For almost 40 years, a woman from Samson Cree Nation tried to find her aunt. Now she has answers

Forty years later, Violet Soosay finally has answers about her aunt Shirley Soosay, who went missing in 1980.

'We had specifically promised my grandmother that we would look'

Shirley Soosay from Samson Cree Nation was identified by her niece, Violet Soosay, and the work done by the DNA Doe Project. (Kern County Sheriff's Office/YouTube)

Violet Soosay never gave up the search for her aunt from Samson Cree Nation.

For almost 40 years, she travelled from Alberta to Vancouver and Seattle, the last known places her aunt Shirley Soosay had been.

She visited hospitals, hostels, and cemeteries while on work trips in hopes of finding anything about her aunt's whereabouts.

"We always hit dead ends," said Soosay, an instructor of history, linguistics and Indigenous art at Maskwacis Cultural College in Maskwacis, Alta., 100 kilometres south of Edmonton.

It was only in 2020 that Soosay learned what happened to her aunt and why her letters had stopped.

Years of searching

Soosay had a special connection with her aunt growing up, admiring her caring and gentle nature and her sense of humour.

Her promise to search and love for Shirley motivated her to keep looking.

"In our Cree traditions, family is very important," she said.
Shirley Soosay (left) with her mother, niece and sister on her family's property in 1961. (Submitted by Violet Soosay)

She would watch crime shows like Unsolved Mysteries and America's Most Wanted in case she saw something about her aunt.

About five years ago, while watching one of the programs, she saw a photo of a woman who looked like Shirley but had a different name.

Soosay was about to give up when she saw a Facebook post in February 2020 from the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit based in the U.S. that helps identify victims in cold cases by using genetic genealogy.

The social media post was looking for family members of an Indigenous woman whose closest ancestor was from Maskwacis. 

"I'm like, Oh, my God, that's her," Soosay said. "That's that woman in that show I saw five years ago. I just dropped everything that I was doing."

Genetic genealogy used 

By that point, researchers with the DNA Doe Project had been looking for the identity of Kern County Jane Doe 1980, now known to be Shirley Soosay, for almost a year.

The researchers try to identify people by matching their DNA to a database of samples provided by people through websites like AncestryDNA and 23andMe. 

When a match is found, DNA Doe Project researchers create a family tree in hopes of finding a name.

"What we do is extremely time-consuming, a lot of the agencies don't have the skill set or the time to conduct the genetic genealogy research required on these types of cases," said Gina Wrather, team lead for the DNA Doe Project. 

Project volunteers started researching the cold case in 2019, shortly after Shirley's killer, Wilson Chouest, was convicted of her murder. 

Shirley Soosay was stabbed to death on July 14, 1980, near Bakersfield, Calif., about 180 kilometres north of Los Angeles.
Violet Soosay last saw her aunt Shirley Soosay in 1977. She searched for information about her for nearly 40 years. (CBC News)

By February 2020, after 2,000 hours of searching and building family trees for the Kern County Jane Doe, the researchers still did not have a name but were close. So they put a plea out on Facebook.

Violet Soosay contacted the researchers and sent in a DNA sample to confirm her family ties. They confirmed it was her aunt, who was 35 when she was killed.

"It was happiness, elation, anger, it was a whole gamut of emotions," said Soosay.

Moving forward

Because of the pandemic, Soosay hasn't been able to travel to California to bring her aunt's remains home for a planned ceremony on July 14, the anniversary of the day she died.

"Not one human being deserves the end she met," she said.

"In our culture, there's still unfinished business until she is home and ceremony is done. Then I can rest. Until that time, I'm still going to be working on bringing her home."