Cold case: DNA links South Bay killer to 1982 Nevada murder – California

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An artist’s reconstruction of Sheep’s Flat Jane Doe, left, alongside 1966 yearbook photo of victim Mary Silvani. (Courtesy of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office.) 

WASHOE COUNTY, Nev. — A man who confessed to killing three people in San Jose and Santa Clara in the early 1980s, and hanged himself soon after his arrest, has been identified through DNA genealogy as the person who shot and killed a young woman in the Lake Tahoe area in 1982.

Washoe County authorities on Tuesday said James Richard Curry was the man responsible for the murder of Mary Silvani, a 33-year-old woman whose body was found in July 1982 near a popular hiking trail a few miles above Incline Village.

For decades, investigators not only didn’t know the suspect, they didn’t know the identity of the victim. They determined both thanks to DNA technology and techniques similar to those that helped authorities find the Golden State Killer suspect.

“This is an incredible story and I am extremely proud of the work done by everyone who took part in this case over the past three decades,” Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam said in a statement. “Even taking advantage of new genealogical technologies, a great deal of investigative work was done by Sheriff’s Office staff working this case.”

James Richard Curry, who confessed to killing three people in Santa Clara County in the early 1980s and then committed suicide, has been identified as the person who shot and killed a young woman in the Lake Tahoe area in 1982. (Photo courtesy of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office.) 

Curry was 36 when linked to the Jan. 2, 1983 murders of San Jose couple Gerald Novoselatz, 39, and Sharon Novoselatz, 34. The husband was found shot to death at their San Jose home, and later that day, police found the wife fatally shot on the side of Highway 92 in San Mateo County, according to San Jose police.

Two days later, Curry, who at the time worked as the manager of a storage lot in Santa Clara, was detained by San Jose police two days later and confessed to killing the couple, who ran a rival storage facility.

While in custody, San Jose police said Curry also confessed to the murder of a Bakersfield man Richard Lemmon, whose body was found stuffed in a crate inside a unit at the Santa Clara Self Storage on De La Cruz Boulevard. Police at the time said Curry was acquainted with all three victims.

Investigators at the time found evidence that led them to suspect Curry may have also killed a co-worker in Waukena, a community in Tulare County, but that victim’s remains were never found. San Jose police said Curry hanged himself in the Santa Clara County jail on Jan. 5, 1983, and died after spending two days on life support.

Five months before Curry’s arrest, a young woman was found shot to death on July 17, 1982, near a hiking trail in the Sheep’s Flat area, off  Mount Rose Highway a few miles above Incline Village, according to authorities.

The woman, who had no identification or jewelry, was dressed in a powder blue T-shirt, blue jeans, yellow tennis shoes and a bathing suit under her clothing. For more than 36 years, she was known as “Sheep’s Flat Jane Doe.”

The investigation picked up last year, when criminalists with the Washoe County Sheriff’s Forensic Science Division attended a lecture on forensic genealogy presented by Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick of Identifinders International and the DNA Doe Project in Seattle. Detectives and criminalists began working with those organizations in April 2018 to identify the victim and the suspect.

Last summer, the sheriff’s office sent DNA samples from the Sheep’s Flat Jane Doe to a private DNA lab. The results were uploaded to the DNA database GEDMatch to try to identify family members.

Based on the GEDMatch results, authorities determined Jane Doe was the biological daughter of John and Blanche Silvani of Detroit, Michigan. They had one daughter, Mary Edith Silvani, who was born in Pontiac, Michigan, on Sept. 29, 1948.

Based on a set of fingerprints provided by the Detroit Police Department from a 1974 misdemeanor arrest, Washoe County Sheriff’s Office detectives and criminalists confirmed Mary Silvani was the woman found murdered in Sheep’s Flat.

The only known photo of Silvani is a photo of the Class of 1966 from Detroit’s Mackenzie High School’s yearbook.

Finding Silvani’s killer was a more difficult and complicated task, according to the sheriff’s office.

DNA evidence from the crime scene at Sheep’s Flat had been entered into the FBI’s criminal DNA database CODIS, but no matches were found. Last year, the sheriff’s office worked with Fitzpatrick in an effort to identify the suspect’s family.

The suspect’s DNA was sent to a private DNA lab and uploaded to GEDMatch. Fitzpatrick and a group of genealogists found that the suspect was the grandson of a couple who lived in the Dallas area.

Investigators determined that the murder suspect “was an illegitimate child” fathered by one of the sons of the Dallas couple; the suspect’s mother lived in the same neighborhood in Dallas, had a son out of wedlock and raised him under a different family name, according to the sheriff’s office.

Detectives learned that Curry was born in Texas in 1946. During his time in Texas, he was arrested for robbery and sentenced to prison in Huntsville. He was released in 1977 and moved to Waukena, where he was reported to have worked at J & M Locksmith.

Curry’s two children voluntarily provided DNA samples to the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office. Forensic scientists determined their DNA was consistent with the Sheep’s Flat murder suspect, now identified as James Richard Curry.

“The genealogical research is only part of the story,” Fitzpatrick said in a statement. “With so few family members still alive, and with the fragmentation of the Silvani family, our hard-won success story would never have been possible without the investigative efforts of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office.”

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