Holly Moore and Chris Stewart
APTN National News

A Cree woman known for decades as “Jane Doe #5 – Kern County” in California has been identified through a collaboration with her niece, a U.S. Sheriff’s Office and a not-for-profit DNA matching project that focuses on unidentified remains.

The woman was found stabbed to death in an almond orchard near Delano, California on July 14, 1980.

She has now been identified as Shirley Ann Soosay from Samson Cree Nation – Maskwacis territory in Alberta, Canada by the Kern County Sheriff’s Office in California and the DNA Doe Project.

Her niece Violet Soosay, has spent almost 40 years searching for her Aunt Shirley. She said she is dealing with a lot of mixed emotions after the discovery was revealed to her in 2020.

“It’s been a long haul,” she said, “it was just all encompassing in that moment.”

She said she had to walk away from her laptop when she got the news that Shirley’s DNA matched the Kern County Jane Doe because she didn’t expect all those emotions to come up.

“One was shock,” she said, “Then a whole range of emotions, there was anger, there was happy there was relief, there was sadness and grief.”

Soosay said her aunt left the reserve in her early 20s and began working in Edmonton.

She then went to Vancouver where she made her permanent home. The last time Violet recalled seeing her at home was when she was 17 after her oldest brother passed away in 1977.

“I asked her if she was going to come home now,” she said. “She said she was going back to Vancouver and to visit someone in Seattle.”

In 2012, suspected serial killer Wilson Chouest was convicted of her killing, though authorities still didn’t know who she was.

Chouest was also convicted of another unidentified woman murdered in Ventura County, California around the same time.

The last time the family heard from Shirley was in 1979.

“My grandmother, her mother, used to received birthday cards and Christmas cards from her and they just stopped,” she said. “My grandmother knew something had happened.”

Soosay said she made a promise to her grandmother to never stop looking for Shirley.

“Anyplace and anywhere we could think to look for her,” she said, adding her Aunty Belle would join her, “We would always hit roadblocks with regard to privacy laws.”

Soosay traced the family’s bloodlines to famed Saskatchewan Plains Cree Chief Big Bear in the 80s and that information was uploaded to Ancestry.com in 2008.

In 2019, she said she saw an ad on Facebook asking for information about a missing Cree woman that the DNA Doe Project had tracked back to Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

She connected with the project and her DNA matched.

“That’s how I found Shirley,” she said, “It was 39 years later I found her.”

DNA Doe team lead Gina Wrather, said the project uploaded Shirley’s DNA to a service called GEDmatch to find relatives after being contacted by the Kern County Sheriff in May 2019.

“When we first uploaded her, she had zero matches in the database,” she said. “In September 2019, we had a new upload to GEDmatch who turned out to be a half-second cousin, meaning they shared one great-grandparent.”

She said once they had that lineage they found that second-cousin had one Indigenous great-grandparent.

“We knew we were on the right track,” she said. “In February 2020 we put out a public plea on Facebook and asked anyone who lived in that area and may recognize her.”

Days later, they were contacted by Violet Soosay.

The DNA Doe project was founded in 2017 as a not-for-profit organization and they have identified more than 45 Jane and John Does. They currently have 70 cases ongoing and 55 researchers. They will also help smaller agencies fund genealogical searches.

Trish Hurtubise, a member of Couchiching First Nation in northwestern Ontario worked as a volunteer researcher on Shirley’s case.

“I have so many loved ones that are affected by the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples in Canada,” she said. “It dawns on me some days that it could be me. I would like someone to put the effort in to find me.”

She said she hopes that Shirley’s case inspired law enforcement in Canada to help identify Jane and John Does here.

“If there are other cases in Canada, I would encourage authorities to use the DNA Doe Project to help resolve them,” she said. “If people have missing loved ones and they have not reported them missing or not followed up, get them into the law enforcement system so that they are known.”

For Violet, the discovery is just the beginning of her search for answers.

“Shirley has been so difficult to find because we never thought she would be in California,” she said, “There are a lot of unanswered questions as to how she ended up to be down there.”

She said she has finally been able to fulfill her promise to her grandmother.

“When an elder asks you to do something for them, you have to do your best to live up to it,” she said, “Now, we can put Shirley to rest in our proper ceremonial ways and ensure her spirit is not stuck in this place.”

“That alone is a huge, huge relief.”

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