Sparkt Bridges

Mother's Grief Becomes a Crusade

She's committed to making sure other families don't go through what her family endured


This story is part of a bi-weekly series that celebrates people who are reaching across a divide to "build bridges" with those different from themselves. The Sparkt Bridges series is made possible with the support of UPMC.

It's hard not to think of bridges when you think of Dakota James' story. Dakota was 23 and a Duquesne University graduate student when he disappeared while walking home alone from a downtown Pittsburgh bar in January 2017, a route that would have taken him across the city's Roberto Clemente Bridge.

There were no surveillance cameras on the bridge, something that frustrated his parents Pam and Jeff, who rushed from their home in Maryland to launch their own search for him, after they say, police didn't take Dakota's disappearance seriously.

When Dakota's body was found 40 days later downstream in the Ohio River, Pam James vowed to make sure other families wouldn't have to go through what they endured. She established a foundation in his name, with "Building Bridges" its tag line, to fight for change.

The James family doesn't believe Dakota's death was an accident. They think he was the victim of foul play and they're fighting to get the Allegheny County Medical Examiner and Pittsburgh Police to re-open their investigation.

In the meantime, Pam is working to book speaking appearances at high schools and college orientations to educate young people about the dangers out there. She says her son's generation is too trusting. "They need to go back to the buddy system," she said. "Don't walk alone, don't ride alone," alluding to the recent murder of a South Carolina co-ed who mistakenly got into a car she thought was her Uber.

Pam also urges parents to collect and keep crucial information about their 18-and-older children, over whom they have no longer have legal authority. She says it was only after Dakota disappeared that the Jameses discovered they couldn't get into his apartment, cell phone or bank accounts to look for clues about where he might be. "Those are things you never think about," said Pam.

The Sparkt Bridges Project is produced

with the generous support of UPMC.

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