Genetic Genealogy Identified Victim and Her Killer From Decades Old Cold Case

On July 7, 1982 a woman's body was found near a hiking trail at Lake Tahoe. She was found raped and shot to death wearing a blue bathing suit under her t-shirt and denim shorts. She appeared to be in her late twenties or early thirties. For decades, not much more would be known about who she was  or who killed her.

Police searched records of females who fit the description of the victim hoping to find a match to her  DNA, fingerprints, or dental records but nothing turned up. Authorities could not locate a missing persons report and no one came forward with any information that would help identify her. After an exhaustive investigation that led nowhere, Jane Doe's body was laid to rest in an unmarked catholic cemetery grave in Nevada.

On May 7, 2019, after nearly 37 years, the Washoe County Sheriff's Department held a press conference announcing the identities of Jane Doe and the man that killed her. Mary Edith Silvani was 33 years when she was murdered by James Richard Curry near that hiking trail in Nevada.

The idea of how to finally identify Silvani and Curry was born when investigators were in attendance at a lecture about genetic genealogy given by the DNA Doe Project and IdentiFinders International. DNA from crime scene evidence could be sent to a private lab to obtain a DNA profile that could be uploaded to GEDmatch (a public genealogy DNA database). Matches obtained from GEDmatch could be used investigate the ancestry of both the victim and suspect and possibly identify both individuals.

Police worked with the DNA Doe project to identify Mary Silvani. Several volunteers built family trees starting with familial matches obtained from GEDmatch. A close familial match obtained from the database belonged to an adoptee whose ancestry was unknown. The volunteers were able to identify the adoptee's mother. This identification led the genealogists to the probable parents of the woman whose unidentified remains from 36 years ago still laid in an unmarked grave.

The search wasn't over yet. Investigative work revealed that Jane Doe's parents, John Silvani and Blanche Silvani were both deceased and had three children. A son, Charles Silvani died the same year his sister was murdered. This left two children to be identified, one being Jane Doe. Information from a relative led genealogists to believe that Charles had two sisters. However, when the investigation eventually led to John and Blanche Silvani's former neighbors in Detroit they found that the Silvani's had two sons and only one daughter. This daughter was Mary Edith Silvani.

The Washoe County Sheriff''s Office still had to confirm that the remains were in fact those of Mary Silvani but they now knew that she was from Michigan and grew up in Detroit. In 1974 Mary was arrested for loitering in Detroit and her fingerprints were taken. Even though it was unlikely that Detroit would still have fingerprints taken decades ago on a misdemeanor arrest, Detroit was able to find the fingerprint card in a warehouse. It matched fingerprints taken from the unidentified murder victim 37 years ago. That victim now had a name.

Through any other means it is extremely unlikely that Mary would ever have been identified. Of the relatives found, only one cousin had ever even known Mary and she had no clue that Mary was ever missing. All of Mary's close relatives died many years ago. Mary's nephew, who was a familial match in GEDmatch only remembered even being told of her one time and had never met her. No one was looking for her. No one even knew she was missing. 

A DNA profile derived crime scene evidence on Mary's shirt and believed to be from her killer had previously been ran through CODIS in attempt to identify who murdered her with no success. Now evidence from Mary's rape kit was sent to a private lab that created a profile that could be uploaded to a genealogical database. When the DNA profile created at a private lab was entered into GEDmatch, IdentiFinders International assisted law enforcement with the investigation to identify Mary's murderer.

Investigations revealed that the suspect was a grandson of a couple in Dallas, Texas that had three sons. Of those sons only one was known to have a child and police cleared him of being Mary's killer. They then became aware that one of the Dallas couple's sons had fathered an illegitimate child who did not carry his father's name. That child was James Curry, a confessed murderer.

In the 1980s James Curry ran a storage facility in California and he confessed to murdering a couple who ran a competing storage facility. In January of 1983, Gerald Novosealatz was found murdered in his home. His wife, Sharon Novosealatz was later discovered raped and murdered on the side of a California highway. Curry was apprehended by authorities and he confessed to the murders. Curry also confessed to the murder of his friend, Richard Lemmon whose body was found in a crate in a storage facility. Curry is also suspected of at least one other murder but they have not found the victim's body to prove suspicions.

Earlier in life Curry served a prison sentence for robbery. Curry's murder confessions and other criminal behavior certainly made him look like a likely candidate for Mary's murder but he could not be questioned about the crime. James Curry attempted suicide shortly after confessing to the three California murders while he was being held in police custody and died a couple of days later.

Since Curry died before he could stand trial for the murders he confessed to, his DNA profile was not uploaded into CODIS. However, he had two living children who volunteered DNA to help with the investigation into Mary Silvani's death. The DNA provided by Curry's children gave police the evidence needed to pin Mary's murder on him and finally close the case.

The process identifying human remains and solving crimes with genetic genealogy is a group effort. Law enforcement must gather and preserve evidence. Genealogy labs must create a profile that can be uploaded into a genealogy database. Genealogists build extensive family trees to identify a specific person from familial matches of distant relatives. Police must obtain DNA from the suspects after a probable suspect has been identified. Often times family members volunteer to provide DNA samples to help identify their own relatives who are suspected of crimes. That's not to mention whatever other tasks must be done to aid in the investigations that solve these cases. Advances in technology, a lot of time, hard work and ingenuity is being spent to provide closure to families and make our world a safer place.