Podcast explores Duquesne missing persons cases

Written By Alexander Popichak, Editor-in-Chief

Duquesne graduate student Dakota James disappeared this past winter under mysterious circumstances, and after a six-week city-wide search, his body was found in the Ohio River.

Two years earlier, Duquesne nursing student Paul Kochu went missing under mysterious circumstances, and after an extensive search, Kochu’s body was discovered in Wheeling, W.Va.

The striking similarities in the characteristics of the two men and the circumstances of their disappearance are the subject of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s first-ever serialized podcast, “Three Rivers, Two Mysteries,” produced in conjunction with the Center for Media Innovation (CMI.)

Michael A. Fuoco, an enterprise reporter for the Post-Gazette, had been working on a long-form story about the similarities in the cases when an editor’s podcast recommendation induced an idea.

“I was working on it for a print story for three months and my editor recommended a podcast ‘In the Dark’ which has nothing to do with missing people,” Fuoco said Monday in the CMI. “I downloaded it and within five minutes of listening to it it dawned on me like a light bulb going off – I had a narrative that would work as a podcast.”

Fuoco looked to the CMI as a place to record and produce the podcast, and happened upon the work of graduate student and Post-Gazette intern Ashley Murray. The two worked for five months producing the five-part serial podcast, combining interviews Fuoco had taped for his print story as well as interviews conducted in the CMI.

“From day one it was like we had worked together for years,” Fuoco said. “I saw it as a very symbiotic relationship – I had a lot of experience as a reporter, zero experience in podcast. Ashley is a very bright and insightful journalist but she also brings a lot of digital skills and producing skills to it.”

For Murray, who has been working with audio since 2008, the project has become a point of pride within a new genre.

“I was honored and excited to be asked to do this project with Mike,” Murray, an M.A. media communications student said Monday in the CMI. “I worked on podcasting for two other media outlets. One was arts and features and another was environmental and legal questions, so those were different than this because this is really a human story – it’s a narrative unfolding over several chapters.”

The five episodes will be released weekly starting Oct. 24, with the final episode debuting Nov. 21. The Post-Gazette will host a panel discussion of the cases at the University Center GRW Theater on Dec. 7.

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the two disappearances and looks at the psychological impact. Chapter 2 breaks down the timeline of Paul Kochu’s life and Chapter 3 does the same for Dakota James. Chapter 4 examines the investigation and how police treated the families of Kochu and James, and also presents the disappearances in the lens the “Smiley Face” serial killer theory.

“[The Smiley Face Killer] theory claims that over 100 young white males out drinking with friends go missing and end up for unknown reasons in a body of water nearby and drowned from Boston to Minnesota,” Fuoco said.

In each instance, investigators have found a graffitied smiley face near the dumping sites of the bodies.

Chapter 5 looks at what the Kochu and James families have done since their sons were found, and how they processed grief.

Fuoco said that the series never set out to solve the Kochu and James cases, but rather lay out the facts and examine the investigation.

“There’s a lot of questions that remain, there’s a lot of mystery,” Fuoco said. “What Ashley and I tried to do was to shed light on the questions. I don’t know if we answer the questions, but we certainly provide our listeners with a lot of options for them to consider and decide on their own.”

Over the course of producing the podcast, Fuoco interviewed experts, detectives, supervisors and the James and Kochu families. Fuoco said that while the narrative is driven by the two disappearances, a major theme of the later episodes is the psychological toll a family endures while looking for, and ultimately grieving their loved one.

“The narrative works as a glimpse into the trauma of the families, who are not only traumatized by the death of a child but furthermore are increasingly psychologically affected,” Fuoco said. “These people lost a child but don’t know what happened. For the Kochu family, it’s going on three years and for the James family it’s going on one year. Every day they think of a scenario of how their child died and that’s a very difficult thing to go through and they express in very heartfelt, candid and raw emotion about all of this.”

Fuoco explained that the family’s cooperation in telling their sons’ stories has been paramount to being able to produce the podcast.

In recent years, the Post-Gazette has worked to diversify their multi-platform offerings as this will be the first serialized podcast with more to follow.

“This may be our first serialized podcast, but Michael and Ashley’s remarkable piece of work makes it inevitable that it will not be our last,” Post-Gazette Executive Editor David M. Shribman said in a statement Monday. “We began more than two centuries ago as a print product, but in the last decade we have committed ourselves to telling compelling stories like this one on different platforms.”