Published: Sept. 1, 2013 By

Silvia Pettem (Psych’69) is the first to say that it is never too late to start a career. The 66-year-old has spent more than 40 years as an author, writer and historical researcher centered on the city of Boulder, but nearly two decades ago she realized a new passion well into her career — researching cold cases.

Silvia Pettem in office

Silvia’s interest in cold cases started when she stumbled upon an unnamed gravestone in 1996 in Boulder’s Columbia Cemetery near The Hill. The stone read “Jane Doe, age about 20 years, April 1954.”

“My daughters were 19 and 22 at the time, so the mystery surrounding this young woman piqued my interest,” she says. “Since I already had a background in Boulder history and wrote for the Daily Camera, I went to the Camera’s archives and pored through dusty old newspaper articles. I learned that Jane Doe was a murder victim.”

Silvia was hooked. She located forensic specialists who exhumed the woman’s remains pro bono and started a nonprofit fund for DNA comparisons. Years later, DNA from the unidentified woman’s living sister was identified as a match, and a new stone was placed on the grave with her name, Dorothy Gay Howard.

“Little did I know when I first saw the gravestone that Jane Doe would profoundly change my life,” she says. “Now, working on unidentified, missing and cold homicide cases has become a passion.”

Silvia wrote a book on her experience, Someone’s Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe, her favorite of more than a dozen books she has written.

“If I could sink my teeth into another Jane Doe case, I’d do it in a heartbeat,” she says.

Today Silvia gives presentations to law enforcement groups on cold-case research. She has written a book on the subject and is considering writing one for families of homicide victims and missing persons. She also volunteers in the detectives section of the Boulder Police Department, reviewing and reorganizing old files on cold cases involving missing persons.

“Silvia’s career has really developed after her children have grown, and she is such an inspiration for women, especially older women,” says Carol Taylor, Silvia’s longtime friend and the curator of adult programs and research at the Boulder History Museum. “She shows it is never too late [to pursue a career].”

In addition to cold-case research, Silvia is the go-to person for Boulder history and writes a history column for the Daily Camera along with various research and writing projects for the city of Boulder.

“My research and writing are, hopefully, what I’ll leave behind as my life’s work,” she says.