How Volunteer Sleuths Identified a Hiker and Her Killer After 36 Years

In February 2018, investigators in Nevada heard about a method for identifying DNA developed by Colleen Fitzpatrick, a physicist turned forensic genealogist. They contracted the DNA Doe Project, an organization founded by Dr. Fitzpatrick and Margaret Press, a mystery writer and software developer. This was before GEDmatch, the genealogy database their investigation would rely on, had adjusted its privacy agreement to permit law enforcement uploads. The investigative team’s next steps are proof that the group that cracked the case of the Golden State Killer was not the only one willing to cross ethical lines.

The pair assigned about a dozen volunteers to the case. “Some are in their 20s, some are in their 70s,” Dr. Press said of their pool of regulars, and “some are grandmothers, some are former law enforcement.”

After uploading the victim’s DNA to GEDmatch, the group had a relatives list to work with. Each volunteer was assigned to build a tree around one match. Whenever volunteers ran into trouble, they knew they could throw it out to others who would “pounce on it like a bunch of sharks,” said Ruth Foreman, a retired human resources director who served as a team leader for the group.

One common reason to do a DNA test is to find a parent, so many people on genealogy sites are adoptees. One close relative of Ms. Silvani’s fell into this category. The volunteers helped identify her mother. From there, they quickly arrived at a couple who seemed as if they could be the victim’s parents: John and Blanche Silvani of Detroit.

A relative said the Silvanis had one son and two daughters. The volunteers found that in 1982, the year Ms. Silvani was killed, the son, Charles Silvani, jumped off a parking structure in San Diego and died. His life had been troubled for years: In 1972, he killed a bar owner in Fresno, Calif.

A tip from a man claiming to be Ms. Silvani’s nephew revealed that there was another brother, Bob, whose profile page on the Internet Movie Database revealed mostly pornography projects from the 1970s, according to Cheryl Hester of Frisco, Tex., a volunteer charged with taking screenshots of his face. “They never looked at the camera,” she said. “It was awful.”

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