Investigators using DNA technology have identified a woman slain in Lake Tahoe and the man they say killed her 37 years ago, authorities announced.
Mary Silvani, 33, was sexually assaulted and shot to death in 1982 while spending a day by the lake, according to a news release from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office in Reno. Her body was found near a popular hiking trail in the Sheep’s Flat area in Nevada.
Her death remained a mystery until Washoe detectives began working with the California-based DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit that sends DNA files to the database GEDmatch to identify family members of victims or suspects. The technique is the same used to identify the Golden State Killer suspect, according to the news release.
When Silvani’s body was found, she was wearing a blue T-shirt, blue jeans, yellow tennis shoes and a bathing suit underneath, Washoe County officials said. She had no identification and became known as Sheep’s Flat Jane Doe while investigators scoured DNA, fingerprint and dental records for potential matches.
Not much progress was made in the decades that followed. In 2015, investigators decided the woman must have become estranged from her family in the late 1970s or early ’80s, which would explain why she was not reported missing.
They would later learn Silvani’s father died when she was a teenager and her mother was in and out of mental hospitals across the nation, Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam said. Silvani moved to California between 1974 and her death in 1982, but detectives still don’t know where she lived and have not been able to identify anyone who knew her.
In February 2018, a forensic scientist on the investigation team attended a lecture on forensic genealogy by Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, who is with the DNA Doe Project and Identifinders International, and the two began working together, Washoe officials said.
Using the GEDmatch results, detectives and Fitzpatrick found some of Silvani’s family members. They confirmed her identity with fingerprints from a 1974 misdemeanor arrest in Detroit.
Washoe County officials didn’t share the news immediately, though, and instead began hunting down Silvani’s killer.
They used small samples of DNA taken from Silvani’s rape kit. After 2,000 hours of research by Fitzpatrick and other genealogists, forensic scientists narrowed their search and found a potential match with James Richard Curry.
Curry’s two children provided DNA samples, which helped detectives identify Curry as the killer.
“I have to give them a lot of praise for that,” Balaam said.
Washoe County detectives discovered that Curry moved to Waukena, Calif., in 1977 after he was released from prison in Huntsville, Texas, where he was serving a sentence for robbery.
In Waukena, he got a job at J&M Locksmith and owned a storage unit business, Balaam said. In January 1983, five months after Silvani died, Curry was arrested again and confessed to three slayings.
While in custody, he told officers he killed two people in San Jose on Jan. 2, 1983. They were a husband and wife who owned a storage unit near his, Balaam said. He directed officers to look in his own storage unit, where they found the body of the third person he had killed a year earlier in Santa Clara, Calif.
While searching that storage unit, detectives found evidence of another homicide, possibly a coworker of Curry’s from Waukena, but the victim’s remains were never found, Balaam said.
Curry died days after his arrest on Jan. 7, 1983, of injuries during a suicide attempt. He was 37.
Curry’s family members told investigators that he was familiar with the Lake Tahoe area where Silvani’s body was found, Balaam said. But it’s unclear whether Curry knew her.
“We have no idea how their paths crossed,” he said.