Sonoma County grandmother identifies murder victims in decades-old cold cases

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More DNA Doe Project Cold Cases

Buckskin Girl: 37 years after she was murdered near Troy, Ohio, Marcia Sossomon was identified via DNA analysis.

Annie Doe: 48 years after her skeletal remains were discovered in Grants Pass, Oregon, the project cracked its coldest case, identifying Anne Marie Lehman, who was 16 when she was killed.

Lyle Stevik: 17 years after he hung himself in a hotel room in Washington state, this John Doe was linked via DNA profiles to relatives in New Mexico and Idaho. His real name remains unknown to the public — Lyle Stevik was an alias he used when checking into the hotel.

The press conference to announce the solving of a 37-year-old cold case murder took place Tuesday at the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office in Reno, Nevada.

The optics were arresting: Standing amid imposing law enforcement officials were a pair of unassuming elderly women — “two little old ladies,” wisecracked one of them, Colleen Fitzpatrick. The other was white-haired, wire-rimmed, 72-year-old Margaret Press who made the four-hour drive from her home in Sebastopol the day before.

A retired linguist, computer programmer, crime novelist and grandmother, Press also happens to be one of the world’s top experts in the use of genetic genealogy to crack cold cases. It quickly became clear, after she made her way to the podium, that without her and Fitzpatrick, the case in question would still be frigid.

They are the co-founders of 2-year-old DNA Doe Project, a crowdsourcing group of citizen scientists who use genetic genealogy to help close the book on long unsolved murder mysteries.

They specialize in identifying victims.

“We keep our mission very clear,” Press said in an interview. “We focus on John and Jane Does, not suspects. I’d love to get the suspects solved, but someone else can do it.”

There are other outfits devoted to identifying victims, but none with the expertise offered by Press, Fitzpatrick and their group — “the tough cases that require whole-genome sequencing,” Press said.

Another organization led by Fitzpatrick, called Identifinders, tracks suspects.

Hovering on a screen behind Press at the Reno news conference was the face of a 30-something woman. More precisely, it was a digital 3D facial reconstruction based on forensics, dental records and DNA.

It was the face of woman known, since July 1982, as Sheep’s Flat Jane Doe. She’d been murdered and left near a popular hiking trail off the Mount Rose Highway, near a scenic meadow known by locals as the Sheep’s Flat.

With no suspects and no leads, the case languished for decades. In February 2018, members of the forensic science division of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office attended a lecture by Fitzpatrick. Hopeful that forensic genealogy could help them solve their cold case, they contacted the DNA Doe Project.

Sheep’s Flat Jane Doe’s DNA profile was uploaded at GEDMatch, an online database that differs from testing companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe. Rather, GEDMatch is a place in which those profiles can be compared. “Like a DNA swap meet,” Press said, “where you have all these tables of families and you’re basically asking one another, ‘I’m trying to find a match for my silver set, do you have any spoons with this pattern?’ ”

The answer, in the case of Sheep’s Flat Jane Doe, was yes. Within hours, Press and her small army of volunteer sleuths had found a close match, a profile with enough DNA markers to be considered a first cousin, once removed. Eventually, they found another match, then two more matches connected to a different family tree.

The case had been unsolved for 37 years. It took DNA Doe project, working closely with Detective Kathleen Bishop of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, three days to come up with the name of the victim, Mary Edith Silvani, the daughter of Blanche and John Silvani, from Detroit. After nearly four decades, the Sheep’s Flat Jane Doe had an identity.

More DNA Doe Project Cold Cases

Buckskin Girl: 37 years after she was murdered near Troy, Ohio, Marcia Sossomon was identified via DNA analysis.

Annie Doe: 48 years after her skeletal remains were discovered in Grants Pass, Oregon, the project cracked its coldest case, identifying Anne Marie Lehman, who was 16 when she was killed.

Lyle Stevik: 17 years after he hung himself in a hotel room in Washington state, this John Doe was linked via DNA profiles to relatives in New Mexico and Idaho. His real name remains unknown to the public — Lyle Stevik was an alias he used when checking into the hotel.

“They’re amazingly effective,” Bishop said of Press, Fitzpatrick and the amateur sleuths at their command. Were it not for the DNA Doe Project, the detective said, “This Jane Doe would still be a Jane Doe.”

Back home in Sebastopol two days after the Reno press conference, Press picked up her phone, summoning a picture of the Sheep’s Flat meadow, now covered in snow. After visiting Silvani’s unmarked grave, Press, Fitzpatrick and other law enforcement officials made the drive up the Mount Rose Highway. They wanted to see where Mary Silvani had died.

“The killer would’ve pulled off into this area,” said Press, pointing to the spot on the photograph, “and marched her down toward those trees.”

It turned out Silvani had been born in a mental hospital. Her father died when she was 16, her mother was institutionalized most of her life, Press said. Mary had two brothers, neither of whom came looking for her when she went missing.

“It’s one of those family situations so common with our Does,” Press said. “There’s a reason they’re Does. That’s what family’s for. They’re the ones who come looking for you when you’ve been missing for a year. I think the only thing worse than dying alone, is dying alone with no family looking for you.”

Press’ own path to that snow-covered patch on the flank of Mount Rose began with a eureka moment two years earlier.

Determined to read one book a week in retirement, she was devouring Sue Grafton’s “Q Is For Quarry,” which was based on a real case of the unsolved murder of Lompoc Jane Doe. That’s when inspiration struck.

By then, Press had spent years pursuing the singular hobby she was passionate about, and skilled at: assembling family trees to help adoptees find their biological parents. To aid their search, some adoptees were having their DNA sequenced by companies like Ancestry.com.

It dawned on Press that there was little difference between searching for the identities of adoptees and the identities of Does, “except that, one of them, you can talk to. In both cases, you’re looking for parents.”

She put down the novel and emailed Grafton a message along the lines of, “Sorry it took me 10 years to read your book, but is Lompoc Jane Doe still unsolved, and has anyone proposed genetic genealogy to solve it?”

Yes and no, came the reply from the author, who at the time was hip deep in writing her book “Y Is For Yesterday,” and told Press to circle back in a few months. Press proceeded to call and email the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, offering to share her ideas on how Lompoc Jane Doe might be identified with genetic genealogy. Those calls and emails went unreturned.

She reached out to Fitzpatrick, a rocket scientist who ran a public Facebook group called Forensic Genealogy, which describes itself as “CSI meets Roots.” In 2011, Fitzpatrick had founded Identifiers International, which helps law enforcement agencies identify DNA when normal channels fail to produce a match.

After taking the measure of one another, the two Ph.D.s joined forces to form the DNA Doe Project.

“We have our ups and downs, just like any strong-willed women minding the same flock of sheep,” Fitzpatrick said. “But yeah, I would say we’re fine together. We’re great.”

Press has a strong genetic genealogy background with countless adoption searches. She’s more likely to be up at 2 in the morning scanning DNA segments. She serves as the group’s operations manager, wrangling and directing its 65 or so volunteers.

“She keeps the beehive running,” said Fitzpatrick, whose many strengths include a technical and science background, extensive work in the field of DNA analysis, and — crucially — her many connections with law enforcement agencies.

One of those connections is U.S. Marshal Pete Elliott, who asked for help in 2018. He’d hit a dead end trying to identify an elderly suicide victim named Joseph Newton Chandler, who’d shot himself in the head in the bathroom of his Eastlake, Ohio, apartment in 2001. But it turned out that Chandler had stolen the identity of an 8-year-old boy killed in a car accident in 1945. The mystery was finally cleared up when the DNA Doe Project determined the dead man’s true identity was Robert Nichols.

“Margaret and Colleen have been phenomenal to work with,” Elliott said. “They not only put us in the ballpark, they gave us the exact row and seat that Joseph Newton Chandler was sitting in. And then they told us who paid for his ticket — Robert Nichols.”

Before visiting the gravesite of Mary Silvani on Tuesday, Press and Fitzpatrick led a two-hour workshop for detectives from around the Reno area, taking them through the steps it took to identify Silvani, then encouraging them to enroll in the DNA Doe Project’s online training course.

The course, for law enforcement only, costs $300. Law enforcement agencies who can’t afford to have DNA processed can use the DNA Doe Project’s “DoeFundMe” program. Solving these cases is definitely not making either sleuth rich.

“We make no money,” Press said. “We’ve actually put a lot of our savings into it.”

The idea, she said, is to educate enough law enforcement officials “to be able to do some of these on their own, and call us in when they need help.”

Spoken like a woman who needs a good night’s sleep.

Press moved to Sebastopol from Salem, Massachusetts, four years ago to be closer to family. Her daughter and grandchildren live a mile away.

“I thought I’d watch a little Masterpiece Theater, do some reading and writing” — she’s the author of four books — “and check out the news every day.”

Instead, she’s making news.

The success of the DNA Doe Project has been “like a runaway train,” she said. “It’s taken my life in a completely different direction. I’m a failure as a retiree.”

She said this with a twinkle in her eye. “Every minute is crazy, but there’s none of it that I would give up.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88.


Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story contained some misinformation. The story has been updated with the correct information.

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