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Mysteries remain as anniversary of disappearances approaches
PITTSBURGH — In late 2014, Paul Kochu vanished from the South Side after a night drinking with friends.
His family rushed from their eastern Pennsylvania home to Pittsburgh. For months, they and others, many of them strangers, put up missing person posters, scoured alleyways and riverfronts, and searched through Dumpsters for the 22-year-old. Vigils were held, prayers were said, tears were shed, and even psychics were consulted.
After months of fear, dread and confusion, the mighty Ohio River gave up its sorrowful secret — Paul’s body was found March 19, 2015, floating 85 miles downriver in Wheeling, West Virginia.
In early 2017, the same grim scenario played out for the family of Dakota James, 23, who vanished from Downtown after a night out with friends.
Again there were searches, posters, vigils and prayers. Again, searches by land, water and air turned up nothing. And again, the Ohio revealed an answer — after missing for about seven weeks, Dakota’s body was discovered March 6, 2017, floating in Robinson. Like Paul, Dakota had drowned.
As the anniversaries of the disappearances approach — three years for Paul on Dec. 16 and one year for Dakota on Jan. 25 — both families and Pittsburgh police still do not know what happened.
How could two young men with promise, purpose and personality simply be sucked into a dark void of winter nights, never to be seen alive again?
Did they fall into one of the city’s rivers as police surmise? Did they intentionally kill themselves? Was there foul play? Could these baffling deaths have been at the hands of a serial killer?
The West Virginia Medical Examiner ruled Paul’s manner of death as undetermined because “the circumstances leading up to the immersion of the decedent into the water are unknown.”
The Allegheny County Medical Examiner ruled Dakota’s manner of death as accidental — even though authorities cannot say where, when, why or how he entered the frigid water.
Both families feel their loved one was murdered. They contend Pittsburgh detectives did not adequately investigate their cases and treated them with disrespect. Police say they have no evidence of foul play and dispute the families’ assertions of being unprofessional, but add that they understand how distress can create a mistaken perception.
The mysteries daily rub raw the families’ pain. Losing your child is trauma enough. Not knowing how you lost your child is unbearable, said Jack Kochu, Paul’s father. “Every day a new scenario comes into my head about what could have happened, and that’s a lot of damn days since he went missing.”
Paul and Dakota never met, yet their lives, disappearances and deaths were eerily similar.
Both came to Pittsburgh to attend Duquesne University. Paul graduated in 2014 and was about to complete his probationary period as an ICU nurse at Allegheny General Hospital when he went missing. Dakota, a graduate of West Virginia University, was a grad student at Duquesne with plans to attend law school.
Paul was from Bucktown, a rural Pennsylvania village of 2,600 in South Coventry Township, Chester County, five miles south of Pottstown. Dakota, called Koty by friends and family, grew up in Jefferson, Md., about an hour west of Baltimore.
Both had been high school athletes — Paul played baseball and Dakota was a swimmer.
Both were the youngest children in close-knit families — Paul’s older siblings are a sister and a brother; Dakota’s older sibling is a brother. When they vanished, both were only days away from visits with family — Paul had plans to go home for the holidays and Dakota was headed for his family’s vacation residence in Deep Creek Lake, Md.
Both young men were studious, fun-loving and giving, their families say. Neither suffered from drug addiction, mental illness, a medical condition or suicidal ideation that might help explain their disappearances.
Paul lived in the South Side Flats near the Monongahela River and Dakota on the North Side not far from the Allegheny River. Police surmise that each entered the frigid river nearest their apartments — Paul in the early morning hours of Dec. 16, 2014, and Dakota late on the night of Jan. 25, 2017.
Both had been drinking and had blood-alcohol contents above the legal limit of .08 — Paul’s was 0.15 and Dakota’s was 0.214. Neither family believes their loved one’s intoxication level explains them somehow falling into a river.
Indeed, dying in one of the three major rivers in Allegheny County in the winter is a rare occurrence. Statistics from the county medical examiner’s office show that the bodies of only six victims of accidental or undetermined drownings were recovered from the Mon, the Allegheny or the Ohio in winter months during a 10-year span between 2006 and 2016.
One of those victims was Jimmy Slack, 25, a barge worker from Bridgeville, who became separated from a friend with whom he had attended a rock concert at Stage AE on the North Shore on Dec. 6, 2011. Early the next morning, he called another friend and said he was partying but didn’t know where he was.
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 undetermined. His family declined to be interviewed for this story because of their grief but they, like many others, see the striking and perplexing similarities in the three cases.
Among those confounded is Cyril H. Wecht, the acclaimed forensic pathologist who has been hired as a consultant by the James family. He said more investigation is warranted because “these cases are atypical cases of accidental or suicidal drowning.”
Retired FBI supervisory special agent Larry Likar, an attorney, professor and chair of LaRoche College’s Department of Justice, Law and Security, agreed: “In both of these cases, the circumstances were unusual. You got a real legitimate mystery.”
Ask anyone about Paul, and they’ll talk about his smile, his laugh, and his caring demeanor, which manifested itself in his becoming a nurse, a career path he began to consider when he was about 16.
On Dec. 15, 2014, he was with two of his three roommates and others watching Monday Night Football at Smokin’ Joe’s on the South Side, a short walk from his apartment. After a while, Paul told the group he was drunk and headed home. The roommates told police Paul texted them shortly thereafter, saying he had cut his hand on a glass and needed their help. They went to the apartment.
Pittsburgh Detective Jeff Abraham, the lead investigator in Paul’s case, said the roommates told investigators Paul became combative as they tried to help him. While sweeping up the broken glass, one of the roommates shouldered him and Paul fell. It’s unclear whether Paul or something else hit the wall and put a hole through it, Detective Abraham said.
“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.”
The roommates are captured on surveillance video at the McDonald’s drive-thru on McKnight Road in the North Hills about 2:20 a.m., he said. Later, another camera near their apartment shows them returning shortly after 2:30 a.m.
The roommates, who declined to be interviewed for this story, told police they didn’t see Paul but thought he went to bed. Only later that day did they realize he was gone along with his wallet, cell phone and keys. His white Volvo was still parked on the street. They waited a while and then contacted Paul’s brother.
Detective Abraham said that in many missing person cases, adults feel a need to get away and voluntarily go missing without telling anyone and soon are located.
“That was one of the things we were optimistic about, that hopefully he would just show up for work and he was just blowing some steam off.”
When Paul didn’t show up for work on Thursday. Jack and Ellen Kochu got in their car and headed for Pittsburgh, 4½ hours away. Paul’s sister, Jess Kochu, got on a jet in Los Angeles to fly here.
“I get to Pittsburgh and my dad picks me up and my dad’s face just looked so broken and sad. We’re driving and my mom is just screaming and crying ‘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.”
Two weeks after Paul vanished, a surveillance video from a private residence surfaced. The 42-second black-and-white video shows a man believed to be Paul walking past the South Side Giant Eagle supermarket less than 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.
Mr. Likar, the LaRoche College professor and retired FBI supervisory special agent, studied the video numerous times.
“It’s obvious he was in trouble during that video. Could that (altercation in the apartment) weaken somebody to make them disoriented where they would actually fall into the water? That’s obviously a possibility,” Mr. Likar said.
Detective Abraham said polygraph tests indicated the roommates were being truthful. He said the roommates believe it was either Paul’s elbow, shoulder or an object that caused the hole in the wall.
“I can’t theorize as to what’s going on with him,” Detective Abraham said of the video. “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.”
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 the physical altercation occurred shortly before Paul is seen on the tape and not earlier as the roommates said. But Detective Abraham said the roommates’ statements were consistent.
Walking west as he was shown in the video, Paul would have had a circuitous route of about nine blocks to get access to the water near a boat launch at South Side Riverfront Park. The 10th Street Bridge was even farther.
In the end, Paul’s 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 nude but for a black watch with a rubber band on the left wrist. Dental records secured by Ellen provided positive identification that it was Paul’s body.
The autopsy noted there was a superficial cut — about 3 / 8of an inch — on the palm of the 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, one of them displaced, and 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 or after he drowned.
A Wheeling police sergeant said the medical examiner felt that a body being in fast, high water for three months while passing through seven or eight locks and dams could have pulled off the clothing. Dr. Wecht, a former Allegheny County coroner, disputes that possibility.
Paul’s parents feel foul play was involved, pointing to the strangeness of his disappearance, the injuries, the absence of clothing.
Pittsburgh Police Cmdr. Victor Joseph, who heads the major crimes unit, said detectives won’t speculate what might have occurred in Paul’s case, or in any other case for that matter.
“It’s a suspicious death. It’s not closed,” he said. “If other evidence is developed…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.”
Dakota was a millennial with two earrings, a Harry Potter tattoo and a chinstrap beard but was described as “an old soul” because how kind and relatable he was to older generations. A serious student he possessed a dry, sharp wit — a friend said he spoke “fluent sarcasm.
When Dakota was about 18, he told his parents he was gay.
“We weren’t concerned about him being gay,” said his mother, Pam James. “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.”
On the evening of Jan. 25, 2017, Dakota was enjoying a midweek happy hour with co-workers from a Pittsburgh trucking company where he worked in logistics.
They went to Bar Louie in Station Square. At about 7:30 p.m., Dakota and a new female co-worker took the “T” to Downtown and went to the Diamond Market restaurant in Market Square, tabbing out at 9:27 p.m. And then they went to 941 Saloon, and Images, doors apart on Liberty Avenue.
Dakota and his co-worker were videotaped about 11:30 p.m. by a surveillance camera walking toward the Wood Street T station where the co-worker took an Uber home.
A still from a surveillance video shows Dakota walking through Katz Plaza in the Cultural District. It was 11:46 p.m. He appears to be walking upright as he looks at his cell phone. He headed toward an alley, Scott Place, the most direct route to the Roberto Clemente Bridge, the span that would have taken him across the river to his North Side 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.
He didn’t show for work the next day, a Thursday. On Friday, his employer called the apartment manager who in turn called Pam James about 9:15 a.m. when she couldn’t find him.
Already packed for the weekend trip, Dakota’s parents Jeff and Pam James along with Mr. James’ sister, Mandy, and her pitbull mix, Ava, set off for Pittsburgh. During the three-hour car ride, Pam James checked Dakota’s cell phone bill and sent text messages to frequently called numbers, asking if they had seen her son.
Over the weeks, they were supported by 50 relatives and friends who came from Maryland and numerous Pittsburghers, most of them strangers, who helped in the search. Pam generated so much Facebook interest that her account exploded to the maximum of 5,000 friends.
On March 6, Dakota’s body was found floating in the Ohio, about 10 miles downriver from The Point. Dakota was completely clothed and had his ID on him.
Two months to the day after a packed funeral service in Frederick, Md., the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office ruled that he had died of an accidental drowning, stunning Dakota’s parents. Dakota’s blood-alcohol level, while high, didn’t explain why he might have gone to the river bank and fallen in, they felt.
Police can’t say for sure where — or, really, even if — Dakota entered the Allegheny. Detectives concede Dakota as easily could have gotten in a car on Fort Duquesne Boulevard as he could have fallen into the 41-degree river.
Why would Dakota have gone to the river’s edge? If Dakota was so drunk that he fell into water, how did he navigate all of those stairs to get down to the river in the first place, his parents wondered.
“It’s not that close for you to fall into the river. I truly believe (it was a) hate crime,” Pam James said. “Someone did something against him because of who he was. They hurt him, someone murdered him, that’s my opinion.”
Jeff James agreed: “I think someone knows what happened to him, just like I think someone probably knows what happened to Paul and Jimmy Slack.”
Karl Williams, the county medical examiner, said his office ruled the death accidental because there was no evidence of a homicide or a suicide. However, he added that if someone had pushed Dakota into the water, there likely would be no forensic evidence to indicate that.
The ruling surprised Dr. Wecht, the consultant for the James family. “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? Give me a scenario that has even a modicum of plausibility.”
THE SMILEY FACE KILLER
One scenario some people have latched onto is that a serial killer is to blame. Speculation about that possibility, both pro and con, has been rampant on the internet.
Some have even speculated the deaths could be tied to the so-called Smiley Face Killer or killers. Two retired New York City detectives went public with their theory in 2008 that a group of killers had since 1997 targeted young white males from the Midwest to the Northeast.
Like Paul and Dakota, the victims were popular, educated, athletic, had been drinking with friends, mysteriously disappeared and ended up drowning in a nearby body of water. Under the theory, victims are rendered helpless by the date-rape drug GHB being slipped into their drinks
Retired NYPD Detective Kevin Gannon, one of the theory’s originators and now a private detective, said about 100 potential victims are now in his firm’s database.
The moniker Smiley Face Killer was created by a journalist after learning 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. The FBI issued a national press release in 2008 discounting it. “The vast majority of these instances appear to be alcohol-related drownings,” the release said.
Still, some experts, including Dr. Wecht who has worked with Mr. Gannon, say they cannot easily dismiss the theory. Lee Gilbertson, a criminologist and professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, initially viewed it as an urban legend. But after giving his grad students an assignment to map homicides, Mr. Gilbertson, who has a Ph.D., became so convinced in its validity that he joined Mr. Gannon’s firm.
During a visit to Pittsburgh after Dakota’s body was found, Mr. Gannon and Mr. Gilbertson discovered smiley faces on the Roberto Clemente Bridge, the span 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.
Allegheny County said all graffiti had been removed on that bridge in November 2016, or two months before Dakota went missing. Smiley faces appear on other bridges in the city, too.
“The James case, with everything we’ve looked at, would probably be more likely to fall into our investigation than the Kochu case,” Mr. Gannon said. “The Kochu case may be a homicide but may not be related to us. I know if I were the police I would be speaking to the roommates a little bit more about what actually transpired that evening,” he said.
Cmdr. Joseph said detectives found nothing to support such a theory in the Pittsburgh cases. “We don’t base things on internet speculation, theories. We focus on the evidence. We do not have any evidence that any such thing exists in Pittsburgh.”
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., who studied both Paul and Dakota’s cases, agreed with the investigators. “I was concerned, if that’s out there, what’s the evidence in support of that? There didn’t seem to be any.”
Mr. Zappala expressed concern when two Post-Gazette reporters told him that both the Kochu and James families felt they were not treated well by Pittsburgh detectives and their cases were not adequately investigated.
In response, he arranged with the Center for Victims to make victim’s advocates available in missing person cases as they are in homicides and other crimes. And he requested all police departments in the county use the victim’s advocates from the outset of missing person investigations.
Members of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association, which represents the Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and suburban police departments, among other law enforcement agencies, voted unanimously to “endorse and support the use of a victim’s advocate for families on cases that involve missing persons.”
Mr. Zappala said because the Kochu and James families feel the way they do “then we’ve all failed, the criminal justice system has failed. We just have to do a better job in making sure they are supported, emotionally and otherwise.”
As for the families’ concerns about how their cases were handled, Mr. Zappala said his review found “it was a professional investigation, professionally undertaken.”
In the Kochu home, a memorial candle for Paul constantly burns and his very first book, “Barney’s Farm Animals,” rests on the fireplace mantle. On the third anniversary of the disappearance next month, the family plans to vist his grave as they often do “for quiet reflection.”
A little more than five weeks later, Pam and Jeff James will struggle through the first anniversary of Dakota’s disappearance.
But as the grieving families look back with sorrow, they gaze ahead with hope through legacies they’ve created for Paul and Dakota.
The Kochus have established a $2,500 college scholarship for a senior at his former high school who is planning a career in nursing. The money comes from a bowling fundraiser. Pam and Jeff James have formed a foundation — https://www.dakotajamesfoundation.com — to promote more camera surveillance in Pittsburgh, better police procedures and improved support for the families of missing people.
Still, the trauma remains. Just as Pittsburgh’s three rivers keep flowing, so do the heartbreaking mysteries of how two young men with similar lives and similar promise came to share similar fates.
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com