Trish Hurtubise was drawn into Shirley Ann Soosay’s story in a startling personal fashion when she discovered her own DNA loosely connected her with the murdered, unclaimed woman. (Contributed)

Trish Hurtubise was drawn into Shirley Ann Soosay’s story in a startling personal fashion when she discovered her own DNA loosely connected her with the murdered, unclaimed woman. (Contributed)

B.C. genealogist key to naming murder victim in decades-old California cold case

In July 1980, Shirley Ann Soosay was raped and stabbed to death

In July 1980, Shirley Ann Soosay was raped, stabbed to death and then dumped in an almond orchard near Bakersfield, California.

For 40 years she remained unidentified – a Jane Doe.

Last week, it was confirmed publicly. She was given a name and a family, with a Princeton woman at the heart of solving a decades-old mystery that might have been cribbed from a television forensic series script.

Trish Hurtubise, 46, is a genealogist who has worked on at least 150 private cases, connecting adoptees with birth parents and siblings.

“I help people resolve the unknowns,” she told The Spotlight. “It’s a passion.”

Two years ago, Hurtubise was drawn into Soosay’s story in a startling personal fashion.

She discovered her own DNA loosely connected her with the murdered, unclaimed woman.

And so, she began working with the DNA Doe Project (DDP), a U.S.-based not-for-profit group dedicated to identifying Jane and John Does.

Related: Red Dress Day honours Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous people

The Kern County Sheriff-Coroner’s Department handed DDP the case in 2018, just a year after the organization was founded.

A blouse worn by the dead woman, preserved in a police evidence box, gave up just enough decomposed genetic material to produce a DNA sample that proved the victim was of Indigenous descent.

That data was uploaded to GEDmatch, an online database able to cross-reference DNA findings from various commercial providers like Ancestry.com and 23andMe. The submission eventually found several distance matches, including Hurtubise, which indicated she could be anything from a third to an eighth cousin.

The DDP search began centring its investigation around Cree Nation communities in Western Canada.

Hurtubise was so intrigued with the case she underwent the DDP’s training program, officially becoming one of the group’s 55 volunteers and just one of a few working from Canada.

Approximately 2,000 hours of research went into identifying Soosay. The process involved building “hundreds of family trees,” one for every remote DNA match in GEDmatch, and then connecting them to one great grandparent, said Hurtubise.

It also included combing through countless newspaper articles about missing Indigenous women, always looking for a clue.

Hurtubise is a member of Couchiching First Nation. “When you are going through these missing and murdered women, you read the stories and you read the outcomes. You go to bed very heavy, very heavy, like heartbroken heavy.”

Knowing the victim she was trying to help was a family member wasn’t the hardest part.

“It’s not just being related. It’s just about being a woman. It’s overwhelming sometimes. I guess knowing as much as I do about my family, and knowing I have extended cousins that are missing or have been murdered, it desensitizes the shock part. As a non-native you find out your cousin Lucy has been murdered and it hits you like waves. With me, it’s like, ‘Well, not again.’”

Related: Five years pass with no peace for families of North Okanagan-Shuswap missing women

When the DDP was able to narrow down the geographic area Soosay’s close relatives were likely to live – Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba – the group flooded Indigenous social media platforms in those provinces with a composite drawing, based on a postmortem photograph.

Her niece Violet Soosay came forward. “I was surprised at my feelings,” said Hurtubise. “We were thinking how good it would feel once we solved it, once we figured it out.

“But when it finally happened it was a feeling of grief, too. It was happiness that we did it, but then it was also knowing that someone was now finding out their loved one is gone.”

Gina Wrather was the DDP’s team lead on the investigation.

She said the outcome was the best possible result.

“She (Violet) explained that she had been looking for her aunt for 40 years. At that point, they had travelled all over Vancouver, all over Seattle, visited hospitals and visited cemeteries. It’s cases like this that make it worth it to do this work, to bring a resolution to a situation just like this.”

DNA evidence, generally, has been admissible in U.S. state courts since 1988, several years after Soosay was killed.

However, it was also DNA that identified and convicted her killer, when she was still nameless. Material from beneath her fingernails, again saved by police, was matched with a sample collected from Wilson Chouest.

Chouest was serving a life sentence for a string of abductions and rapes when his DNA linked him to Soosay’s murder and that of another woman in the same area. He was found guilty of those crimes in 2018.

His second murder victim remains unidentified and is also a project of the DDP.

Just days ago, Hurtubise accepted a new private investigation, an attempt to reunite a birth family.

She continues to actively volunteer for the DDP but is unable to comment on still open cases.

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:andrea.demeer@similkameenspotlight.com


 
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Crime

 

A picture of Shirley Ann Soosay was rendered from a postmortem photograph and circulated on social media. Image DDP

Just Posted

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Second dose vaccinations accelerating throughout region: Interior Health

To date, more than 675,000 doses have been administered throughout the region

Work has begun on the $10-million, 120-kilometre fibre-optic line from Playmor Junction to north of Nakusp. File photo
Work begins on Slocan Valley fibre-optic line

The $10-million, 120-kilometre fibre-optic line runs from Playmor Junction to north of Nakusp

Prince Charles Secondary School
School District 8 votes in favour of name change for Secondary School in Creston

In an act of reconciliation, a new name will be chosen for Prince Charles Secondary School

Okanagan Lake (File photo)
Thompson-Okanagan ready to welcome back tourists

The Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association expects this summer to be a busy one

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., center left, reaches over to Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., joined by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., center, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus as they celebrate the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act that creates a new federal holiday to commemorate June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people after the Civil War, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 17, 2021. It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Biden to sign bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday

New American stat marks the nation’s end of slavery

Athena and Venus, ready to ride. (Zoe Ducklow - Sooke News Mirror)
Goggling double-dog motorcycle sidecar brings smiles to B.C. commuters

Athena and Venus are all teeth and smiles from their Harley-Davidson sidecar

Kimberly Bussiere and other laid-off employees of Casino Nanaimo have launched a class-action lawsuit against the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
B.C. casino workers laid off during pandemic launch class-action lawsuit

Notice of civil claim filed in Supreme Court of B.C. in Nanaimo against Great Canadian Gaming

A Photo from Sept. 2020, when First Nations and wild salmon advocates took to the streets in Campbell River to protest against open-pen fish farms in B.C.’s waters. On Dec. 17, federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan announced her decision to phase out 19 fish farms from Discovery Islands. Cermaq’s application to extend leases and transfer smolts was denied. (Marc Kitteringham/Campbell River Mirror)
Feds deny B.C.’s Discovery Island fish farm application to restock

Transfer of 1.5 million juvenile salmon, licence extension denied as farms phased out

John Kromhoff with some of the many birthday cards he received from ‘pretty near every place in the world’ after the family of the Langley centenarian let it be known that he wasn’t expecting many cards for his 100th birthday. (Special to Langley Advance Times)
Cards from all over the world flood in for B.C. man’s 100th birthday

An online invitation by his family produced a flood of cards to mark his 100th birthday

FILE – Nurse Iciar Bercian prepares a shot at a vaccine clinic for the homeless in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, June 2, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
B.C. scientists to study effectiveness of COVID vaccines in people with HIV

People living with HIV often require higher doses of other vaccines

A 50-year-old woman lost control of her vehicle Tuesday, June 15, crashing through a West Vancouver school fence that surrounds playing children. (West Vancouver Police)
Driver ticketed for speeding near B.C. school crashes into playground fence days later

‘It’s an absolute miracle that nobody was injured,’ says Const. Kevin Goodmurphy

Most Read