Ventura County Jane Doe
POS Wilson Chouest then and now
Kern county is in Southern California, not on the coast, further inland. We are zeroing in on the city of Delano. It has over 50k people now, but back in 1980, we’d call it a town, as it only had about 16k people.
And it is on July 14, 1980 that the body of a woman was found in an almond orchard off Hwy 99. She has no ID, but she doesn't seem to be homeless. She is clean, well kept, and dressed for a night out. The Kern county medical examiner completes the autopsy, takes her fingerprints, and the police department does all the things. This woman was stabbed upwards of 30 times, and she had desperately fought off her attacker. There is DNA evidence, likely skin, found under her fingernails, and she had been raped. But, who was this woman? Police ask around town, put feelers out, and come up with nothing. They did send a sample from yhe rape kit to Department of Justice, but what can they really do with it right now?
There are her physical details: Hispanic or Native American, between 20 and 30 years old, 5 foot 2, and weighed about 115 pounds. She has tattoos on both forearms, one being the word “Seattle.” So police go off to Washington to question some Seattle tattoo parlors - did you give a woman this tattoo? They come up with nothing.
Now, for some reason, it's believed she was picked up from a bar in Lemoore, 100mi from where she was found. I honestly wasn't able to find how they figured that much, but we do know that she had been drinking shortly before her death; her toxicology report came back with a level of .3. She will become known as “Kern County Jane Doe #5 1980.”
In 2008 - Kern County Sheriff’s office got a call from the Department of Justice. We have prisoner here serving a life term for kidnapping and rape and we got his DNA profile in CODIS, and it’s hitting on your Jane Doe #5 1980. His name is Wilson Chouest. Sweet! Let’s get moving on this now, right? Not so fast, they collect all the evidence they can, but aside from the DNA hit, they really don’t have anything. So they didn't try him. I guess the skin under her nails and his semen left behind wasn’t good enough? Tsk. Well, at least he is already locked up, so that’s a consolation at least.
So let’s check out some of this guy's history... Wilson Claude Chouest born December 2, 1951 in Louisiana. Let’s check out his timeline.
10/12/1977 - Offers victim #1 a ride. As soon as she gets in, she sees the door and window handles have been taken out.. Oh fuck! He demands she performs oral sex on him, she refuses, but now she’s trapped inside the car! Now he’s brandishing a knife at her, and threatening her, and manages to tape her hands behind her back and drive off…. Ms. 1977 decides to start playing nice. She tells him she’ll be good if he’ll just get rid of the knife. And it works, he actually ends up tossing it out his own window. Chouest brings her to some remote woodsie area. He pulls her from the car, and tosses her onto a blanket…. Wait, where’d the blanket come from? Did he pull it out of the car or was it already there, waiting for them? Agghhhh. She's pleading with him not to hurt her, but he starts beating her. Kicking her and strangling her. And at that point her world goes black.
Hours later… After dark, Ms. 1977 wakes up. It's dark out, she's alone, bruised, and battered, and naked from the waist down, and she’s been raped. But thankfully, she's alive. She will say in her police report about the attack, “he said raped other girls and he liked it.” So he is picked up for this, and charges are brought. He plead to robbery and kidnapping as long as they dropped the rape charge.
June 15. In 1980, he was released from jail for assault and kidnapping in Los Angeles county. While in prison, he had been writing letters to a lady in Kings county, and when he got out, he shacked up her and her four sons.
August 1980 - College of the Sequoias student. Leaving night class and approached by Chouest with a knife. Demanded her purse and to get in her own car. She fought back and refused. She offered him cash she had, $30, and he fled a moment later when he realized there were people nearby. Later she realized the cash she gave him had a receipt folded in it that had her name, address and phone# written on it. Yikes!!! He called her the next day!! And bragged about taking her money! Thank god she never saw him again though, or, on the street at least.
September 1980 - He attacks another College of the Sequoias student. Walking to the car after a night class (ALSO). Forces her into his car and demands her cash - $10. Drove her around for a while, stopped in a secluded area, raped and sodomized her. At some point she tells him her husband will be looking for her and getting worried, and he decides to let her go. He drops her back off at her car and apologizes!! What???
Between the two complaints, the August and the September, he is charged and brought to trial. At that time he was sentenced to a life term, with his first possibility of parole being in 2017.
So… hopefully, something new comes to the Kern Jane Doe’s case before then.
But we do have to wait a few years. We are hopping over to Ventura county. Ventura borders Kern County to the south and is farther east; so Ventura actually touches the Pacific ocean. In 2013ish, the Ventura Sheriff’s office is investigating a murder of their own Jane Doe. Their victim was dumped in the Westlake high school parking lot. On July 18, 1980 ventura county jane doe found, no one knows they are linked. This Jane Doe is also possibly Hispanic, about 20 to 30 years old, between 5-foot-2 and 5-foot-3, 110 to 120 pounds, black hair with bleached ends and penciled-in eyebrows. She was found wearing a white short-sleeved shirt, red corduroy pants and black open-toed high heel shoes. She had also been stabbed multiple times, estimated up to 20 times. And to make it an even worse death, she was 20 weeks pregnant at the time, with a baby boy.
Investigator Steve Rhodes is working the case, both for the murder, and to identify her. He submits DNA of the suspect found on her to CODIS and they get a hit for a guy that's been in jail since the early 80s. He’s got a problem though. The semen evidence that still remains from his Jan Doe - some of it they think is too deteriorated to test, and some of it has been lost or hopefully not tossed) over the years. So his case won’t stand on it’s own either. But Rhodes also sees a hit for another victim of this guy - our Kern County Jane Doe. Based on the profiles in the database, they are linked by the suspect. So Rhodes calls up Kern County and says, “hey, what do you think about if we try this guy together… if we merge the two cases?” Kern County agrees, and Rhodes will start working with his district attorney, John Barrick, who is going to try both cases. Chouest was officially charged in 2015; and he pleaded not guilty to both. Now, this would have been a death penalty case, but Barrick won’t pursue it because 1. Chouest is already in his 60s, kind of thinking what's the point? And 2. The victims' families are unknown, so there will be no one to testify on their behalf. Barrack tells us “We don’t have any of that evidence because we don’t know who these women were.”
May of 2018 we finally get our trail for our Jane Does. And to establish that kidnapping and rape are this POS’s M.O. all three prior victims testify against him. They are some Badass ladies!! Also, we get some other testimony from some people in his own life. Some time in July 1980, after at least one of these murders, remember Chouest was living with a lady and her kids? Well, this POS enlists the sons to help him vacuum out blood from his car! OMG! They don’t say anything to mom, until she goes to vacuum the living room one day, and they stop her. And they were like, “uhhh, mom don’t do that! There's blood in the vacuum!” supposedly they told their mom POS had hit a deer, but thn i guess atsome point she also believed he had committed a murder. But… never figured it was the morally responsible thing to do to bring this information to the police.
Defense - the women are dead, they can’t testify to the rape. And just because they had sex w him doesnt link him to their deaths and where they were found. Once again, defense attorneys gotta defend. Not an easy job, especially with all the DNA being left behind, but someones gotta do it. And unfortunately, sometimes, they have to insult the jury’s intelligence in the process.
There’s a 2015 recorded interview with Chouest played at the trial, with Investigator Steve Rhodes on the stand. At one point during the interviews, Chouest’s mother gets brought up. He claims she cheated on his dad, causing them to divorce, and bringing sadness to the family. Aww, poor baby. He does admit, though, that “It wasn’t my mother’s fault at that time. It was my choice.” What time is Chouest referring to when he says “at that time”? Rhodes says, it seemed like he was referring to his past crimes, like as if he was talking to a parole board, that kind of thing… BUT he knew why Rhodes was there. The whole purpose of the interview was to question him about the two Jane Doe murders.
In the end, on May 31 2018, POS Wilson Chouest was found guilty of the 1980 murders of the Kern County Jane Doe and the Ventura County Jane Doe and sentenced to three life terms, plus an extra 4 years.
Doe investigation: Then Steve Rhodes decided to try GG; he contacts the dna doe project and asks if they will consider adding these women to their roster for investigations. At the same time, Local news outlet, KGET 17, creates a website dedicated solely to giving Kern County and Ventura County Jane Does their names back. They also reached out to the DDP.
And they agreed, whew! But first they need to get a viable sample of blood or other matter to complete the analysis. We continue with Kern County Jane. Police go back into her evidence boxes and pull out the blouse she was wearing when she was found. Its now 38yrs later. 38 yrs of sitting in a box on a shelf at the police department. Will they be able to extract anything from it? Thankfully, yes. A mito-chromosomal dna profile was thankfully able to be created. To this day, Ventura County Jane Doe has not been identified, this is where her story ends.
But this all took about a year to get done, so it wasn’t until may of 2019 that the DNA report was uploaded by a genealogist working with DDP. And just as surprised as I was at my 3000 matches on my report, they were surprised at ZERO matches that came back on Jane's report. ZERO - none - it's a blank screen. How could this be? It’s May of 2019. Nothing? Really? No one?
May of 2019 was a big month for the genealogy and law enforcement communities using the GEDmatch database. I don’t think i’ve explained this to you before, but you might already know… because of the hoopla around the Golden state Killer case and some other cases after that, GEDmatch was getting som bad press about allowing Law Enforcement to search the site to solve rape and murder cold cases. There actually hadn’t been any clear policy the GEDmatch adhered to. Because the idea of using bloodlines to catch killers and name John and Jane Does was like a new born baby, and GEDmatch had already been around for a while - with no one complaining - they didn’t really have a way to regulate LE coming in. There was a lot of press about privacy invasion, and GEDmatch allowing the government access to your info. Of course, like we found out last week, the info is the centimorgan match # and your email address…. But it is information nonetheless. So Curtis Rogers, one of the founders, and his team brainstormed the problem and decided to make a lil clicky toggle for every user to be able to decide if they want their kit available to LE. they said, ok, at midnight on 5/19/2019 we are updating the site, and the system, and everyone in the database will be automatically “opted out” for LE. we will put it on our homepage, and get it in the news, and anyone who does want to be opted in will have to sing in and go to their settings and tog the toggle.
So you can imagine what it was like for genealogists around the world when they logged into gedmatch the morning of 5/19. All blank screens… hundreds of thousands of people that were there yesterday… they aren't there today. Ugh… this was like hitting that walk at mile 21 in your marathon. You're cruising along fine, feeling good, making progress, enjoying the ride, and then BAM! The rug is slipped out from underneath you.
So I might have some listeners being like, but hey, people have the right to their privacy, this was a problem, GEDmatch picking and choosing cases that they felt were worthy of breaking its users’ trust for. And yes, I absolutely agree. As much as the morning of 5/19 sucked, I do believe it was the best action to take. Not just for the GEDmatch’s brand, but for the basic morality of the whole thing. If GEDmatch didn’t do this, there was a chance that hundreds of thousands of people would be pulling their files off the site. And this would have jeopardized all the research being done for situations where LE wasn't involved at all. Adoptees wouldn't be able to find their birth parents…. People would not be able to expand their family history stories like they had been able to up to this point. So yes, it was the best road to take, for sure. But it did create a whole new problem. Now LE and the DDP had no database to check their mystery profiles against. And so the OPT-IN campaign started. They needed to get the word out there that people needed to proactively, purposefully go onto the site to opt-in. And a looooot of people didn't get the memo.
One particular family was Wendy Stephens family. She was the youngest known victim of Gary Ridgeway. And just like here, we knew who killed her, but we didn't know who she was. DDP tells us “As DDP would later learn, early in 2019 one of Wendy’s parents had taken a Direct-to-Consumer DNA test and uploaded the results to GEDmatch, hoping to learn the fate of their daughter. Unbeknownst to the parent, GEDmatch changed the setting on that kit in May 2019 as part of their new policy regarding law enforcement access to matches. Because the parent’s kit remained “opted-out” when DDP uploaded Jane Doe’s data in September 2020, that important connecting lead – which would have immediately solved the case – was not available to the team.”
So her parents heard about Joseph DeAngelo - said this will help us find our daughter! - did the work, and then bc they didnt get the memo about gedmatch changing to opt-in/opt-out, it didn't work. It ended up taking another 4mo to identify Jane Doe 1984, using her second cousins to start.
Our Kern County Jane Doe gets no hits in May of 2019 because no one is getting them. But 4mo later in September, the DDP sees a fresh opt-in. Sweet, right? Seems this kit that matched Jane was from a cremated remains kit coming from Canada? Not really sure about these details, but we can trust that it worked, because in the end, it'll still be another year before the train gets rolling again.
Then we have a woman named Trish Hurtubise… she herself is a genealogist, and helps adoptees find their birth families. It seems that Trish was also notified in 2019 that she was a distant relative of Kern Jane Doe. Problem was, their connection was estimated to be anywhere from third cousins to eighth cousins….. Wow, how do you get that far? It’s too far to do anything with - it's too much! …. it's too much!... or rather, i guess, it's not enough? But because this was a blood relationship to Trish, and because this woman is still unidentified, she decides to reach out to the DDP herself, get herself certified by their standards, and then actually becomes part of the team working the case! Loooove that.
So on July 22 2019 and then again on May 15 2020, DDP made a plea on FB to get some movement on the case. In the second post last year, we are told, “her closest identified ancestor is believed to be a Cree band member who lived in Alberta, Canada…. Kern County Jane Doe also appears to have ties to Indigenous ancestors in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada as well as Montana, USA. She has 5,837 matches in the Gedmatch database, of which only 1,035 (18%) are opted-in to law enforcement matching and are visible to researchers. The vast majority of these matches are very distant and difficult to leverage towards identification. DNA tested individuals with similar ancestry are encouraged to upload their raw DNA data for free to Gedmatch.com and FTDNA.com and OPT-IN to match to assist with this identification.”
Ten days later, a woman named Violet Soosay, whose aunt went missing almost 40 year ago, saw this post in her FB feed. When she saw it, she was certain that the phenotype picture she is looking at is her aunt. She reaches out to the DDP, they connect her with the Kern County Sheriff all the way down in california, and they get moving on getting her DNA analyzed. She got her profile done, and uploaded it into the GED match database….
And on April 23, 2021, the Kern County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office, in conjunction with the DNA Doe Project, announce that the Kern County Jane Doe #5 of 1980 is actually Shirley Soosay, a member of the Cree nation.
What was Shirley Soosay? Not much I could find about her, but in an interview posted by the Kern County Sheriff office, hls us that Shirley had lived south of her family. She did keep in touch, though, and was thoughtful and consistent in her communication. Shirley would send birthday and xmas cards to her mom every year. But then in 1979/1980, she stopped calling home. Shirley’s mom started to get worried and rounded up the family to start a search. They looked into hospitals, local bars, parks, cemeteries where she had lived over the years. Biological mother made us promise to her that we would keep looking and bring her home.” She then uploaded her DNA into gedmatch, discovering a CM match as a niece aunt relationship.
DDP’s Team Leader Gina Wrather tells us, “This case was particularly challenging because Indigenous family histories are usually relayed orally, so there is little written genealogical documentation available.” Shirley Sosay’s identification is believed to be the first case of an indigenous peoples being solved by genealogy. Hopefully more and more will start getting resolved.