As she pushes open the wrought-iron gate at Boulder’s Columbia Cemetery, Silvia Pettem (A&S’69) looks like she is coming home. She cradles a bundle of yellow daisies in one arm and glances warmly across a sea of weathered tombstones. A cool gust blows back her shoulder-length auburn hair, as if to welcome her.
“I don’t mean to sound too wacko,” she says, speaking bluntly as she often does. “But sometimes I even come and have my lunch here. I feel like I’m among friends.”
In a sense, she is.
In the course of her decades-long career as a local history writer, the colorful 63-year-old has gotten to know many of the inhabitants of this grassy 10-acre burial ground. There’s Mary Rippon, the CU professor who had a secret affair and bore a child with one of her students in the late 1800s; Tom Horn, a hired gunman who was wrongfully hanged for murder in 1903; and Marietta Kingsley, a notorious madam from Boulder’s 19th century red light district.
But while the others fed Pettem’s lifelong curiosity about history, none changed her life like the woman Boulderites knew — until recently — as “Jane Doe.”
“I feel like I know her,” Pettem says, as she kneels to gather a handful of crisp dead rose petals by her tombstone and replaces them with fresh flowers.
A born historian
From the day in 1996 when Pettem discovered the humble grave marker etched with the words “Jane Doe: April 1954: Age About 20 Years,” she has spent nearly 14 years investigating the crime. She scoured newspaper archives, court and coroner records and genealogy sites in hopes of identifying the mystery woman and bringing her murderer to justice. In the process, she has evolved from a middle-aged mom with zero police training into a lauded cold-case investigator called upon by law enforcement agents nationwide.
In May her work paid off when the victim’s surviving family members joined her at the cemetery to replace the “Jane Doe” headstone with one bearing the woman’s true name — Dorothy Gay Howard.
Now, with the mystery solved and her book Someone’s Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe (Taylor Trade Publishing) nominated for a Colorado Book Award, the biggest question facing Pettem is: What’s next?
“At the age of 63 I have found my life’s work,” she says.
Pettem was born in 1947 in Lancaster, Pa., the only child of an electrical engineer and a “homemaker who didn’t like housework.” She grew up in the suburbs in an ultramodern home she hated.
“I never felt comfortable there,” she says, tracing her affinity for all things antique back to her early youth.
When she landed in Boulder in 1965 as a CU psychology major, she found herself drawn to the area’s historic buildings, rugged mountain towns and rich pioneer history. Rather than observe them from a distance, she immersed herself, moving into a tiny Fourmile Canyon cabin with no electricity or running water where she cooked on a wood stove, sewed quilts and raised two daughters.
“Living up there in that environment really got me interested in who came before me,” she recalls.
Since then she’s written a dozen local history books, including Separate Lives: The Story of Mary Rippon (Book Lode) and Behind the Badge: 125 Years of the Boulder Police Department (Book Lode), as well as countless history columns for the Boulder Camera.
But on Oct. 5, 1996, her “relatively ordinary” life took an unexpected twist. While playing the part of Mary Rippon during a “Meet the Spirits” event at Columbia Cemetery, Pettem listened intently as an actor playing Jane Doe told Doe’s story:
“Please give me back my name. No one knows who I am or how I came to die — battered, beaten and naked on the rocky edge of Boulder Creek. I was found in April 1954 by two college students out on a hike. My murderer, whoever he was, was brutal and vicious, but the people of Boulder gave me a Christian funeral . . .”
“My first thought was that could be my daughter,” recalls Pettem, whose daughters were 19 and 23 at the time. “I thought to myself, ‘No one should go to the grave without a name.’”
Searching for Jane Doe
In the coming years, Pettem managed to track down the woman’s missing autopsy report and photos and reconstruct much of what happened to her via brittle newspaper clippings, phone interviews and internet research. She enrolled in a 12-week Citizens’ Academy to learn about the inner workings of the criminal justice system and sit in on police officer training classes. And she regularly visited the rocky Boulder Creek shore — just 300 yards downstream from the Boulder Falls parking lot — where Jane Doe’s body was found.
In 2003, with a bulging file in hand, she knocked on the office doors of Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle and then Lieutenant Phil West to ask if they would be willing to exhume Jane Doe’s body and reopen the case.
They obliged, well aware of the daunting task ahead.
“Frankly, for that period of time, our files are non-existent. There is a big blank in documentation through the 1960s,” West says. “It was only through Silvia’s diligence that we were able to reconstruct what became the case file.”
Pettem proceeded to open a donation fund and raised several thousand dollars from interested Boulder citizens and beyond to help pay for the exhumation. She also enlisted the help of Vidocq Society members (forensic specialists who volunteer to help solve cold murder cases) who donated their time and expertise over the years.
On a foggy June morning in 2004, a backhoe scraped away the dirt in Columbia Cemetery to reveal a disintegrated coffin and the exposed remains of Jane Doe. As officers wrapped police tape around the scene, Pettem found herself on the inside of the tape, standing by the open grave looking in. “It was exhilarating,” she admits.
A forensic sculptor used Jane Doe’s remains to craft a 3-D image of what she looked like, and soon it was appearing everywhere from People magazine to America’s Most Wanted. Finally, after several heartbreaking false leads and years of wondering, Pettem got her answer on Oct. 23, 2009.
DNA tests had confirmed that Jane Doe was Dorothy Gay Howard, a strong-willed Phoenix teen who left home in 1953 possibly to visit an aunt who lived in Denver’s Capitol Hill area. She never arrived.
While the case remains open, Pettem and West suspect Howard encountered convicted serial killer Harvey Glatman in Denver. (Ligature marks shown in Doe’s morgue photographs are similar to those left on the three women Glatman was convicted of murdering. He was executed in 1959.)
On May 22, Howard’s surviving sister, Marlene Ashman of Polk County, Ark., traveled to Boulder to bid final farewell to her sister and provide her with a tombstone etched with her name.
“At least people here were kind enough to love her and give her some dignity,” Ashman told reporters.
Standing by that gravestone today, Pettem can’t help but feel a sense of melancholy. Her relationship with Howard’s family has been more distant than she had hoped for.
“From the day I first walked into the sheriff’s office and said ‘I want to return these remains to the family’ I looked forward to the day I would meet them,” she says. “But it hasn’t been a warm relationship. Maybe it’s just too soon.”
And after so many years of dogged pursuit, “it has left a big gap in my life now that it’s solved.”
But that void will likely soon fill.
Already Pettem has been credited with assisting in another Boulder County cold case, helping to locate the killer (now deceased) in the 1970 homicide of an 18-year-old named Harold Nicky Nicholson. She’s also teaching courses to local law enforcement agencies, writing for forensic magazines and juggling invitations from around the country to help in unsolved crimes.
“I may have found my next project,” she says, keeping mum about the details.
And this one, she quips, won’t take 14 years.