|October 25, 2009, Daily Camera, History Columnist's Search for Jane Doe Makes for Good Reading, by Clay Evans
If it weren't for Silvia Pettem, Jane Doe, a young woman found murdered in Boulder in 1954, would still be anonymous.
Literally speaking, she still is "without a name." But thanks to self-described "historical detective" Pettem, long-time history columnist for the Camera, Jane Doe is now known, more than a half century after her death, to thousands of people. Instead of languishing quietly in her grave at Columbia Cemetery, she's on the minds of 21st-century Boulder law-enforcement officials, she's been on television and people from literally around the globe have filled in pieces of her still unsolved, puzzling death.
"Someone's Daughter," Pettem's new cold-case examination of her long efforts to identify Jane Doe, entertainingly chronicles how this young woman became "unforgotten." Where the author mostly wanted Jane Doe's family to know her fate, police wanted to find her killer, and the book follows both efforts in fascinating detail.
Jane Doe was discovered beaten and naked on the banks of Boulder Creek by two college students. Police put her age at about 20. When her body went unclaimed, the citizens of Boulder gave her a funeral. Police continued their search for her killer for a long time, but inevitably, the case finally was back-burnered.
But along came Pettem, who became interested in the case after a "meet the spirits" ceremony in 1996. With two daughters about the same age, Pettem found herself saddened that a young woman would remain anonymous. She began digging through Camera archives for information on the case, and became more and more intrigued. Eventually, she arranged an exhumation and even got the case on "America's Most Wanted."
"Pettem did not fit the profile, if there is such a thing, of a citizen detective," writes Richard H. Walton, author of "Cold Case Homicides: Practical Investigative Techniques," in his foreword. "She simply wanted to see a wrong made right; in doing so, she demonstrated the power of one person in our society."
Pettem's tenacity shines through on almost every page, as she rolls out her research and offers up potential victims -- and perpetratrors. And after so many years of working on the case, she came to some pretty firm conclusions about the identity of the victim. After a forensic comparison of Jane Doe's skull and photos of a potential victim who disappeared in the 1950s "failed to exclude" them as one and the same, Pettem writes that, "The result ... combined with all of the circumstantial evidence that my fellow researchers and I had compiled for more than 2 1/2 years, convinced me, in my heart, that Katharine (Farrand Dyer) was Jane Doe."
A bold guess, but one readers will understandably find themselves agreeing with after sifting through all of Pettem's evidence. But, as it turned out, a wrong one: Last summer, a woman in Australia put two and two together and was able to report that Dyer had been living in that country for decades.
But that doesn't really undermine the book. Like any good investigator, Pettem has her theories, and when one is eliminated, it simply focuses her on the next. In addition, her investigation brought to light information that "closed" cases for two families of missing women.
"By simply living and dying, Jane Doe -- a woman with few friends -- will be remembered for the compassion she brought out in all of us, as well as the closure she brought to others, particularly the families of" the other two women, Pettem writes. (Because the information about Dyer has been in the news, it doesn't make much sense to keep it secret; but revealing the other two women's names would definitely count as a "spoiler." )
"Someone's Daughter" is a lot of fun. Pettem puts you in right in her detective's gumshoes on almost every page, and you can't help but absorb some of her emotional connection to the case. Her first hunch didn't turn out to be correct, but this well-written, exhaustively detailed investigation has helped bring a notorious Boulder cold case out of deep freeze.
SIDEBAR – IF YOU GO:
What: Camera history columnist Silvia Pettem speaks and signs her new book, "Someone's Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe."
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St.