BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Hers was one of three lives cut short, but while her killer is already sitting in prison, it’s her identity that remains a mystery.
In Murdered and Forgotten, KGET-17 examined the cases of two mothers killed by convicted murderer Wilson Chouest. One victim was found in Kern County, at an orchard near Delano. The other, a young pregnant woman found dead in a high school parking lot in Westlake Village in Ventura County. Both women had been killed just days apart in 1980. The name of one victim has been revealed, but it’s the murdered mother and her unborn child who are still waiting to be identified.
On May 5 the DNA Doe Project, the volunteer organization working both cases, released a list of surnames and locations that can hopefully help them return her name.
“I hope that somebody maybe realizes that it could be a family member,” said Stacey Mitchell, the DNA Doe Project’s team leader for the Ventura Case. “Or that they have those locations in their family tree or they have some names in their family tree, because we don’t have any close matches on her, we don’t have any first cousins or second cousins. “
The victim was about 5 months pregnant when she was murdered. According to the update, it’s possible the biological father is from Choluteca, Honduras, and that he or his parents had the surname “Baca.”
Researchers identified 5 regions of interest from the mother’s ancestry: Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico, in the states of Coahuila, Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon; Central Mexico, in the states of Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and San Luis Potosi; Northern New Mexico, Southern Colorado, “Indigenous California,” and Guatemala.
For Zacatecas in particular, the DNA Doe Project update says researchers “strongly believe” a line of her ancestry comes from La Blanca, Bajio de la Tesorera, which is now a city named General Panfilo Natero. The project lists possible ancestors as a couple named Ponciano Montellano and Feliciana Rojas, both born in the early 1820’s. The couple had six daughters and a son with several descendants that migrated to the US, especially Southern California, El Paso, Texas, and the states of Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.
Surnames linked back to the Montellano family include Aleman, Alvarez or Alvarado, Arizmendi, Betancourt, Campos, Cuevas, Hernandez, Lara, Lira, Ortiz, Parga, Payan, Ramirez, Salazar, Sustayta, and Villareal.
The Ventura County Cold Case Task Force said in 2013 they believe the victim could be from Kern County or the San Fernando Valley. She may have been hitchhiking near College of the Sequoias in Visalia before being abducted and then killed by Chouest.
Chouest was convicted in 2018 for her murder and the murder of Shirley Ann Soosay, based on his own DNA. Soosay was identified in February 2020. The discovery was made public in April by an announcement from the Kern County Sheriff’s Office on Crime Victims’ Rights Week.
It’s an example of why the public outreach is important. Soosay’s ancestry lies with the Samson Cree Nation in Canada. The case’s team leader Gina Wrather said it was the first time she had worked to identify an Indigenous woman, and the team “had a smaller pool” to work from because of underrepresented genetic information and lack of written records in databases.
“As the research went on we were able to narrow down the idea that this Jane Doe we were looking at had parents who were both from one town in Canada,” said Wrather, “So in February  we decided to go public with that information and target the communities in Alberta hoping someone would recognize her.”
Soosay’s niece Violet had been searching for answers about her aunt for 40 years and had already tested her DNA on Ancestry, according to Wrather. But it wasn’t until Soosay came across the Facebook post that she shared the info on GEDmatch and helped them confirm Shirley’s identity. Wrather said it was an emotional moment.
“Any time we work these cases we get pretty involved and emotionally invested in these cases,” said Wrather. “It was just a very emotional thing when we finally found her.”
The DNA Doe Project, made up of 55 volunteers, has been involved in identifying over 45 victims and Media Director Franchesca Werden says they have “about 70” other cases in progress. You can find more information about their work here.