For decades, she was known only as Sheep’s Flat Jane Doe.
In 1982, the 33-year-old unidentified woman was found shot to death near a Lake Tahoe hiking trail. She appeared to be dressed for a day at the lake, wearing a powder blue T-shirt, jeans, yellow sneakers and a bathing suit under her clothing.
She had no identification. No one was looking for her. So she became known as Sheep’s Flat Jane Doe, named after the trail where she was found by a group of hikers. Her remains were buried in a nameless grave; the case went cold.
Almost 37 years later, with the help of DNA detectives, genealogy records and dogged detective work, the mystery was solved. The victim in the lonely grave is Mary Silvani, a Pontiac native who grew up in Detroit, attended Mackenzie High School, had two brothers and eventually moved to California.
Forensic genealogists used the victim’s DNA to track down relatives, including two distant cousins who had used ancestry sites to research their family trees, and a nephew who still lives in the Detroit area. Family members who spoke to the Free Press said they learned Silvani also had a child, whose whereabouts are unknown.
Investigators also tracked down neighbors who grew up next to the Silvani family in Detroit and helped confirm her identity.
Detroit police also played a crucial role. The department had kept a set of Silvani’s fingerprints from a 1974 misdemeanor loitering case. Based on this set of fingerprints, authorities in Nevada were able to confirm that Sheep’s Flat Jane Doe was Mary Silvani.
“This is an incredible story,” Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam said in a Wednesday phone interview, noting Detroit Police played a crucial role in the case. “They did exactly what they needed to do. If Detroit had not kept those fingerprints — back then they weren’t digitalized — we never would have been able to (connect) those points.”
Sheriff Darin Balaam speaks during a press conference at the Washoe County Sheriff’s headquarters in Reno on May 7, 2019. The department recently solved the cold case homicide of Mary Silvani. (Photo: Jason Bean/RGJ)
Detroit police, who were contacted by Nevada detectives last summer, found the decades-old fingerprint card after digging through old archives in a massive warehouse.
“It certainly was a pleasant surprise that we were able to locate it after all this time,” said Detroit Police Lt. Martin Stefan, noting the discovery of records from a decades-old misdemeanor case is “certainly pretty rare.”
“Some records are kept for just these kinds of reasons,” Stefan said. “Theoretically, they didn’t need to be retained. It really was just a lucky situation that they managed to survive all this time.”
Then there were the persistent forensic genealogists who uploaded snippets of the victim’s DNA into a database called GEDMatch. This led to cousins, her nephew and eventually her parents: John and Blanche Silvani of Detroit, who had two sons and one daughter, all of them deceased. It was the same technique successfully used in the Golden State Killer investigation.
“Without them,” Balsam said of the forensic genealogists, “we never would have solved this case.”
It was the DNA of Silvani’s nephew and closest living relative, Robert Silvani Jr., 53, a lifelong Detroiter who recently moved to Newport, that helped the scientists solve the puzzle.
“I just want to let her know that she was loved,” Silvani Jr. said in an interview Thursday, noting he had only heard about his Aunt Mary once from his mother. “I never knew my aunt … it would be really nice if I could do something for her.”
What he wants is to “get her a nice headstone,” said Silvani Jr., who learned about his aunt’s death a year ago when DNA researchers reached out to him via Facebook and told him that they had linked him to a relative of a homicide victim, and that they needed his DNA.
“You can imagine what was going through my head,” Silvani Jr. recalled, noting he was “very surprised” and eager to help.
“I was all for it. I always wanted to take an ancestry thing. I was just very surprised that she was murdered,” said Silvani Jr., who still feels in the dark about his aunt’s death. “I’m finding out a whole lot, but not enough still … I really think she would be like me … It just drives me crazy not knowing things.”
Angel Capriles, a distant cousin of Silvani’s from New York City who was also contacted by DNA researchers, is also aching for more answers.
“She deserves people to know her name. She was a person and somehow life just ate her,” Capriles told the Free Press this week. “It’s hard for me because she deserves more than what happened to her.”
Capriles, whose mother was first cousin’s with Silvani, landed on the radar of DNA researchers after joining a study on 23andMe. She has lupus, and took advantage of a free kit for people researching their ancestry and health. That put her in touch with a distant cousin. The two started building a family tree when an investigator called her and said her DNA may be linked to a Jane Doe case.
“I was shocked … I didn’t expect that. We all thought that everybody was just living their lives,” said Capriles, whose mother knew Mary and spoke of her often. “It’s hard on my mom the most. I remember her talking about Mary during my childhood.”
According to relatives, Mary Silvani’smother died in 1980 — two years before her daughter. Her father died in 1964. The three Silvani children lived together in Detroit after that so that Mary could continue high school, but all eventually went to California and went their separate ways.
According to family and Nevada authorities, the only known photo of Mary is a picture that a detective dug up on the Internet. She is pictured with a group of students, a club or school group of some sort, in the 1966 Mackenzie High School yearbook. He said detectives contacted the school, but learned very little.
“We tried to talk to the school. Whey they called back, they said, ‘there’s no senior photo,’” Balaam said, noting there were no other yearbook photos of her found, or records of her graduating.
Silvani was identified in late summer of 2018, though detectives chose not to release her name because the suspect was still unknown. It took three days to learn the name of the victim, and another five weeks to confirm her identity.
The killer was much more difficult to find.
The making of a Jane Doe
On July 17, 1982, Silvani was found shot to death near the Sheep’s Flat area, just off of Mount Rose Highway, a few miles above Incline Village on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. She had been shot twice in the head, and was sexually assaulted, authorities said.
Initially, the victim was believed to be of European descent based on an inoculation scar and unique dental work. Authorities compared her DNA, fingerprints and dental records to hundreds of reported missing women who matched her description, but there was no match.
The suspect’s DNA taken from the victim’s bloody shirt and evidence from the crime scene were entered into the FBI’s DNA database, but no matches were found for the killer, either. There was also a sexual assault kit with more DNA evidence.
The case went cold for years. The initial detectives on the case retired. And the sheriff’s office didn’t get a dedicated cold case unit until 2014.
The following year, a detective named Dave Jenkins put forward a fresh theory: The victim may have been an American, became voluntarily estranged from her family and that’s why no missing report was ever filed.
It wasn’t until February 2018 that Jenkins’ theory would gain momentum. Detectives with the sheriff’s office attended a lecture on forensic genealogy in Seattle presented by Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick of the DNA Doe Project. They solicited her help in finding the suspect’s family.
Researchers sent the suspect’s DNA to a private lab and uploaded it to GEDMatch. Some 2,000 hours of research later, they got a match: The suspect was the grandson of a Texas couple.
Then came a twist. The suspect was an illegitimate child fathered by one of the couple’s sons. His mother lived in Dallas, had a son out of wedlock and raised him under a different family name.
That son was their suspect: James Richard Curry, a Texas native and serial killer who confessed to three California murders in January 1983, just five months after Silvani’s killing.
Curry attempted suicide after being taken into custody in 1983. He died Jan. 7, 1983, from self-inflicted injuries. He was 36.
It was Curry’s two children who helped solve the case. When detectives approached them about Silvani’s homicide, the children voluntarily provided DNA samples.
The case was closed.
“When you get a case like this — it starts with a woman found dead, no clue who she is, just a body — and to prove the whole story, who she was, who did her in … It’s amazing the power of the data that we have now,” said Fitzpatrick, the forensic genealogist and key player in cracking the case.
Fitzpatrick is founder of DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit that works with law enforcement to help identify Jane and John Does and return them to their families. She also works with Identifinders International, which uses genetic genealogy to identify suspects and worked on finding Silvani’s killer.
Fitzpatrick noted that authorities still don’t know whether Silvani and her killer knew each other, how she wound up near that Nevada hiking trail that day, or where she was headed.
“There are some things we will never know, “ Fitzpatrick said. “But still, we got to the bottom of who was there, who these two people were, and some kind of thought on what happened.”
Forensic genealogist Margaret Press, who also worked the Silvani case, believes there’s a lesson in her tragedy: People need family, or a friend to look after them.
This was one of the main glitches in Silvani’s case. There was no one looking for her.
“All the twists and turns and mysteries surrounding her life — we find so common with our (Jane and John) Does. … Part of the challenge for us in doing the research — and the reason they are ‘Does’ is because they often come from a very fractured family,” Press said.
She stressed: “If even cousins don’t know you exist … if you don’t have family to come looking for you when you come missing, then who do you have?”
A Broken Family
Silvani came from a fractured family scarred by tragedy and abandonment.
Mary Edith Silvani was born in Pontiac on Sept. 29, 1948. According to relatives, she grew up in Detroit largely with her two brothers and father. Her mother, whose maiden name was “Curry,” coincidentally the same last name as her killer, was estranged from the family and died in 1980. Her father died in 1964 when Mary was still in high school.
Following her father’s death, an aunt from the Bronx came to Michigan and brought the three Savila children back to New York, hoping to keep Mary. But her brothers wanted her to finish high school in Detroit, so they came back to Michigan.
The children split up. Mary moved to California, as did her brother Charles, who died by suicide three months after his sister’s killing and was also declared a John Doe for a brief period. According to family and the L.A. Times, Charles Savila was wanted for the fatal shooting of a popular Fresno bar owner in 1972, and killed himself a decade later by jumping off an 11th story building in San Diego. His alleged accomplice in the fatal bar shooting was charged and convicted.
Mary’s other brother, Robert Silvani Sr., stayed in Detroit, married and had a son. But over the years he became estranged from his family, left Michigan, moved to California and died in Oregon. His son, Silvani Jr., was four when his father left him. He is now 53.
“I had zero family. My dad moved to California. My uncle Charlie moved to California. and my aunt Mary went to California,” Silvani Jr. said, noting he is now learning about the family he never knew through Mary’s death.
About a year ago, sometime last April, he recalled the DNA Doe Project reaching out to him on Facebook. They had linked him to a relative of a murder victim, and needed his DNA. That relative was Capriles, a distant cousin from New York City whom he never knew he had, but is now in close contact with.
Last July, researchers confirmed Silvani Jr. was Mary Silvani’s nephew, but he had to keep quiet until they found the killer.
On Wednesday, at a press conference in Reno, the killer’s name was revealed.
“I’m finding out a whole lot,” Silvani Jr. said, “But it’s still not enough.”
Big break leads to answered questions
According to Balaam, the key break in the case was when detectives in his office attended the Seattle lecture and ran into Dr. Fitzpatrick, who has a doctorate in nuclear physics and once worked for NASA. The DNA technologies employed by her research group were a key tool in solving the case.
Balaam explained that with forensic genealogy, researchers use only little snippets of DNA, not the full strand.
“That’s how they tracked Mr. Curry,” he said. “When they ran the names, there were 35 families that could have been a match.”
But the genealogists narrowed it down by constantly digging, and with the help of Curry’s children, who volunteered for DNA testing.
“I gotta commend his two children,” Balaam said. “How tough to have someone knock on your door — knowing your dad has already confessed to three murders, possibly committed a fourth — and learn there’s maybe a fifth?”
Along the way, there were also some glitches in identifying Silvani.
According to Fitzpatrick, once the researchers narrowed down her parents, there was an older relative who told them that the couple had two girls and one boy. So they weren’t sure if they had the right Mary Silvani. The breakthrough was running down the next-door neighbors in Detroit who grew up next to the Sylvanis, and confirmed that the couple had two boys and one girl. The older relative had made a mistake, she said.
“That cost us months,” Fitzpatrick said.
But the dedicated researchers refused to give up.
“What we really want to do is return names to people so that families know what happened,” Press said.
Closure aside, the Silvani investigation is looking to soon provide something else: a headstone with Mary Silvani’s name on it.
Her distant cousin Angel Capriles is working on making that happen, saying:
“I really just want Mary to be known.”
Contact: Tresa Baldas: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @Tbaldas
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