Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Shirley Ann Soosay, a member of the Cree Nation, was murdered in July 1980. Her body was discovered in Kern County, California. As her identity was unknown, she was called Jane Doe Kern County.
Soosay’s case remained unsolved for decades. In 2008, DNA collected from her body was matched to serial rapist Wilson Chouest. In 2018, Chouest was found guilty of killing Soosay, then still a Jane Doe, and another unidentified victim.
A&E will be airing an episode of Cold Case Files about Soosay’s case in 2022.
In 2020, the DNA Doe Project used genetic genealogy to discover that Jane Doe Kern County was actually Shirley Ann Soosay. She was one of the first Indigenous people to be identified via investigative genealogy.
Soosay was one of thousands of missing Indigenous people. Within the last few years, a movement to highlight more missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2-spirit people—otherwise known as MMIWG2S—has gained social media prominence.
Two Bodies Are Discovered Within Days of Each Other
On July 15, 1980, a woman’s body was found in an almond orchard in Kern County, near Bakersfield, California. She had been raped and stabbed 27 times, suffering 18 wounds to her chest and nine defensive wounds on her hands and arms.
Three days later, the body of another woman was discovered in a high school parking lot in Ventura County, California. This victim had been sexually assaulted and had 16 stab wounds. She was around 20 weeks pregnant.
The two victims were thought to be Native American or Latina. Despite similarities in how they’d been killed, the cases were not linked at the time. Attempts to identify each victim, such as investigating the tattoos on the woman found in Kern County, failed. (Investigators visited a number of tattoo parlors in the area to see if they could recognize the artwork.) The two women became known as Jane Doe Kern County and Jane Doe Ventura County.
DNA Leads to a Suspect
In the decades after the two Jane Does were murdered, technology and science advanced.
Chouest had moved to California following a discharge from the army for “unsuitability.” In October 1977, he abducted, raped and strangled a woman, who survived his attack.
Though DNA had connected Chouest to the murder of Jane Doe Kern County, the county did not charge him.
In January 2013, this DNA was identified as Chouest’s.
Wilson Chouest on Trial
One district attorney from Ventura County opted not to pursue a cold case with unknown victims. But Senior Deputy District Attorney John Barrick wanted to prosecute Chouest for killing both Jane Doe Ventura County and Jane Doe Kern County.
Barrick tells A&E True Crime, “Under the laws of murder, I don’t have to prove their identity. I just have to prove that they’re a human being.”
“I thought it was worth the effort,” Barrick says. “Because if we don’t, then these women will never get the justice they deserve, even if we don’t know their names. And there’s a good possibility that Wilson is going to get out, and that is not a person who deserves to be out amongst law-abiding citizens.”
On September 23, 2015, while still in custody, Chouest was brought back to Ventura County on a court order. He was arrested on September 30 and charged with three counts of murder: the deaths of the two Jane Does and the death of Jane Doe Ventura County’s male fetus.
The three women who’d survived Chouest’s previous attacks testified in court. A man who’d stayed with Chouest as a teenager told the court that in 1980 Chouest had confessed to killing a woman and dumping her body.
On May 31, 2018, Chouest was found guilty of murdering the two Jane Does, but was not convicted for the fetus’s death.
On July 12, 2018, Chouest received two consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole.
Shirley Ann Soosay Is Identified
Convicting their killer didn’t identify the two Jane Does. But Ventura County cold case investigator Steve Rhods knew the Golden State Killer had been found via DNA. He thought the same method might help these victims.
The DNA Doe Project (DDP) is an all-volunteer group that uses genetic genealogy to identify Jane and John Does. In 2018, DDP began to work on the cases of Jane Doe Ventura County and Jane Doe Kern County. (In October 2021, the organization successfully identified a victim of serial killer John Wayne Gacy who was previously known as “Victim No. 5.”)
Jane Doe Ventura County was identified as having Mexican heritage, but the search hasn’t revealed close relatives.
Because Jane Doe Kern County’s DNA had degraded, it took time to obtain usable data. Her genealogical investigation didn’t begin until May 2019.
DDP found that Jane Doe Kern County was Indigenous, with parents likely from Maskwacis, Alberta, Canada. However, with relatively few DNA profiles available from Indigenous people, they couldn’t identify her.
Violet sent her DNA to GEDmatch, an online service that allows users to upload DNA for free for use in genetic genealogy research. In February 2020, Soosay’s identity was confirmed. According to DDP, she was among the first Indigenous Does identified via genetic genealogy.
Trish Hurtubise, a member of Couchiching First Nation, helped identify Soosay. An investigative genetic genealogist and the community liaison for Indigenous communities and First Nations peoples for DDP, Hurtubise tells A&E True Crime, “I didn’t really focus too much on the criminal aspect of her case, or who did it to her, or why he did it, because it detracts from the effort we put in in identifying her.”
Hurtubise says “not many” Indigenous Does have been identified since Soosay. Even so, she says she’s optimistic this will change. She believes solving cases like Soosay’s will show Indigenous populations that submitting DNA can help resolve other missing persons cases.
“I think the greater Indigenous population… has not realized yet the benefits that can come from submitting DNA for cases such as missing and murdered Indigenous women,” she says.