Event): ”The Experts” What a forensic pathologist, retired FBI special agent and clinical psychologist think about the cases.
Tuesday, Dec. 26 Bonus Chapter 8 (Live Event): ”The Families” The Kochus lost their son three years ago; The James family, a year ago -- How are they coping?