Editor's note: On May 27, 2022, Shirley Ann Soosay's remains were returned to her home community of Samson Cree Nation near Edmonton, Canada.
It’s April 2018, and suspected Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. sits in an interview room at the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office detective bureau, staring at a wall. Arrested that day, he’s dressed in shorts and a T-shirt: an old, liver-spotted man with empty blue eyes, but also a former cop who knows to keep quiet.
His silence makes Ventura County District Attorney’s Office cold case investigator Steve Rhods bristle.
Rhods (pronounced “roads”) is 62 and six foot one, with cropped white hair, rimless glasses, and an in-your-face interrogation style. The other detectives are treating DeAngelo deferentially, offering soft drinks and trips to the bathroom. So when it’s his turn to question the suspected serial rapist and murderer who terrorized California in the 1970s and ’80s, Rhods annoys his colleagues by going on the attack.
“I didn’t do any of this stuff,” DeAngelo says.
“Well, the DNA says differently,” says Rhods, referring to the case of Charlene Smith, raped and, along with her husband, Lyman, bludgeoned to death in 1980 in their Ventura home. Rhods had uncovered the decades-old rape kit that helped lead to DeAngelo’s identification and arrest.
“Your DNA is inside of Charlene.”
DeAngelo begins to cry.
“Why are you crying?” Rhods asks. “Did your victims cry like this?”
Rhods leaves the room to listen through headphones as DeAngelo, now alone, rambles for more than two hours.
“Oh, God. I couldn’t control myself,” DeAngelo says to himself, moaning and blaming someone else inside his head for his actions. “It’s so shameful.… What have I done?”
Ultimately, DeAngelo will plead guilty to 13 counts of murder, including the Smiths’.
“I made a serial killer cry,” Rhods says today.
The drive home from Sacramento, along barren stretches of Interstate 5, offers an investigator ample time to reflect. And the Golden State Killer case triggers an idea. Heading back to Ventura, Rhods wonders whether the science that trapped DeAngelo can resolve another cold case that’s bedeviling him: the gruesome homicide of an unknown woman nearly 40 years before.
Genetic genealogy had linked DNA at the Smiths’ crime scene to existing DNA profiles of DeAngelo’s relatives and led to DeAngelo himself. Now, Rhods thinks, perhaps that science can be turned in another direction.
Already, DNA has identified the suspected killer of the unidentified woman who haunts Rhods, and that man is about to go on trial. Perhaps, now, science can give his victim back her name.
This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
To investigators clustered at the scene in shirtsleeves on that warm Friday afternoon in July 1980, she looked young, probably in her 20s. She was sprawled on a dirt slope near a parking lot above the Westlake High School football field in Thousand Oaks, a safe, upscale suburb 40 miles north of Los Angeles. Her face, tilted to the sun, was a perfect heart shape. Her dark hair, lighter at the tips, was matted with blood, as were her white T-shirt and red corduroy pants. Open-toed, high-heeled shoes had been tossed into the brush. Blood smears suggested that the woman had been killed elsewhere, dumped from a car, and dragged to her public resting place.
Later that afternoon, an autopsy at the Ventura County morgue showed that she was between five foot two and five foot three, weighed 100 to 110 pounds, and was four or five months pregnant with a male fetus, not her first child, according to a further medical exam. Though her red-lacquered fingernails were intact, her cut and bruised arms signified a struggle. Hemorrhaging around her neck indicated that she had been strangled until unconscious, though not to the point of death, which had been caused by multiple knife wounds in her chest and abdomen.
School maintenance workers had found the body and alerted the authorities. Until an ambulance and a fire truck made their noisy arrivals, a scattering of parents attending a varsity football practice that morning had remained oblivious. They told detectives they knew nothing. A motorcycle hidden in some parking lot bushes seemed suspicious, but had simply been flung there by a man who’d run out of gas. When the news spread, a motorist reported that he and his wife had noticed someone matching the victim’s description hitchhiking near the freeway the previous night. He had daughters, and he worried. This information led nowhere, and no one claimed the woman.
Still unidentified, a month later she was buried at Conejo Mountain Memorial Park in Camarillo. Without leads, detectives stored her bloodied clothes. And so, in 1980, the case of Westlake, a.k.a. Jane Doe Ventura County, went cold.
In the 1980s, Sergeant Steve Rhods was starting to work his way up in the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office to where he was now, in 2012: supervisor of the cold case unit within Ventura County’s Major Crimes division. Glancing through the Jane Doe Westlake file, he found notes from detectives who, more than 30 years before, had speculated that she was a prostitute. “I can’t figure out where that comes from. I ask everybody, ‘What’s a prostitute look like?’ ” Rhods says today. “Why would you dismiss her in that way?”
He understood that the ’80s had been a different time. Detectives didn’t have the perks of internet searches, cell phone data, or DNA testing. But in his opinion, those cops were coldhearted. The last thought of anyone about to die, prostitute or not, Rhods believed, was of their mother. Which led him to wonder who Jane Doe Westlake’s mother was and whether she still suffered that universal terror of a parent with a missing child of any age: Where was her daughter, and how had she disappeared?
A family man himself, Rhods had structured his early career around his young son and daughter. Divorced, with custody, he took the dawn shift at the jail, then nighttime patrol duty. While the kids were at school, he slept. He was home to feed them dinner and put them to bed before he headed back to work.
At 56, remarried with a stepson, Rhods took early retirement in November 2012. Then he left his cubicle, with plans to return in 2013 as a part-time investigator for the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office.
A member of his team there, Greg Hayes, had asked the sheriff’s lab to conduct DNA tests on Jane Doe Westlake’s still-stored pants and underwear with the hope of identifying her killer. The lab had uploaded the test results to the Federal Bureau of Investigation–designed Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a program used to match DNA profiles to existing offenders—and an investigative tool unavailable in 1980.
Hayes called before Rhods had even made it back to work: he needed to hurry. In January 2013, CODIS had identified the DNA of Wilson C. Chouest Jr. on Westlake’s clothing. It turned out that Chouest (pronounced “shoe-west”) was already locked up at California State Prison, Corcoran for a rape, a kidnapping, and a robbery he’d committed in August and September 1980—after Jane Doe Westlake’s July murder.
Not only was Chouest in prison, Rhods learned, but he was suspected in a murder that bore an eerie resemblance to the Ventura case. On July 15, 1980, three days before Jane Doe Westlake was discovered, an irrigation worker found the body of a dark-haired woman in an isolated Kern County almond orchard. She had been stabbed in the chest and abdomen. More stab wounds in her hands showed that she had tried to defend herself. Investigators noted tire marks in the soil but no footprints. It seemed that the woman, like Westlake, had been murdered elsewhere, driven to the site, and discarded. Her arms bore distinctive tattoos: a heart with the name Shirley embedded, along with the words “love you” and “Seattle,” and a rose accompanied by “mother” and “I love you.” A 2008 DNA test identified Chouest as a suspect in the case, but Kern County chose not to prosecute him. That woman had become Jane Doe Kern County.
Both women had been identified as possibly Native American or Latina. If that were the case, finding their names and families could prove problematic.
MISSING AND SOMETIMES FORGOTTEN
The late journalist Gwen Ifill coined the term missing white woman syndrome. Exemplified recently by the disturbing case of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old found strangled in Wyoming, it refers to the fact that white women who disappear garner more media attention than brown or Black women do, making it harder for people of color to recognize and claim their kin.
“Far too often, murders and missing persons cases in Indian country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in April 2021.
Declaring a crisis of violence against Indigenous people, Haaland announced the creation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Missing and Murdered Unit, which would investigate the cases of the approximately 1,500 missing American Indian and Alaska Native people reported to the National Crime Information Center. Owing to decades-long underreporting, the true figures likely go far beyond official numbers. According to the Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center at the University of Wyoming, only 30 percent of the Indigenous homicide victims in that state between 2000 and 2019 received media coverage, compared with 51 percent of the white homicide victims. Only 18 percent of the Indigenous female victims received coverage.
A 2020 report by the To’ Kee Skuy’ Soo Ney-Wo-Chek’ project citing data from California’s Sovereign Bodies Institute, an Indigenous-run nonprofit, documented 4,293 Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people (Indigenous people who have both masculine and feminine identities) who had gone missing or been murdered in the United States and Canada over the previous 40 years, including an average of 14 annually in California since 2015. According to SBI, 56 percent of those missing have their race listed incorrectly in California’s official missing persons databases. Adding to the confusion over numbers are overlapping federal, tribal, and state law enforcement jurisdictions.
Compounding the tragedy are the Indigenous children in the United States and Canada who, over decades, were forcibly separated from their families and stripped of their languages and identities. If they were adopted by white families or placed in boarding schools, their histories were often buried or forgotten, making them difficult to identify through genetic genealogy if they are murdered. In Canada, even today, Indigenous women are 12 times more likely to go missing or be killed than other women.
“There’s not a real centralized database that chronicles all the missing and murdered,” says investigative genetic genealogist Trish Hurtubise, a member of Canada’s Couchiching First Nation. “Many would go missing in the ’60s or ’70s, and the police would not take it seriously, or they would try to justify the absence. So there’s people who may have been reported missing in past decades that are not accounted for today. I would include the U.S. in that, because this issue doesn’t know the border.”
Such omitted cases and racial misclassifications by law enforcement or coroners only add to gaps in official databases. The U.S. government clearinghouse, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, says it’s “working to close” such gaps.
AN UNSUITABLE MAN
If Wilson Chouest Jr. had indeed killed both Jane Does, his violence had escalated steadily since his fraught childhood, which, Rhods learned as he continued to work the Westlake case, had been rife with parental discord. Born in New Orleans, Chouest was an altar boy with priestly ambitions until he was expelled from Catholic school, accused of beating up another altar boy, an epileptic. Already a drug user, he ramped up his heroin habit upon enlisting in the army a few days after he turned 18. A year later, he was discharged owing to “unsuitability.”
By 1972, Chouest had moved to Los Angeles, where he married and had a daughter, Brigette. On an October 1977 afternoon, on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, he offered a ride to a 20-year-old woman. At 25, he was five foot six, with long, dark wavy hair and a horseshoe mustache connected to a beard grown, possibly, to disguise his receding chin. Thinking he looked safe, the woman got into the car, then noticed there were no door handles on the passenger side.
Chouest drove her to a bushy area in the Santa Monica Mountains, kicked her in the head, strangled her to unconsciousness, raped her, and left her in the dirt. He was arrested the next day. In exchange for his pleading guilty to kidnapping and assault, the authorities dropped the rape charge, and he was sentenced to four years in prison. A probation report described him as “extremely dangerous” and as demonstrating “no remorse.” Nonetheless, he was paroled in June 1980, a month before the Ventura and Kern County bodies were discovered. Free on parole that August, Chouest held a woman at knifepoint in Visalia. When she refused to get into her car, he ran off with $30 and her identification. The next day, he called her to say, “I got your money last night, didn’t I? Next time it will be your pussy.” She thought she saw him ride past her house on a motorcycle.
A week later, Chouest forced a woman into her car at Visalia’s College of the Sequoias, took her cash, bound her wrists with duct tape, and drove into the countryside, where he raped her. A month later, he was arrested; pleaded guilty to robbery, kidnapping, and rape; and was sentenced to 12 years to life with the possibility of parole. In 2004, the parole board approved his release, citing a psychological report that concluded that Chouest presented a less-than-average danger.
California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger convened a hearing, and Chouest’s parole was rescinded. The California Supreme Court denied his appeal, but Chouest’s next hearing was due to take place in 2016. Possibly, Rhods thought, he could be freed.
JUST A FIX
Ventura County is an area of strawberry fields, lemon groves, and beaches 65 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. In 2012, before Rhods’s brief retirement, an estimated 319 murders, dating back to the 1930s, remained unsolved in the sheriff’s jurisdiction.
Determined to resolve Westlake’s identity, back in his old cubicle in 2013, Rhods began combing law enforcement and missing persons databases as well as chat rooms, trying unsuccessfully to find someone who was looking for her.
It wasn’t the gruesome crime-scene photos that propelled him. He’d been with the sheriff’s department for more than 30 years. And after high school, his first job had been driving an ambulance. Coincidentally, he’d been called to the Smiths’ murder site, then sent away since the Smiths were already dead.
“I’ve been around misery, death, and despair my entire adult life,” Rhods says. “I look at crime scenes, and regrettably, even with children, I really have no reaction at all.”
But this was his first Jane Doe case. He’d always known about his victims, met their children, even bought Christmas presents for them. What gnawed at him now was Westlake’s namelessness.
“He’s a cop’s cop. Old-school. He pursues things like he’s on a mission,” says former Ventura County chief deputy district attorney Cheryl Temple, a prosecutor in the Golden State Killer case. “Like every good cop, he has that soft underside. He would never really show it, but you know these cases get to him.”
After the 2008 DNA hit had implicated Chouest in the almond-orchard murder, he told a Kern County detective that robbery had been his motive for the Visalia crimes that put him in prison: “Get a few dollars so I can get a fix or I’ll get something to drink.” Rape was incidental, he claimed.
It would be September 2013 before Rhods and another detective, Joe Evans, took the three-hour drive north from Ventura to Kings County to question Chouest. Corcoran state prison, beige and grim amid the surrounding green farmland, had housed a number of notorious serial killers, including Juan Corona, Rodney Alcala, and Charles Manson. The detectives met Chouest, white-haired at 61, in a conference room and showed him pictures of Jane Doe Westlake. He said he didn’t know where Thousand Oaks was and had never seen her before.
“These people are pieces of shit, and you got to get down in it,” Rhods says about his confrontational style.
But he also likes to build rapport: He talks first, with a partner slightly behind him taking notes. Then he slides back and asks the other detective if they have questions. If attorneys object to recording, he gets folksy—Grandpa with memory or hearing issues.
“I asked him three times, ‘Do you know this girl?’ ‘No.’ ‘Did you have sex with her?’ ‘I don’t know her,’ ” Rhods says. “If he had said, ‘Yeah, I think I might have had sex with her,’ there’s a problem for us.”
A problem because Chouest could offer the defense that he and Westlake had had sex, but someone else had killed her.
Rhods didn’t mind the lie.
“The lie is as good as the truth,” he says. “Because I can prove the lie just as easily.”
As Rhods delved into Chouest’s past, he learned that Chouest had connected with a woman named Carolyn Bell through a biker magazine’s jailhouse pen pal section. Bell took her three teenage sons with her when she picked Chouest up at a Reno bus station after his June 1980 parole from the California Correctional Center in Susanville. When she entered alcohol detox in July, she left the boys with him at her house in Lemoore, a small, dusty city not far from Fresno.
Patrick “Scott” Bell was 13 that summer. In his 40s when Rhods contacted him, he said that Chouest had disappeared one night, returned the next morning, and asked the older brothers to vacuum blood from the back footwell of his green Chrysler: “a lot of blood,” according to Scott. Chouest said he’d hit a deer and put it in his car to get it off the road, but he confided to Scott that he’d “met some broad in a bar and he killed her.” Scott described the man his family knew as Poochie—Chouest’s incongruously cute childhood nickname—as “a monster.”
Convinced that Chouest was the killer of both Jane Does, Rhods obtained permission from the Kern County Sheriff’s Office Homicide Unit to continue investigating the Kern murder. He compiled a casebook on Westlake, attached the Jane Doe Kern County evidence, and filed the materials with a prosecutor in the Ventura DA’s office, requesting an arrest warrant.
The prosecutor rejected the case. The grounds: despite DNA, it was impossible to prove that sex with Chouest had been proximal to Westlake’s murder, therefore impossible to prove that he’d killed her.
Rhods, unfazed, countered with a PowerPoint presentation that explained that seminal fluid, still pooled in Westlake at autopsy, showed that she hadn’t stood up after sex, meaning she’d been raped shortly before being killed. In addition, most of Westlake’s blood had drained from her body, and Scott Bell would testify about vacuuming Chouest’s car.
This time, a tall, balding deputy DA named John Barrick was eager to prosecute both Jane Doe cases, and Kern County consented.
“Kern County didn’t want to prosecute the case unless they knew the name of the victim,” says Barrick. “I was like, ‘There’s evidence; they’re people; they’re dead. Let’s go.’ Victims of these horrendous murders, in the last moments of their lives, suffered horribly. They deserve justice even if we don’t know who they are.”
In September 2015, Rhods and another detective, Arnie Aviles, returned to Corcoran to arrest Chouest. Like the Kern County detective before him, Rhods asked Chouest about his motive for the 1980 assaults that had put him in Corcoran. At the parole board’s suggestion, Chouest had been reading up on criminal psychology. His rapes were about control, he declared now, blaming his mother for his anger toward women: he’d felt abandoned by her, and she had “fooled around” on his father. When his kidnap victim had pleaded that her husband would be looking for her, he’d felt rejected, Chouest said.
“Forgive me for being really blunt,” said Rhods, who figured Chouest was practicing for his next parole hearing. “Do you have it in your mind that this is true love in the front seat of this car?”
“It was about getting back what people had done to me,” Chouest answered.
But no matter how hard Rhods pushed him about the murders of Westlake and Jane Doe Kern County, Chouest wouldn’t break.
“Not my DNA,” he insisted. “I didn’t do it.”
Chouest hadn’t seen his daughter, Brigette, since she was a toddler. With brown eyes and black hair, she looked remarkably like her father as a younger man.
Rhods showed him photos.
“My ploy was, You get to know where your daughter is. Maybe your victims’ families would like to know where their daughter is,” says Rhods.
Chouest became emotional, but still denied knowing the murdered women. Hoping that he would confess to Brigette, Rhods and Evans took her to breakfast. The confession didn’t happen.
“She believed that her father was a murderer, but she didn’t want to believe that her father was a murderer,” Rhods says.
In May 2016, Brigette Chouest, at 40, committed suicide by jumping off a building in Hollywood. Another of her father’s victims, Rhods thought.
A VIABLE OPTION
Chouest’s trial began in May 2018 at the palm-and-pine-landscaped Ventura County Hall of Justice, where he was charged with murdering both Jane Does as well as Jane Doe Westlake’s fetus.
Barrick’s obvious hurdle was an absence of family members to describe the emotional impact of the victims’ deaths to the jury.
“How do you make them care about someone where there weren’t even missing person reports?” Barrick asks. “For me, that just increases the tragedy of it all and the importance of this case.”
On day two, the trial lurched to an unexpected halt. Dr. Peter Speth, who had autopsied Westlake and was a key witness, pulled out.
Long before, Speth had moved from Ventura to New Jersey, where, in 1997, he was convicted of witness tampering. He voluntarily surrendered his medical license, but it was reinstated in 2006, and the conviction was later expunged. With the Golden State Killer case still making its way through prosecution, Speth, who had autopsied Charlene Smith, was expecting to be a witness.
Early in the Golden State Killer investigation, evidence from around California had been shipped to Orange County in the belief that if the killer were ever caught, that’s where he would be prosecuted. But it was Sacramento County that ended up assembling the GSK task force in 2016, with district attorneys from six counties, including Ventura, participating. Orange County was slow to release its evidence, and over the years, many other counties destroyed their rape kits, owing to the statute of limitations. But in an unusual move, Speth had created two kits for Smith. Rhods had uncovered the crucial duplicate kit in the Ventura County lab.
Speth was afraid that his East Coast history would ruin his credibility for the developing Golden State Killer case, says Barrick. But in fact, Barrick adds: “It was because of the second rape kit that Dr. Speth did that we were able to ultimately identify and convict the Golden State Killer.”
Since Speth’s tampering conviction had been expunged, Barrick filed a motion to keep it out of the Chouest trial, but Judge Ryan J. Wright ruled that it could come in. Rhods called Speth from Barrick’s office to announce the news.
“Dr. Speth just wigged out,” Barrick remembers. “Yelled, started calling me incompetent. And he says, ‘I’m not going to testify. In fact, I’m leaving right now.’ So I told Steve, ‘Get over there and get him subpoenaed.’ ”
Rhods raced to the doctor’s beachfront hotel, but the imposing, gray-haired Speth, set to testify about Westlake’s horrifying injuries and the fact that she had been raped immediately before her murder, had fled. Despite Barrick’s detailed motion, and the decision being Judge Wright’s, Speth says that Barrick failed him: “According to the law, the conviction never happened. My rights were violated.”
Presciently, though, Barrick had videotaped the medical examiner’s testimony at Chouest’s 2016 preliminary hearing. He presented that to the jury, along with other forensic evidence relating to both Jane Does and testimony from Carolyn Bell and her son Scott. To show Chouest’s pattern of kidnapping and raping women at knifepoint, his three living victims, now middle-aged, gave harrowing accounts of their experiences.
“I remember thinking, ‘They’re going to find my body in this cornfield tomorrow,’ ” one said.
Chouest, balding, his mustache shaved, and wearing glasses and a white dress shirt that looked a couple of sizes too big, appeared to enjoy himself.
“You look at the news broadcasts and the photographs,” says Rhods. “He’s smiling for the camera. He got out of prison for a few months. He had a good time.”
“Until they convicted him, of course,” adds Barrick.
The jury found him guilty of killing both Jane Does, but couldn’t convict him for murdering Westlake’s fetus. In California, a jury is instructed to follow the law at the time of the crime. In 1980, a fetus had to be able to survive outside the womb, and Westlake’s was on the edge of viability.
“They really wanted to convict him of killing that baby,” says Barrick.
Judge Wright sentenced Chouest to two consecutive terms of life without the possibility of parole. “Your last breath is going to be taken in state prison where you deserve to be,” he said.
The day after Chouest’s sentencing, Rhods and Barrick visited him in jail. Still uncooperative, Chouest did say he thought he had picked up Jane Doe Kern County in a Lemoore bar and Jane Doe Westlake as she had hitchhiked in the area.
Barrick didn’t buy it. Westlake’s clothes, her manicure, seemed more city than country. Chouest had killed Jane Doe Kern County, Barrick surmised, then driven south to Los Angeles. There, he picked up Westlake, murdered her, and dumped her in Thousand Oaks on his way north to Carolyn Bell’s house, where the boys vacuumed her blood from his car.
Says Barrick, “As unsophisticated and brutish as he was, his plan worked to a T. He just hadn’t anticipated technology.”
Jane Doe Westlake may have lain nameless in her grave for 38 years in the shadow of Camarillo’s Conejo Mountain, but after her case reached the DNA Doe Project in 2018, she became known as Lyra Jade.
Browsing the internet, Rhods had learned of the nonprofit DDP, an all-volunteer organization cofounded in 2017 by mystery and true-crime writer Margaret Press and forensic genealogist Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick. Their goal was to identify Jane and John Does through genetic genealogy. To date, the project has identified 64 individuals.
All Rhods needed was permission from Ventura County to have its lab extract DNA from Westlake and her fetus, then have funds allocated for additional testing. The DDP would then try to find a relative from whom to build a family tree.
By October 2018, the DDP was ready to start researching Westlake’s identity. The genealogy websites GEDmatch and FamilyTree provided lists of people who shared her DNA, and from those, volunteers traced a line of ancestry to the Mexican state of Zacatecas and her third- or fourth-great-grandparents, Ponciano Montellano and Feliciana Rojas, who had seven children.
Lines from the Montellano family reached into Monterrey, in Mexico’s state of Nuevo León, and into New Mexico. But close matches to Westlake, a.k.a. Jane Doe Ventura County, a.k.a. Lyra Jade, proved elusive.
As the Westlake search continued, Rhods suggested to Kern County coroner Dawn Ratliff that they search for Jane Doe Kern County’s identity by extracting blood from her stored pink blouse. By May 2019, the DDP had a usable sample to upload to GEDmatch.
But GEDmatch, following fierce debate over digital privacy after the Golden State Killer arrest, had changed its terms. Now it was denying access to law enforcement unless a user granted permission.
“It was awful,” says Gina Wrather, who led the DDP’s Jane Doe Kern County investigating team. “We could see that there were x number of people matching her in the database, but we had visibility to zero.”
For nearly 40 years, Violet Soosay-Wolf had searched for her aunt, Shirley Ann Soosay, who had last visited Canada’s Samson Cree Nation reservation in 1977 for a family funeral. Soosay was a domestic worker in Vancouver, sending money home to take care of her ailing mother, Theresa. Life had been difficult for Soosay, whose two sons had been removed by authorities, the result of a vindictive father who had reported her as unfit, she told her niece. One boy went into foster care. The other was adopted by a white family. Devastated, Soosay turned to alcohol and drugs. Then her baby daughter was removed too.
“She was not your regular addict. She didn’t go on the streets,” says 61-year-old Soosay-Wolf, who noticed at the funeral that her aunt was as meticulously groomed as ever.
Aware that the world was dangerous for Indigenous women, Theresa had urged her daughter to stay in one place, in case someday someone wanted to find her. Soosay-Wolf remembers making the macabre suggestion that her aunt get tattoos to identify her should the worst happen.
In 1979, Soosay’s birthday and Christmas cards stopped arriving. Theresa lamented every night, begging Soosay-Wolf, her granddaughter, to find Soosay and bring her home.
Soosay-Wolf promised and, in 1980, began making regular 13-hour drives to Vancouver and Seattle, which Soosay had said she might visit. With Soosay’s sister Belle, she searched hospitals, halfway houses, and even graveyards.
When Belle died in 2011, Soosay-Wolf searched alone, not speaking publicly about Soosay until February 2019, at a women’s conference, where she told of her promise. She had done everything humanly possible to find her aunt, she said, and she needed to let go.
By that time, though she didn’t know it, DDP team members had put in over 1,000 volunteer hours trying to identify Jane Doe Kern County.
“We narrowed it down to the fact that both of her parents probably came from the same town in Alberta, which was Maskwacis,” says team leader Wrather. “We decided to put an appeal out on Facebook to the Indigenous people of that area.”
Four days after Soosay-Wolf gave up, she spotted the post. Looking for Soosay’s children as she looked for Soosay, she had already tested her DNA with Ancestry and found the boys. Now GEDmatch confirmed that she and Jane Doe Kern County shared DNA within a match for an aunt and niece.
“I went from ‘Oh, joy’ and then sorrow, anger, and a whole gamut of emotions,” says Soosay-Wolf, who still hopes to find Soosay’s daughter. Trying to express her gratitude to Rhods, she starts to weep and can’t stop. “There are no words,” she says.
Last July, Soosay-Wolf, her sister, and their daughters traveled to Bakersfield, where an elder from the Tejon Indian Tribe performed a graveside ceremony for the woman who was no longer a Jane Doe. “We still have to bring her home,” says Soosay-Wolf. “We’re holding this sacred space for Shirley.”
Rhods remains compelled to discover the identity of Jane Doe Westlake; he continues the search. “It’s the right thing to do,” he says. “Look at Shirley. I was just about to give up. The same could be said for this victim, Ventura Westlake. As the Doe Project likes to say, let’s give them their names back.”
The DDP informs him of possible matches. He tracks people down, tells them Westlake’s story, and says he thinks they’re related and wants to build their family tree.
“It’s a weird call to get,” he says.
If potential family members resist, worried that their cooperation will land a relative in trouble, Rhods sends them articles about the case, and himself, and if they still don’t respond, he knocks on doors, always hoping he’s on the verge of a match.
In a recent triumph, the DDP identified the father of Westlake’s fetus, and he agreed to a DNA test. It was positive. But in 1980, he was married with a daughter on the way. Despite the evidence, over the phone to Rhods, he denied knowing Westlake or having an affair.
Since the man has moved from Los Angeles to New York, Rhods plans to fly there. Harder to lie face-to-face, he thinks.
“The victims need justice. I also believe the victims need to be with their families,” says Rhods, who’s about to leave his office for the day, on a mission to buy water balloons for his grandkids. “She’s had children,” he says about Westlake. “There’s some child, someplace, that’s like, ‘Wonder what became of Mom. In July of 1980, she left and never came home.’ ”•