A New Approach to Cold Cases
Written by Tom Adair   

Photo courtesy of Daily Camera

How a local historian’s knowledge, skills, and tenacity served to identify the victim of a homicide that had grown cold over 55 years.

WHAT’S IN A NAME? That question was originally written by Shakespeare and was obviously never directed at me. But if given the opportunity to answer, I would reply with one word: identity.

No, I am not talking about an arrest number or a date of birth as we commonly identify people in law enforcement. I am talking about a person’s selfhood. Our names represent a fundamental gateway to who we are, where we came from. For many of us, it is something we often take for granted. But to a homicide detective, a victim’s name is perhaps the most crucial component to an investigation. It is the foundation upon which tangible facts are discerned and leads are developed. Without it, a rose is just a rose, as Shakespeare said.

Detectives are an interesting lot. They are bound by a common thread of determination to solve a mystery. The good ones don’t just investigate cases; they adopt them into their lives. They don’t stop working on them just because the clock strikes five.

I have had the good fortune to work with many fine professionals over the years, but recently I met a truly special detective. She had never worked in law enforcement. She had never carried a gun or wrestled a suspect to the ground. She is quiet, almost timid, in your presence. Some would refer to Silvia Pettem as a grandmother, a writer, or a local historian; but under such disguises lies a tenacious detective. In fact, I would feel privileged to have her on my investigative team.

On a mild fall day, I sat down with her in a popular local restaurant for an interview about one particular case that she had been working, and I could tell something was different about her. I was a little late to our meeting, and admittedly distracted as I opened my notebook. But when I looked up, her body language communicated an unmistakable message. She could barely contain her excitement. Something very important had obviously happened since last we spoke.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I can’t go into any detail,” replied Pettem. “But I think we have finally identified Jane Doe.”

History and forensics meet
on common ground

Our story begins on April 1954 along a small creek near the picturesque town of Boulder in the foothills of Colorado. Two young college

Photo courtesy of Silvia Pettem

Photo courtesy of Alan Cass

Rocky Mountain News - April 9, 1954

Photo courtesy of Boulder County Sheriff's Office

As a result of her exhaustive researching, Pettem was able to track down some of the documentation from the 1954 Jane Doe case, including the original autopsy report and photos. She came up with enough paperwork to convince the authorities that it would be appropriate to exhume Jane Doe in order to perform a modern autopsy using state-of-the-art forensic techniques.
Photo courtesy of Silvia Pettem

students from the University of Colorado were hiking along the mountain creek when they stumbled upon a woman’s naked, battered body. The police responded and processed the scene to their abilities of the day. Her body was partially decomposed, possessed no jewelry, no birthmarks, and had nearly perfect dentition. The police interviewed a number of people and looked into missing person reports, but a viable suspect was never developed and the young woman remained a Jane Doe for the next 55 years.

Decades later, fate conspired to bring together this unidentified victim with a resolute investigator on a path that would forever redefine both of their lives. It was October 1996 and Silvia Pettem was working with the Boulder Historical Society on a program in the Columbia Cemetery, the resting place of Jane Doe. It was here that the two “met” for the first time.

Over the next 13 years, Pettem did what she does best: she immersed herself in the details of the case. But Jane Doe’s secrets would not come easily. The case files had been purged decades earlier and none of the original detectives were alive to interview. So Pettem began by combing through old newspaper clippings and historical archives. Within a few years, she had managed to track down the original autopsy report and photos, interview an aging pathologist halfway across the country, and locate the original dumpsite along the creek. In time, this local historian also developed a viable suspect, located the original notes of one investigator through a family member, and convinced the authorities to exhume Jane Doe for a new autopsy utilizing modern forensic techniques. This time she would be joined by members of the Vidocq Society in addition to investigators with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office. The autopsy revealed additional injuries and insights not previously noted by investigators.

The benefit
of a fresh perspective

Learning about the work Pettem was able to do in this case made me start thinking about the role that local historians might play in helping cold-case investigators track down information from sources they had never previously considered. Here was a woman with no specific law-enforcement training who was able to resurrect a case that had been all but abandoned. Using her research skills, she managed to uncover an admirable amount of information and breathe new life into this cold homicide.

These skills are not uniquely her own. Many historians would have similar knowledge (albeit they may not match Pettem’s passion). These researchers have access to and a good working knowledge of public archives, newspaper archives, and experts on local topics not normally known by detectives. Local historians also possess one commodity that many investigators lack: time. Some case subjects may also feel more comfortable disclosing information to a civilian—information that they might otherwise hold back from investigators. Don’t these skill sets sound intriguing?

Involving civilians in criminal investigations makes some investigators uncomfortable, with good reason. Many of us can recall instances in which civilians have, or have come close to, compromising an investigation. The paramilitary paradigm we generally operate from is a difficult barrier to breech. I am not saying that investigators should share every piece of information with civilian researchers, nor am I suggesting that they not be properly vetted prior to assisting with an investigation. I am suggesting, however, that investigators keep an open mind about the valuable role these researchers can play in tracking down information. The use of civilians is hardly without precedent. Law-enforcement agencies have utilized the skills of medical professionals, dog handlers, industry specialists, even psychics. Why not historians then?

To that end, I was interested in talking to Pettem to see how she felt about her experience of working with law enforcement. What follows is a general description of our meeting:

TOM ADAIR: How has your world view changed after working on this case?

SILVIA PETTEM: I never realized how many missing persons and unidentified remains there were throughout the country. It was truly shocking.

ADAIR: Why this particular case? Was there something in Jane Doe that resonated with you?

PETTEM: I became aware of the case purely by chance while working with a local historical society in the Columbia Cemetery. The more I learned about Jane Doe, the more I cared for her. No one deserves to die like that. If something that terrible ever happened to one of my daughters I would hope that someone would seek justice for them.

ADAIR: What has been the biggest personal change for you after working on this Jane Doe case?

PETTEM: I have become much more compassionate. I am also encouraged for these victims. I never realized the scope of the community of investigators like me looking for victims—and that says a lot about our chances of solving these tough cases.

ADAIR: Admittedly, you are not the typical type of investigator one envisions when picturing a homicide detective. Do you think you offered any advantages to the investigative team?

PETTEM: Well, I certainly had a great deal of knowledge of the local history as well as strong research skills. But I would say the greatest advantage I had was time. I wasn’t bogged down by any type of case-load as a law-enforcement detective would be. I had the ability to focus all of my attention on this one victim.

ADAIR: You worked a great deal with historical archives in this case. What types of records were the most helpful to you?

PETTEM: Because the case file had been purged years ago, newspaper and court records were essential in reconstructing the events.

ADAIR: Do you ever worry about the declining status of print media in this country?

PETTEM: With the demise of newspapers I am very concerned about the inevitable loss of information. We could not have reconstructed this case file without newspaper records. If a newspaper closes down, those records—unless donated to a library—might be forever lost. Even now, many newspapers cannot afford a librarian, so their archives are inaccessible and essentially mothballed.

ADAIR: You played a critical role in obtaining enough information and evidence to justify exhuming Jane Doe’s body for a second autopsy. What was that experience like for you?

PETTEM: It wasn’t just the information—it was the funding. I started a non-profit fund through the Boulder History Museum to raise the funds necessary to pay for the exhumation. I also contacted investigators with the Philadelphia-based Vidocq Society who agreed to work on the case pro bono. During the exhumation I went through a range of emotions—from excitement to mourning.

ADAIR: You also developed a viable suspect in the case didn’t you?

PETTEM: Yes, during the course of my research I was contacted by another researcher who told me of a man named Harvey Glatman who had been convicted of multiple murders in California. However, he had lived in Denver with his parents during the time Jane Doe was murdered and there were definitely some similarities in the death of Jane Doe and Glatman’s other victims. Additionally, I found that the vehicle Glatman was driving at the time had features that matched certain injuries on Jane Doe. Unfortunately, Glatman was executed in 1959 so we won’t have an opportunity to question him about his possible involvement in this case.

ADAIR: What was the most frustrating thing you experienced working on this case?

PETTEM: I naively thought that I would be brought into an inner circle with the investigators and given unfettered access to the case information. I soon learned that I was definitely on the outside of that circle. That is not to say that the detectives were not—for the most part—professional, but they had a responsibility to protect certain information. I hadn’t been ready for that.

ADAIR: Can law enforcement improve the way they interact with researchers like you?

PETTEM: Law enforcement is very guarded because many times they have to be. But they should listen to lay researchers and embrace the assistance when it is offered, especially after the researchers have been vetted.

ADAIR: Jane Doe wasn’t the only victim you helped in this case, was she?

PETTEM: No. I am proud to say that our work provided closure for at least three other families who least expected it: we solved the mystery of a long-lost Nebraska woman; healed wounds for a Glatman assault victim; and reunited family members of a missing person.

ADAIR: So what’s next for you? Do you think you’ll look into another case?

PETTEM: Well, I am currently researching several other cold cases with prosecutors and detectives in various jurisdictions. At age 62 I have found my life’s work. Boulder history was my old niche and I still love it, but I have found a new passion.

About a week after our interview, I received a call from Pettem informing me that DNA tests had conclusively identified Jane Doe as Dorothy Gay Howard, an 18-year-old girl from Arizona. It was hard to contain my excitement or admiration for the years of hard work Pettem had poured into this case. I have had a long career in law enforcement, but she has definitely changed my perspective on using civilian resources to aid homicide investigations.

There was an inextinguishable fire within her that fueled her passion even at the most discouraging of times. Pettem was indignant at the thought that Jane Doe was buried without a name. It seemed so cold and impersonal. So she set forth on a decade-long quest to do the one honorable thing we all aspire to do—restoring the one thing that mattered most to Jane Doe and her family: her name. Fifty-five years later, because of this historical researcher, we now know her as Dorothy Gay Howard.

There is little doubt that Dorothy Gay Howard would have remained nameless in a small community graveyard were it not for the efforts of a local historian and law-enforcement personnel who were willing to listen. The story of Jane Doe is a testament to what we can achieve when we open our minds and focus solely on helping the victim.

About Silvia Pettem

Silvia Pettem is the author of Someone’s Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe, published by Taylor Trade Publishing (2009). A professional historian for nearly 40 years, she writes a weekly history column for the Daily Camera newspaper and has authored more than a dozen books on local Boulder, Colorado history, including Behind the Badge: 125 Years of the Boulder, Colorado, Police Department (2003). To learn more about the book and for more details about Silvia Pettem's work, you can visit her website: www.silviapettem.com

About the Author of this Article

Tom Adair is a retired Senior Criminalist with the Westminster (Colorado) Police Department and the immediate past president of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction. He is Board Certified as a Senior Crime Scene Analyst, Footwear Examiner, and Bloodstain Pattern Analyst with the International Association for Identification (IAI). Adair has authored more than 50 papers in scientific forensic journals. He currently writes on crime prevention topics for The Examiner, an online magazine that can be found at: www.Examiner.com Adair can be reached via e-mail at: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

"Long Ago Lost..." written by Tom Adair
January-February 2010 (Volume 8, Number 1)
Evidence Technology Magazine
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